The King speaks and gestures, and the men turn around and begin to unroll the long, thick scroll for the benefit of Amy Lindsay and Genius.
The Librarian speaks in the low monotone of a seasoned storyteller.
Genius translates: “This is the story of Ah Mah Lin Say, the Sun Goddess.”
The men with the scroll stop to reveal only the first foot or so.
Amy sees the revealed image, a faded but clearly distinguishable painted face.
Genius looks back at Amy, and in an awed, hushed tone, says, “My God, Goddess. You ARE a Goddess.”
The two guards continue to unroll the long scroll and hesitate at each panel, as the Librarian recites the story in hushed tones.
“No need,” Amy says, as Genius resumes translating. She deciphers the tale from the scroll as it unravels. A humongous serpent is devouring the countryside: the jungle, villages and villagers. Then, the Sun sends down a goddess of golden hair. The village presents her with an invisible sword. She slices the winged serpent in half, and the villagers feast on the remains. The Sun calls back the Golden Goddess, amidst the weeping and consternation of the people. “That about cover it?” she asks Genius.
“One correction, Goddess. Not an invisible sword, but one made of glass.”
“Either way, they’re expecting me to go slay their dragon, right?”
“I guess so.”
The dour-faced Chief of Staff circles around to stand between them and the scroll. He speaks with a defiant tone, pointing from them to the scroll and back at Genius.
Amy murmurs, “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Me, neither. He’s pointing out that, while you might bear some resemblance …”
“… to the Golden Goddess, there is nothing in the sacred scroll about the Golden Goddess being accompanied by an ill-mannered troll.”
“You’re not ill-mannered.”
The Chief of Staff returns to the King’s side. He gives Genius a smugly defiant sneer. The King crooks a finger to summon the Librarian. They speak in tones too low to hear. At one point, the King waves inquiringly at the other scrolls. The Librarian shrugs. The King signals for the Librarian to step away, then, asks them a question.
Genius translates, “He wants to know what purpose I serve.”
“Besides comic relief?”
“Sometimes.” Amy thinks for a moment. “Tell them you are my chosen champion.”
“Good one.” Genius turns and translates.
The King remains uncertain, the Chief of Staff scornful, and the other native watchful. The Chief of Staff asks a question that drips with contempt.
“He wants to know what tests of bravery I passed,” Genius tells Amy. “And, if he refers to me as the male offspring of a female dog, again, I’m going to kick his–- .”
“Tell them you have proven your bravery to me, time and again, and I’ll thank them not to question my judgement.”
“Right,” Genius agrees with a smile, then, turns and delivers her message in a stern, almost threatening tone.
The Chief of Staff, still smug, speaks to the King, but keeps his eyes on Genius, challenging him.
Genius turns to Amy and speaks in a low tone. “If I’m so brave, why did we hide and not attack the dragon at the village?”
“Why didn’t we?”
“I’m open to suggestions.”
“You’re supposed to be the creative one. Come up –- .” Glancing at the scroll triggers inspiration. “Because I didn’t have the sword.”
“Brilliant, Goddess.” Genius turns and asks for the sword in English, then, translates the request into their language.
The King, Chief of Staff, kidnap Leader, and even the Librarian, all look down or away, adopting identical expressions of men faced with a subject they would prefer to ignore.
“That is, for lack of a better word, a strange reaction.”
Genius snaps his fingers in realization: “They’ve lost the sword!” Genius asks a question in their language.
The King reluctantly nods.
The leader from their bridge capture leans towards the King and asks a question.
Genius rolls his eyes. “Oh, Dude, don’t help me.”
“What did he say?”
“He’s wondering if, perhaps, the reason I’m here is to retrieve the sword. That’s why the Golden Goddess brought a champion with her.”
The notion sours the Chief of Staff. Something crosses his mind and he speaks to the King. They converse for several seconds.
“From the frying pan into the fire,” Genius remarks.
“Our sour friend there is wondering if I’m not really in the employ of the dragon. Perhaps, I have some kind of spell over you, and what I’ll do if they send me for the sword is actually lead the dragon back here to kill them all.”
Amy notes, “And, the King looks like he’s buying the possibility.”
The King summons the Librarian back, and the four conduct a brief discussion too low for Genius to hear and translate for Amy.
After a minute, the King gestures that the talking is over, and everyone returns to their spots. The King clears his throat and makes an authoritative pronouncement.
Genius whispers an obscenity Amy would have sworn he would never utter in her presence.
“What is it?”
“Well, I’m hoping it’s a metaphor, but loosely translated, I must ‘Walk the Valley of the Snakes’ to prove I’m not one of the dragon’s minions. Immediately.”
The King signals for two of the guards to remove Genius. When Amy objects to their being separated, the King relents. The guards lead them to a nearby hut much smaller then the rest. One guard disappears for a moment, then, returns with a loin cloth and pantomimes for Genius to undress and put it on. They bow deferentially to Amy and back out of the hut, and block the doorway.
Genius sniffs the loincloth. “At least, it’s clean.”
“Does ‘Walking the Valley of the Snakes’ mean what I think it means?”
“Probably, Goddess. These strike me as a very literal bunch of people. They’ve probably got an area where they keep them until they’re needed for food or ceremony.” Genius grabs the bottom of his shirt to pull it up.
Amy lays a gentle hand on his arm. “You can’t do this. And, we both know why. In the three times I’ve seen you encounter a snake, you fainted twice and broke your ankle.”
“Sprained it, Goddess. Sprained it.”
“And, you think you’re going to walk through a bunch of them? How?”
“Because, I must.” Genius squeezes the hand she has resting on his arm. “Because, you need me.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.” Genius smiles a grim smile, but a confident one. “Extraordinary women make ordinary men do extraordinary things.”
Amy tries to smile. “You’re hardly what I’d call ordinary.”
“I appreciate that. But, I am ordinary, and it’s slowly killing me.” Genius turns away with a sigh. After a moment, he turns back. “The modern world has stolen from me, from men like me, the one great Ideal every man craves.”
“Ideal? What Ideal?”
“I don’t know if a woman can understand how excruciatingly unfulfilling it is for a man who’s a romantic idealist to live in the time of the glorification of the sensitive male, of the era of the metrosexual and ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.’
“There is a place, at the heart of the soul of some men, that yearns to cherish, that hungers to protect, that longs to love pure and chaste from afar. And, when he can’t do that, when it is taken from him, when there is nothing that prompts him to nurture that special place, he stops having a purpose, he stops being a man, he stops being human. That such a place ceases to exist in just one man is an unspeakable human tragedy. That it seems to exist in so few of us makes life an absurd farce.
“In ‘Casablanca,’ Rick tells Ilsa that he’s no good at being noble. It’s the ‘macho’ thing to do for a man to let you think he’s only looking out for himself. That makes him look all the more better when he does do the noble thing, the thing his soul cries out for him to do. But, we’re not allowed to do the ‘noble’ thing any more. We’re not allowed to slay the dragon. We’re supposed to negotiate with evil, understand evil. We’re supposed to look inward at ourselves, dwell on our faults, real or perceived, when we should be spitting in the devil’s eye.
“A man can’t live without feeling the confidence of the romantic idealist. Of the chosen dragon slayer. It’s that spark deep within a man’s soul that tells him of all the dragon slayers in the village, HE is the one who can save the damsel in distress because of the goodness of his heart, of his soul. HE is the most worthy.”
“My strength is the strength of ten because my heart is pure,” Amy recites.
“Exactly. But, I’m not going to feed you a line of bull about having never imagined you in anything, but a chaste, virginal white dress, pure and untouchable in some high ivory tower. Still, and though I’m usually loath to presume to speak for others, I feel quite confident in saying this: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of us for whom, to a man, the greatest imaginable rapture can come, when the organ a woman strokes his heart.”
Tears sting Amy’s eyes. “You’re trying to prepare me for the possibility that you won’t make it out of there alive.”
“I’m trying to tell you I’m scared to death. But, I’m not afraid. You allowed yourself to be our Noble Cause. One day, I hope you’ll understand just how precious that is to us. Death doesn’t mean Life ends. Death is when Life becomes meaningless. Death is when the dreaming stops.
“You let us dream, again. You let ME dream, again. You let MY Soul soar, again. I may not slay the dragon. But, you helped me think I could. Nothing I can do for you, even remotely, compares to that. And, that includes laying down my li-–”
Amy quickly covers his mouth. “Don’t say it. Don’t even think it.”
Genius squeezes her hand and slowly pulls it from his face. He turns her around. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve must change.”
“Don’t want to expose me to any more of your shortcomings?”
“Ha, ha. I’m supposed to be the comic relief.”
The “valley” of the snakes turned out to be a long narrow pit, ten feet wide and twice as long. Amy and Genius begin a short journey with a two-man escort, and soon dozens of pensive women and excited children of all ages fall in behind them.
A wooden frame of vines and leaves covers the pit. A pair of natives with chest tattoos of wrestling snakes lifts the frame and sets it aside. As Genius steps forward for a closer look, one of the men signals him to stop. He makes a quick apologetic comment.
Genius steps back to Amy’s side. “He thought I was going in. He says I have to wait for the Chief.”
From out of the nearest hut, another pair of natives with the twisted snakes tattoo maneuver through the crowd with a crude, twenty-foot split-rail ladder balanced on their shoulders. They edge towards the pit, and with the help of the other two men, lower the ladder.
“Probably, best I not see too much,” Genius decides. “Like not looking down when crossing a high bridge.”
“You are going to come up with some brilliant plan that’ll get you out of having to do this, right?”
“I’m open to suggestions.”
A murmur behind them catches their attention. The ever-growing crowd parts, giving way to the Chief and his entourage. They assume positions on the far side of the pit. The Chief raises his hands for quiet and begins to speak.
Genius quietly translates. “Paraphrasing, he’s reminding everyone what a great and benevolent Chief he has been, yada yada.” With an occasional snide, editorial comment thrown in, Genius passes along the gist of the Chief’s speech.
The Ah Mah Lin Say has come to rid them of the dragon and has brought along a champion to retrieve the glass sword that was stolen from the village. But, because those of ‘pale skin’ have betrayed them so often, Ah Mah Lin Say’s champion must prove himself a true and honorable champion by walking through the Valley of the Snakes.
From across the pit, the Chief signals for Genius to go to the side with the ladder.
Genius spreads his hands. “Well, Goddess? Anything?”
“Nothing, I’m afraid.”
“Then into the Valley of the Shadow of Death I go.”
TO BE CONTINUED