Author’s Note: This excerpt is an example of the kind of compelling fiction we can write when we integrate the current best practices and experiments in conflict resolution. In the story, the Atta Song (Apology and Forgiveness Song) is part of Harraken culture, a way of admitting wrongs and making them right. This tradition is inspired by many sources, including Truth & Reconciliation Commissions, restorative justice, and several other Indigenous practices of reconciliation.
The Atta Song at the Crossroads
An excerpt from Desert Song, a novel by Rivera Sun.
You can get a copy here.
Voices twittered like birdsong under the arching boughs of the orchard. In the shade, rows of stalls and booths displayed crafters’ goods and artisans’ wares. Between the summer rains and autumn harvests, smiths and metal shapers, weavers and silk spinners, potters and stone carvers gathered at the Crossroads to barter and trade. Harraken journeyed from the distant corners of the desert to place orders and pick up promised goods. Messengers hawked a lively trade, delivering and returning.
Beyond the green of the trees, the blazing white of the Deep Sands Valley encircled the Crossroads. The dunes sparkled with stark beauty. Every year, the prevailing wind shoved the sand’s edges closer to the eastern flank of the vast orchard. Each year, the crafters’ apprentices shored up the massive retaining walls that held it back. For centuries, that had been the honor-bargain between orchardists and crafters: shade and water in exchange for cooperation in holding back the dunes. The aqueduct that carried the sluice of water from Turim through the Deep Sands Valley was a marvel of engineering. It carried and protected the lifeblood of the seasonal city of fruit and arts.
Along a spider web of footpaths, people gathered for games and meals, gossip and story. Low stools and spread rugs formed open air sitting rooms. A sense of repose and ease marked the banter, negotiations halted for songs. At night, laughter rose with a festive spirit.
Today, however, a buzz of rumors swarmed the market like the hives of bees that lined the orchard edges. A plume of dust rose along the northwest section of the Market Road. People claimed that an army of women approached, not the Black Ravens, but the unarmed women who rode from village to village reinitiating the village sings. Three days ago, the Harrak-Mettahl had ridden in and slept curled up in his cloak under the trees. Over breakfast, he’d told the potter next to him that he envied the strength of the potter’s wares. Harrak, he had said, was easier to lose or break . . . and harder to repair.
“Whose harrak are you restoring today?” she’d asked him amiably.
“All of ours . . . starting with my own,” he’d replied, looking so mournful that wild whispers of gossip speculated that he must have murdered someone.
All through the first day, Tahkan Shirar went from one person to the next, asking their views on warriors-rule versus village sings. The artisans tended to support the sings. They weren’t warriors, after all, and what did warriors know of their trades? Last year, the warriors had levied a goods-tax on the Crossroads to support the fighters. The artisans resented it bitterly. In times of peace, why should they pay for warriors who rode around eating food and swinging swords and doing nothing?
On the second day, he gathered them together and made a request that sparked roars of outrage and indignation. It took the Harrak-Mettahl hours to explain what he meant, why it mattered, what he’d learned from the women who rode with his sister toward the Crossroads, and why the artisans should honor his unusual request. He talked long into the evening, persuading and cajoling. At last, he struck a bargain, a daring wager to which they all agreed.
By morning, the buzz of tension, gossip, and excitement reached a fevered pitch. One by one, the haggling fell off. The hammering of horseshoes halted. People wandered toward the westbound Market Road to watch the growing plume of riders’ dust.
Would he really do it, they wondered?
Bets were placed. Nails were bitten to the quick. Toes tapped nervously. When the company of riders reached the edge of the Crossroads, Tahkan Shirar walked out to meet them. Hundreds of crafters and artisans followed in his footsteps, curiosity burning like a fever in them.
He stood beyond the overhang of fruit trees, sleeves rolled to elbows, skin dark with summer sun. He looked thin, his usual wolf-leanness whittled down. A quietness clung to him, the stillness that comes from deep reflection. His face curved with smile-creases as he saw the riders. Ari Ara jumped down from Zyrh’s back at a run, greeting him after the week of travel. Just as she threw her arms around him, she caught a glimpse of his sorrow darting behind his smile.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Nothing to worry about,” he said, gently touching her cheek. He had missed her this week. It seemed she had grown taller since they last parted, and the speed of passing time struck him strongly. He’d lost her for most of her life and mourned every moment they had to spend apart.
As Mahteni dismounted and walked across the open space between riders and waiting crafters, swirls of dust chased her heels like tiny dogs. Tahkan stepped out to meet her. The first words of his song struck the space between them and she paused. Her face fell open like a book. Surprise and shock wrote volumes across the pages of her features. The Harrak-Mettahl was singing the Atta Song, the ritual chant of apology and forgiveness. He held out his hands in supplication, palms up. He dropped to one knee, then two, then sat back on his heels with his palms on his thighs and his head bent.
I am sorry, he sang,
for all the wrongs done,
for every slight and every silencing,
for every bruise and tear,
for the honor lost by men and warriors,
for all my faults and failures.
The Harrak-Mettahl had a responsibility to uphold the honor of his people. If they lost their way, he had failed his duties. Tahkan Shirar offered his apologies for his part in the problems and for the ways his actions had made the situation worse. It was wrong to silence anyone, he sang.
We are born equally of our mothers,
our feet rest equally on the sands,
the Ancestor Wind flows equally
through each person’s song,
the rain bestows its blessing,
equally upon all our heads.
Ari Ara sensed the crafters behind him tightening like a bowstring, as if the outcome of this moment decided their fates and futures. From the look of shock on their faces, Ari Ara guessed that the Harrak-Mettahl didn’t often get down on his knees. She had once seen her father gather power like lightning to his chest and stride into a hall full of enemies like a tiger showering white sparks. He pulled that same power to him now; she felt it crackling in the air. His words sang of what it meant to be a man, a Harraken man. The Ancestor Wind stirred above them, bringing a sense of time and culture, antiquity and ancestors, to the ritual. Gestures of greeting fluttered from one Harraken to the next as the Ancestor Wind spiraled into a whirlwind, reaching down between the Shirar siblings, whipping their clothes and hair with its spinning winds.
If it is time for you, Tahkan sang to Mahteni-Mirrin,
to be our harrak-mettahl,
I release the wind to you.
The gasps of the Harraken made the wind spout waver, swaying on their in-drawn breaths.
Forgive me? Tahkan asked his sister.
Mahteni bent her head as if listening to the hushed whispers of the swirling wind that Tahkan held out like a flower on the palm of his hand. Ari Ara made herself breathe mechanically, frozen as the rest as her heart galloped madly in her chest.
At last, Mahteni spoke.
“Keep the Ancestor Wind, brother. We need you to call the spirits of the ancient grandfathers to speak to their grandsons and descendants.”
She made a small gesture. The wind spout dropped to touch the earth at their feet, stirring the dust. Everyone flinched and covered their eyes, waving the plumes away as they coughed. When the dust cleared, Mahteni clasped her brother’s hands and lifted him to his feet, the reply of the Forgiveness Song on her lips.
Ari Ara joined in with the rest of the women, moved to tears. In the second refrain, she heard the men’s voices joining from among the crafters. She thought she’d never heard anything so beautiful as the full spectrum of voices, low and high, honoring their honor keeper as his sister lifted him to his feet. When he rose, the heads of his people rose with him and the weight of shame and anger lifted from their backs. Tahkan Shirar, thin from fasting, trembling with power, stood both humble and proud, a man of his desert culture, a keeper of honor once more.
Ari Ara couldn’t keep it back: the Honor Cry broke loose from her throat, high as a piercing hawk’s scream, sharp and clear. It unlocked the throats of others and like a storm, the sound charged into the air. Tahkan’s eyes shot to his daughter, and he nodded his thanks to her. When the cry quieted, Tahkan turned to the crafters still hidden in the shade of the trees.
“My part of the bargain has been met,” he announced. “Now you must honor your end of our deal.”
With that, Tahkan gestured and the crafters filed out from under the trees. The astonished women parted to let them pass, out of the market and into the dust of the road.
“There are as many Atta Songs to sing as there are people,” he told Mahteni, “and we hope you will do us the kindness of hearing them. The Crossroads is yours. Each person must reconcile before entering again.”
Ari Ara watched the crafters step out into the road with resigned and determined looks. It was as if they had placed and lost a wager. Only later, when the moon rose high across the sky and the fire embers burned low, did she hear the whole story from her father.
“I did make a wager with them,” he told her, practically translucent with the energy of the day’s events shimmering in his exhausted body. “I wagered everything I had: my honor, integrity, dignity, even my position as harrak-mettahl.”
“On what?” Ari Ara asked breathlessly.
Tahkan smiled wearily.
“I told them that if we offered these women a sincere apology for ignoring this situation too long, that if we apologized deeply and truly, and committed to being part of the solution, the women would forgive us.”
When he said the word, atta – to forgive – it shivered in the air. Ari Ara sensed meanings beyond her Marianan translation. The Harrak-Tala word for forgiveness had no sense of forgetting to it, no returning to what was before, no action-less remorse. The Harrak-Tala word was inseparable from change, from doing differently, from repairing harm. It reverberated with the willingness to be a different person and to live a different way. And because it was Desert Speech, the word for forgiveness bound the giver and receiver like an oath.
“They were afraid – or resistant – to try,” Tahkan confided, “so, I told them I would go first. It is my duty as Harrak-Mettahl, after all, to go first where others fear to walk . . . even into the Atta Song, which frightens men more than charging into battle.”
If he was forgiven, he wagered, all of the crafters had to leave the Crossroads marketplace, giving it over to the women, and enter only after singing the Atta Song.
“But what if you were not forgiven?” Ari Ara asked in awestruck horror at the stakes.
Tahkan shrugged, a wry smile on his face.
“Then I would not be fit to lead my people, anyway, and Mahteni would be a better harrak-mettahl for these times.”
Tahkan had spent days listening to the Ancestor Wind, fasting, thinking. The women had just grievances. In the desert, everyone held up the Harraken Song. Everyone earned praise when things went right; everyone shared blame when things went wrong. If two brothers quarreled, the whole village took responsibility for their part in the argument. If a disagreement came to blows, everyone acknowledged how they either aggravated the dispute, or did nothing to try to help find a resolution. If they had turned one brother against the other, they admitted it. If they had ignored a chance to help the brothers reconcile, they acknowledged it. It was not just the person who flung a punch who was at fault for an injury, but those who cheered on a fight, or did not reach out to stop it.
Because of this, the Harrak-Mettahl needed to find a path forward that restored the harrak of all his people. No blood debts or honor challenges could solve this dispute. No act of violence could heal this rift. So, Tahkan sat and listened for a long time, staring out into the shimmering horizon. At last, the answer had come. In a flash of a memory, he saw his daughter practicing the Way Between. An old song about Alaren leapt to mind, reminding him of the root of the word, atta.
“Atta,” Tahkan told Ari Ara, “is the word for reconciliation. It is not a Harraken word. It is a Fanten word from times long forgotten. Alaren brought it to our people in the days of healing from the pain of the first war.”
Atta meant apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It was the same word backwards and forwards. The Atta Song was a call-and-response, a question seeking an answer, a cry awaiting its echo. So, the answer to Tahkan’s question was the very question he had posed: atta for his people, starting with the man who must lead where others feared to go.
The Atta Song at the Crossroads went on for days. Tahkan had shown that anyone could sing it; that everyone played a role in letting the injustice fester, and everyone could help resolve it. Some had more to apologize for than others. A few sang the song but were not forgiven on their first try. These people – men and women both – had ignored complaints from relatives or supported the unjust decisions of warriors. Tahkan sat with them outside the gate and spoke with them. Mahteni sat with the women inside the market and talked with them. The Atta Song rose again, and sometimes a third time, until the people’s willingness to change rang honest and clear in the notes.
There were some who refused to sing and rode off to other places. There were many who felt they had done no wrong. To them, Tahkan was firm and clear: if the Harrak-Mettahl could get down on his knees and sing Atta for his people, so could they.
“It will build your harrak,” he pointed out, and no one could deny that Tahkan Shirar had shown great courage, walked through the fire of the Atta Song, and emerged stronger than ever before.
The season turned swiftly toward autumn. A touch of coolness hung on the night air. Soon, the Harraken would gather to bring in the crops. When all were reconciled at the Crossroads, the Harrak-Mettahl rode out again, this time toward Turim City to make the same request of those who dwelled within those walls. It was time to apologize, forgive, and change.
This is an excerpt from Desert Song, a novel by Rivera Sun. You can get a copy here.