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Torn World: Harp of Feathers

Thank you to Melissa and Michelle, who sponsored this story.

Also, before I get the story started, Kasiikar’s New Hunting Ground has had $10 donated toward its sponsorship. We are, therefore, 2/5 of the way toward getting it posted. The paypal button is here: http://wyld-dandelyon.livejournal.com/98363.html

And I woke up this morning with another story in mind, and wrote it over my lunch break. Bayarl's Yiirk 950 words. (Who else would have a pet yiirk?)  For people unfamiliar with Torn World, yiirk are like ferrets or weasels, but smaller. $10 to sponsor it, if anyone wants to sponsor a belated Muse Fusion story.

And now to the point of this post:

Harp of Feathers

Graifiri sat in the kitchen, frowning, while her grandmother, Raifissi, painted red feathers on her face, one on each cheek and one on the forehead. “Grandma, would you stop already?”

“I will not. You’re traveling to Affabreidalam. Crossing who knows how many ghost roads. You must be protected.”

Graifiri rolled her eyes. She didn’t really believe in ghosts. But her grandmother did, and Graifiri believed in heart attacks. If she didn’t submit to the ritual, she was afraid her grandmother wouldn’t be around when she finished her graduate studies of the “no-gender” children and adults in that region.

Graifiri’s friend Jorii leaned forward, polite inquiry on his handsome face. “Ghost roads?” Jorii’s field of study was folklore. They would be traveling together, and Jorii had volunteered to undergo the ceremony with Graifiri, as moral support.

Graifiri rolled her eyes. She should have known that Jorii would ask for all the details. Now the ceremony could last all evening.

“Sit still, girl! I don’t want to have to start all over.”

Graifiri closed her eyes and sat as still as she could, despite the tickly feeling of the human-hair brush her grandmother was using. It was Raifissi’s own hair—the hair of an ancestor, but a living one. The Slunai people were careful to properly bury every part of the bodies of their dead.

The old woman took three slow breaths, the prelude to beginning any important story. “When the world was new, we honored our dead. We told stories about them, and put their bodies to rest, discreetly in the ground. And our dead honored us, brought us fair weather and fertile soil.”

Graifiri could imagine her friend, eyes wide, eagerly listening. The cool touch of the paint slowed, as her grandmother painted in time to the story.

“At some point that changed; we displayed our dead, their bodies frozen, unchanging, not returned to the body of the world. Instead of sharing our living memories, we played back their dead voices, over and over, tying them to their lives, keeping them from resting, keeping them from joining the Ancestors.” The paint curled across her forehead; she’d seen the pattern every time someone in the family traveled.

“At first, it was just a few of the dead who were trapped, but their numbers grew. The trapped ancestors grew desperate, and angry. And the ones who weren’t trapped, who were waiting to be rejoined with their husbands, their wives, their children and grandchildren, grew angry as well. And they cried out in their anger, and begged us to listen.”

The pattern was complete; now Grandma would rinse her brush and paint the green star-eyes on her eyelids, if there weren’t another person to protect. But of course, Jorii was there as well. Graifiri opened her eyes and watched as her grandmother started to paint her friend, starting with the left cheek. It looked odd on his dark skin—this was the first time Graifiri had watched her grandmother paint someone who was neither family nor of Slunai heritage.

Raifissi continued, as calmly as if painting Jorii was nothing unusual. “But our people had stopped training shamans. The men, women, and children with the talent were beset by nightmares, or took medicines to deaden the voices they heard. With no one to listen to their pleas, the ghosts grew more angry.”

“Why red paint?” Jorii asked, clutching the chair arm. Graifiri recalled that he was quite ticklish. It was obvious to her that the feather on his skin was getting to him, but he was somehow managing to sit still enough to suit Graifiri’s grandmother.

“Don’t interrupt,” Graifiri said quietly. “It’s not respectful.” She tried to gauge her grandmother’s reaction. Respecting elders was important in Slunai culture, and she’d learned very young to never interrupt a story with questions.

But her grandmother smiled. “It’s important to understand the ritual, and his question was polite.” What she meant was that Jorii was an outsider, and didn’t know better. Or perhaps she was hoping Graifiri and Jorii would marry, eventually, and thought treating him well might mean she would be allowed to teach the children in proper Slunai tradition. “Red is for the blood that connects us to the ancestors. “And green, when I get to it, is for clear vision, since most of our shamans have green eyes.” The old woman smiled down at him, knowing that he would notice her bright green eyes, so much like Graifiri’s own.

He smiled up at her, but didn’t comment on her eyes. Would that win him points or disappoint her? Graifiri didn’t know. “What are ghost roads?”

“I’m getting to that, young man. Sit still now, and listen.” She finished the left cheek, then started speaking again as she started on the right.

“Finally, the ghosts became so angry that they shook the world, toppling the buildings stone from stone, breaking the machines, and not stopping until they’d shaken all the bodies loose from their perpetual prisons so they could rejoin the natural order. And then the ghosts walked, in broad paths all over the world, killing everything they touched, isolating people until they lost all their pretensions and had to once again live in a natural fashion.”

“Oh—the ghost roads are the old borders!”

She nodded and started painting his forehead. “The ghosts walked for centuries, sundering all the peoples of the Empire from each other. They are finally starting to rest again, but you must be properly respectful, every time you cross a border. The ghosts still have the power to kill you with a touch. Now close your eyes.”

She painted both of his eyes, drawing a circle with a seven-pointed star inside to represent the seeing part of an eye. “If you see a ghost, be polite!”

“How would I know a ghost if I saw one?”

“They’re see-through,” groaned Graifiri.

Her grandmother nodded. “Unless you’re a shaman. You, girl, had better be polite if you meet anyone in a ghost road. You have the green eyes, you know.”

Graifiri pointedly closed her eyes, and let her grandmother paint the eyelids. “Are we done?”

Her grandmother laid a hand on her head, and the other hand on Jorii’s. “Oh, ancestors, these young people are impatient, but so were we, when we were young. Please guide their feet safely on their travels, and keep them safe as they cross the ghost roads.”

Automatically, Graifiri responded, “Thank you, Ancestors.” Jorii politely mimicked her words.

“Your young man is done, now. But I have a gift for you.”

“A gift?”

“My traveling days are over. I’m giving you my feather harp.”

“But Grandma—”

“Don’t but-grandma me. You have the green eyes, and you’re traveling. You must promise to play it at every ghost road.”

“I don’t want to be a shaman.”

“Well, I didn’t want to be a woman. You are what you are, girl. It can’t be helped.” Raifissi opened a padded cloth bag, heavily embroidered with red feathers, and pulled out a wooden carving of a stylized ghost, a woman, with a long trailing dress that curled around in a U shape. Between her outstretched arms and the trailing dress were stretched nine red blinkbird feathers. She ran her fingers lovingly over the feathers, then handed the harp to Graifiri.

“It’s beautiful, but—I didn’t hear anything.” Jorii leaned in, reaching out a hand.

Graifiri pulled it away from him reflexively. “It’s not for human ears. And there’s a huge long ritual to do if anyone who doesn’t have green eyes touches it.” She wasn’t sure she believed—or even respected—any of this, but didn’t want to offend her grandmother.

The old woman laughed. “Right now, with the paint fresh, he has green eyes, so it’s all right. Go ahead, young man, if she’ll let you.”

Reverently, Jorii ran his fingers over the carving, then ruffled the feathers gently. It felt strange and intimate to Graifiri, having him play the harp—her harp, now—before she did.

“It’s so old,” he said, passing it back to Graifiri, who held it protectively and strummed a pattern on the feathers, the pattern she’d seen her grandmother play every time the harp was brought out. “And it’s beautiful,” he continued.

Raifissi watched her granddaughter’s fingers and nodded, satisfied. “Now I can rest easy until you two return from that trip.” She handed the harp case to Graifiri, who packed the harp away carefully. “Don’t be too long, though. I want to still be around in the flesh to play with my great grandchildren.”

“Grandma, you’re not—” Graifiri looked at her anxiously.

“Oh, I’ve got a little time yet. I still can’t hear the harp, not even when you play it.”

Graifiri let out a sigh of relief.

Raifissi carefully refrained from noticing her granddaughter’s reaction. Graifiri was young, and the Empire had filled her head with their propaganda that science is the height of human achievement, but she had the talent. And now she had both the knowledge and all the tools needed to see beyond the limits inherent in a purely scientific view of the world. In time she would grow in wisdom. Instead, she smiled at Jorii. “It was nice to meet you, young man.”

Jorii stood, and bowed over the old woman’s hand. “Thank you for the blessing, and for sharing the story.”

She patted him on the shoulder. “You take care of Grafiri for me. She’s a good girl.”

He bowed again. “I will.”

Graifiri rolled her eyes again, but took the time for the proper formal farewell, kissing her grandmother’s cheeks and bowing, before gratefully closing the door of her grandmother’s house behind them. “Let’s wash this off and go dancing.”

“Your grandmother is a treasure.”

“You didn’t grow up with her praying over you every day.”

“She loves you.” He smiled, but looked sad, and she remembered that he had never met any of his grandparents.

“Yeah, she does.”

They held hands as they headed to the student dormitories. “You don’t want to go dancing like this?”

She just laughed.

Copyright 2010 Deirdre M. Murphy

Disclaimer: This story has not yet been approved by the Canon Board. Details are not guaranteed to be accurate until the Canon Board approves them. Their edits often make stories better too. :-D


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 18th, 2010 03:42 am (UTC)
Some nice world building and philosophy in a short bit of story. I don't believe that the spirits of the dead remain tied to their bodies, but I like the idea of treating the bodies as if they were, and letting them return to the earth freely and smoothly rather than imprisoning them. Sealing up a body in a crypt where it can't decay is just *begging* to be haunted.
Mar. 18th, 2010 04:18 am (UTC)
:-D Makes sense to me! And these were worse than just sealed in a crypt--they were sealed in a stasis/time field!

One of the cool features of Torn World is that the people of the present don't know what caused the Upheaval and the Sundered Times, so there's lots of theories. Some more believable than others, of course. :-D
Mar. 18th, 2010 06:01 am (UTC)
That's a really lovely mythic take on the time boundaries, and a very nifty 'strange instrument'. :)

I fear that you have created yet another culture, and I have no idea if there's room on the map for them, or if there's space for a few dozen more. (I hope that gets figured out sometime soon.)

There's some danger that you've started yet another long story, as while this can stand alone, the characters have places to go.
Mar. 18th, 2010 12:25 pm (UTC)
All stories are part of longer ! :-D Maybe someone will want to write this one. Right now, I have no plans to write more about these folks, though that may change if inspiration strikes or patrons make requests.

As to scale, Torn World is a planet, though we have seen people on only one continent. All of the dots on Ellen's map are cities, or at least large towns. And a time shard had to be pretty big to sustain a whole ecosystem. I figure many shards will have contained more than one culture, and certainly more than one town or small city. How many different tribes were there in North America -- or even just in California? I figure we've got lots of room, still, to explore.
Mar. 18th, 2010 07:56 am (UTC)
I really like this one, it builds the story well. I like the characters & how you weave the past into the story.
Mar. 18th, 2010 12:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Mar. 18th, 2010 10:55 am (UTC)
I really liked this- the whole feel of the story. I was disappointed that the granddaughter blew off the whole thing in the end though. Dancing? What ghost road was she traveling or had to travel, or was it just the dance was on the other side of the ghost road? Well written and intriguing.

Mar. 18th, 2010 12:32 pm (UTC)
I hope you drop by and check for my response!

Torn World is a large place; the young folks are embarking on a land-trip of hundreds of miles in a world without automobiles or airplanes; they will be crossing a number of the "ghost roads" on the way. This was one of the goodbyes in the days prior to the scheduled departure of a number of academics traveling together.

And the girl didn't blow it all off as much as she thinks she did; her grandmother saw that in how the girl treated the harp, and even more in her worry that the grandmother might be close enough to death to hear the harp.

But I'm very glad to hear that you enjoyed the story even without knowing the background of Torn World, which would have given you a sense that the ghost roads criss-cross the planet much like ley lines; if you're going to cross a bunch of them traveling to a different city, it's not an evening's jaunt!

Thank you for your comment!
Mar. 18th, 2010 05:55 pm (UTC)
This is wonderful. I've boosted the signal.
Mar. 20th, 2010 03:50 am (UTC)
Thank you!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


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