Dwellers in the Mirage, by Abraham Merritt

Chapter VIII.


The golden pygmies hissed; their yellow eyes were molten with hatred.

The little man touched my hand, talking in the rapid trilling syllables, and pointing over the white river. Clearly he was telling me we must cross it. He stopped, listening. The little woman ran down the broken stairs. The little man twittered angrily, darted to Jim, beat at his legs with his fists as though to arouse him, then shot after the woman.

“Snap out of it, Indian!” I said, impatiently. “They want us to hurry.”

He shook his head, like a man shaking away the last cobwebs of some dream.

We sped down the broken steps. The little man was waiting for us; or at least he had not run away, for, if waiting for us, he was doing so, in a most singular manner. He was dancing in a small circle, waving his arms and hands oddly, and trilling a weird melody upon four notes, repeated over and over in varying progressions. The woman was nowhere in sight.

A wolf howled. It was answered by other wolves farther away in the flowered forest-like a hunting pack whose leader has found the scent.

The little woman came racing through the fem brake; the little man stopped dancing. Her hands were filled with small purplish fruits resembling fox-grapes. The little man pointed toward the white river, and they set off through the screening brake of ferns. We followed.

We came out of the brake, crossed the blue sward and stood on the bank of the river.

The howl of the wolf sounded again, answered by the others, and closer.

The little man leaped upon me, twittering frantically; he twined his legs about my waist and strove to tear my shirt from me. The woman was trilling at Jim, waving in her hands the bunches of purple fruit.

“They want us to take off our clothes,” said Jim. “They want us to be quick about it.”

We stripped, hastily. There was a crevice in the bank into which I pushed the pack. Quickly we rolled up our clothes and boots, and threw a strap around them and slung them over our shoulders.

The little woman threw a handful of the purple fruit to her man. She motioned Jim to bend, and as he did so she squeezed the berries over his head and hands, his breasts and thighs and feet. The little man was doing the same for me. The fruit had an oddly pungent odour that made my eyes water.

I straightened up and looked out over the white river.

The head of a serpent broke through its milky surface; then another and another. Their heads were as large as those of the anaconda, and were scaled in vivid emerald. They were crested by brilliant green spines which continued along their backs and were revealed as they swirled and twisted in the white water. Quite definitely, I did not like plunging into that water, but now I thought I knew the purpose of our anointing, and that most certainly the golden pygmies intended us no harm. And just as certainly, I assumed, they knew what they were about.

The howling of the wolves came once more, not only much nearer, but from the direction along which had gone the troop of women.

The little man dived into the water, motioning me to follow. I obeyed, and heard the small splash of the woman and the louder one of Jim. The little man glanced back at me, nodded, and began to swim across like an eel, at a speed that I found difficult to emulate.

The crested serpents did not molest us. Once I felt the slither of scales across my loins; once I shook the water from my eyes to find one of them swimming beside me, matching in play my speed, or so it seemed; racing me.

The water was warm, as warm as the milk it resembled, and curiously buoyant. The river at this point was about a thousand feet wide. I had covered half of it when I heard a shrill shriek and felt the buffeting of wings about my head. I rolled over, beating up with my hands to drive off whatever it was that had attacked me.

It was the white falcon of the Wolf-woman, hovering, dropping, rising again, threshing me with its pinions!

I heard a cry from the bank, a bell-like contralto, vibrant, imperious — in archaic Uighur:

“Come back! Come back. Yellow-hair!”

I swung round to see. The falcon ceased its bufferings. Upon the farther bank was the Wolf-woman upon her great black mare, the captive girl still clasped in her ann. The Wolf-woman’s eyes were like sapphire stars, her free hand was raised in summons.

And all around her, heads lowered, glaring at me with eyes as green as hers were blue, was a pack of snow-white wolves!

“Come back!” she cried again.

She was very beautiful — the Wolf-woman. It would not have been hard to have obeyed. But no — she was not a Wolf-woman! What was she? Into my mind came a Uighur word, an ancient word that I had not blown I knew. She was the Salur’da — the Witch-woman. And with it came angry resentment of her summons. Who was she — the Salur’da — to command me! Me, Dwayanu, who in olden time long forgot would have had her whipped with scorpions for such insolence!

I raised myself high above the white water.

“Back to your den, Salur’da!” I shouted. “Does Dwayanu come to your call? When I summon you, then see that you obey!”

She stared at me, stark amazement in her eyes; the strong arm that held the girl relaxed so that the captive almost dropped from the mare’s high pommel. I struck out across the water to the farther shore.

I heard the Witch-woman whistle. The falcon circling round my head screamed, and flew. I heard the white wolves snarling; I heard the thud of the black mare’s hoofs racing over the blue sward. I reached the bank and climbed it. Only then did I turn. Witch-woman, falcon and white wolves — all of them were gone.

Across my wake the emerald-headed, emerald-crested serpents swam and swirled and dived.

The golden pygmies had climbed upon the bank.

Jim asked:

“What did you say to her?”

“The Witch-woman comes to my call — not I to hers,” I answered, and wondered as I did so what it was that compelled the words.

“Still very much — Dwayanu, aren’t you, Leif? What touched the trigger on you this time?”

“I don’t know.” The inexplicable resentment against the woman was still strong, and, because I could not understand it, irritating to a degree. “She ordered me to come back, and a little fire-cracker went off in my brain. Then I— I seemed to know her for what she is, and that her command was rank insolence. I told her so. She was no more surprised by what I said than I am. It was like someone else speaking. It was like —”

I hesitated —“well, it was like when I started that cursed ritual and couldn’t stop.”

He nodded, then began to put on his clothes. I followed suit. They were soaking wet. The pygmies watched us wriggle into them with frank amazement. I noticed that the angry red around the wound on the little man’s breast had paled, and that while the wound itself was raw, it was not deep and had already begun to heal. I looked at my own hand; the red had almost disappeared, and only a slight tenderness betrayed where the nectar had touched it.

When we had laced our boots, the golden pygmies trotted off, away from the river toward a line of cliffs about a mile ahead. The vaporous green light half hid them, as it had wholly hidden our view to the north when we had first looked over the valley. For half the distance the ground was level and covered with the blue flowered grass. Then ferns began, steadily growing higher. We came upon a trail little wider than a deer path which threaded into a greater brake. Into this we turned.

We had eaten nothing since early morning, and I thought regretfully of the pack I had left behind. However, it is my training to eat heartily when I can, and philosophically go without when I must. So I tightened my belt and glanced back at Jim, close upon my heels.

“Hungry?” I asked.

“No. Too busy thinking.”

“Indian — what brought the red-headed beauty back?”

“The wolves. Didn’t you hear them howling after her? They found our track and gave her the signal.”

“I thought so — but it’s incredible! Hell — then she is a Witch-woman.”

“Not because of that. You’re forgetting your Mowgli and the Grey Companions. Wolves aren’t hard to train. But she’s a Witch-woman, nevertheless. Don’t hold back Dwayanu when you deal with her, Leif.”

The little drums again began to beat. At first only a few, then steadily more and more until there were scores of them. This time the cadences were lilting, gay, tapping out a dancing rhythm that lifted all weariness. They did not seem far away. But now the ferns were high over our heads and impenetrable to the sight, and the narrow path wove in and out among them like a meandering stream

The pygmies hastened their pace. Suddenly the trail came out of the ferns, and the pair halted. In front of us the ground sloped sharply upward for three or four hundred feet. The slope, except where the path ran, was covered from bottom to top with a tangle of thick green vines studded along all their lengths with wicked three-inch thorns; a living chaweux-de-frise which no living creature would penetrate. At the end of the path was a squat tower of stone, and from this came the glint of spear-heads.

In the tower a shrill-voiced drum chattered an unmistakable alarm. Instantly the lilting drums were silent. The same shrill chatter was taken up and repeated from point to point, diminishing in the far distance; and now I saw that the slope was like an immense circular fortification, curving far out toward the unbroken palisade of the giant ferns, and retreating at our right toward the sheer wall of black cliff, far away. Everywhere upon it was the thicket of thorn.

The little man twittered to his woman, and walked up the trail toward the tower. He was met by other pygmies streaming out of it. The little woman stayed with us, nodding and smiling and patting our knees reassuringly.

Another drum, or a trio of them, began to beat from the tower. I thought there were three because their burden was on three different notes, soft, caressing, yet far-carrying. They sang a word, a name, those drums, as plainly as though they had lips, the name I had heard in the trilling of the pygmies . . . .

Ev-ah-lee . . . Ev-ah-lee . . . Ev-ah-lee . . . Over and over and over. The drums in the other towers were silent.

The little man beckoned us. We went forward, avoiding with difficulty the thorns. We came to the top of the path beside the small tower. A score of the little men stepped out and barred our way. None was taller than the one I had saved from the white flowers. All had the same golden skin, the same half-animal yellow eyes; like his, their hair was long and silky, floating almost to their tiny feet, They wore twisted loin-cloths of what appeared to be cotton; around their waists were broad girdles of silver, pierced like lace-work in intricate designs. Their spears were wicked weapons for all their apparent frailty, long-handled, hafted in some black wood, and with foot-deep points of red metal, and barbed like a muskalonge hook from tip to base. Swung on their backs were black bows with long arrows barbed in similar manner; and in their metal girdles were slender sickle-shaped knives of the red metal, like scimitars of gnomes.

They stood staring at us, like small children. They made me feel as Gulliver must have felt among the Liliputians. Also, there was that about them which gave me no desire to tempt them to use their weapons. They looked at Jim with curiosity and interest and with no trace of unfriendliness. They looked at me with little faces that grew hard and fierce. Only when their eyes roved to my yellow hair did I see wonder and doubt lighten suspicion — but they never dropped the points of the spears turned toward me.

Ev-ah-lee . . . Ev-ah-lee . . . Ev-ah-lee . . . sang the drums.

There was an answering roll from beyond, and they were silent.

I heard a sweet, low-pitched voice at the other side of the tower trilling the bird-like syllables of the Little People — And then — I saw Evalie.

Have you watched a willow bough swaying in spring above some clear sylvan pool, or a slender birch dancing with the wind in a secret woodland and covert, or the flitting green shadows in a deep forest glade which are dryads half-tempted to reveal themselves? I thought of them as she came toward us.

She was a dark girl, and a tall girl. Her eyes were brown under long black lashes, the clear brown of the mountain brook in autumn; her hair was black, the jetty hair that in a certain light has a sheen of darkest blue. Her face was small, her features certainly neither classic nor regular — the brows almost meeting in two level lines above her small, straight nose; her mouth was large but finely cut, and sensitive. Over her broad, low forehead the blue-black hair was braided like a coronal Her skin was clear amber. Like polished fine amber it shone under the loose, yet clinging, garment that clothed her, knee-long, silvery, cobweb fine and transparent. Around her hips was the white loin-cloth of the Little People. Unlike them, her feet were sandalled.

But it was the grace of her that made the breath catch in your throat as you looked at her, the long flowing line from ankle to shoulder, delicate and mobile as the curve of water flowing over some smooth breast of rock, a liquid grace of line that changed with every movement.

It was that — and the life that bumed in her like the green flame of the virgin forest when the kisses of spring are being changed for the warmer caresses of summer. I knew now why the old Greeks had believed in the dryads, the naiads, the nereids — the woman souls of trees, of brooks and waterfalls and fountains, and of the waves.

I could not tell how old she was — hers was the pagan beauty which knows no age.

She examined me, my clothes and boots, in manifest perplexity; she glanced at Jim, nodded, as though to say there was nothing in him to be disturbed about; then turned back to me, studying me. The small soldiers ringed her, their spears ready.

The little man and his woman had stepped forward. They were both talking at once, pointing to his breast, to my hand, to my yellow hair. The girl laughed, drew the little woman to her and covered her lips with a hand. The little man went on trilling and twittering.

Jim had been listening with a puzzled intensity whenever the girl had done the talking. He caught my arm.

“It’s Cherokee they’re speaking! Or something like it — Listen . . . there was a word . . . it sounded like ‘Yun’-wini’giski’ . . . it means ‘Man-eaters’. Literally, ‘They eat people’ . . . if that’s what it was . . . and look . . . he’s showing how the vines crawled down the cliffs . . . .”

The girl began speaking again. I listened intently. The rapid enunciation and the trilling made understanding difficult, but I caught sounds that seemed familiar — and now I heard a combination that I certainly knew.

“It’s some kind of Mongolian tongue, Jim. I got a word just then that means ‘serpent-water’ in a dozen different dialects.”

“I know — she called the snake ‘aha’nada’ and the Cherokees say ‘inadu’— but it’s Indian, not Mongolian.”

“It might be both. The Indian dialects are Mongolian. Maybe it’s the ancient mother-tongue. If we could only get her to speak slower, and tune down on the trills.”

“It might be that. The Cherokees called themselves ‘the oldest people’ and their language ‘the first speech’— wait —”

He stepped forward, hand upraised; he spoke the word which in the Cherokee means, equally, friend or one who comes with good intentions. He said it several times. Wonder and comprehension crept into the girl’s eyes. She repeated it as he had spoken it, then turned to the pygmies, passing the word on to them — and I could distinguish it now plainly within the trills and pipings. The pygmies came closer, staring up at Jim.

He said, slowly: “We come from outside. We know nothing of this place. We know none within it.”

Several times he had to repeat this before she caught it. She looked gravely at him, and at me doubtfully — yet as one who would like to believe. She answered haltingly.

“But Sri”— she pointed to the little man —“has said that in the water he spoke the tongue of evil.”

“He speaks many tongues,” said Jim — then to me:

“Talk to her. Don’t stand there like a dummy, admiring her. This girl can think — and we’re in a jam. Your looks make no hit with the dwarfs, Leif, in spite of what you did.”

“Is it any stranger that I should have spoken that tongue than that I now speak yours, Evalie?” I said. And asked the same question in two of the oldest dialects of the Mongolian that I knew. She studied me, thoughtfully.

“No,” she said at last —“no; for I, too, know something of it, yet that does not make me evil.”

And suddenly she smiled, and trilled some command to the guards. They lowered their spears, regarding me with something of the friendly interest they had showed toward Jim. Within the tower, the drums began to roll a cheerful tattoo. As at a signal, the other unseen drums which the shrill alarm had silenced, resumed their lilting rhythm.

The girl beckoned us. We walked behind her, the little soldiers ringing us, between a portcullis of thorn and the tower.

We passed over the threshold of the Land of the Little People and of Evalie.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58