Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Book of Khalk’ru

Chapter I.

Sounds in the Night

I raised my head, listening — not only with my ears but with every square inch of my skin, waiting for recurrence of the sound that had awakened me. There was silence, utter silence. No soughing in the boughs of the spruces clustered around the little camp. No stirring of furtive life in the underbrush. Through the spires of the spruces the stars shone wanly in the short sunset to sunrise twilight of the early Alaskan summer.

A sudden wind bent the spruce tops, carrying again the sound — the clangour of a beaten anvil.

I slipped out of my blanket, and round the dim embers of the fire toward Jim. His voice halted me.

“All right, Leif. I hear it.”

The wind sighed and died, and with it died the humming aftertones of the anvil stroke. Before we could speak, the wind arose. It bore the after-hum of the anvil stroke — faint and far away. And again the wind died, and with it the sound.

“An anvil, Leif!”

“Listen!”

A stronger gust swayed the spruces. It carried a distant chanting; voices of many women and men singing a strange, minor theme. The chant ended on a wailing chord, archaic, dissonant.

There was a long roll of drums, rising in a swift crescendo, ending abruptly. After it a thin and clamorous confusion.

It was smothered by a low, sustained rumbling, like thunder, muted by miles. In it defiance, challenge.

We waited, listening. The spruces were motionless. The wind did not return.

“Queer sort of sounds, Jim.” I tried to speak casually, He sat up. A stick flared up in the dying fire. Its light etched his face against the darkness — thin, and brown and hawk-profiled. He did not look at me.

“Every feathered forefather for the last twenty centuries is awake and shouting! Better call me Tsantawu, Leif. Tsi’ Tsa’lagi — I am a Cherokee! Right now — all Indian.”

He smiled, but still he did not look at me, and I was glad of that.

“It was an anvil,” I said. “A hell of a big anvil. And hundreds of people singing . . . and how could that be in this wilderness . . . they didn’t sound like Indians . . . .”

“The drums weren’t Indian.” He squatted by the fire, staring into it. “When they turned loose, something played a pizzicato with icicles up and down my back.”

“They got me, too — those drums!” I thought my voice was steady, but he looked up at me sharply; and now it was I who averted my eyes and stared at the embers. “They reminded me of something I heard . . . and thought I saw . . . in Mongolia. So did the singing. Damn it, Jim, why do you look at me like that?”

I threw a stick on the fire. For the life of me I couldn’t help searching the shadows as the stick flamed. Then I met his gaze squarely.

“Pretty bad place, was it, Leif?” he asked, quietly. I said nothing. Jim got up and walked over to the packs. He came back with Some water and threw it over the fire. He kicked earth on the hissing coals. If he saw me wince as the shadows rushed in upon us, he did not show it.

“That wind came from the north,” he said. “So that’s the way the sounds came. Therefore, whatever made the sounds is north of us. That being so — which way do we travel tomorrow?”

“North,” I said.

My throat dried as I said it.

Jim laughed. He dropped upon his blanket, and rolled it around him. I propped myself against the bole of one of the spruces, and sat staring toward thesnorth.

“The ancestors are vociferous, Leif. Promising a lodge of sorrow, I gather — if we go north. . . . ‘Bad Medicine!’ say the ancestors. . . . ‘Bad Medicine for you, Tsantawu! You go to Usunhi’yi, the Darkening-land, Tsantawu! . . . Into Tsusgina’i, the ghost country! Beware! Turn from the north, Tsantawu!’”

“Oh, go to sleep, you hag-ridden redskin!”

“All right, I’m just telling you.”

Then a little later:

“‘And heard ancestral voices prophesying war’— it’s worse than war these ancestors of mine are prophesying, Leif.”

“Damn it, will you shut up!”

A chuckle from the darkness; thereafter silence.

I leaned against the tree trunk. The sounds, or rather the evil memory they had evoked, had shaken me more than I was willing to admit, even to myself. The thing I had carried for two years in the buckskin bag at the end of the chain around my neck had seemed to stir; turn cold. I wondered how much Jim had divined of what I had tried to cover . . . .

Why had he put out the fire? Because he had known I was afraid? To force me to face my fear. and conquer it? . . . Or had it been the Indian instinct to seek cover in darkness? . . . By his own admission, chant and drum-roll had played on his nerves as they had on mine. . .

Afraid! Of course it had been fear that had wet the palms of my hands, and had tightened my throat so my heart had beaten in my ears like drums.

Like drums . . . yes!

But . . . not like those drums whose beat had been borne to us by the north wind. They had been like the cadence of the feet of men and women, youths and maids and children, running ever more rapidly up the side of a hollow world to dive swiftly into the void . . . dissolving into the nothingness . . . fading as they fell . . dissolving . . . eaten up by the nothingness . . . .

Like that accursed drum-roll I had heard in the secret temple of the Gobi oasis two years ago!

Neither then nor now had it been fear alone. Fear it was, in truth, but fear shot through with defiance . . . defiance of life against its negation . . . upsurging, roaring, vital rage . . . frantic revolt of the drowning against the strangling water, rage of the candle-flame against the hovering extinguisher . . . .

Was it as hopeless as that? If what I suspected to be true was true, to think so was to be beaten at the beginning!

But there was Jim! How to keep him out of it? In my heart, I had never laughed at those subconscious perceptions, whatever they were. that he called the voices of his ancestors. When he had spoken of Usunhi’yi, the Darkening-land, a chill had crept down my spine. For had not the old Uighur priest spoken of the Shadow-land? And it was as though I had heard the echo of his words.

I looked over to where he lay. He had been more akin to me than my own brothers. I smiled at that, for they had never been akin to me. To all but my soft-voiced, deep-bosomed, Norse mother I had been a stranger in that severely conventional old house where I had been born.

The youngest son, and an unwelcome intruder; a changeling. It had been no fault of mine that I had come into the world a throw-back to my mother’s yellow-haired, blue-eyed, strong-thewed Viking forefathers. Not at all a Langdon. The Langdon men were dark and slender, thin-lipped and saturnine. stamped out by the same die for generations. They looked down at me, the changeling, from the family portraits with faintly amused, supercilious hostility. Precisely as my father and my four brothers, true Langdons, each of them, looked at me when I awkwardly disposed of my bulk at their table.

It had brought me unhappiness, but it had made my mother wrap her heart around me. I wondered, as I had wondered many times, how she had come to give herself to that dark, self-centred man my father — with the blood of the sea-rovers singing in her veins. It was she who had named me Leif — as incongruous a name to tack on a Langdon as was my birth among them.

Jim and I had entered Dartmouth on the same day. I saw him as he was then — the tall, brown lad with his hawk face and inscrutable black eyes. pure blood of the Cherokees, of the clan from which had come the great Sequoiah, a clan which had produced through many centuries wisest councillors, warriors strong in cunning.

On the college roster his name was written James T. Eagles, but on the rolls of the Cherokee Nation it was written Two Eagles and his mother had called him Tsantawu. From the first we had recognized spiritual kinship. By the ancient rites of his people we had become blood-brothers, and he had given me my secret name. known only to the pair of us, Degataga — one who stands so close to another that the two are one.

My one gift, besides my strength, is an aptness at languages. Soon I spoke the Cherokee as though I had been born in the Nation. Those years in college were the happiest I had ever known. It was during the last of them that America entered the World War. Together we had left Dartmouth, gone into training camp, sailed for France on the same transport.

Sitting there, under the slow-growing Alaskan dawn, my mind leaped over the years between . . . my mother’s death on Armistice Day . . . my return to New York to a frankly hostile home . . . Jim’s recall to his clan . . . the finishing of my course in mining engineering . . . my wanderings in Asia . . . my second return to America and my search for Jim . . . this expedition of ours to Alaska, more for comradeship and the wilderness peace than for the gold we were supposed to be seeking —

A long trail since the War — the happiest for me these last two months of it. It had led us from Nome over the quaking tundras, and then to the Koyukuk, and at last to this little camp among the spruces, somewhere between the headwaters of the Koyukuk and the Chandalar in the foothills of the unexplored Endicott Range. A long trail . . . I had the feeling that it was here the real trail of my life began.

A ray of the rising sun struck through the trees. Jim sat up, looked over at me, and grinned.

“Didn’t get much sleep after the concert, did you?”

“What did you do to the ancestors? They didn’t seem to keep you awake long.”

He said, too carelessly: “Oh, they quieted down.” His face and eyes were expressionless. He was veiling his mind from me. The ancestors had not quieted down. He had lain awake while I had thought him sleeping. I made a swift decision. We would go south as we had planned. I would go with him as far as Circle. I would find some pretext to leave him there.

I said: “We’re not going north. I’ve changed my mind.”

“Yes. why?”

“I’ll tell you after we’ve had breakfast,” I said — I’m not so quick in thinking up lies. “Rustle up a fire, Jim. I’ll go down to the stream and get some water.”

“Degataga!”

I started. It was only in moments of rare sympathy or in time of peril that he used the secret name.

“Degataga, you go north! You go if I have to march ahead of you to make you follow. . .” he dropped into the Cherokee. . . . “It is to save your spirit, Degataga. Do we march together — blood-brothers? Or do you creep after me — like a shivering dog at the heels of the hunter?”

The blood pounded in my temples, my hand went out toward him. He stepped back, and laughed.

“That’s better, Leif.”

The quick rage left me, my hand fell.

“All right, Tsantawu. We go — north. But it wasn’t — it wasn’t because of myself that I told you I’d changed my mind.”

“I know damned well it wasn’t!”

He busied himself with the fire. I went after the water. We drank the strong black tea, and ate what was left of the little brown storks they call Alaskan turkeys which we had shot the day before. When we were through I began to talk.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09