This post is a bit of story from my current novel project involving two of my main characters, Lyon, a young man from the queendom of Aquilon, and Alari, a young woman of the desert tribes.
Even though Lyon had spent the last few days with the mysterious nomadic people, their ways continued to fascinate him. Each thing, no matter how inconsequential it seemed, held value and purpose. Small customs and their ways of doing things sparked his curiosity. I could live the rest of my life here and still not learn everything about them, he mused, watching the goings-on of the camp in the hazy light of late afternoon—cookfires being tended, men repairing wagon harnesses, and young children playing or chasing goats. He saw Alari leave her family’s tent, a large blue jug cradled in her arms as she headed towards the cistern. He jogged to catch up with her, taking the jug from her and carrying it as he fell into step at her side. He pointed to the thin braid behind her left ear he had watched her undo and rebind the night before and decided to ask her about it.
“Normally I wouldn’t think to ask…” he began, wondering now if his question was too private or intrusive. It was just a braid, but it was always so hard to tell what would be offensive and what was alright to talk about. He thought back to the haunting melody she sang while braiding it, the words he didn’t understand. Surely when women braid their hair they might be inclined to sing, right? Was he not supposed to have heard that or seen her do it? He cleared his throat, “I mean, you’ve rebraided your hair.”
The dancer’s brow arched as she looked at him. “How attentive you are,” she teased.
He mentally kicked himself but continued smoothly, “Of course,” then shifted the jug’s handle to his other hand so that he could step closer to her. “What I mean is… Well… You seemed to put a lot of care into it. I just wondered…” Like many times before, her presence tripped his tongue, jumbled his thoughts, and convinced him that he sounded like a fool.
She nodded and turned to look ahead, appearing lost in thought. A few moments passed and Lyon wondered if his initial thought had been correct. Maybe he had overstepped into unwelcome territory. He opened his mouth to apologize but closed it when she started to speak.
“This is amavinan,” Alari said as she gently lifted the slender braid. It was decorated with tiny golden baubles, tied off at the end by a small piece of leather cord, and was slightly shorter than the rest of her hair which tumbled easily to her waist in thick, black waves. The braid was the width of the dancer’s little finger and rested lightly on her bare shoulder as she turned back to face him.
“To explain what it is, I must explain the ways of my people. You see, we do not write. We are not a people of books and parchment and ink. Though outside of the tribe, among the Outdwellers, this is ridiculed and pitied, among the Kumpani it is simply the way it has always been. Our knowledge is passed through stories and song. These are living words. When a tale is written, it is…” She seemed to struggle a moment to find the right word before continuing, “Stone. It does not breathe. It is dead. Our words must always live. Our stories are the life of our ancestors because they are the tales our ancestors told. They are the tales our ancestors heard as the Kumpani gathered.
“To plait amavinan—I must tell first that our hair is sacred. Our hair holds our thoughts and memories. Each day, several strands are lost. This cannot be helped. Each strand that leaves us is a memory forgotten. We plait amavinan to honor and remember our beloved dead. Amavinan is behind the ear so that those memories can whisper to us. We plait amavinan to hold those memories and keep our beloved dead always in our thoughts. Our thoughts become our stories, and our stories live. Through amavinan, our beloved dead live.”
Her words struck him deeply and as they walked the rest of the way to the cistern in thoughtful silence, his unasked question still lingered in his mind: Who is her braid for?