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.