Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Different Kind of Voice

During our time in the face-speakers' village, we never did manage to even begin speaking the village's language, nor they ours. We lacked color-shifting abilities of any kind; they appeared to be completely mute. The only sound we ever heard them make was a soft pop of the lips - which was not so much a word as a signal for attention, asking those nearby to turn and read the speaker's face.

Nevertheless, my three companions and I managed to communicate well enough, by gesture and expression, to make do for a few days. We were all grateful for the chance to rest. To be honest, we also might have been somewhat reluctant to venture back into the wild after the circumstances under which we had left it. A brush with death, however brief, tends to make one more appreciative of safe places for a while.

At one point, we even got to help with the harvest. I'm not sure what the season was in the Golden Desert at that time, or even if that particular part of it has any seasons that I would recognize. For all I know, the rainbow-faced villagers might harvest constantly all year.

Most of the harvesting - like everything else they did - happened at night. Like many nocturnal people, they didn't appear to actually need light to see, other than that of the moon and stars. The fires in their houses were only for heat and cooking. I never saw them eat meat of any kind. Their main sources of food seemed to be drought-wheat, which they grew in vast, dry fields of sand around the village, and a sort of fruit-like green tuber - like a hybrid of potato and zucchini - that grew under the wet sand of the village's oasis. This was what we had eaten in the soup on the night of our arrival. The name of the vegetable was a green oval with a sort of golden twizzle inside, which was actually a fairly accurate representation of the way it tasted. The villagers harvested it with long, spoon-like implements. They would walk around, stamping on the wet sand until they found a spot that felt somehow different. I never was sure exactly how they knew one of the vegetables was below. Once they had found it, they would dig their spoon into the sand and pull back on its long handle, scooping the vegetable out of the sand and high into the air. The children, lacking the necessary weight and upper-body strength for this task, instead ran around with baskets and caught the vegetables as they fell from the sky.

Upon realizing that we wanted to help, the villagers found a few spare spoons somewhere and let us try. We achieved nothing like the same level of skill, but the villagers' silent laughter at our efforts was good-natured enough.

No ordinary settlement in the Golden Desert can exist without a water source. The village's oasis was relatively small - hence their reliance on drought-wheat, a crop which seems to be able to survive on nothing more than vague rumors that there might be water somewhere nearby.

The resident aquifrax was… unusual, to say the least.

The water spirit seemed to spend most of its time making ice sculptures. It was rather prolific, actually. I can't imagine how much energy it must have taken to freeze so much water in the middle of the Golden Desert. Perhaps that's why it had left its oasis so small - or perhaps it simply preferred it that way. The motivations of spirits are rarely easy for mortals to understand, especially the more eccentric ones.

Most of the ice sculptures seemed to be sea creatures - the fantastic variety, like those drawn by illustrators who have never visited the ocean and have to rely on verbal descriptions of beasts they've never seen. One of the sculptures might have been an octopus. Another resembled a dolphin, or perhaps one of the sleeker varieties of beetlebrow fish. It was difficult to tell, anyway; we could only see them clearly during the day, and they always started melting long before sunrise. By noon, nothing was left but sad little lumps of ice bobbing in the lukewarm water. The only exception was a particularly massive sculpture - possibly a whale or a dire manatee - that lasted a full day and a half, though it more closely resembled a horribly ill blowfish by the second day.

We never saw the aquifrax, of course. Most of the life in the Golden Desert could not exist without their work, but the spirits themselves - like most spirits - rarely show themselves in person.

Perhaps my favorite part of our time in the village, though, was the music. Most of what we heard at first was simple and percussive. Workers in the drought-wheat fields, for example, would keep up a steady rhythm by plucking their toenails with their neighboring toes. (I managed to duplicate the technique myself, though with far less volume.) A whole team of workers could achieve a fairly complex rhythm this way. Still, for several days, this appeared to be all the music the village had. There was certainly no kind of singing.

We were somewhat surprised, on the third night, when the villagers brought out a couple of string instruments and something like a stone xylophone and proceeded to play music in a circle around the oasis. There were only three or four instruments - like the hybrid offspring of a banjo and a harp, no two alike - which the villagers passed around between themselves. Nearly everyone seemed able to play them, though their skill varied. I didn't recognize any of the tunes they played. Many of them were accompanied by rhythmic light shows on the musicians' faces; these were songs with words, apparently, even if I couldn't hear them. The instruments made their slow way around the oasis. When Red-Streaks-On-Yellow had finished playing, he or she hesitated before passing the instrument to me, uncertain of whether or not I could play it.

I couldn't, of course. Instead, I stood up and sang.

It was nothing particularly impressive - just a rendition of "Factory Fool" by Rango Tress. It's a song with a strong rhythm, which seemed to be a major part of the villagers' music, and its melody sounds good in my baritone range.

When I started, all the villagers froze and stared at me, motionless. I'm not actually sure if they had ever heard singing before. I began to be a little nervous when they hadn't moved by the end of the first verse.

Halfway through the second verse, they started to join in.

It was just a simple clap at first - one of our hosts' children, I believe, though I confess that I couldn't tell most of the children apart. A few others took it up as well. Someone started embroidering the rhythm a little. By the end of the third verse, I felt as if I was providing the melody for an entire Thiglian drum circle. It was amazing how many different sounds the villagers could achieve with just their palms and fingers (the rest of their bodies being far too fluffy for percussive purposes). I finished to wild applause.

My three companions received much the same response. Karlishek chose a skittering patter-song from Sham-Tarkazia, which gave the villagers all sorts of challenging rhythms to keep up with. Mirenza sang a thousand-year-old drinking song - evidently not at all worn out by age - which had everyone clapping and silently laughing, even though no one understood the words. Garnet surprised us all with a haunting song about coyotes (they're called feyul in the Golden Desert) that sent chills down my spine.

No one clapped through that one; it didn't need it. Instead, we were surprised again by the occasional clear, ringing note from the half-formed ice sculptures in the oasis. The aquifrax had decided to join in.

We left the village the night after that, feeling much more at peace than we had before our arrival. We said our goodbyes at sundown. The villagers - those who were up that early, at least - stopped what they were doing to give us a parting gift of dried tubers and drought-wheat crackers* and kiss us goodbye on our strangely wordless cheeks. We were sad to leave them; they had been the best possible hosts.

As we were walking away from the village, we heard a single stringed instrument taking up the melody of the song I had sung. It made good music for walking. I kept humming it long after the village was too far away to hear.

* The baker has yet to be born who can turn drought-wheat into anything as moist as, say, flatbread.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Stats Tracked by StatCounter