Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter VII.

The Little People

I came to myself to find Jim pumping the breath back into me. I was lying on something soft. I moved my legs gingerly, and sat up. I looked around. We were on a bank of moss — in it, rather, for the tops of the moss were a foot or more above my head. It was an exceedingly overgrown moss, I thought, staring at it stupidly. I had never seen moss as big as this. Had I shrunk, or was it really so overgrown? Above me was a hundred feet of almost sheer cliff. Said Jim:

“Well, we’re here.” “How did we get here?” I asked, dazed. He pointed to the cliff.

“We fell down that. We struck a ledge. You did, rather. I was on top. It bumped us right out on this nice big moss mattress. I was still on top. That’s why I’ve been pumping breath back into you for the last five minutes. Sorry, Leif, but if it had been the other way about, you’d certainly have had to proceed on your pilgrimage alone. I haven’t your resilience.”

He laughed. I stood up, and looked about us. The bed of giant moss on which we had landed formed a mound between us and the forest. At the base of the difi was piled the debris of the fall that had made the slide. I looked at these rocks and shivered. If we had struck them we would have been a jumble of broken bones and mangled flesh. I felt myself over. I was intact.

“Everything, Indian,” I said piously, “is always for the best.”

“God, Leif! You had me worried for awhile!” He turned abruptly. “Look at the forest.”

The mound of moss was a huge and high oval, hemmed almost to the base of the cliffs by gigantic trees. They were somewhat like the sequoias of California, and quite as high. Their crowns towered; their enormous boles were columns carved by Titans. Beneath them grew graceful ferns, tall as palm trees, and curious conifers with trunks thin as bamboos, scaled red and yellow. Over them, hanging from the boles and branches of the trees, were vines and dusters of flowers of every shape and colour; there were cressets of orchids, and chandeliers of lilies; strange symmetrical trees, the tips of whose leafless branches held up flower cups as though they were candelabra; chimes of flower bells swayed from boughs and there were long ropes and garlands of small starry flowers, white and crimson and in all the blues of the tropic seas. Bees dipped into them. There was a constant flashing of great dragon-flies all in lacquered mail of green and scarlet. And mysterious shadows drifted through the forest, like the shadows of the wings of hovering unseen guardians.

It was no forest of the Carboniferous Age, at least none such as I had ever seen reconstructed by science. It was a forest of enchantment. Out of it came heady fragrances. Nor was it, for all its strangeness, in the least sinister, or forbidding. It was very beautiful. . Jim said:

“The woods of the gods! Anything might live in a place like that. Anything that is lovely —”

Ah, Tsantawu, my brother — had that but been true!

All I said was:

“It’s going to be damned hard to get through.”

“I was thinking that,” he answered. “Maybe the best thing is to skirt the cliffs. We may run across easier going farther on. Which way — right or left?”

We tossed a coin. The coin spun right. I saw the pack not far away, and walked over to retrieve it. The moss was as unsteady as a double spring-mattress. I wondered how it came to be there; thought that probably a few of the giant trees had been felled by the rock fall and the moss had fed upon their decay. I slung the pack over my shoulders, and we tramped, waist-deep in the spongy growth, to the cliffs.

We skirted the cliffs for about a mile. Sometimes the forest pressed so closely that we had trouble clinging to the rock. Then it began to change. The giant trees retreated. We entered a brake of the immense ferns. Except for the bees and the lacquered dragon-flies, there was no sign of life amid the riotous vegetation. We passed out of the ferns and into a most singular small meadow. It was almost like a clearing. At each side were the ferns; the forest formed a palisade at one end; at the other was a sheer cliff whose black face was spangled with large cup-shaped white flowers which hung from short, reddish, rather repellantly snake-like vines whose roots I supposed were fixed in crevices in ther rock.

No trees or ferns of any kind grew in the meadow. It was carpeted by a lacy grass upon whose tips were minute blue flowerlets. From the base of the cliff arose a thin veil of steam which streamed up softly high in air, bathing the cup-shaped white blossoms.

A boiling spring, we decided. We drew closer to examine it.

We heard a wailing — despairing, agonized. . . . Like the wail of a heart-broken, tortured child, yet neither quite human nor quite animal. It had come from the cliff, from somewhere behind the veils of steam. We stopped short, listening. The wailing began again, within it something that stirred the very depths of pity, and it did not cease. We ran toward the cliff. The steam curtain at its base was dense. We skirted it and reached its farther end.

At the base of the cliff was a long and narrow pool, like a small dosed stream. Its water was black and bubbling, and from these bubbles came the steam. From end to end of the boiling pool, across the face of the black rock, ran a yard-wide ledge. Above it, spaced at regular intervals, were niches cut within the cliff, small as cradles.

In two of these niches, half-within them and half-upon the ledge, lay what at first glance seemed two children. They were outstretched upon their backs, their tiny hands and feet fastened to the stone by staples of bronze. Their hair streamed down their sides; their bodies were stark naked.

And now I saw that they were not children. They were mature — a little man and a little woman. The woman had twisted her head and was staring at the other pygmy. It was she who was wailing. She did not see us. Her eyes were intent upon him. He lay rigid, his eyes dosed. Upon his breast, over his heart, was a black corrosion, as though acid had been dropped upon it.

There was a movement on the cliff above him. One of the cup-shaped white flowers was there. Could it have been that which had moved? It hung a foot above the little man’s breast, and on its scarlet pistils was a slowly gathering drop which I took for nectar.

It had been the flower whose movement had caught my eye! As I looked the reddish vine trembled. It writhed like a sluggish worm an inch down the rock. The flower shook its cup as though it were a mouth trying to shake loose the gathering drop. And the flower mouth was directly over the little man’s heart and the black corrosion on his breast.

I stepped out upon the narrow path, reached up and grasped the vine and tore it loose. It squirmed in my hand like a snake. Its roots dung to my fingers, and like a snake’s head the flower raised itself as though to strike. Its rim was thick and fleshy, like a round white mouth. The drop of nectar fell upon my hand and a fiery agony bit into it, running up my arm like a flame. I hurled the squirming thing into the boiling pool.

Close above the little woman was another of the crawling vines. I tore it loose as I had the other. It, too, strove to strike me with its head of flower, but either there was none of that dreadful nectar in its cup, or it missed me. I threw it after the other.

I bent over the little man. His eyes were open; he was glaring up at me. Like his skin, his eyes were yellow, tilted, Mongolian. They seemed to have no pupils, and they were not wholly human; no more than had been the wailing of his woman. There was agony in them, and there was bitter hatred. His gaze wandered to my hair, and I saw amazement banish the hatred.

The flaming torment of my hand and arm was almost intolerable. By it, I knew what the pygmy must be suffering. I tore away the staples that fettered him. I lifted the little man, and passed him over to Jim. He weighed no more than a baby.

I snapped the staples from the slab on which lay the little woman. There was no fear nor hatred in her eyes. They were filled with wonder and unmistakable gratitude. I carried her over and set her beside her man.

I looked back, up the face of the black cliff. There was movement all over it; the reddish ropes of the vines writhing, the white flowers swaying, raising and lowering their cups.

It was rather hideous . . . .

The little man lay quietly, yellow eyes turning front me to Jim and back to me again. The woman spoke, in trilling, bird-like syllables. She darted away across the meadow, into the forest.

Jim was staring down upon the golden pygmy like a man in a dream. I heard him whisper:

“The Yunwi Tsundi’! The Little People! It was all true then! All true!”

The little woman came running out of the fern brake. Her hands were full of thick, heavily veined leaves. She darted a look at me, as of apology. She bent over her man. She squeezed some of the leaves over his breast. A milky sap streamed through her fingers and dropped upon the black, corroded spot. It spread over the spot like a film. The little man stiffened and groaned, relaxed and lay still.

The little woman took my hand. Where the nectar had touched, the skin had turned black. She squeezed the juice of the leaves upon it. A pang, to which all the torment that had gone before was nothing, ran through hand and arm. Then, almost instantly, there was no pain.

I looked at the little man’s breast. The black corrosion had disappeared. There was a wound like an add burn, red and normal. I looked at my hand. It was inflamed, but the blackness was no longer there.

The little woman bowed before me. The little man arose. He looked at my eyes and ran his gaze along my bulk. I watched suspicion grow, and the return of bitter hate. He spoke to his woman. She answered at some length, pointing to the cliff, to my inflamed hand, and to the ankles and wrists of both of them. The little man beckoned to me; by gesture asked me to bend down to him. I did, and he touched my yellow hair; he ran it through his tiny fingers. He laid his hand on my heart . . . then laid his head on my heart, listening to its beat.

He struck me with his small hand across my mouth. It was no blow; I knew it for a caress.

The little man smiled at me, and trilled. I could not understand, and shook my head helplessly. He looked up at Jim and trilled another question. Jim tried him in the Cherokee. This time it was the little man who shook his head. He spoke again to his woman. Clearly I caught the word ev-ah-lee in the bird-like sounds. She nodded.

Motioning us to follow, they ran across the meadow, toward the further brake of fern. How little they were — hardly to my thighs. They were beautifully formed. Their long hair was chestnut brown, fine and silky. Their hair floated behind them like cobwebs.

They ran like small deer. We were hard put to keep up with them. They entered the fern brake toward which we had been heading, and here they slowed their pace. On and on we went through the giant ferns. I could see no path, but the golden pygmies knew their way.

We came out of the ferns. Before us was a wide sward covered with the flowerets whose blue carpet ran to the banks of a wide river, to the banks of a strange river, a river all milky white, over whose placid surface hovered swirls of opalescent mist. Through the swirls I caught glimpses of green, level plains upon the white river’s further side, and of green scarps.

The little man halted. He bent his ear to the ground. He leaped back into the brake, motioning us to follow. In a few minutes we came across a half-ruined watch tower. Its entrance gaped open. The pygmies slipped within it, beckoning.

Inside the tower was a crumbling flight of stones leading to its top. The little man and woman danced up them, with us close behind them. There was a small chamber at the tower’s top through the chinks of whose stones the green light streamed. I peered through one of the crevices, down upon the blue sward and the white river. I heard the faint trampling of horses’ feet and the low chanting of women; closer they drew, and closer.

A woman came riding down the blue sward. She was astride a great black mare. She wore, like a hood, the head of a white wolf. Its pelt covered her shoulders and back. Over that silvery pelt her hair fell in two thick braids of flaming red. Her high, round breasts were bare, and beneath them the paws of the white wolf were clasped like a girdle. Her eyes were blue as the cornflower and set wide apart under a broad, low forehead. Her skin was milky-white flushed with soft rose. Her mouth was full-lipped, crimson, and both amorous and cruel.

She was a strong woman, tall almost as I. She was like a Valkyrie, and like those messengers of Odin she carried on her saddle before her, held by one arm, a body. But it was no soul of a slain warrior snatched up for flight to Valhalla. It was a girl. A girl whose arms were bound to her sides by stout thongs, with head bent hopelessly on her breast. I could not see her face; it was hidden under the veil of her hair. But the hair was russet red and her skin as fair as that of the woman who held her.

Over the Wolf-woman’s head flew a snow-white falcon, dipping and circling and keeping pace with her as she rode.

Behind her rode a half-score other women, young and strong-thewed, pink-skinned and blue-eyed, their hair of copper-red, rust-red, bronzy-red, plaited around their heads or hanging in long braids down their shoulders. They were bare-breasted, kirtled and buskined. They carried long, slender spears and small round targes. And they, too, were like Valkyries, each of them a shield-maiden of the Aesir. As they rode, they sang, softly, muted, a strange chant.

The Wolf-woman and her captive passed around a bend of the sward and out of sight. The chanting women followed and were hidden.

There was a gleam of silver from the white falcon’s wing as it circled and dropped, circled and dropped. Then it, too, was gone.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/merritt/abraham/mirage/chapter7.html

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