This ongoing project should wrap up soon although i will probably do a wheel of greens some time down the track …
The Automatic Transponder
By the time I climb up onto the new mushroom-shaped platform, about twice the diameter of the previous one, Ant has organized a couple of people to stand by at the top. One of them smiles gently. One of them smiles fiercely. The gentle one is big, older than us. A twin, all the way to his smile, stands behind him. “Lithe and Limber we are, Shaman.”
The fierce one is as young as Ant and Mongoose and me. They help me to my feet, gentle and fierce, and I walk toward the center of the platform. About a dozen and a half—I count quickly—quite a lot more than the four more people that Ant said there would be are camped around a central depression.
The fierce one and the gentle one release my arms and I, feeling hemmed in by being suddenly among so many, make for that space.
Set foot on it. A knife hacks into my arm! “Aa-eeehhh!” My arm screams. Knife blade worries at my bone. Pain! Pain! I scream. Jerk back. Too late. I fall.
Men, women, boys, friends surround me. They reach for me. Hold me. Shout. I see their mouths move. There’s pandemonium in slow motion. I do not hear. Pain only is talking and I didn’t even sing for it.
But it all reminds me. I sob. Yes. There’s a patterning in the pain. I clench my jaw. Be quiet. Use your senses. The stabbing repeats stab, stab, stab.
I gasp. “Signal,” I press out between my teeth.
I see Lithe, his face near mine on the glassy ground. “There’s letters!” I gasp. Sob. Scream into him. “There’s a signal!”
Lithe shouts behind him. His twin pulls someone forward. “A signal. Ready to write?”
I blurt dashes and dots into the dark between Lithe and me, and the other inking her arm writing them there. Each of the elements—is what the Head Shaman called them—draws a blade down a screaming nerve or stabs me to my arm bone. Dash dash dash dash dash, dot dash dash dot, dot dot dot dot, dot dot.
It seems finished. I start to relax.I gasp. “More ….”
Knowing what’s coming I swallow my screams. Just gasp. Sob, maybe. Dash dash dash dash dash, dot dash dot dot, dot dash, dash dash.
Slightly different than the first sequence.
At the end I feel broken inside. Though there’s no blood. No torn skin. No wounds except for my pride again. I’d hoped to be a normal person. My hopes, gone again. A spectacle I will be.
“Ha!” Simmon says. “She’s a sensitive? It’s probably the transponder niggling her.”
“And you know that how?” Uncle says. He sounds dangerous.
I want to crawl away. Hide.
Ant steps in the way of all the interested onlookers. Mongoose lets me cry on him for a minute. They both help me to sit up, crossed legs. Ant stays on his feet. His leg is a tree I lean against. Mongoose sits half in front of me, my knee against his back. I cradle my poor left arm. It throbs, so sore still. Mongoose gives me the corner of a sarong-wrap to blow my nose.
Simmon chuckles. “This platform was made by glassing, meaning a starship fused the sand into a landing pad before touchdown. I believe the girl was hit by the automatic transponder cached in the pad’s center. Lotor, because she will always be hungry for alien machinery, wears away at the foundations. Hence the undercutting.”
“Why?” Uncle says.
Simmon doesn’t hear or he ignores Uncle. “I’m amazed that the transponder still works. It signals the geo co-ordinates out into near-space where any arriving spacecraft can read them, and organize their touch-down accordingly. My mates and I dropped dozens all over the planet just after we arrived. This one will be one of the fixed points along the Great Parallel.”
Uncle snarls. “Give us the scientific detail.”
That gets Simmon’s attention. He stares round the circle.
“Scientific detail,” he repeats as if he doesn’t believe the Earth-born know anything about science. He proceeds to tell us in simplified ship-speak. “Tells us where we are on the planet’s surface. Zero Phi stands for Zero Latitude, another word for the Equator.”
“An equator is an equalizer?” Limber says. Rumble from a couple of other people wanting to know, too.
Simmon smiles like he is vindicated. Like he knew we’d not cope with science.
I feel he belittles us with his attitude. “In Shaman School we had a ball on a stand to look at, with a map of the Continent and the Ocean painted on it.” I tremble with all their stares on me.
Mongoose squeezes my hand. I continue. “Over the top of land and sea were lines that help us navigate, which are imaginary out in the field. The way Simmon tells it, all along the widest part of Lotor runs an imaginary line called an equator. The signal names it Zero Phi. Simmon calls it an abbreviation.” I snort. “With fifteen elements? That’s double the ship’s call sign.”
“You learned your lessons well, Little Shaman,” Simmon says.
Now I’m furious. I rise to my feet.
Straightaway all around me there’s a physical shifting that I ignore. I trust Mongoose and I trust Ant. “Who isn’t little compared to you? A long end of rope to hang yourself with, my father would’ve called you.”
A couple of people snort, possibly recognizing the saying from their own fathers. I bite my lips to stop there. Before I tell my people what he is, he’s got to be made to tell us why he follows us.
“How can she be a shaman with all that screaming and crying?” someone says.
I don’t know his voice.
“She has a hurt we can’t see. Are we fools to continue with her when it is a matter of life and death? Will she even live long enough herself?”
Ant laughs. “Listen to the Jackdaw! If somebody gave me in my childhood that totem to learn from, do you think I wouldn’t have earned another by now? You think it isn’t a matter of life and death to her? Do you even know what she had to do to join us?”
I sit down and tune out.
Ant starts to tell how I escaped before he and Mongoose could rescue me.
I plan what I will say next.
When Ant is finished, I kneel up to get a little height. “Yes. I cried and I screamed. You all heard me,” I say. I stop. I’m telling them what they already know.
Mongoose squeezes my hand again. He gets me out of my nerves.
I plan what else to say. “First the Ark-Ship talks into me. Then, apparently, an Earthborn gadget talks into me. They both have signals with many elements that have got to fit into the little amulet in me.” I massage my arm where the amulet still throbs.
“It feels like I get burnt, stung, stabbed and cut all at the same time. My nerves scream at me. I scream at you. But look, no wounds.” I bare my arm and show them my harpy eagle tattoo. “No blood. I’ll probably get used to it. Maybe even to the point of not screaming, so I don’t frighten people.” I look at Jackdaw. “And maybe—I won’t know till I ask—the Ark-Ship can fix its signal so it doesn’t hurt me.”
The fierce one who greeted me springs forward and slides to me on his knees. “I’ll gladly help with the singing for that, Shaman Jeb. I’m Meerkat, forever honored that you sang my totem to discover the ship.”
Someone in the people-shadows sneered. “Pff. Meerkats. Always the song and dance.”
“Thanks, Meerkat,” I say. I take a deep breath. Might as well get it all out. “I am only half the Shaman you need. But I… I thought I’d come along because I worked out how to talk to the Ark-Ship and …”
Simmon cuts in at that point. “You heard her, she’s only half the Shaman you need. But Lotor … Lotor needs all of her. I followed you to offer you a whole job, Jeb.”
His interruption is so preposterous that I am not the only one with my mouth hanging open. The only sound is the soughing of sand in the wind scouring at the base of the platform. Both Mongoose and Ant also rise, and move nearer. They squeeze me between them.
Small protective moves, but I see people taking notice. There’s a murmuring to and fro. I know so few of these people, I can’t see who thinks what. Are there really people here who think I should take Simmon’s offer?
“Thyal?” Uncle says. “You have some words on this?”
I don’t believe it. Uncle is one of them? But he came to fetch me!
An old man with just one whole arm rises from the group seated to Uncle’s left and seats himself between Uncle and me.
“I am Thyal, Shaman Jeb,” he says, nodding at me. “Forever studying the Thylacine totem. I assign totems in this troop, and teach their recipients the way to carry themselves as Totems.”
He lifts the stump of his arm. “Ihave no amulet. I’m a one-armed Shaman useless for what you’ll be good at. Together we are well-suited to the task.”
Oh. I break out in smiles from the relief. “I’d like that.” Thyal has put my worries to rest on a couple of counts.
“Jeb, these people live in the past.” Simmon says. “How many have they lost due to that fatal flaw? You don’t want to be among them when Lotor starts to take an interest in nomads now that she has finished with the towns. If we leave now, I can have you in the laboratories by daylight. New set of friends. People who’ll appreciate you for being of your mother’s line.”
I want to be scathing. Why would I listen to him? But … how does he know about my mother? What does he know about her? What does he mean, the laboratories? I clench my hands together in my lap. I don’t want eye contact with Simmon and I stare beyond him to the back of the crowd.
Out there where a raised hand waves to and fro. A woman there is trying to get my attention? She’s got it.
She pulls her black hair, plaited in one long braid, forward over her shoulder. A red ribbon is threaded through. She points my gaze to another woman, nearer to Uncle and Thyal, dressed all in black. Then she points out two men standing quite near to Mongoose. All have their hands resting on killing knives worn cross-wise in their sauger-hide belts.
I understand that she heads the guard squad and is showing me them at the ready. I smile a little.
The woman winks.
“Earthborn laboratories tend to be underground,” Thyal says, confirming my suspicions about Simmon’s offer. “The wisdom for that, it is said, are Lotor’s frequent re-arrangements of her landscapes.”
“You’ve got that right, old man,” Simmon says. “The very reason you’ve just lost seventeen shamans. The remaining Shaman School has fallen, I’m told. Have you noticed how often Lotor re-arranges its surface when the shamans are near to solving the problem of reaching the Ark-Ship?” He laughs. “What do you say to the fact that you’re the only one of your kind remaining, Jeb?”
He gets up. He stands swaying from side to side. He could be drunk or he could be trying to hypnotize me. Won’t do him any good. I’m not susceptible.
“A pretty packet of news that lit a fire cracker under me,” he says in a dreamy tone. “Wherefrom will you learn the rest of your tricks now? It’s clearly useless even thinking about it. Better to say goodbye. We won’t have far to go because Lotor will open a door anywhere.” All short statements delivered in that same dreamy tone, timed to coincide with the swaying.
“Don’t even joke about it,” Uncle says.
“I was joking?” Simmon says. He looks at me and takes in my awareness of his strategy. “Oops,” he says. “Of course I was joking. Though I do believe that about the Shaman Schools. And I believe this puma already knew it too. That must be why you and your buddies came to fetch her? You went away without her, what was that about?”
He describes Uncle with the puma-totem. Did he hear us talking? I don’t at that moment recall when Mongoose and Ant and I discussed the chieftainship. Whether Simmon had already caught up with us and we didn’t hear him.
Simmon scratches his forearm. Quite a large flake of skin springs loose and falls to the platform, from where the breeze picks it up. Uncle sees it too. He sees that I watch him track the flake over the side and away.
He remembers what I remember. But he shakes his head. It’s too soon, he mouths.
I hope he means it is too soon to tell anyone about Simmon’s affliction because Simmon hasn’t yet said why Lotor wants me.
Mongoose strokes my arm to stroke my worries gone. “The bastard will get what’s coming to him.”
I’m afraid. Simmon suffers from the Earthborn disease. Whoever touches him will die, the settler-born the quicker. My father died not long after he lay down with my sick mother. How many will Simmon try to take with him?
I can’t make a mistake on this. Simmon’s forearm skin is a mosaic of skin flaps, which when shed, become the infectious flakes fluttering from the doomed person every move they make, if they are not fully contained by their clothes.
The settler-kind die within days, and though Simmon’s DNA pattern is straight from Earth and the Earthborn believed themselves to be immune to the skin-sloughing disease, they just take longer to die.
Simmon seems to be following us. Why? And he carries a rolled up, darker-than-night life-suit in his bag, with its insides likely littered with skin-flakes and so as infectious as he is. Though it needn’t be that he intends to hide the life-suit from us.
“Yon Earthborn is in a hurry to catch up with Uncle,” Ant says while he and Mongoose reorganize my seating.
“Alliances … change,” Mongoose says between paces, when we get going again. “How come … he doesn’t know …. that?”
“Ha!” Ant explodes a little. “Haven’t they just? Good … that tonight … we are … with eight.”
Does he mean four more people waiting? The group doubles.
“Let’s walk a bit, Ant,” Mongoose says.
“Suits me, brother.”
When his breathing is back to normal, Mongoose jiggles his end of the front of my seat. “A lot to think about, Jeb.”
“Yes,” I say. More than anything I want to be me for a minute. Simmon has joined Uncle. They are way ahead. “If you could’ve heard the times at the school someone told me to mind my tongue, you would be laughing now to hear me so silent. What I mean to say …” I collect my thoughts. “It’s hard being around friendly people while trying to be someone else.” I hurry on. “When I haven’t had any kind of practice being a shaman.”
“When I heard you trying out the different voices up in the white cell,” Ant says. “I thought, there’s a girl my age still learning her place in the Great Project, the same as I am still learning my place. That’s when I decided to stick around in the group around you, Shaman Jeb, to help you. Like, be part of your support group. If you’ll have me?”
I don’t know what to say. Again. “Umm. Thanks. That’ll be good. Because I …”
Mongoose interrupts. He’s blushing again. “When the damned Lotor-born threw you out and you lay there crying and laughing, I would’ve jumped through the fence and picked you up if Lithe hadn’t held me back.”
I blush because he blushes.
Ant laughs. “Look at the pair of you. Tsk. Tsk. Good thing Lithe was right there, Mongoose, my friend. You would’ve been slaughtered and where would Jeb be then?”
I shudder. I care about them so much already. How can that be good?
“That danger is past,” Mongoose says. “Let’s sing. We’ll need teach you some words too, Jeb. You probably having had a fairly sheltered upbringing.”
We all laugh, probably about different things.
“This song is a rhythm for running, Shaman Jeb,” Ant said. “Pick up your left foot, right foot … is always the first part of a line. Here we go, running.”
“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step high through the sands of Lotor’s hell,
“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step low over stone and mountain,
“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step wide through gelid waters,
“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step narrow along the Great Meridian.”
“What’s the Great Meridian?” I say, jouncing in time to their beat.
Mongoose passes the question. “Ant?”
“Mm-mm. I just sing it,” Ant says. “I’m nearly always carrying a load. Pardon me, Shaman.”
“Only if you’ll pardon me for being what I am.”
“Has you there, brother,” Mongoose says. “I hereby decree … no more pardoning among us three. Jeb, your uncle is a Puma.”
A Puma? My feelings speed faster than light into an idea. I tremble. “He is a Puma-in-waiting?”
“I think you nailed it,” Mongoose says.
“A Puma will be a better chief than a shaman who is also the Ark-Ship’s Mouth,” I hear myself say.
“I see that,” Ant says.
“What?” Mongoose’s voice is scor with saw-edged emotions. He clears his throat. “I mean, why?”
“Much less confusion,” Ant says. “What the Ship says, not knowing the conditions on the ground, might be a lot different to what a chief would recommend?”
Mongoose doesn’t comment.
I don’t comment because I don’t trust my feelings not to overflow. What I know about a certain shaman, who also was a chief, was that he had a lot of advisers. What I know about these advisors is that they thought they were right about everything to do with the man’s life. The advisers had no kind of patience for the chief to have any kind of private life. And which meant that he hadn’t.
Mongoose grins with the corner of his mouth because I stroke his side with the back of my knuckles where I’m holding onto his shirt. I do not want to live the way that old shaman lived.
Ant continues. “Better to have any compromises made by way of discussion and a chief’s final vote than by Jeb alone, and her worrying.”
“I see what you see,” Mongoose says with unsteady breathing.
Ant chuckles. “Thought you would.”
Ahead of us, the new platform is now near enough that we can see a rag-and-rope ladder hurtling down the sloped cap of the mushroom-shaped formation.
“They lower the ladder to inspire us to speed,” Mongoose says.
“Such a way with words your Mongoose has, oh Shaman,” Ant says, laughing. “The mongoose goes chittering … oops … goes glittering to his … to his …”
Mongoose thumps Ant before he has a chance to finish. Probably good if I ignore all that. Don’t know what to do with it. Hints of … innuendo? If I go there, I’ll blush again.
Instantly business-like, Mongoose says, “Ant, you go first. I’d love it if you could break the mirror of expectation and old habits. I’ll be up as soon as I’ve picked up after the damned uncle still in his noble patrician mode.”
Ant glances over the pack and swag at the base of the ladder. “Yeah, we’ve got to train everybody out of that. I’ll talk with a couple more of the pack animals.”
I don’t see the Earth-born’s swag. He considers the life-suit is too precious to be left lying about?
Ant and Mongoose set my feet on the first rag-plaited rung of the ladder. My hands on the twisted rope sides. “Only one at the time climbing, Jeb.” Mongoose puts his hand over mine to hold me back.
Mm. Nice. Can’t call it accidental. But, realistically, who am I to hope? I saw five beautiful girls in the Yellow City dream.
Note to readers from the beginning: After some editing, I discovered that the Earth-born Thayne’s name was too similar to that of another, more important character. One of them had to be changed. So, he that was Thayne is now Simmon.
What I Know
“We’ve done five kilometers,” Ant says from behind. “More than a third of the stage.”
I guess he is trying to be encouraging.
“But we will need to speed up,” Uncle says.
Straightaway I’m even more conscious of my feet. Raspy snail teeth are grazing over them. No! It’s the carnivorous sand! I almost stumble at the feeling of my foot-coverings worn through.
I swallow a sob of fear. “I need two … two … squares of cloth, bandanna-sized, folded arm-sling style.” A demand, not even a please or thank you. “Sorry. I … I meant to say please.” I’m almost in tears.
Then I’m ashamed. I did so much yesterday without any childish emotions. I pull my hood up over my head and stump along without looking at the men or my feet. But I feel the sand-creatures advancing over my ankle-bones.
“Use the priest’s cloak,” Uncle says.
I feel faint at the thought. “He lay down on the creep as I left the chapel. He said he was letting me go to make up for all the people he led to their end.” I want to keep in mind that I did what I did. Be strong. None of what I did was handed to me.
“I have the squares ready, Shaman Jeb,” Ant says.
Mongoose stops me with his hand on my elbow. He drops his pack behind me. “Sit on that, Jeb.”
Ant stops too. He kneels to help, sees what I dreaded, Lotor’s liking for the skin of my feet. I catch my lips between my teeth. Ant helps by pulling the new cloths tight around my feet, while I knot them in front. I keep my eyes on my work.
Mongoose and Ant pull me to my feet. Ant scoops up the shredded cloths then helps Mongoose shrug back into his pack. They exchange a meaningful glance while I high-step in place.
I walk on, hiding my face and staring only at the next place to put my feet.
Uncle exclaims. “There! See it?”
“Yes,” Ant says. “The damned planet is re-arranging the landscape as we approach. Changing hard sand to soft sand. It knows us.”
“Not good for Jeb,” Mongoose says. “Uncle old man, you will need to lug the luggage while Ant and I shimmy the shaman.”
The way he grins at his own joke helps me swallow down my embarrassment. I walk my usual fast sprint on the spot while he and Ant tie one of their packs crosswise over the top of the other.
Mongoose takes over Uncle’s pack and they both help Uncle into the double pack’s harness. Uncle jogs into the soft sand. I get that he can’t waste a minute of his strength standing around waiting for Mongoose and Ant to organize me.
Ant slides the sticks that were used to prop up the screens back at the platform from Uncle’s pack. He and Mongoose help each other loop a rope each from the back of their belts and pass it over their shoulders. They tie the ends to the front of their belts.
“To stop us losing our pants, Shaman Jeb,” Ant says straight-faced to my interest. A side-flung grin tells me he joked.
They each thread an end of one of the sticks through the back of the other’s rope loops. Then thread one through the fronts. Ant has a folded cloth ready to rest over the resulting two-bar seat. They sidle up behind me and take my arms.
“Hup,” Mongoose says.
I am jumped backward onto the sticks so that I’m sitting between Ant and my loon. I study Mongoose’s face. Faint flush along his jawline, faint smile in the corner of his mouth.
“Best foot forward, brother.” Ant slings his forearm onto Mongoose’s nearest shoulder. “So far the planet doesn’t care who we are.”
“Don’t feel shy about holding on, Jeb,” Mongoose says.
Ant looks past me, and laughs. “Don’t feel shy about holding on, Shaman Jeb. Or you can lean back against our arms.”
The flushing along Mongoose’s jawline deepens and makes me feel shy, so I don’t lean anywhere. But I find out straightaway that for them to jog and for me not to fall, I do need to hold on. What a problem to get into a tizzy about.
A capital-L Loon is a totem. Mongoose wears a Mongoose tattoo on his arm. They’re both wearing long shirts, Sauger-hide belts. I take a good handful of cloth above their belts. Rest the back of my fingers on the belt. Try not to touch Ant’s side through the cloth.
Uncle is a long way ahead. Well out of hearing. “The next thing you know, brother,” Ant says. “Is that our elders will start cleaving you to the Loon Totem.”
“It’s useless to tease, brother,” Mongoose says. “Jeb and I already discussed it.” He winks at me. Not angry. I feel almost weightless. “I’ll refuse to hear them,” he says.
A long while later Ant says, “Four kilometers more. When we get there, there’ll be ointment. For her feet,” he says over my head.
I do a little vigil. Do such words hurt anybody? I’m a bossy-britches, always wanting to be a part of everything. In a minute the group will double. Later it will be huge. Then what? Can one person be part of everything that goes on in a large group? How good was I ever at ignoring what isn’t my own business?
It doesn’t feel like a vigil when I’m just worrying. What happened to the rest of the shamans? My teachers? The whole Shaman School? I’m too scared to ask. In the three years, I only learned enough to sing the totems and signal the ship.
Then I worry about Ant and Mongoose having to carry me, for pity’s sake. I never wanted to be that kind of person.
Carrying physically is different to the other sort of carrying. That’s my crow talking, I realize. I feel better.
How can I thank Ant and Mongoose without making them embarrassed? Remember how good it felt back in school when the lesson of the day began with my totem? It’s my crow again, telling me how to be a shaman. It’s what they got me for, isn’t it?
Time will tell. I push back my hood and I clear my throat. Start with the Ant Totem song. “Ants together carry their towns … a stone at the time …
Ant grunts surprise, then joins in with grunts on the strongest words. We make a fine rhythm. “… Ants together carry their country … a heart at the time. … Together we live, singly we die.”
I follow it with the Mongoose Totem.
“Mongoose strides into the unknown, untrammeled by fear … He fights through unenviable risks to rescue what he holds …”
Slof slof slof is a sound coming through the sand behind us. “You pack animals really get off on the little fucker singing? He’s got such a tinny little voice, you’d think he’s a girl in drag.”
Simmon skips as he passes us to be out of the way of any kick Mongoose might aim at him for his insults.
Mongoose and Ant laugh so hard and so totally out of sync with one another, that they shake the contraption and I almost fall through.
On Simmon’s uplifted arm, I see the nightmare to come.
This began as a piece of paper I used for practicing leaf shapes with a new brush, using indigo with a bit of yellow top and bottom.
Then, doing this project, I’m recycling paper as I go since everything I do is trial and error.
So, when trying phthalo blue over indigo and mopping out the centres of shapes–another thing to practice–that fish became a thing when I added its eye.
I realize that it is only through the corrugations formed by leaf shapes that I have a shaped mouth, and that I’ll probably never be able to reproduce it.
This pic began with red. Bush-fires have burnt out large swathes of forest and hundreds of animals have died, four humans among them.
Red mixed with indigo and phthalo blue gave me the fire-ground. Indigo for the bat with a touch of orange for its eyes. The blue touches contrasted and made the clouds. Made it realistic, in fact.
After the fire when dead trees stand smoking and still aglow. The sun still shines, an angry ball. This little scene was to give me shades in indigo, but as usual I get carried away by the content.
The Love-struck Loon
One of the young men drags the ladder into the shade of the platform, and rolls it up. When he sees how I’m looking at him, he drops his gaze quicker than a fish flicking its tail. He’s taller than me by about the width of my hand and he has smooth honey skin. His hair is straight and flops over his forehead.
I follow him under the mushroom’s cap to stand out of the sun.
He reaches up and bundles the ladder into a hollow carved into the underside of the cap. He moistens his lips.
It’s a catching move. I lick mine. It’s difficult in the dry desert air to keep lips feeling smooth. The mushroom stem is fibrous.
“The planet itself carved the cavity, Shaman. With sand and wind. I’m ….”
His voice shakes. His gaze slides away again though not before I see his eyes. They shine as with emotion?
I frown. How am I supposed to react? How can I ignore such a devoted expression? It can’t be for me.
“Hey,” he says. “I’m … Mongoose.” He pinches moisture from his eyes—with finger and thumb—and holds out his hand in one speedy move.
If he’s ignoring his emotions I must too. Hesitantly I take his hand. Despite the wet patch under his thumb, his hand slips round mine oh so comfortably. It feels like I’ve known him forever, that we are …. I get hot in the face, like I’m blushing. I try to swallow but fail.
The formality I had ready shreds in the breeze. Jeb is the name I prefer to be known by. I’m an idiot. “I’m … I’m … Jeb!” Like him I stumble through the two easy words. What’s wrong with me?
He grins as if commiserating. Handsome white teeth. He fingertip-touches my elbow bone. Rests his thumb on the inner pulse, a microsecond only.
I’m gaping slack-jawed. Stutter. “What’s … what’s that about?” How can this be happening to me?
“I’m a loon for you, Jeb. Since I first saw you. Lithe held me back so I wasn’t killed. I wanted you to know so that you don’t misunderstand me. Because of what everyone will say. Teasing and such.” Hope flares in his eyes.
I’m astounded I want to say. I start again. “A loon?” I lift my cloak to show him my lumpy shins. I push out my all but flat chest at him.
Mongoose smiles lopsidedly. “Eye of the beholder, Jeb.”
He slides his palm around my elbow. “All of us young people are counted as pack animals. Let’s get you harnessed up?” Bright sparkling teasing smile?
By the time he fits me with the smallest backpack in history, I know he made it especially for me and that he loves a joke. At the same time I’m certain that he totally means what he said about being a loon for me.
At my entry to my third year of study, the Head Shaman asked, “Will you do, or will you have your life done to you, Jeb?”
The most important thing anyone ever asked me. At the time I swore to being the hero in my life. How will that work now with a loon called Mongoose in the picture? My feelings swoop here and there like I am a harpy eagle drunk on cactus-wine.
What is not a wonderful feeling is the revolting way that my uncle strokes me with my once-upon-a-time birth name.
All parents wish beauty for their children. My parents knew from the beginning that my genetic inheritance might prevent beauty from gaining a toehold. I believe that they gave me that name so that I would know that I was beautiful to them.
My uncle judged me ugly. I was a child in the next room hearing him say it. My father told him he could leave, never to return, if he ever said it again. I hate my uncle now using my beautiful name. It feels as though he plans to trick me into being his creature. The Head Shaman sent him away and I want to, too.
Uncle walks in the lead; he carries a medium-sized pack on his back. The second young man follows Uncle, with a huge pack on his back. Mongoose placed me third in the line. He tails us with another large pack.
I use my boy-voice. “Call me Jeb, Uncle. I escaped by way of the black cell. Your Eagle follows me. I doubt that he had to come the same way, or that he was schooled on Lotor. I don’t trust him.” I didn’t mention my three-second micro-sleep dream though it was my long-time habit of dreaming that convinced the shamans to train me.
“Will you have a sip of water, Shaman Jeb?” Mongoose wedges a skin of water in the crook of my arm. “Pass it on. Ant will have one after you. Uncle maybe too.”
I almost laugh. He is a smart one, this Mongoose. I enjoy his joke tremendously and since no one is watching my face, I smile broadly. A small joke with many ramifications.
First, Mongoose named me Shaman Jeb, signaling by that that he accepts that name for me. Second, he introduced me to Ant and Ant to me. Third, he teasingly called the man who proved to be my uncle, Uncle, letting that man know that Mongoose will be watching Uncle’s interpretation of his relationship to me. Fourth, he communicated all that to Ant.
I peer around Ant to see how Mongoose’s joke affects Uncle. Uncle marches as if he has a steel blade tied against his spine. Uh-oh. I don’t want him to take against me. I’ll need to relax him. I cast about for another joke. Or will a compliment do it?
“Thank you, Uncle, for the way you stopped Simmon from punching me back in the prison. He is quite impulsive.”
The tension in Uncle’s back relaxes a little.
“I’m still wondering how you worked the fence?” I say.
All three of them laugh. “Ant, take the front?” Uncle says.
He drops back to walk beside me. “That fencing is made to a settler-invented recipe. We use it for doors and panels.”
I think I remember it. “Hemp fibers covered with sand and heated to make a kind of leathery paneling?”
Uncle nods. “The fencing is made in long zigzag strips that are mounted horizontally. The prison’s idea probably is that often a visual barrier is all it needs to keep people in place.”
“The Lotor-born? The fauns? You all? Kept in your places by a visual fence?” It seems wrong to me.
“The Lotor-born are programmed to gather in such a place when they tire of life on Lotor’s outside. The poor fauns could not be saved. The old one refused our help on all their behalf.”
I feel regret about the fauns. “You?” I meant what kept a bunch of settler-descendants from walking away?
“There was a certain young shaman who didn’t return to the Shaman School after her semester break three years ago, and as she hadn’t been accounted for among the losses since then …” He shrugged. “This was the only place not yet searched. We hoped. So you see, we went there for a reason.”
I remember how Uncle smiles with the corner of his mouth. There’s bad and good in his explanation. Bad news about the losses, though I already heard the rumors, and good for me that my people hoped to find me.
Mongoose, carrying a tall load, jogs past Uncle towards the front of our little cavalcade. He grins back at me. “Remember that they kept the really dangerous prisoners in the cells,” he says.
As laden as Mongoose, Ant slows enough that Uncle and I come level to him. Ant carries rice balls, each in its own cloth, along his folded arm.
“But you all?” I say. “On your way to the salt-mines?”
Uncle sets his jaws in that way he had when I was a child. Like I am still a little girl to him. He doesn’t explain. Or say anything else for that matter.
“We slipped away from the guards in bunches,” Ant says. He passes me one of the rice ball packages. “Mongoose and I stayed back to help Uncle rescue you. But you rescued yourself and I am over the moon with admiration.” He mimes over the moon by raising his shoulders—he’s got that load, his hands full—and rolling his eyes up to an ellipted octahedronal moon.
Huh? I never saw that satellite before. “Is that new?” I ask Ant not giving him the chance to say. “I suppose I could’ve missed seeing it while I was in the prison but not before that.” At shaman school we studied all the quadrants of sky. “An octahedron in a doughnut. Who’d plan a thing like that?”
Ant takes back the package and unfolds the cloth until it resembles a flower. Sets it back in my hand. “These rice balls have a center of ginger and soy.”
Yum. My stomach rumbles. I accept the change of topic though I desperately want to know what happened to the fully trained shamans. And where we are going. And the satellite.
After I eat every last grain, I fold the cloth and store it in my pocket. Mongoose walks backward pointing a gadget at the sun, and reading something from the other end of it.
“What are you doing?” I’m looking for distractions. My feet hurt.
Creeping Desert (part 2)
I, Jeb, stopped with the reciting. Thought the next things, still too painful to even hear myself say them. Soowei’s father pushed her to the door like my father pushed me toward the door of his room.
My father gave me his serious words while he cut himself, then me, and held my wound closed after he transferred the amulet into me. What Soowei’s father called the chip? What Soowei thought the size of a groat pea, that same flat slightly rectangular object. Amulet is the Shaman word.
Then my father led me out. He shut his bedroom door between him and me because I wouldn’t leave. I heard him walk into my mother’s sick room. Heard her bed’s springs squeak from his weight. He was gone within days. I stood outside that door, hearing my mother hating my father, for leaving her to die alone beside him already dead.
Uncle Puma, finding me so, took me to the Shaman School to get the right of it. To have the amulet transplanted from me into him, he thought. The Head Shaman sent him away. One hundred of the amulets came down with the settlers. Who knows how few still exist? The Shaman School once upon a time tried to keep track. It became too depressing.
I lift my attention from my high stepping. What is that thing ahead? The prison has squared corners and straight horizontal and vertical edges. This thing is a free form hump with a red glint on it. I slip slide a bit further, but slower. The hump rises out of the sand. It seems to have a stem. A mushroom?
There seems to be an insect on it, waving. I am so sleepy that I dream a micro-dream while I’m walking. The insect turns into the smiling man who turns into my uncle. He didn’t like me after the Head Shaman showed him the exit. My uncle raises his arm and waves forward a couple more of his kind.
I wake when a pair of young men arrive and take my arms.
“Sleeping while you walk,” says one. “One day you can show us how you do that.”
“Sure would help make night carrying more bearable,” says the other.
They are no older than I am. They help me to walk faster. My eyes droop despite the speed. Both of them talk at me, asking me things, but I am too tired to make sense of their words.
At the base of the mushroom they consult together and tie a cloth-plaited rope around me below my arms. One of the boys passes by me up a rope ladder. He and the smiling man pull me to the top of the mushroom.
“What’s it made of?” I ask.
The other young one smiles. I didn’t see where he came from. “It’s a glassed platform,” he says.
“Mm,” I manage to say. I crawl to a pile of swags. Let my eyes fall shut.
I wake but don’t open my eyes.
Near at hand I smell water, warm, in skins. Cooked rice folded and molded in rice cloths. The rice will be chewy, I remember from the past. Someone’s sweat permeates the blankets I lie on. The sand surrounding the mushroom to the horizon and beyond, smells of stale dried blood.
“It’s safe to open your eyes, Shaman Zjebella,” the smiling man says. I remember his voice.
I do open my eyes and see the fabric of a cloak tented over me. An open weave, it has a thousand starry squares of sunlight shining through it. In other words, it’s way past dawn.
Beside me, the smiling man smiles.
“Hello, Uncle,” I say.
When I last saw my uncle and my father hugging, my uncle was shorter by about the length of a head and neck, and not nearly as thin as my father. Their eyes were the same color. Dark staring cat eyes.
Uncle’s smile widens. “Glad to meet you again, Zjebella. Glad to start again. Be friends this time.”
He does something uncomfortable with my name. “There’s just you and me? I thought I noticed …?”
“The boys. They wait for us under-side. We have thirteen kilometers to travel to the next overnighting platform.”
“I’m quite thirsty,” I say. “Can you spare me some water?”
Uncle grins. “We dribbled a liter and a half into you while you slept, will you believe it?”
I lick my lips. My mouth and my tongue don’t feel dry. “I guess I can wait.” I know I sound graceless. I’m disappointed that it is Uncle I must tangle with first thing.
“There’s a hole down to the fundament of the platform for wastes,” he says out of his half-smile. “Clean water in a depression near it for washing. You should perhaps use the facilities before we go.”
Why does he think we can start over when he still behaves as if I am the ten-year-old he last knew?
There is nothing to do but to disappear beyond the sarong-wrap screening the facilities.
Washing my hands I see that my cuts and bruises have been dabbed with a yellow ointment. No memory of that attention either. I let my face and hands air-dry because my cloak is torn in several places and half-shredded everywhere else.
I shudder remembering the confines of the coffin-narrow slot. Settler-cut stones are never polished. There was never enough metal for files. Inert sand to rub over sharp edges to smoothe them is also lacking on Lotor. I search the platform for my slippers.
My uncle mimes throwing them over the edge of the platform. “Such rags, Zjebella. We’ll go quicker with you on bare feet. The planet will hardly have had a taste of you yet.”
That’s all you know, Uncle. Distant in my childhood, he seeks me out now? When I was a child, he talked about me as that overly dramatic girl child, hurting my father with his judgments. He forms the syllables of my name with smooth care and a loving intonation as if he now honors me. Does he think I’m stupid?
He points me toward the rag-and-rope ladder.
But I catch up the bottom of my cloak and tear off two squares. Folding them on a diagonal, I tie them around my feet, the long edges around my heels; the short angles folded over my toes and caught up in the tie-around. Then I climb down.
Uncle throws the folded screens and the swag I slept on over the edge; then follows me down the ladder. He twitches the ladder and the top of it comes loose and snaking down.