The Bell Singers
by LB Benton
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
The third night, we sent scouts who, brave though trembling, crept along the paths leading down to the valley. They were to observe the creatures and bring back news of what they saw. Most of our people who had survived, those from the upper villages, knew nothing of the appearance of the beasts and nothing of their habits or of any weakness in their powers.
Perhaps the scouts could creep close enough to observe something that might allow us to mount a defense or an attack, though we knew not how this might be done. This task our scouts did, for our people are able to glide through the forest quietly and without notice. Only the sharptails match us in stealth.
The news was disquieting. Our scouts reported huge beasts, bodies covered with black and brown feathers shimmering with iridescent purples and greens as they moved. Their wings were like leather stretched over boney frames and their talons, yellow. They were perched by the thousands on every tree limb and rock outcrop.
What was left of our brothers and sisters was told in soft, halting tones before a silent and suffering audience. Bits and pieces of beads and clothing were all that remained. Our villages and farms were no more, knocked to the ground by sheer violence. Those in the lower valley suffered most. The scouts believed nearly three thousand had perished. Shock and revulsion pierced our inner beings, so unlike and foreign was this tragedy to anything we had ever known. Fortunately, many of those in villages nearer the mountains had been able to escape.
We mourned silently for our people until the two moons rose again. By now we had built little fires in each cave and ate such as small parties of hunters could gather nearby. We burned the fires only during the day for fear of discovery. The scouts continued to watch the creatures, which did not appear to make any preparations to advance on us or search us out.
The smell of rotting flesh and beast droppings was stagnant in the air, and the scouts reported a growing restiveness among these things that hopped and waddled about among our former settlements. Clumsy on the ground, the beasts were agile and swift in the air.
Occasionally, they would rise from their perches and circle our sad villages, perhaps seeking out lone survivors of the attack or hapless creatures from the forest that inadvertently wandered too close. The stench was almost unbearable for the scouts, not to mention the heaviness of hearts at recalling their brethren and seeing their former homes in ruins.
On one occasion two of the winged beasts swept high up the slopes as they fought over the remains of a closeclaw. They bit and snarled, each trying to snatch the food from the claws of the other. They struggled in the air, then fell together for a distance until they released their grip.
Finally, the fight drew to a close and the two alighted in tall trees not far from one of the caves’ entrance. Here, agitated and fitful on the limbs, the two faced each other, alternately jutting their heads forward or raising them to the sky. They traded a cacophony of loud screeches and raspy calls, surely an exchange of accusations and complaints.
At the first sound of the two beasts’ approach, all fires had been extinguished, and we hid far back in the dark maw of the caves. A fearful silence fell over our group, and no one dared move, lest we give away our hiding place. We silently thanked the darkness that concealed us in the cavern’s deep recesses.
As we waited fearfully, the beasts rested in the trees just outside the open doorway to our refuge and their chatter calmed for a moment. One of the monsters cocked his head and eyed the caves’ dark openings but saw nothing and lost interest. Finally, to our great relief, the two took flight and sailed out and down into the valley to join their fellows.
* * *
The old shaman had withdrawn far back in the cave. Out of respect and deference, no one disturbed him. As I sat embraced in the dark shadows of the cave wall, the aged man came forward and drew me aside. Deep in the cave, he had spent the days communing with the ancient spirits of our tribe, raising the most powerful chants and incantations taught him by earlier shamans and elders. We sat together, quietly, by the remains of the fire he had been tending. He had closed his eyes, and we sat in silence for a very long while.
Then, opening his eyes, I watched, as he dragged the charred ribcage of a tiny creature from the fire’s ashes and crushed it into a fine powder. Mixing it with the proper proportions of waxy substances pressed from the leaves of certain plants known only to him, he poured the admixture into a ceremonial cup.
The milky liquid’s pink luminescence lighted his face in the dimness of the cave. He had shaken the most sacred bones and cast the most powerful amulets and charms taken from the treasures of our people, tokens he had never before used. Through them, the murkiness of confusion in his mind had slowly cleared, and an understanding of the beasts had been revealed.
He sat silently for a long while, allowing the sticky syrup slowly to bring clarity. Then, he spoke in a soft whisper, like the tinkling of wind chimes in a gentle breeze, and he told me he had seen a painful vision; a sad prophecy of the future.
In his vision, he saw that as quickly as the beasts had appeared, this horrid, vile swarm would take flight and disappear over the Jagged Mountains. They would rise high in the air and circle, their raucous cawing echoing up and down the long valley. Then, they would leave our homes, having rested and fed, discovering in our valley a new feeding ground and a gathering place to rest.
They would fly to a far distant place known only to their instincts, where they would breed and be renewed. There they would carry out their courtships, give birth, shepherd their young, hunt, and grow old. Then, preordained by nature and in some mysterious harmony with the stars, some whisper in their hearts would once again urge them to action, driving them to repeat the cycle of migration. They would again take flight and traverse great distances across our planet, following routes imprinted deep in their primal memories.
In the future, the shaman whispered, the beasts would have a new memory locked in their minds: the memory of a valley, our valley, which they had discovered, a place of renewal and a plentiful source of food. They would forever find comfort in the image of our homes as a place of rest, a pleasing beat in the rhythm of life, a refuge from their journey.
They would remember a long valley of ringing chimes, a quiet river, a place of green fields and ample food, and a place safe from the dangers lurking in the boiling craters and sulfurous canyons over which they flew. Though our people had never known this evil, the shaman prophesied that the beasts would remember us and would surely return. Their migration would lead them again to our valley, our homes, and our families.
Stricken and nearly overcome by the vision, the old shaman looked up at me. He was quiet, his eyes filled with a deep pain. Then he looked away. We were both silent. A reddish ember popped in the little fire, sending several sparks onto the cave floor where they bounced and danced briefly before extinguishing themselves.
The old man stared into the intense, shimmering orange glow of the fire’s coals. Then an even greater sadness crept across his face and glistening appeared in his eyes, something I had never seen before. He body slowly slumped downward as though a weightiness had crept into his being or as if he had surrendered to some deep sorrow. Studying the fire and rubbing a flat, smooth piece of bone between his finger and thumb, he recounted the remainder of the vision.
He had seen that there would be no singing of songs in our villages for many transits of the moons. Time would be needed to heal the injuries and repair the damage, for our people had been permanently wounded and would never be the same. The echo of this tragedy would reverberate through our hearts for many ages.
He spoke of how our people would change, how we would become less than what we had been. We would become wary, discover evils we had never known. We would build defenses against all manner of threats, learn new skills, and train warriors that, before now, we thought would never be needed.
Every individual would be called upon to protect against future attacks. Though we knew not when the creatures would return, we knew we must be ready. The process would be long, and the peaceful tranquility and serenity our people had known would vanish forever.
Nevertheless, from the sadness and devastation, new hope would appear. Our fields would again be planted; herds and flocks gathered again into their pens, and the bells would be found and restored to a place of ceremony. Memories would fade, but the songs of the bells would be remembered, even if not sung until time had unfolded itself far into the future.
He foresaw that we would return to our places in the valley, recover, live, and slowly lose our fears. Generations to come would forget the sadness but, from this time forward, would always know the mark of evil. He talked at length of how our people would learn, must learn, the art of war and defense.
He was silent and stared into the fire for a long time then, speaking to no one in particular, he whispered that the innocence we had known was gone forever. This seemed to pierce him greatly.
Then, he brightened some and assured me that a time would come when songs would again be sung, even songs of joy and exultation. And there would also be new songs, vibrant songs that would spring from the wounds left deep in our people’s hearts. There would be songs of grief and sorrow, of sadness and anguish. We would mourn the loss of our kin and the destruction of our beautiful homes. We would sing during both happy times and sad, and we would raise our voices once more to the spirits beyond the stars.
Though we would be changed and our music forever altered, we would again become a people of bell singers, a people different from before, living peacefully, watchfully, along our slow-moving river. We would recover and become stronger, live with both sad and happy memories, and never forget the eternal spirit of our music. This was the vision the old shaman told me in the darkness of the cave.
* * *
When the two moons set the second time, the shaman’s prophecy began to unfold. A cloud of beasts rose and spiraled upward over the lower end of our valley, circled slowly, then drifted out of sight over the Jagged Mountains. We watched the last of the dark mass vanish as the creatures continued their eternal migration.
Only a fog of rotting foulness and harsh despair hung over the fields and river, waiting for the soft healing breath of valley winds to clear them away. None of the horrid swarm remained, only the destruction they had visited on our unfortunate homes.
Still fearful, we waited in the caves, wondering if the creatures had truly left. Even before we were sure the beasts had departed, our hunters and elders were meeting to plan strategies and defenses to protect our people. I overheard a great argument break out between two elders over which one would command the patrols. It was the beginning of our new way of life.
The river cleared of mud and water grasses gently swayed again in the warm breezes. The buckspurs, though tentative, emerged from hiding in the thickets above us and quietly slipped down the paths leading to the feeding areas.
Reports from the scouts told us the beasts had indeed gone. They reassured us the danger had passed, as they had seen no new signs of our attackers. The scouts encouraged us with each report, and our confidence grew little by little. Our spirits strengthened, and our courage grew. Only then did we begin to return to the valley floor.
Copyright © 2016 by LB Benton