Is there anything sicker than an entire community of mimes?
They told me that my mother cut off the waist-length braid she wore, and swinging it like a mace (she had a bleached ham-bone braided into the end), dispatched nine of her attackers, one for each icy Ring of Hell, before she fell before the minions of Lord Granite, who had the gall and greed to try to annex the northern regions of the Land of Ur. I was hoping that I would see her before we left the mountain, she being just as elusive and standoffish in death as she was in life.
The ashes of the dead of the Clans are scattered all over the western face and top of the Mountain of Remembering. We were climbing out of Ur, under the magical cover provided for us by our ghostly kin while we got as far as we could from the Ur-lands. The evil magician Fellmount the Rat Bastard of Verdansward was after us, probably to do one of his spectacular fireworks stunts and blow us off the face of the World to the tune of 50 megatons.
Zyller appeared to us near the top of the mountain, with her legendary braid in place, but dark instead of shot with gray as her hair was when they brought her body back to the clan. "Daughter," she said to me.
"Ma," I said, "Zyll Ur-Jennan."
Her ghostly head swiveled around to look at Danner, who had put her staff in the ground and waved. "I do not wish to speak with you. Take off."
"That was not only rude, but downright mean," I told my mother's revenant, after Danner had bowed and distanced herself.
"So kill me," she said with a sneer. "I talk to whom I please. I understand from the rest of the Dead here that you've managed to piss off Fellmount of Verdansward, and that he's seeking you to kill you."
"Well, I can't take full credit, but yes, he's plenty pissed. We found out about him covering up a murder, and then we turned one of his money-grubbing spells into an explosion that leveled his residence, crippled him magically, and saved half a township from his negligent magic."
"Don't make it sound so noble, Aser, you did it for spite. I know you, and I know how you operate."
"Fine. He's the jerk who put a curse on the Jennan well a while back, and anything I can do to inconvenience him while I'm alive sounds like a good idea."
"Even for the dead of Ur, thwarting Fellmount sounds like a good idea. Do you have any kind of a plan?"
"We're going to cut across the Northern Road and head for the lands of the tyrant Kaladang the Axe. I'm going to offer him our services, and hope that when Fellmount blasts us, he'll take out Kaladang as well."
"Kaladang will kill you out of hand. Of all people, he desires least to have a shaman to tell him how the dead cry out for his company."
"Well then, Ma, I guess we'll be seeing a lot more of each other soon," I said to her pessimism. "In the mean time, can you tell me anything about this enchanted village we're supposed to encounter to the north? One of the other ghosts told us that their enchantment would make us difficult to find there."
Zyller laughed a howling spirit-laugh. "Oh, you'll be impossible to find there! Do not eat anything or drink anything they offer you or you will share their curse."
"Okay, got that, and what is their curse, can you tell me that?"
"They cannot speak," she said, and turned back the way we'd come. "Until the other side, Aser."
I sighed as she disappeared from view. At least she called me by my chosen name.
Dan Ur-Jennan, who was not only a relative but a good friend as well, appeared nearly as quickly as a ghost. "Aser, let me tell you, yo' mama is meaner than ... "
"Knock it off, Danner," I told her, massaging my temples. "It's only funny when your mother isn't."
"You'll think it's funny later, so I can wait. Listen, I understand from one of the great-aunties that this enchanted village is only about a mile from here. We can be there by a little after noon, and hit a tavern tonight."
"No. We can't eat or drink anything from the village or we'll fall under their curse, too. They can't say anything." What a horrible curse. "Where the hell are Cloudraft and his baboons?"
"Oh, they went on ahead. Cloudy hates talking to spirits," Danner said.
"Noooo!" I cried, bounding down to the trail. "What are you thinking, letting him go off by himself?"
Danner leaped along behind me. "I figured the baboons would keep him from getting lost, and that he was too slow to get that far ahead."
"Do the baboons know that if they eat in the village that they'll be cursed, too?"
Danner ran faster and passed me on the path. We caught up with Cloudraft and his baboon librarians just as they were about to accept a tray of cinnamon buns and coffee from a man dressed in a striped shirt and suspenders holding up baggy pants above ballet slippers.
Swinging her staff like a claymore, Danner brought her stroke up under the tray with a wham! and sent the pastries and cups flying up into the air before the wizard could touch the tray. She positioned herself between Cloudraft and the mime, staff raised to strike again. The baboons shrieked and ran off into brush.
"We will not eat nor drink in your enchanted land," Danner blazed at the mime, staff upraised like Babe Ruth at bat.
"Now, Danner, how rude!" said her occasional master and lover, "this was just a simple kindly offering to wayfarers."
"Cloudy," she replied familiarly, "this dude was about to kindly initiate you into his Village of the Cursed. Look at him! And then tell me I was rude in keeping you from having breakfast when it would have turned you into one, too!"
The mime pointed to a painted tear on his cheek, bowed deeply, and turned away to walk down the path from the mountain to where little house-roofs poked from among the trees. He stopped, and grandly gestured for us to follow him.
"I hate mimes," Danner said, eyes wide and full of despair.
"Most everybody does," I replied. "That's how they were cursed, and why the ghosts of our ancestors won't even visit with them. Poor souls!"
Cloudraft the Great was scratching at his beard, which needed a trim after our days on the road. "And that's what makes their village a perfect cover for us. There is no way that Fellmount will spend a lot of time examining a cursed village of mimes."
"A whole village of mimes?" said Danner. "That means that there are mime vendors, and mime insurance agents, and mime dry cleaners!" She whistled for the baboons and put her arms around them. "Narsai, Guillaume, listen to me, this is very important. You may not eat anything while we are in this village, no matter how hungry you are, or you will lose the ability to speak aloud."
"In fact," Cloudraft added paternalistically, "you would not even be able to speak Baboon."
"Not a bark or a growl or yodel," I chipped in.
Narsai, sitting on his haunches, raised both front paws palm out in front of him. "Erudite Companions, I shall not eat so much as an ant."
Guillaume massaged his midsection. "Me, too, though indeed I am hungry."
Danner unslung her pack and took out an apple and some of our dried fish. "I know we need the food, too, but Guillaume is still growing pretty fast, and I'd rather go hungry for a day or two than lose him to a mime cult due to teenaged hunger." Once the baboon was chowing into the apple, she hunted around in the brush for the tray and its cups and pastries. She dusted the bracken off them and put them in order, and carried them along as we approached the first buildings of the village.
Six mimes were walking forward to greet us. They bowed deeply, not in unison but one at a time. Cloudraft had just begun a bow in return when Narsai sputtered a baboon warning. "Whuff!" His ruff was bristling, and Guillaume had fallen back to linger behind Danner. Narsai, on all fours and puffed up to seem even more formidable than he was, had sprung forward to Cloudraft's side, showing as many teeth as he could and bouncing on his feet.
The wizard was shocked speechless by the usually formally polite baboon's behavior. Danner stepped forward and spoke with authority. "Silent Ones! We seek haven for the night. We wish no food (and here is your kind offering back) or drink, only to sleep in your town unmolested."
One of the mimes stepped forward, ballet-shoed feet stepping carefully, with toes pointed outward as she strode, and accepted the tray with its disheveled contents. The rest bowed again and gestured for us to enter the village.
Usually when we traveled as a company we were strung out fairly widely, with Cloudraft and Danner bringing up the rear, holding hands or stopping to smooch, (that is, when they weren't in some squabble and not speaking to each other) and the baboons ranging back and forth, but this time we were bumping into each other with every stride. "Narsai," I hissed, and when the large baboon turned toward me I asked, "what disturbs you, most observant of baboons?"
"They are false," snarled the dog-headed baboon. "They veil their eyes not only with lowered eyelids but also with white makeup. Their body postures are a caricature of honorable persons, and not to be trusted."
The mimes led us to a kind of giant lean-to. The roof was fairly high; it was big enough to be a shelter for a large group. We clustered together, wondering what to do next; none of us was comfortable with the people who appeared by ones and twos to look at us. Every single one of them had chalk white faces and ballet shoes, horizontally striped black and white shirts, suspenders and roomy pants, and either smiles drawn in lipstick on their faces, or frowns. And every one had a little drawing of a tear on his or her face. Most of them wore white gloves.
They just stood around us and stared at us, not setting foot on the raised wooden floor of the lean-to, but packed around the edges.
Cloudraft turned from the left side of the structure to the right, bowing. "We owe you a debt of gratitude for allowing us to rest in your village this night. How can we repay you?"
A white-faced mime in a striped shirt came weaving through the throng of white faces in striped shirts with a tray that held a pork roast steaming in the center, and roasted potatoes all around the edges. It smelled like heaven. As the bearer of the feast drew closer, the throng gesticulated as one: hands outstretched to the food, then outstretched at us, then hands moving to the mouth as though eating.
Cloudraft, still dripping courtesy, said, "Gentle hosts, if we share your food, then we also share your fate."
Suddenly two of the mimes leapt onto the raised wood floor of the giant lean-to. Their hands were fisted, one over another in front of their chests, as though gripping a double-handed sword in a salute to each other, in readiness for battle. And then they lunged forward, hewing at each other with their invisible swords. Strike! Parry! Strike! Counterstrike!
Two more jumped up onto the planks. They had their arms crossed, fingers stiff and pointing to the sky. With a sweeping gesture, they uncrossed their arms, drawing them down and to their sides, fingers pointing at the floor.
The mock combatants then raised their arms to cross them, pointing at the sky, and then lowered them like making a large 'X' of their arm movements.
"What's this, the mime version of the can-can?" asked Danner.
"I believe they are telling us not to fight," said Cloudraft.
The mimes shook their heads and wagged index fingers.
Two more sprang onto the lean-to floor, and then the six made their hands grip imaginary swords and in twos, struck at each other in the strike and parry choreography. Another two stepped onto the platform with crossed arms upraised, and uncrossed them, arms finishing swept to the sides, fingertips pointing at the floor. All the rest followed suit.
"They're saying that there is no fighting here," I offered.
The mimes nodded and clapped their hands, but made no noise doing so -- they stopped short of actually touching hands, and so their applause was silent.
Another pair of mimes hopped to the floor of the shelter. One had on a bonnet, the other wore a false beard that hooked behind the ears like eyeglasses.
One advanced on the other with admonishing index finger while the other retreated. Then they reversed, tracking back across the wooden floor, the other shaking an index finger.
And all the others raised crossed arms and uncrossed them as they lowered them.
"They have no marital discord," guessed Cloudraft.
Once again all the mimes nodded and silently pretend-clapped their hands.
Eight more mimes crawled on all fours onto the lean-to's floor, which I realized was just a stage, while two more gesticulated, pretending to wield invisible whips.
Then they all paused, putting their heels together, toes pointing outward, and made the negation gesture.
"They have no servitude," I said, and the twenty mimes on the wooden floor nodded, clapped, and bowed. The platter-bearer reappeared, and the throng of white-faced, suspender-wearing people mimed eating. "They want us to join them."
Danner had backed away from the performing mimes, and reaching the edge of the wooden floor, had pushed her staff into the soil. "Aser!" she hissed, "put your staff in the ground!"
I backed away to the rear of the lean to where Danner stood, and touched the end of my staff to the earth, and pushed. "Dang-blasted rotten hearted hell-bound #*!#**! mimes!" shouted a ghost. "Don't listen to them! They're performers, and that means 'Liars!' They killed me by smotheration when I wouldn't eat their food!"
"They killed me, too," said another ghost whose shade had risen from the ground. "Only I was dragged by the crowd and drownded!"
"Me, me, me!" clamored the ghost of a small child. "See me! I was afraid of them and ran, and they dashed me against a stone!"
"I see you, child," I said, and turned to Danner. "You tell Cloudy," I whispered, "and I'll tell the baboons."
Danner picked up her staff and walked firmly to the wizard. "You have no war nor strife -- but have you got this?" she asked the crowd of mimes, and grabbed Cloudraft by his beard and his hair and pulled him into a passionate and prolonged kiss. (He didn't resist.)
While all eyes were riveted on the sex scene, I clasped Narsai and Guillaume by the shoulders and whispered what Danner and I had seen. Narsai tensed, and I could feel the hair on his back trying to rise under my arm. Guillaume was afraid, and trembled. "Don't worry, Guillaume. Mostly you just have to be a better actor than they are. And if they don't get your meaning, thump 'em. You're a baboon, remember? Baboons on the warpath are far and away scarier than mimes."
He chittered, teeth chattering. His older brother pinched him from around my back. "Brother, you wear me out before the sun has thought about crawling into the ground. You shall absolutely mow down the enemy before us." Guillaume rubbed his face quickly and went to all fours, shaking his pelt to make it fluff and bristle.
The mime crowd watching Danner smooch Cloudraft the Wizard raised their arms in the crosses of negation, and brought them low again. In the meantime, Danner had whispered words in Cloudraft's ear, and we were a company ready for action again.
"We shall not trouble you, but you must leave us," Cloudraft said. "We wish you no sorrow or distress."
The mime with the cooling platter of food raised it towards us again, and the crowd pantomimed eating again. "We will not eat in your village," Cloudraft said firmly. The mimes raised their arms again, crossed, and brought them down, uncrossed. Some began to circle around behind us. Three of them began to juggle apples, tossing the fruit in a circular pattern, and then switching it to a side to side pattern, and back to the circles. Two of the jugglers moved around us, so that we had to turn to watch them, and as they moved, more mimes followed them -- we were being surrounded!
"They're trying to distract us!" shouted Danner. "Circle around before the bastards can jump us!"
I fished in my belt pouch for Cloudraft's wizard's hat and his wand. Time for the big guns. I elbowed him and handed him the stuff. He took it, but worried, "This could enable Fellmount to find us."
I had my back to him, watching the damned mimes. "Look, Cloudraft, when I'm dead, I want my ashes on the Mountain of Remembrance, not in some frickin' mime's back yard!"
The wizard shook out his hat a little and placed it on his head. Immediately he stood taller and assumed an imposing air. He raised the wand. "Do you wish for me to release you from this curse, O People of Silence?"
They all advanced one step, holding their hands before them in denial, shaking their heads. Danner and Narsai took a few steps forward, Danner brandishing her staff and Narsai wrinkling his muzzle to show his nasty teeth, looking as big as a lion.
"We've got to get out of this village," I said behind Cloudraft's back. "These guys are nuts."
Guillaume, his adolescent ruff making him a little bigger, rushed forward a few steps, showing his teeth. He shrieked and bounced, working himself up to a fine tantrum. Some of the mimes took a step back.
Cloudraft raised his left hand, and you could almost feel the magical powers playing around it. His wand was poised in the air in the other hand. "Let us pass!" he commanded. "Let us pass or be changed, and then judged by the proper lord of this desmesne for the deaths you have caused!"
In eerie silence, the mimes moved to either side, their eyeballs alone betraying the hatred they held inside their curse. We moved like a military vanguard, Danner and Narsai in front, Guillaume and I in back, Cloudraft the main artillery in our center. The mimes followed us, forming a moving colonnade, gesturing "Come back! Come back! Eat! Eat!"
People can get to be fanatics about what they believe, forgetting that there is one Life which guides the World, and that Life includes all lives. You can't go deciding who is to live or die just based on the kind of lifestyle you've chosen to live.
We never did learn how the village came to be cursed originally, but the ones we met were certainly among the most curse-worthy folk I've ever met. For the sake of a lack of strife among them, they gave up all speech, and thus all argument, all fighting. But all loving words, too. They found their comfort in all looking alike, and acting alike, and having no complex thoughts traded -- just their formal 'yes', 'no', 'eat', 'follow' -- what on earth did they have to say to each other? And maybe that was the secret to their peace, that they didn't say things to one another! It was as though, having crippled people into their condition, they found them then acceptable, and didn't want any reminders or distractions from the outside world that there was something different.
When those damned mimes followed us to the boundaries of their village, we looked back, and there were about seventy-five or a hundred of them, stretched out across the landscape, all placing white gloved hands on an invisible barrier, exploring it like crazed ants, reaching high, groping low, over and over again.
Cloudraft pulled his hat off and handed it and his wand back to me. We traveled on, with the baboons capering far ahead of us and high-fiving each other. My relatives' ghosts were right when they said there were worse things than death. Meeting Fellmount the Fatal sounded a whole lot better than becoming mimes in perpetuity.
We were silent ourselves, for a while, pondering the strange evils of the world. Then Danner tapped me on the arm and said, "I've come to a powerful realization."
"What's that?" I asked.
She smiled. "Aser, yo' mama is so mean that she has to spread poison outside to get cockroaches to come into yo' kitchen."