Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Book

From the cave in the mountainside  the procession follows a rough, winding path down to the plain below. Three tall figures  - two men and a woman, the woman taller than the men - lead the way. All three wear garments of a grey,shining material. Behind them six men similarly clad carry,  on a sort of stretcher, a large solitary  book with a worn leather cover. Beside the book, a structure,  about 5ft high, rises from the stretcher  towards the sky. Its uneven, knobbly surface, gives the impression of a giant anthill. It is secured to the stretcher by cords made from the guts of animals, tough but elastic enough to allow it to sway as the stretcher advances.

On the plain in a natural amphitheatre in the rocky ground  a crowd of people has gathered. In the early morning sun their faces have a golden tint but are otherwise white and expressionless. The men, women and children all  wear animal  skins. Many sit on  the ground. Their eyes are fixed on the procession which moves slowly in their direction.

When it reaches them, the people part to allow it through to an elevated area in the centre of the circle. Here a flat stone serves as a stage. A boulder provides a stand for the book. The woman sets it  down  and bowing her head backs away respectfully.  The tower meanwhile  is unloaded beside it. The six stretcher-bearers bow towards it and towards the book.  Once in place as you look towards the horizon, there is no mistaking the tower's resemblance to a mountain and  specifically to the central peak of the range which extends along the skyline.

The procession consists  of people known as "guardians of the book" The word for book is sad, plural sadth. It is a word rarely employed, for books are objects of mystery and written words are neither considered nor conceived of.  This, the only known example of a book, was found buried in the cave in the mountainside, but the guardians have long speculated about the existence of others.

With the book in place and the replica mountain on the floor beside it, the tall woman, chief of the guardians, steps forward and begins a prolonged wailing chant.  Its  harmonies  owe much of their rhythm and tonal variety to  the  sound wolves make at night up in the mountains.  Regularly in the long hours of darkness  her listeners are thrilled and terrified by the howling of wolves. As they are now in the light of day, by the  sound similar, but more formal and  more cerebral, which emerges from the guardian's throat tilted  back, like a wolf's. As she breathes in and out her breasts rise  and fall to the cadence of her chant. It lasts about five minutes and ends suddenly leaving a silence hollow as a cave.  Pairs of eyes in the white upturned faces topped by tangled manes follow her as, bending over the boulder, she lifts the book above her head, and turns it to left and right to make sure that everyone had been able to see it.

The book back on the boulder, with reverential slowness and solemnity, she opens it. To her watchers, who  have never seen it close to,  it is as though she has effortlessly doubled its size.   She leans over it as a mother over a child.  She spreads her hands above it in a gesture, half of blessing, half of caress, before with deep deliberation she tears one of the pages from the spread. It is not the first page to go, as the tattered margin bears witness. She  raises the page above her head and shows it  to the crowd. Lowering the page she tears it into three pieces. One piece she hands to each of her fellow guardians. The third she stuffs into her mouth and began to chew it. The other guardians follow suite. The six stretcher bearers sit on the ground cross legged.

As the guardians masticate the strips of page, the crowd begins to intone, "chew, chew, chew... chew the Sad."

When the paper in their mouths has been reduced to something soft and pliable, the guardians spit out the  papier mâché and one by one stick it still wet and pliant on to the model of the mountain, adding  proportionately but minutely to its stature.

 "Sad. Sad. Sad..." chants the crowd.

The sun is high in the sky. It is the longest day of the year. The mid-summer ritual has been handed down from  ancestors and practised as long as anyone can remember.