The tolling of the Templo bells is joyless, even grim, like the bass line of a deafening funeral dirge and, within their larger clanging, peals a roulade, an urgent bombardment of smaller bells that quickens the pulse and tenses the muscles. Each of the six towers adds its voice in turn and the combined clapper strikes become a chorus that reverberates through the air, annihilating every sound beyond their own, obliterating every moment but this one.
And in this moment, I watch the trembling lengths of muslin that are stretched high across the rafters, the stirring above of agitated pigeons threatening to rain down their collected droppings upon the heads of the gathered Aristócratos below.
And in this moment, I shift my weight to relieve the aching in my feet from the press of uneven paving stones as I stand on this rocky dais, built exactly in the center of el Gran Salón, this dais that raises el Tector high above his subjects, and I, his daughter, perched at its precipice as a living demonstration of the power he wields.
And in this moment, I cannot see my father's gloating, as he sits at my back, exultant on his throne, attended by his Tectorena, whom I also cannot see, and I am unable to fathom what effect, if any, all of this is having on her.
I cannot see them in this moment because, instead, I face a dizzying expanse of stairs that stretches down and away to a multitude of long wooden tables where scores of handsomely dressed Patrós and lavishly decorated Patrínas sit on benches, the throng's combined splendor doing nothing to hide the fear plain on every upturned, staring face.
And in this moment, I stare back, unable to recognize them as members of my father's Court, seeing them, instead, as only so many boulders at the base of this cliff from which I will be thrown, from which I am tempted to jump of my own accord, to tumble down the stairs, to land in a heap in the midst of these stony people.
And in this moment, I do not jump but wait, looking beyond, searching for motion at the heavy front doors, as nothing happens and I shuffle my feet again, blood temporarily rushing back into my numb heels.
And in this moment the bells' final 'BONG' resounds through the cavernous space.
Cast in crude iron, the bells, las campanas, are replicas of those in far-away Usá, or so I've been told. I hesitate to call the structures musical, clanging as they do, but they are a clever way to communicate over long distances and, just as it is in Usá, we have composiciónes of tone and tempo arranged for specific purposes. The bells announce my father’s edicts, signal of coming storms, summon people for gatherings... offer only daughters to bloodthirsty, would-be allies.
Since before our people came to this place, since the beginning of recorded time in Usá, there has been one distinct bell sequence that has a single purpose; to warn of an impending Nazca raid. It was that overture which extracted me from my chambers; that unnerving dissonance which escorted me through stairwells and passageways; that cacophonous pounding which reached its zenith just as I entered the Hall; those deafening strikes which rolled above the heads of the assembly like ominous interior thunder.
Even though, here in TemplOeste, there’s never before been ocasión for the warning's use, every child is taught its pattern so none will mistake it if it comes. I wonder now, how all those children feel as the benignly named 'Nazca Progression' rings out from the Templo towers, intended this night, not as warning, but as welcome. Will the children understand the difference? Do I?
The last note dies away and still the guests of honor have not arrived.
In the hollow silence, I hazard a glance over my shoulder at el Tector and la Tectorena. There is no seat for me and my questioning look gets a stiff answer.
“The dress will wrinkle,” my mother says.
“You’ll stand in waiting for your new master,” my father says.
I shiver at their stately calm and my wolfhound Lars responds to my unease by leaning into my hip. With his muscles reassuringly solid against my leg, my gaze slides away from the imposing couple and comes to rest on an exquisite concert harp that stands a little apart, as if on a stage all its own. The cultured instrument is not as friendly as my humble little lap harp, mi arpita, yet still it calls to me.
I'm tempted, drawn even to lose myself in its beautiful chords, but it isn’t time. I will be able to put fingers to strings only when it suits my father’s agenda, when impressing the Nazca, the Ghosts, the Shadows with my skill will tip the negotiations in his favor. For the moment, I must resist its pull.
Reluctantly, I turn away from the harp and away from Rabbit and Hen who sit nervously at the instrument’s elaborate base, the beating of their two doomed hearts matching my own, the quickened rhythm a pounding in my ears.
Around el Salón, flashes dance along the walls, reaching all the way up to trip along the ceiling's pigeon cloths, torchlight catching the shiny surfaces of the Templo Guards' polished breast plates and blades. The men have been stationed around the edges of the crowd, standing against the walls. It isn’t usual for a fighting force to appear at banquet but neither is it usual for the attending luminaries to be ruthless monsters. Clearly, my father isn’t as confident in the outcome as he pretends.
Interminable minutes tick by.
In the rafters, the birds, los pájaros, have quieted their chatter and the stillness presses on while Doe walks gracefully unheeded among the restless soldiers. She stops and turns her deep eyes on me, her apprehension my own. Now that we’re here, I’m tired of waiting, of wondering, of expecting. I’m tired of being afraid. I want to get on with it, to face the mystery.
The throbbing in my arches intensifies but I don't shift my weight again, not wanting to appear to fidget. Instead, I watch the motionless doors, imagining the Nazca Chieftain striding through followed by his Nazca men.
The stories say these people are the color of stagnant ponds found in the deepest forests, though it is said also that their green is difficult to see for the savage symbols with which they mark themselves.
The stories say that their heads are covered more in leaf than hair, that thick twisted vines reach all the way to their waists or more and come to life in battle, swinging about as extra arms and hands.
The stories say that the Shadows, las Sombras have teeth sharpened to points, that they have horns, and breathe fire when they’re angered.
Are they really so? And what of the one I’m to wed? This Nazca Chieftain. Is he old or young? Fat or skinny? Is he anything like human or is he truly a story-borne monster, not so much interested in a wife as in entertainment… or food.
Panic threatens once again. The edges of my vision waver and I feel myself beginning to sink into the cool silty waters of unconsciousness. I sway, teetering dangerously at cliff’s edge and Lars leans his bulk in closer.
From out of nowhere, Veronica's hand appears, as if somehow she’s predicted my lapse and has fluttered to me over the distance from la Galería de los Ayudantes, the place in this great hall where the servants wait. Her palm presses solidly into the small of my back, its warmth draining my icy waters, keeping me from faltering. Within her touch there is something beyond duty and in this moment there’s an unexpected bonding between me and this young woman who has attended me since we were children.
At la Galeria's entrance, Seño Joseph is watchful of every maid, of every porter, and Veronica’s taken a risk to come to me; servants aren’t meant to stand with their royals so publicly. Her brash action earns her el Criado Primero’s disapproving glare, his expression a promise; while now he can do nothing, she will certainly be dealt with when time offers.
My little maid ignores him, looking stolidly forward but, from the corner of her eye, she sees my surprise. She winks in response, clearly terrified but resolute.
I glance around at el Tector who balks at her breach of protocol. Seeming, though, to decide that it wouldn’t do for me to faint at sight of my intended, he inclines his head, allowing Veronica to stay. Emboldened, I rest my hand on my dog’s head and turn back to the big front doors.
Bright banners, emblazoned with el Tector's crest, flutter as if stirred by a gust of new air reminding me of la tempestad, my private windstorm, that struck earlier in my rooms. I catch my breath but all remains quiet.
In the tense lull, the rich smells of roasting pig and mutton waft from the kitchens where a lavish feast is, no doubt, ready to come forth and, below us, the tables are resplendent, set with grand formality to receive the sumptuous banquet. My, nearly aerial, view is of a meticulously ordered culinary garden. At each place bowls, saucers, plates, and chargers are stacked to form delicate porcelain flowers. Their corollas of cup-and-goblet petals bloom within cutlery leaves and stems, their neat rows seeming to be sowed in fields of festively colored tablecloths.
It’s la Tectorena’s beautiful china, my mother's china, and my free hand reaches reflexively to touch the necklace at my throat. I finger the planes and angles of the faceted jewels, her jewels, and I wonder if, behind me, she’s thinking of the day she received both the necklace and these place settings; if she’s remembering the day she awaited my father.
In the time before the Expedition, el Patro de Azúcar, my grandfather, arranged for the marriage of his only daughter to the older brother of Usá’s High Tector. She’d been so young, only seventeen years to my father’s thirty-nine. Had he seemed a monster too? How frightened had she been? How betrayed had she felt? But it had been different for her. Though not much more than a girl, younger than I am now, at least she’d made the acquaintance of the man she was marrying; an old man, surely, but not a supernatural beast.
There’s no sign of a frightened, half-grown girl in my mother now and my anger suddenly flares. How could she let this happen? Why does she never stand up to my father? When Stuart disappeared, she’d accepted el Tector’s blame with her head down and without comment even though there was no way she could’ve prevented the accident. That surely was a deeper loss. It stands to reason that she wouldn't confront him for this. What importance is a daughter's betrothal compared to the death of a son?
And there he is again in my thoughts, my brother, mi hermano. The familiar grief dampens anger’s fire and Veronica increases the reassuring pressure at my back, her strength preventing my sagging from being obvious.
Just then, my dog stiffens and comes to sudden attention, the deep rumbling in his throat felt rather than heard.
Then comes the CRASH! violence impacting both sets of twin front doors. Veronica catches me around the waist, keeping me from actually tumbling down the stairs as the sound echoes through the ceiling timbers, inciting the frantic fluttering of wings above.
There’s a clattering outside. Then, with a second booming blow, the doors swing wildly, slamming into the walls that hold them.
The stationed soldiers' gauntleted hands fly to sword hilts but the Nazca do not stride in as I had imagined and the assemblage sits, holding a collective breath...
©2020 Annette Meserve
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February 1, 2017 in Trinidad, CO
The Book of Questions
Cessah Nimah is unable to accept her role as a simple sacrifice. Her father, ruler of TempOeste, a psuedo-medieval colonial country, Tector Conrad, has done the unthinkable. He's offered his only daughter to the terrifying Nazca, the shadows of Mercun legend, in exchange for the military might needed to challenge the Tector's brother across the mountains.
With the betrothal, the Cessah of TemplOeste will be cast out into an unspeakably barbaric life among the enigmatic green brutes who have haunted the nightmares of her people for generations. Though nearly paralyzed with fear, Cessah Nimah will shed the trappings of her pampered royal existence and, with the help of her Tectorena mother Pílar, her pragmatic maid, Veronica, and a handful of creatures who are definitely more than they seem, she will recreate herself, discovering a strength that not even she suspects she has while unwittingly clearing the way for a pair of mysterious jugglers and their troupe of traveling entertainers to offer the citizens of TemplOeste another way.
on the Shelf
An evening of Myth and Poetry