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.