Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chapter 2 - Exploring Fahdamin-Ra

I shut my eyes and then opened them again, only to find my brother and me still standing in the lush, dense jungle instead of our bright and familiar kitchen. We clutched each other, barely breathing. The stone hanging around my brother’s neck returned to its normal state of looking ordinary, as if it were innocent of the changes it had thrust upon us.
            I let my breath out in a whoosh and then inhaled cautiously.
            We stood in dim light, in the exact center of a large circle, which was formed by closely fitting smooth, dark stones. No grass grew in the narrow grooves between them, and no cracks marred their surfaces. But something about the circle gave the impression that it was ancient. Everything was touched with a soft, rosy light coming from a gentle sun over my left shoulder, but whether it was dawn or sunset, I could not tell.
          Majestic, opulent trees, dense with foliage in vivid shades of green, made a thick emerald wall around two thirds of the circle. Vines and undergrowth lapped the edges of the circle, but none grew upon it. Blossoms adorned some of the branches, scenting the humid air with tantalizing perfumes. Ahead of us lay a thick mat of fresh green grass, which was parted in the middle, exposing a dirt road that led to some irregular mountains in the distance.
          My brother’s exclamation broke the heavy stillness. "Hey, what happened? Where do you think this place is?" He grabbed the stone and examined it, but it did not reveal its secrets.
          "This place has to be Fahdamin-Ra, just like the verse says."
          "No, I mean where do you think this place is? Is this earth or another planet?"
           "What I want to know is how to get back home." I refused to let the tightness in my throat reveal how close I was to tears.
          Joel rubbed his head and held the pendant up to the light. "Let’s recite the same verse, but substitute the word "home" for Fahdamin-Ra."
             Holding up the crumpled slip of paper with the chant on it, I clutched his arm as we recited the same verse, ending with the word ‘home’.
             Nothing happened. Pressing my lips together, I shoved the paper into the pocket of my shorts. "There has to be a way to get back. Maybe if we just wish to go home.” We paused, wishing intently to go home, but we stayed where we were.
            "Let’s make up something," Joel suggested. He then proceeded to chant different verses, each one becoming more outrageous than the last. He gave up trying and stood in uncharacteristic stillness. My mind went back to how happy we were, a few moments earlier, before we discovered the secret of our family’s ancient artifact. Now, I wondered if we would ever see our home or parents again. A sob pushed its way up, seeking an escape. But I shoved it back, letting anger taking its place.
            Joel started to wander away. I shouted, "Don't move!" much too loudly for the quiet surroundings. We heard startled birds fly up into the air, somewhere beyond us in the thick jungle.
          “Aren't we going to explore?"
          "I think we should stay here until we figure out how to get home."
          "No way. I want to check this place out. Sis-tine, stop worrying. We need to look around and see what’s here." Joel walked a few more feet away from me. "Let’s go see if we can find some people, maybe someone to help us. We’ll explore and figure out something.”
          Unexpectedly, there was a movement in the bushes and a sleek leopard came into view. I gasped in fear, but Joel’s face became alert with excitement and interest. The leopard stared at us for a moment, sniffing. It was a beautiful animal with sinewy muscle covered by a luxurious, vibrant coat. It was worth admiring, but not from ten feet away. The large cat growled and then slipped into the bushes to our right, as if it were changing from solid to shadow.
          Joel was elated. “Wow! Did you see that? Let’s find out where it went. I bet there are lots of exotic animals here.” He was already stalking toward the place where the wild feline had vanished.
          I grabbed the back of his shirt before he dove in the bushes to become the leopard’s breakfast. “No way! We stay together and if we are going to look for anything, we’ll search for some people. Let's not get eaten just after we’ve arrived. Let’s go down that road.” I pointed to the dirt road that led to the mountains.
          My brother was ready for a one-person mutiny. Yanking his shirt out of my hand, he said, “Sis-tine, they only attack humans if they feel threatened.”
          “I think following a leopard into the underbrush would be threatening. Let’s go.” Again, I indicated the path. Joel hesitated a second before he joined me.
           My brother never stayed upset for long. “I told you that it was a leopard carved on the box,” he said in a superior tone, swaggering along beside me.
          I smiled and kept walking. It must have been dawn when we arrived at this place, because the sunlight became steadily stronger. The jungle remained on our right as we went along, although the density diminished. On our left, the green grass gave way to scattered trees and bushes. Because the road was so straight, I could just make out a river in the distance. A dark bridge spanned it. The mountains beyond stuck up out of the ground like oversized lumps of dark brown sugar, and stretched across the land, running parallel to the river.
          I tried to gauge how long before we’d reach the ridge. I wondered if it looked close because the air was clean in this place and because it stood out in sharp relief against the vivid blue sky. I took many deep breaths, enjoying the smell of the trees and the grass. Joel and I didn’t speak as we took it all in, using each of our senses to experience everything that surrounded us. Although it was warm and the sun very bright, I did not feel hot, though I needed my visor to shade my eyes, and said so. Joel wished for his favorite lime green fishing hat.
          “Actually, this is not the outfit I would have picked to travel in." I indicated my pink shorts, and pink and orange striped tank top. "I need something more dignified.”
          "Be glad we're both wearing sneakers," Joel said, unconcerned that he was wearing a bright orange tee shirt with a surfboard-riding iguana pictured on it. He wore khaki shorts, the kind with lots of pockets. He was right about our footwear. Without our sneakers, it would have been uncomfortable to walk anywhere but on the smooth road.
          We came upon fields carpeted with vegetables, the rows remarkably straight, and no weeds in sight. Beyond them, I saw a movement, so I stopped. On the left, past a curve in the river, the gardens gave way to long, golden grass, where a herd of horned animals grazed. Joel halted and followed my gaze. "A type of antelope, I think," he said, answering my unasked question. The animals milled around, ignoring us because we were much too far away to bother them. I loved watching the elegant animals, colored in brown and cream, with twisty curlicues of horns.
          “They are so graceful and pretty that they remind me of deer.”
         "They belong to the goat family," Joel said, shattering my idyllic thought.
          "Well, so do you, but we took you in anyway." I gave him a playful shove, which he returned. When I went to shove him back, he darted away laughing. I chased after him, though I knew he could run faster and I could not catch him unless he let me. We sprinted up the road, until he halted abruptly. Startled, I stopped too, the sight ahead making me cold with fear.
          Marching toward us was a group of men. They might have been half a mile away, but they were easy to spot because the land was flat and they wore colorful clothing. I had no doubt; it was to us that they walked.
          "Should we wave or something?" Joel asked.
          "Maybe we should run," I said, feeling panicky. Our intention was to meet people, but I had imagined a quiet village with women and children, not a squad of men out in the open.
          "Sis-tine, where would we run to?" It was too far to the jungle, which was the only place we could hide.
          I took a deep breath. "Okay, we will stay here, but look calm and relaxed. I wonder how we can figure out a way to communicate with them. Do you think we can pantomime finding the stone and it bringing us here?"
          "Oh sure, Celestine. They will stand there while we do charades." Joel sneered, using sarcasm to mask his apprehension. We froze and watched the men come closer.
           It was a vivid group. Three men preceded the others, holding curved, shiny swords out in front of them. They wore identical black, red, and gold striped tunics, with triangular red hats on their heads. Four more men dressed exactly like the first three, followed. The men in the quad each grasped a pole, holding up a purple awning over a man in the center. As they approached, we could observe that the central man was dressed more elaborately, in a longer robe with pointed sleeves that extended beyond his hands. His silken garment had more colorful stripes than the others. He wore a golden hat shaped like a graduation cap, except that the flat surface had three points instead of four. It was decorated with colorful stones and large feathers. All the men wore sashes draped from their right shoulder; in addition, the guards wore one around their waists to hold their scabbards.
           I had never seen men with so much gold jewelry. They all wore earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. The man in the middle had a heavy necklace with an immense gold eagle pendant, which was studded with jewels. The sunlight flashed on the gold as they moved.
           We felt awkward as they came nearer, their bare feet thudding on the hard packed road. When they were a few yards away, the guards stopped, but the young man in the middle walked up to us. He was tall and thin, and he had skin that was a beautiful color - a deep brown that almost appeared black. He had a short nose, a large mouth, and exotic deep-set eyes.
          I did not know what to do, but I knew I had to say something.  I gave a little bow and said hello, which seemed ridiculous. I could tell by the way Joel rolled his eyes, that he thought so too. For a moment, the man stared at our clothes, and then he started talking. Whatever he said in his language, he began in a cautious tone, then became exasperated when we did not understand him. He waved his hands as he jabbered at us. Joel kept looking to me to signal our next move. Meanwhile the stranger blustered at us in his tongue, getting more irritated every minute.                
          Abruptly, he reached over and grabbed the stone pendant. Like a game of slap-jack, Joel and I grabbed the stranger’s hand. I was afraid he would rip the necklace from Joel. The necklace gave off a shock, stronger than static electricity, and the man jumped, taken aback. His guards came to his side to protect him, but he waved them away while never taking his eyes off our startled faces.
          "Who are you? Where did you get the Creator’s stone?" the man demanded to know, and we could understand every word. Startled, I gaped at Joel, who was just as dumbfounded.
          Joel recovered and started to grin, lifting one eyebrow. "I am Joel and this is my sister, Celestine. This stone brought us here this morning. It has been in our family for ages." 
          The young man comprehended Joel’s words, but I did not expect such a dramatic reaction. His mouth fell open so wide that I could see his tonsils, and then he stumbled a few steps back, pointing to the stone in amazement. "That brought you here from your world?"
           Our world? What world was this? Not knowing what to say, my brother and I nodded in unison. The next thing we knew, all the strangers folded to their knees and spread their arms, bowing their heads toward us.
          "Well," Joel said. "This is more like it."
          There was an awkward moment as Joel and I waited, looking at the men. Joel could stand it no longer and announced in a commanding voice, "You may rise." The men obeyed, and now it was their turn to stand awkwardly. "So, who are you and where is this place?" Joel continued.
        "I am the obedient and steadfast Prince Kayin from the most loyal tribe of the Harun," the young man said in a noble manner. "These are my valiant guards. Forgive us; we did not know who it was that traveled the road, so I came to investigate.” He addressed his remarks to Joel, though he glanced at me while he talked, curious about us both. "This is the land of Fahdamin-Ra that you see about you. For a long time, all have watched and waited with much anticipation for your welcome appearance.” I observed him as he spoke. He had beautiful white teeth, but I sensed that he did not smile often. Though none of the men looked at us directly, I found myself again wishing I had worn something more formal than a tank top and shorts. 
          Joel smiled at the prince. "Well Prince Kayin, we just arrived at that circle of stone. Do you know it?" He pointed down the road in the direction from which we had come. Kayin nodded, and then glanced toward the circle.
          “So, it is exactly as was told in the legends of long ago," he said. "The Creators will always appear to us at the stone circle. How ashamed I am for my tribe, forsaking our vigilance, and not being there to welcome you." He and the other men hung their heads.
          My brother and I were confused. Did our stone bring others here before? "What do you mean by 'the legends'?" Joel asked.
          Kayin looked at both of us, but was hesitant to speak. Maybe he was afraid that he would offend us. Taking a deep breath, he spoke, addressing Joel. "We, the proud and noble tribe of the Harun, have waited for a Creator to visit, though it has been many generations. Is it not said that with patience even the tiniest seed will grow to be a tree? We began to wonder if we would see you again. Not that we did not have faith,” he added hastily. “We remembered that it is the duty of the mortals to please the Creators, not for the Creators to please the mortals. However, I am filled with joy to know that you are here now. Please, come visit my people. They will be full of delight when they see that you have returned." He bowed down again and, puppet-like, the guards did the same.
          Joel nodded. "No problem, lead the way." Rising, Kayin turned back in the direction from which he had come, and moved to the other side of Joel. The guard assembled around us, stretching the awning over our trio of heads. With a command from the prince, we proceeded down the road toward the mountains.
           I kept looking at Kayin and the guards out of the corners of my eyes. They were all so tall, and no one spoke. It felt rather intimidating. As we walked, we saw people streaming out of the mountain, heading to the fields. They all stared at our little procession.
          I wanted answers right away, so I started asking questions. "Prince Kayin, my brother and I never knew what the stone could do until this morning, when we arrived in Fahdamin-Ra. Someone hid it inside a trick box, so my father and grandmother had no knowledge of  what it could do. When did the last Creator visit here?"
            “The Great Councilor, Baruti, was the last of the Creators to appear," Kayin said after some hesitation. "It was many generations ago when we were honored with his presence. If your family did not know about the stone, then that would explain your absence." He begged Joel to tell him the story, so my brother told him all that we knew. “I wonder what happened that kept Councilor Baruti from passing on the secret?” the prince said.
          “Who knows? We are glad to be here, now.” Joel said. “So, does anyone else live here in Fahdamin-Ra besides your tribe?”
          “The Jabulani tribe lives on the river, in a little village called Jabulan,” Kayin said, pointing to the left. “The Masamba tribe still lives deep in the jungle, over that way.” He pointed to the right.
          “Tell us, what are the other tribes like?” Joel probed, wanting to know more.
          The prince hesitated and then answered as if he were measuring his words. “I have little knowledge about them. We don’t associate with each other usually. In fact, no one has seen any Jabulani for some time, but I have heard that they are often idle. As for the Masamba, they wear minimal clothing and what they do wear is rough cloth and animal skins. We occasionally see them hunting with their leopards.” I could tell by his clipped speech that Kayin did not care for the other tribes. I made a mental note to visit them so that Joel and I could find out for ourselves. The prince seemed a little too snobbish for me to trust his opinion.
          We fell into a long silence, and I could hear the calls of birds, the flap of the awning in the breeze, and the determined slap of our feet on the road, as we got closer to Harun. We approached a formidable looking bridge. It was dark brown stone with two massive statues of solemn men at either side of the entrance. Their clothing resembled what Kayin was wearing, and their pointed hats were shiny gold, reflecting the fierce sun.  
          Suddenly, he asked, “Do the other tribes know you are here?”
          “No, we had just arrived when you and your men met us,” Joel said. “Now, please tell us what Harun is like?”
          “It is as tall and majestic as the mountains from which we carved it. We have always thanked the First Creator for giving us such a perfect place to live. You will find Harun people hard working, well-educated, careful keepers of our history, and respectful of the Creator Laws. For a man who pays respect to the great, paves the way for his own greatness.” He was then silent, perhaps waiting for our response, but I was mulling over the mention of the Creator Laws. Were we really Creators? What did Creators do? What laws did Creators make, and how would we find out about them?
          Groups of people started passing by us. Women carried baskets on their heads, men carried tools in their hands, and though they glanced at us, they did not speak. They wore striped clothing of greens, browns, and yellows and, for the men only, additional stripes of orange. The women and men alike wore narrow hats of stiff fabric, with the top folded over like a flap of an envelope. The hats were solid colored and plain, with no decoration. The men wore sashes across their chests as well, and a few pieces of gold jewelry. They went into the fields and set to work at once.
          Kayin looked down his nose as he nodded to all and called out greetings to some of the men. As we bustled up to the bridge, the workers cleared out of the way, leaving the bridge empty for us. We hurried past the watchful stone guardians and onto the span. The sides were waist high walls that allowed for a view of the brown river on both sides. Trees and bushes drooped out over the water from the steep banks on either side of the river. Along the far bank, fields stretched to the base of the mountains, which loomed ahead of us.
          Beyond the bridge, I could see that the road curved a bit, ending at a massive arch, decorated with gold writing and symbols, carved into the dark brown stone. Two guards stood at the gate within the arch, swords at their sides. At our approach, they pulled their blades out of their scabbards and raised them in what I hoped was a salute.
          “Welcome to the City of Harun,” Prince Kayin announced, as our procession came to the gate. The guards all stopped, but Kayin pushed on ahead with Joel and me in his wake. We passed through the arch, entered the city, and walked from the glaring sunlight into the dark coolness. 

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