And Their Lips Rang with the Sun
By Amal El-Mohtar
5 October 2009
Look at them! Are they not beautiful? Had cinnamon been ground and rubbed into their skin, they could not have been more brown, more fragrant, more beloved of the wine-bright sky.
Come, stranger, come, admire the wealth of our nation, the pride of our city, the joy of our people's eyes. These girls, these women with their slender necks and sloping shoulders, they heft their spears high into the air as they sing the morning up, clash shaft against head in a dawn dance that scatters clouds and rains light on the city below. Hours from now they will lower their weapons and murmur evening down, they will twine forearms and elbows and draw close to each other, brush lash against cheek and embrace before slipping apart to find their seats on the rooftops, curl fists under chins and wait for the morning again. They form a splendid alphabet, do they not? See how swift and clever are their feet, how their lips are sewn with tiny golden bells, how their very breath chimes and shines, the better to spell out the hours of the day in brilliance worthy of the Sun!
It takes a great deal to be worthy of the office.
The girls are chosen to it by nothing less than the Sun Herself. For the Sun speaks to us in a language all Her own, a language distilled from that which we speak in the streets of the city, hidden within it as wine is hidden in grapes. It is heady, too, and strong: sheen, dah, tah, noon, reh, zein, sounds that brook no spill of liquid before their heat, threaten any lilting sibilance to vapour and smoke if it should come too near. It is a brassy tongue of tambourines and trumpets, and whether born to silk and spice or wool and water, if a girl bears a Sun-letter on her brow at birth she is destined for the rooftops of the temple, for the spear-dance and the song that raises day like a wayward child from its bed.
Would the Sun rise without them? Hah! He asks if the Sun would rise without them! What a foolish question! But we will forgive you, being new to our land. Have you ever tasted a fig? A pomegranate? You have not until you have tried your teeth against ours. Come into my house; sit down, friend, eat; let this old woman pour you a tea sweet as the sight of our Sun-girls while I tell you about them.
There are always fourteen girls trained to the dawn dance, one for each letter of the Sun's alphabet, and in addition to her morning duties each one must raise her replacement. It happens just often enough: a woman of the town feels the stir of hunger at the stroke of noon, a tugging to a space where she casts no shadow. There she will stand and sweat and munch almonds till her belly's full; weeks later she discovers her belly more full than she anticipated, and she carries the Sun's child. It is sometimes less subtle an affair, but one needn't count back the months to a chancy conception; the letter stamped on newborn skin like a seal is more than lineage enough, and all the name a girl needs.
Thus it is that when Tah finds a child born whose letter matches her own, when Reh sees her name bloom on an infant's ruddy skin, she knows her time has been measured out in the baby's limbs. Once those small hands can hold the spear, once those tender lips can bear the golden bells and breathe them into joyful clamour, then the elder will cede her place, withdraw to the shadows of evening and sing no more.
What happens to them? You ask with such concern! Perhaps you fear to find yourself in a land of savage Barbary, where we slit the throats of our divinities and bake them into savoury pies, eat their death to absorb their life? Dear friend, console yourself; you are in a civilised country, among the learned and the wise. Drink your tea.
When it is time for a Sun-woman to retire—usually at the august age of twenty-eight, having seen her charge to the auspicious age of fourteen—she cedes her place in a beautiful ritual, an intricate dance of twenty-eight interlocking steps that occurs between teacher and apprentice. During the dance, they exchange a total of seven kisses, and after each, the elder sheds one of the seven bells from her lips. A song accompanies the ritual, naturally; it is an astonishing duet, supported by a chorus made up of the other Sun-women. Imagine it: hear how the notes shimmer and change with the exchange of the bells, how the elder's voice rings less and less as the younger's voice gains power and shine! Oh, it is immense, it is a great privilege to behold. Live among us long enough and perhaps you shall be graced with the spectacle.
Ah, of course you are only passing through. Well. That is a pity.
Once the last bell has been hooked into the junior's lips, once the last kiss has been exchanged, the last note sung, the older woman sinks to her knees before her charge, who then puts the tips of her fingers to her elder's temples, thumbs on the letter marking her forehead. She murmurs the name they share. Then there is a fantastic clashing of spear-heads, an ululation in the new letter-bearer's honour, and the younger raises her teacher up and leads her into the heart of the temple, where she will live out the rest of her days in silent service to the Sun. She will light incense in the morning, she will help prepare nourishing meals of lentils and coriander, she will dry yoghurt, roll it into balls, store it in jars of olive oil. She will bake bread. She will light the lamps in the evening, braid the girls' hair as hers was braided in her youth. She may choose to write poetry, secret orisons that the younger girls put to music and sing in the evening. It is a quiet life, and a good one; and when she dies, a day of mourning is declared throughout our land, and her body is burned on a bier of cassis and cinnamon, that her essence may return fragrant and joyful to the Sun.
No. After the ritual, the elders never speak again. It is better that they do not. To hear one's voice sound dull as steamed rice when one is used to years of it gilded in the saffron sound of bells is enough to break one's heart. Bearable, no doubt, but hardly to be wished for. Silence is far easier.
But you asked about the Sun, and whether or not She would rise without the song, and the dance, the bells and the spears chiming together. Let me answer you with a story.
There was once a Sun-woman, glorious as any of them, named Lam. She was nimble, lithe; she was all of eighteen, quite in her prime, while her bright-eyed acolyte had only just learned the sacred alphabet off by heart. She was a sensible teacher, and differed from her sisters in only one respect.
It was her custom, once the dawn-dance was done, to look out to the very farthest reaches of the horizon and imagine how far the fingers of the Rising Sun could reach, what they touched where her gaze failed. And when the evening was shaken out like a sheet between the arms of her sisters, then, too, rather than look to the closing of her palms, she would chase the last ray of the Sun as it vanished over the desert and the mountains, and wonder where She went, where She slept, and in whose bed.
These were unnecessary thoughts for a Sun-woman to have, to be sure, but perhaps none had loved the Sun quite so completely as she.
It happened one afternoon that Lam looked out, as was her wont, towards the west, and wondered. But while she thought her puzzle-thoughts, she became aware of eyes on her, and looked down to the great square before the temple of the Sun.
She saw a hooded stranger, wrapped about in black robes, face covered up to the eyes. But what eyes! Even from so far away, they struck her a blow. She could not, afterwards, have told their colour; only their effect, the shock of them, like wind on wet limbs. They set the hairs of her arms to standing, and she looked away swiftly—when she looked again, the stranger was gone.
Now, perhaps you are thinking you have heard this tale before, have you not? No? There are many versions, it is very well-known, particularly as a cautionary tale: when you feel an eye upon you, you must handle turquoise, make the sign with your fingers to banish evil, like this. You must never, on any account, turn to meet the eye. But so it goes. There would be no tale otherwise, and a tongue without a tale to tell must languish for want of wagging.
Lam thought on the stranger. It was difficult not to, for after the song and the dance and the chiming of the bells, there is precious little to occupy a Sun-woman's thoughts before evening. They are taught to think of the Sun, of Her Rising and Setting, of the many tales told of Her, how she Conquered and Threw Back the Dark of Ages and now wore the Dark as a coverlet, a prize of her Conquest. Any acolyte could tell you such tales; they are worn smooth as polished cabochon with the telling, passed from mouth to ear like an inheritance of jewels.
No acolyte would tell you of Lam, however. It is not for any Sun-Woman to speak of her, and every successor who has borne the letter-name has struggled against its weight like a stone crown on her brow. But I see you grow impatient. No, do not protest; I see you looking for the end of the story in the bottom of your cup, when I have not even reached the middle! Have some more tea; the spice is bracing, it straightens the spine, brightens the eyes.
Lam thought on the stranger. She found herself wondering what was the shape of the mouth beneath the cloth, what colour were the cheeks. She wondered what it would be like to kiss lips unencumbered by bells. She was, it must be said, far too curious for her own good—but even had she been the devoutest of Sun-women, even had she been the most pious, with her thoughts brilliant and unadorned as a bone, she could not have helped but notice that the stranger returned the next afternoon, and the next, and the next. Always to the same place in the great dusty square, to the western side, mid-way between the temple walls and the first of the city's houses.
Never for more than a moment, never for longer than it took to lock gazes with her. She began to sense that they played a game; sometimes she would look away first, sometimes the stranger would. Always, when she looked back, the stranger would be gone; always, once the stranger turned away, Lam would close her eyes and rest her cheek on her fists, marble-still. She knew that the stranger, too, always looked back to find her withdrawn from the game; she felt that gaze like a pressure against her eyelids before it melted into air and darkness.
The day she felt thoughts of the stranger intrude on the dawn dance, she knew the time had come to do something about it.
It was nothing noticeable to those who woke in time to watch the dance from below; hardly even a misstep, only a lengthening of arc, a dimming of clash when her spear-head met her sister Zein's. Zein noticed, but could hardly point it out, and did not question her afterwards—suppose she had herself been mistaken, what an insult it would have been! No more came of it until that afternoon, when Lam locked eyes with the stranger.
It was the stranger's turn to look away. But when those eyes looked back, Lam held them still, would not release them. She watched as the stranger's eyes widened, watched as the black-clad form stepped back, turned and walked hurriedly away.
She watched as long as she could.
After the evening lullaby, she waited until her sisters were asleep, stretched and curled along the temple's roof like so many cats. When the last had nodded off, she turned her bells inward, stilled them against her tongue. She took up her spear and leapt nimbly along the flat tops of the city's houses till she found the ground; then she followed the stranger's steps as far as she remembered.
It was strange to be awake when all the city slept. It was stranger still to be so low on the ground, to walk among the houses, beneath the lines strung from wall to wall for washing. It was cold, too, colder than she was used to, and dark as the space between eye and lash.
It was not long before she found herself quite lost.
She wandered from alley to alley, cursing her foolishness, wondering what she had expected—the stranger waiting at the first corner she rounded? She was no hound to seek by scent, couldn't even have said what her stranger smelled like, except the odd mixture of dust and afternoon air she associated with the exchange of their looks. Suppose she found some other bright-eyed wanderer swaddled in dark cloth—what guarantee had she that it would be the one she sought?
She was about to climb a rooftop to gain her bearings and make her way back to the temple, when she heard the song.
It was like the sound of flutes that sometimes reached her from the city's marketplace, like flutes and something else—voices, yes, voices like wind on wet skin. She followed it like an unspooling of thread, winding through the dark alleys till she came to a house smaller and shorter than most, with an odd, domed roof that rose like a pearl onion among the flat tops of the other buildings. There were no lamps lit within; she could see no one. She waited, instead, at the door, listened to the soft chanting that came from inside.
She had never heard anything like it; all liquid and silk, gentle and sad. It unsettled her, rattled strangeness into her thoughts.
As the song wore on, the moon rose higher in the sky.
She had heard stories spoken of the moon, sometimes, but found them too outlandish for her taste. What did she care for the lamp lit by the Sun's bedside at night? She was never impressed, either, by the thin, pale crescent she sometimes saw hanging on the ear of evening, the lip of dawn. It seemed confused, lost, out of place in a sky that looked best with the Sun in it.
It did not seem so, now, when she was herself lost. And could that be the moon, that rose so round and so white, that seemed almost to have a face in it? She had never imagined she could look on something so bright without losing her eyes.
When the song finally ended, her cheeks were wet with tears. She listened still, aching now for more, but all she heard were steps falling like slow rain from within the house, nearing the door.
She hid between the house and its neighbour, listened to the sound of the door opening. She peered around the corner, and froze as one black-clad figure after another stepped out into the street, taking various paths away from the house. She waited till she saw the one she knew to be hers, her stranger, by the cadence of heel falling against earth, the shape of stillness marked out against air.
This is a story, and stories are sometimes more convenient than may be believed. But you must believe me when I tell you that Lam's stranger was the last to leave the house, and by some providence hesitated, paused to adjust veil or robe.
It was then that Lam sprang.
You must believe that she was swift, swift enough to clap hand against mouth and still any cry for help. You must believe that she was strong, too, with muscle firm as the rooftops she danced every morning, and that she wielded her spear as easily as some crook a finger. With its blade at her stranger's neck, she silenced any possibility of protest, ripped hood and veil from the face of her prize, and gasped.
A man stood before her, perhaps some years older than her, skin pale as pearls, eyes the colour of dusty silver. On his forehead was a letter, one of the common letters, the lesser letters, a letter that would never be found above any Sun-girl's eyes.
"Qaf," she said, naming him, spilling her bells from her mouth. They made a sound like coins clunking together, as if rebelling against gilding a sound not beloved of the Sun. She raised a hand to the letter in wonder.
He looked so afraid. He smelled of milk and anise, honey and water. His hair was pale, too, the colour of frankincense bark. But he did not flinch away from her, and when she touched the letter on his skin, he read her own. "Lam," he said, and she had never heard her name so spoken, never heard it without the jangle of bells; it was flutes again, a soft, sweet whistle around the edges of her name, curling a music inside it like colours in abalone.
She stroked his hair, his face. She breathed the strange quiet scent of him. Then she pressed her mouth against his.
I see you blush, friend. Have you a lady at home that would object to your hearing such salaciousness from a foreigner's lips? No, I thought not. Women do not easily brook their men straying far from home for too long, and you, forgive me, have the look of one who is, shall we say, well-travelled. I will not linger overmuch on the details, then, for your delicacy's sake.
But how else to tell you that she felt his teeth with her tongue, and found the shape of them to be hewn differently from her own? How else to say that she gleaned the knowledge of how his teeth made a flute of his breath the way her bells made music of hers? They kissed till she tasted his blood where her bells cut him, till his back warmed the stone she pressed him against, till she knew the shape of his limbs like she knew her alphabet. She pushed him back into the house with the strange domed roof and tore the black from his body, kissed his page-pale skin until she'd inked a scripture of cuts and bruises along it. She bit him and said he tasted of lemon-cake; he moaned and said she tasted of cinnamon and cloves. Their love-making was a duet unimagined by troubadour or court composer.
They murmured together, afterwards, of alphabets and language. He told her how boys born with a moon-letter on their brows were hidden away for shame, were taken to the small house with its funny dome and left to the charity of the cultists there. He had heard it was different by the sea, where the Moon had mastery over the tides, where the pearl-divers prayed for short days and long nights to soothe their skin from the savage lashing heat—but those, he said sadly, were perhaps only stories told to comfort children who longed to give meaning to a task done in secret to spare it scorn. It did not matter, he told her, that they helped the Moon rise, that they sculpted His shape every night to precise degrees with their songs, guided Him through the perilous tangle of stars that might rip His sweet skin. Had she never seen the blood that appeared on the Moon like a smear of rust when they faltered?
She licked the drying blood on his lips in answer, and he sighed. They slept in each other's arms, lulled by the music of each other's breath.
It was still dark when Lam woke; thick dark, darker than it had been when she found Qaf. The moon must have set, she thought drowsily, and slept more.
When she woke the second time, it was to a great wailing in the streets, and her throat closed with the knowledge of what she had done, what she had failed to do.
The people of the city were weeping. They were striking wooden spoons against copper pots and pans, shouting and shrieking at the sky, lighting torches and shooting flaming arrows into the dark. Children were screaming, burying their heads in their fathers' shirts, asking where had the Sun gone, why had She not Risen, had the Dark of Ages grown again and smothered Her in Her Sleep?
Qaf tried to lead her back to the temple, but the going was difficult, with the clamour and press of so many terrified bodies around them. They clutched each other's hands, but had not gone far when she felt Qaf torn from her; she turned, and Zein was there, staring at her in shocked astonishment. Before Lam could offer a word of explanation, her sister lifted a trumpet to her bell-strung lips and blew into it. How it must have cut her beautiful mouth to do so! Twelve trumpets answered, and Zein took tight hold of Lam's wrist and forced her up to the rooftops, pulled her swiftly towards the temple.
The others were returning as quickly as they could; they had spread out, all of them, in the search. When they saw Lam, they assumed their positions immediately, raised their spears, and began the dance. Lam danced too, of course, tears streaming down her cheeks unchecked, tickling her neck in the places Qaf had kissed her. She had never danced so beautifully, never sung so furiously. She did not miss a step.
The Sun rose like bread, red as sumac, and the people of the city breathed great gulps of relief, sang the song as best they could, wet each other's cheeks with kisses and tears, and went about the business of their day.
Perhaps if Lam had shown any sign of injury, if Qaf had been as vicious with her body as she had been with his, her sisters would have looked at her with less accusation. Perhaps they might have continued to think her stolen away, a victim of the mysterious Dark, returned to them by the Sun's Grace. But she could not lie to them, could not mislead those who knew every twist of ankle, every clench of calf, every exhalation measured to ring her bells. She was part of an alphabet, and in their presence could not help but be read.
The Temple was at a loss. What could they do to punish her? They might have banished her, ripped the bells from her lips, denied her the grace of ceremony and ritual—but Lam's younger namesake was not yet ready to take her place in the dance. They could not risk the younger girl failing, could not risk her training being interrupted. In word, then, all was forgiven; in deed, Lam was closely watched, hardly trusted with the simplest of tasks, shunned by her sisters who drew their lips back in disgust when she drew too near them outside the dance. Even their bells rang contempt at her.
They pitied her, though, when it became clear she was with child.
She danced the dawn-dance every day. Even when her belly grew great as a basket of apples, when her ankles swelled thick as pomegranate trunks, she never missed a step or a note. Her sisters could see what penance she paid, and I believe they forgave her, then.
The city worried about the birth, worried that the Sun would fail again if the dance were delayed for her relief. They needn't have: the Moon is an excellent midwife. When He was round as Lam's belly the pains wracked her, and she wailed and wept like a bird at sea. She was delivered of a boy, they say, skin the colour of milky tea, with the letters of his parents' names joined on his brow. I am told they formed a word: Qull, which means "speak" in our language.
Lam never heard him speak more than his first wail. She was not allowed to see him, to hold him. The sisters bathed and swaddled him, and took him to the cultists in their domed house. Their duties, after all, were only the pale reflection of Lam's; perhaps they could better support an infant.
Oh, of course she tried to see him. She had to recover in time for the dawn-dance the next morning, after all; the moment it was done she ran, breasts and belly sagging, to the domed house. None could stop her, though Zein, who loved her best of all her sisters, ran after her. She watched as Lam pounded on the cultists' door, shouted and wept for Qaf, for her son.
The Qaf who opened the door was not hers.
He was scarcely fourteen, just about half her height, but he looked at her with the contempt of an old man. He told her that Qaf—he spat as he spoke his own name—had been banished from their order, and had taken the impure brat with him. They would not sully their temple—as if it could be called that!—by taking in a bastard whelp confused as a sky at sea.
Zein prevented Lam from breaking the flute of his mouth with her fist, but could not stop her from bloodying her knuckles against the door he shut in her face.
And there ends her story.
Why do you frown, friend? It was a long answer to a short question, that I'll admit, and it isn't a tale to shake laughter from the belly, but that is all it is, a tale.
What happened to her? Why, she returned to the temple. She danced the dance every morning, sang the lullaby every evening for nine more years. She yielded her place to her acolyte with all due ceremony.
She sought her son, once. She spent a year searching for Qaf and Qull, froze her dancing feet in the snowy cedar mountains, warmed them again by the matchless sea. She could find no trace of either of them, and returned home—but not to the temple. She would not accept a quiet life of retirement in its service. She felt—quite rightly, I think—that she had given up two lives where most Sun-women gave one, and that she had earned a life outside its walls.
She spoke; she bore the grating of her bell-less voice in her ears as penance until she grew accustomed to its blandness. Even steamed rice grows on one eventually, becomes a familiar sort of comfort. She taught dancing to the common folk, and grew to be a garrulous old woman among them, known for accosting strangers in the square and plying them with more spicy tea than their bladders can comfortably hold. She grew affluent, took the name Mal, which means "riches" in our language—
Why, yes. That is indeed what they call me. I see you are a clever lad; here I thought I was being mysterious. No matter. It is a name that serves well enough.
Oh, forgive me! You are right. I never did ask your name. Indulge a forgetful old woman and her dusty manners, and tell it to me now.
Your pardon? I did not hear.
What are you doing? How rude, how dare you unbind your head at an old woman's table? What is that on your—
Oh, I see.
It is dreadfully dusty in here, is it not? Gets into the eyes so they can't see themselves in another's face. A moment, please—no, I am all right, I am very well. I am laughing, you see? Only laughing, my dearest heart, my eyes, my breath, my spoken word.
Well—you have a name, you ought to live up to it. Speak, then, please—speak. You must have much to tell me, and I have much rice to feed you, much more tea. And you should know, it was most ungracious of you to lie to me, earlier. I am still strong, you see, still quite strong for my age, and will not hear of your only passing through.