New Chief, Old Shaman
Uncle flaps a hand. The red-tailed woman and one of the men, both of the guard squad, step through the seated crowd. With soft encouragements that I don’t hear, and without touching him, they direct Simmon to the edge of the platform.
Where he sits down. The guards stand either side of him. Not at their ease.
Uncle must have signaled that there is something more about the prisoner than the mere inconvenience of his presence? I feel a bit better.
“So here we are.” Uncle’s tone says that he will not accept any nay-saying. “What’s not to protect?”
People meet Uncle’s glare or they don’t. It’s a good way of discovering his, and so my supporters. The way people accept Uncle’s leadership surprises me.
Ant jumps into the opportunity both feet first. “So I was thinking back along the road a bit that Puma should be Chief?”
Uncle narrows his gaze.
“A boy talking,” Simmon calls from his place. A lot of people bristle.
“Sez you,” Ant says. “You’ve been with us for how long? Got a loud voice when you don’t even know if we’ll keep you.”
“What is it with you doing all the talking suddenly,” Jackdaw says. “Usually it’s your mate.”
Ant takes a deep breath. “I figured my role in the Great Project could be to liaise between the young Shaman and the group?”
“Why bother with that when you’re set on picking me as Chief?” Uncle says.
“Often Shaman Jeb won’t be able to talk with everyone separately, when separate is needed. She doesn’t know people the way Thyal knows everyone from birth practically. And by the time we have forty in the troop, say, even Thyal will have a problem getting to everyone’s individual concerns. I can help with that.”
Everyone is sitting there slightly agape, it seems.
Ant continues. “And we should always have a singing group on standby. It doesn’t have to be the same people all the time. I can help organize there. Jeb isn’t accustomed to the kind of life we lead, always on the move, I’m already helping with that. I’m pretty sure more things will come up.”
Then Ant repeats what he said to Mongoose and me, adding in a few encouraging words. “Much less confusion with a separate Chief. What the Ark-Ship says, not knowing the conditions on the ground, might be a lot different to what an experienced Chief will recommend. Better to have a discussion, with a Chief’s final vote than Jeb being advised by all and sundry and worrying alone.”
“Ha!” Simmon says. “There’s that worrying again, Jeb. Everybody is onto you.”
Despite that Simmon should be a person of no consequence to me, I think back. Was I worried while I was in the white cell? Only when people were doing things to me, or when I wasn’t in control of my life. Was I worried escaping through the black cell? Didn’t have time. Was I worried walking away from the old man in the chapel? I was walking away. So … maybe I worry when I’m not in control?
“I see that you don’t merely choose a chief,” Uncle comments, “but that you also expect him to be open to discussion. Is that your idea or Shaman Jeb’s?”
Ant and I both stay silent.
“It’s the love-struck loon’s idea?” Uncle says.
Lithe grins. Mongoose grins.
“It’s the idea of all of us pack animals,” Meerkat says. “We’ve been brewing it. And we’ve decided we need just one person giving us our instructions, not fifty all wanting their own stuff carried in as many quirky ways. And, most of all, we need someone who realizes that if we carry all day every day, we won’t be much good carrying nights as well.”
Now everybody young enough to be a pack animal, grins. “Meerkat for chief!” says a girl.
Limber is the next to agree. Which he does quite sneakily? “So when shall we start the next stage, Chief?” he says.
Uncle thinks. “Tonight is too soon.” He smiles a fleeting glance toward Ant with approval and gratitude mixed in it. A chief-in-waiting can’t take the position no matter what the need as he sees it. He has to be chosen.
“Got a couple of pack animals needing a night off,” Uncle says. “The next stage is twenty-five kilometers. We’ll be crossing several regions of the carnivorous sand.”
I’m sure I grow pale. I feel the skin of my face constricting.
“This platform is higher,” Uncle in his Puma-guise says. “So we’ll pare some longer staves from the stem. Make a stretcher so we can all help carry our young shaman. Pair up according to shoulder height. Nobody carries more than a thousand paces at the time.”
“Is a chief really necessary?” Simmon says from afar.
I hear how he makes his voice sound bored. If he thinks he’ll influence people that way, he doesn’t know us at all. And why is he even trying to keep people aware of his presence? I grin. Answered that myself just then.
Lithe leans toward him. “Earthborn, how long do you think I will tolerate you in the troop without a totem? Puma is the right man for the job. Always before, he was Puma-in-waiting as I was Lithe-in-waiting, as Limber was Limber-in-waiting.”
Limber smiles and expands on his brother’s comment. “We waited for trouble and jumped in according to need. But we two,” he salutes his brother. “We are also of the Black Swan Totem. Which comes with its own and entirely different role.”
“We welcome Puma’s leadership,” Lithe says. “Him taking the lead will enable us to spend more time on our Black Swan work without worrying things will fall apart in the organization of the troop.”
He glances at me.
“That’s right,” Limber says. “But don’t think to play up, anybody.” He glances round maybe at the known troublemakers. “We’ll still be Puma’s lieutenants. As the Ant said, much less confusion.”
I guess because of the confusion of a pair of identical twins telling how it is as if they are one person. I want to know more about the Black Swan totem and why Lithe looked at me just then.
“So. Simmon,” Uncle Puma says in the slightly ponderous way he has always had, but which now suits his role. “To stay with us, my lieutenants feel you ought to adopt a totem for real.” He stared at Simmon, maybe daring him to tell us he already had a totem, the Sea Eagle. To prove it, he’d have to shuck his shirt for us to see his Sea Eagle tattoo.
Simmon stares back and stays put. Therefore no Sea Eagle tattoo, or totem. More likely in my opinion Simmon hopes to keep us ignorant of the skin disease.
“Thyal and you won’t be carrying,” Uncle says. “You’re the wrong size. Thyal is old. In return for you backpacking Thyal’s swag, he’ll teach you your totem. Twenty-five kilometers gives you plenty of time to pick it up.”
Thyal laughs old-man-style. “Huh huh huh. He’s a Grey Wolf if I ever saw one. Got some of the character already. Can grow into the rest, the way we all do.”
Simmon perks up.
Though I worry about Simmon’s infection passing to Thyal, I laugh into my hand. Everybody wants to be a Wolf some time in their lives. Usually when they are kids.
“I guess the Earth-born contains information that hasn’t yet been extracted,” Mongoose says. “Learning the totem will be enough of a distraction, maybe, that they can pick his brains while he doesn’t realize.” He ends doubtful. “Maybe. He could be smarter than people realize.”
The dome of the sky overhead is studded with stars.
I don’t sleep. Not enough exercise, I expect. The Ark-Ship passes regularly along the arc of its orbit. The stars along the edge of the platform become red pinpricks. They are wild little eyes above hungry little mouths waiting to eat me alive …
“Come to me, young Shaman.”
A voice like a soft paw pummels aside the little things with eyes and mouths and nattering teeth. “We will practice a vigil together. Many are the nights that a vigil is all that I achieve.”
The paw speaks to me? I see a flash of sandy brown fur. A long back striped with black.
“Old Thyal, seated to your north.”
I see him now. A shadowed triangle shape breaks the pin-pricked rim. Everywhere else lays the troop, restless or still according to the quality of their sleep. All their heads near the dangerous rim, feet toward the middle. Left and right of me sleep Ant and Mongoose.
“Take the inner road, young Shaman. The Earth-origin gadget will not bother you again.”
I can’t sleep anyway. Trust him about the gadget? Why am I so scared about everything? Been dallying on the low road, I answer myself. Despite that I already worked out what happens when I do.
But, is it because I don’t know how to love and live at the same time? How will I learn that? I slip from between Ant and Mongoose, both near but courteously far enough not to be touching. Although Mongoose manages to keep a big toe so near to my shin, he might as well be. Lithe called him a love-struck loon?
I tiptoe through the central depression, expecting at any moment to feel pain shirring up my feet.
I breathe out in relief and take a great gulp of air before sitting myself cross-legged in front of the old Shaman. The shine of his eyes catches the starlight until they are themselves twinkling stars.
“There now,” he says. “There now. You get no peace from your vigils, I think.”
He waits, it seems.
“I’ve always used them for deep thinking, to try to solve problems,” I say. “The Head Shaman …”
He takes my left hand with his right hand. His left arm is missing to above his biceps. “I remember the Head Shaman,” he says. “He’d bonded with the Tarsier Totem when I knew him.”
I’m shocked. This old shaman knew my mentor and calls him mischievous?
“There now, my pretty.” He rubs the back of my hand with his thumb.
I don’t pull away. He’s old, half-blind, and pretty is just a word.
“Your eyes are very beautiful,” he says. “Your loon fell in a heartbeat, did he not? Unfold and flower, my pretty. Look on him with love and he will never leave you.”
I feel my heart jump. I hear its glad thudding high in my chest. I wish I wish I wish. Thump. But how will I be independent as well?
“Come back, my pretty.” The old shaman turns my hand in his and rubs my palm. “Now,” he says. “The planet progresses along her path. Do you see the Ark-Ship?”
I locate the ship. “A point of light in the northeast quadrant.”
“I trust you. My old eyesight doesn’t reach that far. Two hundred and fifty kilometers above us …” He shakes his head at the wonder of it. “Do you know what our Ark-Ship looks like?”
“Neither do I,” he says. “It must stay a point of light in our minds for now. But reaching it is the Great Project of our hearts. Track its journey for me, down through Lotor’s sky sphere.”
I kneel up. “With your hand?” I lift his hand and pointing finger, and trace the Ship’s path along its arc until it disappears behind the planet. “It’s gone now. Behind the planet.”
I sit back down.
“Let’s think now about the Ark-Ship’s interior,” Thyal says. “How things might be arranged inside it. I hope there will be a Totem Reality where we may harness ourselves into our Totem animal’s skins, to live their lives for a time, so to learn their wild ways for the sake of understanding our totems the better.”
He looks at me. “What will you imagine?” His voice fades while he still instructs. “Don’t tell me … think it … dream it … practice your shamanic arts.”
Can I still be the Harpy Eagle? I need her strength. Can I integrate the two people I am becoming? I spread my wings. Time stops while I soar up the thermals. A green grass and grey stone mountain-scape unfolds beneath me. Goats and smaller prey animals live and breed on the slopes. I hunt and give thanks for my existence.
“Come back, young one.”
I wake to the old shaman stroking my hand.
“Go back to your loon now,” he says. “We’ll practice our arts again another night.”
I am mesmerized. I don’t feel the glassy platform under my feet, maybe I’m still soaring. I subside between Mongoose and Ant.
“Took you long enough,” Mongoose mumbles.
I don’t laugh because I don’t want even a breath of my lightness-of-being to escape me.