Monday, September 17, 2007


In the first days of my captivity, I drummed ceaselessly, desperately, on anything that would carry sound. Help me, help me! Help Nitsur! I called out to everyone I knew, recited the names of my family and the other folk of Honatol, of my village, without knowing if they were alive or dead. I called on other drumspeakers I had spoken with, but never met. No answer came.
In the foothills northwest of the great river, I beat on charred, smoking stumps, burning my hands. Southeast of the river, in the grasslands, there were no trees living or dead. I pounded on the dry earth, raising choking clouds of dust but no sound. My captors finally tied my wrists, muffled my hands in cloth, and put a bag over them. They argued about me; I did not speak Kesseten, not then, but I remembered the sounds, and later I was able to translate the conversation. Mostly it concerned the worth of a slave who was lame-- as I was-- and who damaged his hands-- as I was threatening to. But Jantyr was determined to bring me alive to Ahon ken Tai, and Jantyr was in command.
The other captives in our train were all Ta'arane, from the southeast bank of the river and the western plains. I spoke their language, a little, but they had none of mine. They seemed resigned to their fates. "It's been this way for some generations now," an old woman told me. "Ever since the Kesset came from the east, with their horses and their cows. They didn't build the cities of the plain, you know... our foremothers did that." At the time I didn't know what she meant; I had never seen a city.
"The empire of the Kesset rests on the backs of Ta'arane slaves," muttered a young man who was with her. I think he may have been her nephew, or her foster son; I never knew for sure. It was evening, and we were all huddled in a circle, surrounded by watchfires and Kesset guards. "Every year they reach further west and south, to enslave more of our people. They've raided as far the Delta, I've heard..."
"No, no," said someone else, "that's the one place they can't touch. The Mother kills them when they set foot there..."
"There was a time we thought they'd never reach the Hundred-Thousand-Mouth," said the old woman sternly. She was speaking of the great river, now several days' march behind us. To my people, it had never had a name; it was just "the great river". "No place is safe from them any more."
Another woman murmured, "I've heard the guards speaking. They have an enemy in the eastern wastes, beyond the cities."
This was new. We all turned to her. "You speak Kesseten?" I asked.
"A little. They think guarding slave trains is boring work, not..." She groped for words. "Not honorable, not warrior's work... they were all hoping to be sent east, to fight there."
"Well," said the old woman, "perhaps these new easterners will destroy the Kesset and enslave them, just as the Kesset destroyed our temples and enslaved us. So the world continues." She made a ritual gesture, open palm pressing down and then rising, fingers trailing behind. I learned later that it signified homage to the Earth Mother. "Life and death, children."
There was a soft murmur from the other Ta'arane within earshot. The old woman turned to me. "But you're a different thing altogether, Nit-ser." The Ta'arane can't say "u"; it's a sound they don't have in Ta'arani. "I've never even seen one of your folk this side of the Hundred-Thousand-Mouth. How did the Kesset come to lay hands on you?"
I couldn't bear to speak of it. I wept. The Ta'arane patted my shoulders and murmured sympathy, but none of them understood. How could they? Captive they were, torn from their homes and on their way to lives of brutal slavery, degradation and early deaths... but they had one another. The Kesset had captured whole families and kept them together; three Ta'arane villages, more or less intact, travelled east with me. And I was alone. There was no one to speak my language, the Wonei, the Speech.
I had never, ever been alone before. In my land there was no silence; even travelling between villages, along steep river gorges where the rocks were slick with spray and the twining vines hung thick as night before your face, there was always drumspeech in the air, in the earth, in your bones. Every village of the Woneiyal had its drumspeaker, every drumspeaker had a signature. I am Truona, I speak for the village of Miloli, you might hear. Welcome, traveller. And then the news of Miloli's marriages, births, deaths; and other news, relayed from villages further away. Messages from families to their distant kin. The lives of the Woneiyal were all woven into this vast net of drumtalk, rippling back and forth across the jungled foothills that looked down on the great river and the plains beyond. Severed from it, I felt like a ghost, both deaf and mute. Neither the quiet talk of the Ta'arane nor the shouts of the Kesset guards touched my ears, my inner ears, the ears that craved the sounds of the Wonei as my throat craved water.

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