The Horns of Monk’s Hand sounded as the sun touched the western shoulder of Old Monk Mountain. The Fanten drums halted for a breath, acknowledging the Horns through silence. Ari Ara shivered at the lingering reverberations of the low moaning sounds. In previous years, she had heard them mostly from a distance. Even in the Fanten Forest, the tremors could be felt underfoot. Here, the sonorous cries deafened her ears.
“Stay close tonight,” Shulen warned her. “When the ancestors start walking in the mountains, strange things happen.”
“That’s just a child’s tale,” she scoffed.
He raised his grey eyebrows at her.
“Not all my scars come from mortal hands,” he said in such a serious tone that Minli squeaked in fear.
“He’s just trying to scare us,” Ari Ara whispered to Minli as Shulen turned away. But, she inched closer to her friend and watched the growing darkness nervously.
Strange things did happen this time of year, she admitted quietly to herself. Even the Fanten kept close to their ceremonial fires on this night. She decided not to test the ancestors.
The senior monks gathered under the tiled overhangs of the three-sided courtyard, settling cross-legged. The oldest ones looked on the brink of departing for the spirit world, Ari Ara thought. The trainees and orphans gathered behind the senior monks on the benches that lined the walls. Bundled in robes and cloaks against the cold night, their huddled figures appeared eerily misshapen.
Suddenly, on one breath, the senior monks began to chant in low growling tones that rolled and groaned as if the stones of the river had learned to speak. They started with the names of the Three Brothers: Marin, Shirar, and Alaren, then the sons and daughters of the first two brothers, and the royal lineages they founded. What about the Third Brother? Ari Ara wondered. Why don’t they recite his children? The litany would continue until dawn, Minli informed her, the younger monks taking over for the older monks until the orphans spoke the name of Alinore to the rising sun. The Desert King and the Lost Heir would not be named . . . not until they passed into the spirit realms. What will they do a thousand years from now, Ari Ara wondered, when the list is too long for a single night? Chant faster?
Head Monk stepped forward holding a flaming torch aloft. The leaping light and pulse of voices swirled around him. His red ceremonial robes seemed to be woven into fire, bloodlines, and the ancestor spirits. He spoke in Old Tongue and then set the torch to the base of the bonfire. It erupted. Flames leapt above the roofline of the monastery. Ari Ara gasped. She stared wide-eyed at the towering fire, secretly relieved that the stone buildings stood no chance of catching aflame. The ferocity of the fire sent a thrill of fear and excitement through her body. These were the bones of the Great Trees blazing and opening the gateway to the spirit world. The incense of their smoke filled the night. The heat pushed her back. Darkness was thrown away from the courtyard. The stones of the monastery illuminated with glowing light. Beyond them, the night hung more solidly than ever.
Time altered and stretched. The monks chanted unceasingly. At some point, the fire shrank to the height of a man. Ari Ara and the orphans crept closer as the cold began to slip in. She glanced up over the roofline. Stars shone overhead. The oldest monks relinquished their places in the chanting. Younger monks took over. Then, unexpectedly, the chorus of voices dropped into a whisper and the sound of the Fanten drums could be heard in the distance. The Head Monk gestured for the orphans and trainees to gather closer to the fire. Ari Ara stepped into the circle with the children.
“We whisper the names because there are so many deaths in this part of Mariana’s history,” Head Monk explained. “This was a time when a great plague struck Mari Valley. All was nearly lost. The Fanten came down from the mountains and the mists, bearing their herbs and secrets. Out of respect for the dead and in gratitude for the Fanten’s help, we whisper the names to let the ancestor spirits hear the sound of the Fanten drums. We do not know what the rhythms mean; so much of the Fanten way is cloaked in secrecy – ”
“It’s not a secret,” Ari Ara corrected absently, half-dazed by the dance of the flames. “They would explain, but no one comes to ask or listen. That’s what the Fanten Grandmother told me once.”
All heads turned in her direction. She glanced up, uncomfortable to be the focus of so many curious stares.
“So, what are they drumming about?” Brol challenged her from across the circle.
Ari Ara glanced at Head Monk for permission. The whispering of names rippled all around them. The monks had split into many threads of family lines, each speaking his individual part of the recitation. The resulting sound was hair-raising and chilling. It was the only way to speak the names of the thousands lost to the plague.
Head Monk nodded for her to speak.
“It is less about the drumming than the dance,” Ari Ara said slowly. “You’ve seen some of the Fanten dances at the villagers’ spring festival, right?”
“There are many more – a hundred sacred dances, alone. Tonight, they dance to shake the leaves down from the lower trees – not the Great Trees, which keep their needles all year, but the trees closer to the village that bear nuts and fruits. They will dance for days or weeks to ensure that the leaves drop fully, otherwise the trees will cling to the old dry husks in the spring instead of putting their energy into fresh life.”
“Superstitious nonsense,” Brol muttered. A few of the trainees closest to him nodded with an air of arrogant superiority. Even Head Monk looked bemused.
Ari Ara glowered. This is why the Fanten never told the Marianans anything.
“Maybe we should dance the leaves down,” Brol suggested, flapping his arms. Another trainee joined in with a mincing prance. The circle laughed.
“Do not mock what you do not understand.”
Shulen’s stern voice halted them mid-gesture.
“Very few lowlanders have even witnessed more than three of the Hundred Sacred Dances, none have ever lived among the Fanten, and none have learned their magic.”
“Come, Shulen,” Head Monk replied easily with a skeptical smile. “Surely you don’t believe the folktales about Fanten magic.”
“No,” Shulen answer solemnly, looking down at his hands. “I only believe what I have seen with my own eyes. The Fanten use ancient magic that lowlanders have forgotten – if we ever knew it at all. They hold the mists in place around the upper rim of the mountains. They dance down the rains. They keep the Great Trees smiling benevolently upon us all.”
Head Monk frowned, unconvinced.
“Eleven years ago,” Shulen continued, “I was terribly wounded in a battle. The Fanten gave me back my life.”
The orphans and trainees stared at him wide-eyed, knowing he was speaking about the fight to try to save Queen Alinore, when he was ripped apart and left for dead. Shulen’s stony face hardened with memory.
“I will not hear the Fanten disparaged. You dishonor me if you do.”
“We were just having some fun,” muttered the trainee who had been mocking the dances with Brol.
Shulen stared at them with a severe gaze.
“If you are too ignorant to honor a culture, then do not shame yourself further by mocking it.”
He placed a hand on Ari Ara’s shoulder.
“The only one in this circle who knows any of the Sacred Dances is Ari Ara.”
She blinked up at him in surprise.
“Did you not learn the common ones along with the other Fanten daughters?” he asked.
She nodded reluctantly.
“But, I am not a Fanten daughter,” she began to say.
“You must have danced the autumn one with them,” Shulen encouraged her.
Ari Ara shifted awkwardly.
“Well, all the girls learn this one.”
“Show them,” Shulen suggested, almost gently. “Teach them respect for the Fanten.”
Ari Ara scowled up at him. Next time she had him alone, she decided, she would ask him exactly how he came to know so much about the elusive Fanten ways. She opened her mouth to refuse his request – but caught sight of Brol’s sneering face across the circle. She glanced around. Regardless of whether they were orphans, monks, villagers, warriors, or nobles, all Marianans tended to regard the Fanten as some sort of half-civilized animal. Well, she thought, she could show them how wrong they were! The Fanten dances were far more complex and intricate than anything the Marianans knew.
Ari Ara picked her way through the orphans to an open section of the courtyard. She dropped her head, listening to the distant drums and the quiet whispers of the monks. It was odd dancing so far from the other Fanten. The dance was meant for a swirl of bodies, each tumbling over and over in the glorious cacophony of autumn. She waited for the spirit to rise within her. A Fanten never moved until the spirit arrived.
Help me, she begged the Fanten ancestors, certain they walked the mountains tonight along with all the other ghosts. Help me, she cried silently to any that listened in the darkness.
The flames cracked. The circle flinched. The drums thundered unexpectedly. Ari Ara glanced at the fire and heard voices on the cold breath of the wind.
Dance, young one, show them. We will dance with you.
Beyond the light of the flames and the waiting eyes of the orphans and trainees, above the chanting monks, up over the roofline of the monastery, hovering in the darkness were the forms of the Ones Who Slid Through Mist, the ancient Fanten ancestors, hundreds of them. Ari Ara saw them dancing the sacred dance, falling and tumbling in the motions of the wind-blown leaves. Like all of the Fanten daughters, she had been taught to follow the elder women and to learn the dance by mimicking their motions. And so, in Monk’s Hand Monastery, she fixed her eyes on the ancient spirits and followed their lead.
She did not know that she was moving in ways that even the living Fanten across the valley did not know, learning motions from the ancestors that had been lost over the years, dancing in patterns that the Fanten dancers in the forest would give their prize sheep to see. She could not see the stunned expressions of the orphans, trainees, and monks as she danced a ritual that predated the time of the Three Brothers and harkened back to when the Great Trees and Fanten Grandmothers were sisters, bound by breath and the primordial task of turning the world through the seasons. She could not see the living humans watch her eyes trace the dances of the ancestors as her body eerily whirled and trembled with the hint of death and transformation, the closing gate of autumn and the opening door of winter. She could not see the Head Monk’s mouth fall open as she shuddered in the motions of the shaking forests and rolled in the dry scrapes of leaves and branches. She could not see Shulen’s expression as a hint of tears rose in the Stone One’s eyes, and his lips trembled shut over memories no one knew about, memories of another time when he had watched the Fanten dance.
She saw nothing but the ancestor spirits and the eternal movement of the dance.
Author/Activist Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Way Between, The Dandelion Insurrection, Billionaire Buddha and Steam Drills, Treadmills, and Shooting Stars, the cohost of Love (and Revolution) Radio, and the co-initiator of Live Share Grow: A Movement for the 100%. She is a trainer and social media coordinator for Campaign Nonviolence and Pace e Bene. Sun attended the James Lawson Institute on Strategic Nonviolent Resistance in 2014 and her essays on social justice movements appear in Counterpunch, Truthout and Popular Resistance. www.riverasun.com