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Chapt. 10: Funeral Song
By Michael Jesse
As all of the ruah surrounded them, Laura heard so many overlapping ruah voices she could not separate them, but Verdu's voice was louder and deeper than anyone's and they quieted as he spoke.
"These are only young ones and not responsible," he said. "The adult Saviens, as many of you saw, are about twice this size and have hair on their faces – very similar to how Amalea described them long ago. Their ship may have gone down in the storm, but we can't assume that. Shore Watch is in activated, so every ruah who can run is expected to be available to assist if needed. See Menda to volunteer."
The male ruah snorted and honked, some of them clacking their horns together. Then everyone started asking questions at once, but Verdu's deep voice quieted them again. "We shall discuss this later," he said, "but at this moment we must attend to that which deserves your full attention."
Shamed into silence, all followed through the woods into a clearing where the ruah began forming a circle around what looked at first like a small, leafless tree growing stubbornly through a mound of neatly stacked rocks. Then, as Jack's subconscious figured it out faster than he did, a burn of stomach acid came up his throat and into his mouth.
"Laura," he whispered, swallowing, "those are ruah horns. It's the old one who got so upset about us that he had a heart attack or something." Jack recognized the gnarled and stubby horns coming out of the rocky grave.
The oldest males in the group began piping a song that everyone seemed to know, and they all gradually joined in. The music started low and slow, with sad words about death and loss and grief for the one who has just died but also for the Mother who is slowly dying along with all of us. But the chorus was about joining the Spirit and each time the song came around to the chorus again the music became louder and more joyful It was like a Dixieland band playing a funeral march on bassoons while a piercingly clear and crisp whistling soprano rose octaves above them all, singing about the Spirit that unites all Life, into which the lost loved one has returned. And the Spirit is here with us even now, in our own lungs, breathing as we breathe, singing as we sing. And the Mother, though She moves no more, yes, even still She gives us breath and abundance, even still, yes even still.
Laura, bounced on her heels and quietly hummed along, but Jack was more confident, filling in his own musical refrains about the Spirit wherever he found an opening. When it was over, the ruah mingled around greeting each other. The females embraced, touched opposite cheeks together while making extravagant kissing sounds with their nostrils. The males ceremoniously tapped their horns together in a ritualistic movement that always involved five clicking taps of horn-against-horn followed by the simultaneous blowing of a single note. "Always a B-flat," Jack noted to himself.
The females rushed as one to where the children now stood with Riona, Verdu having been drawn into a group of males. As they greeted Riona in turn, each female thrust her face in front of Jack and Laura, whistling little melodies in the ruah equivalent of babytalk. One of them looked — and sounded — different from the rest. She wore something tied across her forehead just below her nose. It was a little section of ruah horn no bigger than Jack's flute.
"Vera!" Riona exclaimed as the two embraced, smacking air kisses close to each other's ears.
"Riona, darling. It seems we only see each other at weddings and funerals these days. "
"I didn't really know the old gentleman personally," Riona replied, "but people said he was–"
"A tiresome old busybody who spent his life lecturing everyone?"
"Vera! His horns are barely in the ground."
"Well, it's the truth — but if you prefer, I'll wait the usual mourning period before I bring it up again." As she spoke, Vera used a combination of whistles and toots from the section of ruah horn strapped under her nostrils. Periodically, Vera would would close one of her nostrils around the end of the horn, making a one-note toot. It reminded Jack of a musician wearing a harmonica holder. She carried on a rapid conversation mostly by whistling, but whenever a note came along that could be played on her little bit of ruah horn, she would toot the note and continue whistling.
Vera gave Jack and Laura a long look as her left nostril closed over the pipe and blew from it a cheerful note as she exclaimed , "What adorable little saviens."
"Children," Riona corrected. "Just call them children."
"Oh yes, sorry," Vera whistled in a tone that did not sound very apologetic. "But Riona, dear," she rushed on, "as much as I want to hear all about these . . . children, if you will, I must know something more important. It's true, isn't it? Riona, darling you are pregnant?"
Riona blushed and hurriedly whispered, "Yes, but please don't—"
It was too late. Vera's distinctively shrill voice carried for some distance even when she attempted to say something quietly, which she seldom did. Every female who had not already come to coo at Jack and Laura now trotted towards the group, trilling their delight at the news.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the crowd, the young males had gathered with reverence around Verdu, lining up for their turn to click horns with him and exchange the important B-flat.
"Caller?" one of them asked, "You will lead us, won't you? Surely when something such as this has happened . . ." The young ruah glanced at Jack and Laura, leaving the sentence unfinished.
Verdu bowed his horns and then he and the young males began playing the same low note together, like musicians matching a warm-up note to get the same pitch. They held the note in unison for several beats, and repeated it in succession with increasing volume each time. Others in the crowd took notice, and individual conversations gradually stopped as more joined in on the note. At Verdu's lead the note changed and became a song that Jack and Laura recognized from their first encounter, but even now that they could understand conversational Ruah they could not quite make out the words except that they seemed to be about calling out to awaken a mother.
The volume quickly escalated as the young males gathered around Verdu strained to play their parts at the highest volume possible. They gulped breaths of air as they struggled to keep up with Verdu, whose voice could be heard above them all. The song ended in a single note that all held as long as they could, the young males going bug-eyed and reddening through their facial fur. And then only one voice remained as Verdu held the clear and perfect note longer than anyone else was physically capable of. When he too at last fell silent, even the birds seemed to be waiting. Then, Laura's ears popped and she heard songbirds and the wind in the trees again. The crowd of ruah started milling around again, saying their goodbyes, as Verdu and Riona led Jack, Laura and Ronnie away from the clearing. Menda followed.
"Rahnee," Riona said. "Menda will escort you to our school where you can stay until your parents arrive. Laura and Jack, you are of course free to go wherever you wish, but I hope you will allow us to take you to see my grandmother, Irenia. She's the head of our community and I know she would be eager to meet you."
"Can we see Ronnie again?" Jack asked.
"Certainly. The school is nearby as well. It's really not very far, but I don't want you to have to walk the entire way. Would you allow us to carry you on our backs?"
Verdu said he would take Laura since she was the larger of the two. He kneeled on the ground so she could climb on, and Riona did the same for Jack.
"Hold on tight," Riona said, and the two ruah began to trot down the wooded path. She did not say what exactly they were to hold on to. For Laura, the answer was easy because Verdu's horns curled around her like a cage, but Jack did not have as many options. Like the males, Riona had short hair like a horse over part of her body, but around her head and down her back grew a dense mane that Jack now gripped with both hands, hoping that was not being impolite. As Riona fell into a graceful canter, Jack's preoccupation with falling off subsided, and he watched the landscape changing as their path went in and out of patches of woods and across hills of wildflower prairies. For a while they traveled in silence, but then Riona came up alongside Verdu. "Something is bothering you," she said quietly. "I can always tell."
"It's nothing," Verdu replied stiffly. "I was merely disappointed that so few voices joined in during The Call today."
"Oh? Everyone that I saw was participating. Those young followers of yours certainly were."
Verdu blew a low note, irritably. Laura could feel his horn vibrating in her hand and the heat of his breath through the valve as he said, "YES, those few did attempt to make The Call properly. They are clearly lacking in both instruction and discipline, but at least they were trying while others barely warmed their pipes."
"Different communities have their own ways," Riona said. "I'm sure the experience is quite meaningful to them."
Verdu rumbled another low note, and Laura had to let go of his horn because of the vibration. "The purpose of The Call is not to be ‘meaningful' to the caller. The Song of Cetaceous –"
"I know the scripture, dear, and you know very well that not everyone interprets it as predicting a literal Awakening. And some–"
"And some can't be troubled to preserve the voices of the dead!"
"Oh that's what this is really about — my Aunt Vera. Every time we see her you do this. You've never liked her."
"It doesn't matter whether I like her, Riona. Every ruah is a unique vessel of Spirit and I try to be open-minded, dear, I truly do. But I cannot ignore the deliberate destruction of ancestor horns and treat it as another lifestyle choice."
"It was their ancestor, Verd, not yours."
"This is not about family heirlooms, Riona. It is the irretrievable loss of a voice — possibly the ONE voice She still waits for. "
"My Uncle Mallah played The Call a thousand times when he was alive. The Mother heard him plenty."
"But perhaps not at the right time, and when a widow plays The Call through her deceased husband's properly preserved horns it may be a new voice to The Mother. We have had this conversation before."
"And it never changes."
"Riona, when I led The Call today . . . after all that had just happened, I felt so certain that this time . . . that this time–"
"Oh Verdu, you thought it would be today, didn't you?"
Verdu turned to the side, hiding his eyes for a moment, and then he said so quietly Laura almost did not hear, "I always think it will be today."
Laura and Jack knew they had been forgotten, so both sat perfectly still not wanting to call attention to themselves. But now Riona suddenly leaned her head all the way back so it was upside down, facing Jack. "Slip off now child," she said, lowering her rear legs until Jack lost his still tenuous balance and slid backwards to the ground.
Laura tried to get off also, but Verdu made no move to lower himself so she had to drop the full distance, tumbling in a heap on the grass.
"Wait here, children," Riona ordered, so Jack and Laura sat on a log as Riona went to her husband and led him several paces down the path.
They could not hear what was being said, but Laura could tell it was the sound of a make-up. As they watched through the trees, Riona stood up on her rear legs and draped her front legs over Verdu's horns so that their eyes were inches apart. Puckering both nostrils, she proceeded to make smacking kisses around his eyes where his facial hair was thinnest.
"Eeeuwww!" Jack exclaimed, quickly looking away.
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