Fiction: Half Shaman, 14

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?

Fiction: Half Shaman, 12

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.

Real Life: Bush Fire Emergency

Hugh and Nan Nicholson’s rainforest burning

Those of us in my region living in towns feel ourselves fairly safe in this emergency. So far. People from out of town have been evacuated and are staying with us. Others ask us to store their precious goods. I’m hosting four musical instruments and three large containers with photos and documents.

Recharging batteries is another thing we can do for people who no longer have electricity laid on. Whose power lines and generator sheds have been burned. In two cases I heard of today, the fire was stopped only a few meters from the main house.

The bushfire season began early this year. We’ve been burning since September, and the fires are getting worse, if that’s possible. Hotter, faster, and more destructive. In the past, diligent back-burning and fuel reduction in winter reduced your chances of being burnt out in summer. Now there’s hardly time. Winters are shorter and we’ve had less than half the rain we had last year when we already had a third less than in 2017.

It’s possible for a fire-ground to be burnt twice in two months. This despite the traditional view that rain-forest plantings, in contrast to Eucalyptus forest, will protect your property. No such thing now. Fires burn so hot that rainforests don’t stand a chance and they don’t grow back the way eucalyptus trees recover.

How will we live in a forever-blackened landscape?

Catherine Ingram’s article Facing Extinction, about the state of the world and humanity’s chances of surviving, is more a prescription for coping with the grief than a wake up call. It’s too late, she says, to try and save our Nature.

The way my countryside is burning, it certainly feels too late. I’m with Landcare. We plant trees. What if no trees survive either? It’s difficult to plan how to live now, when there’s said to be no future.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 8

The Black Cell

Three guards hustle me into the building. Not up the stairs. They walk me past a bunch of rooms furnished with desks and chairs, offices they look like, that are of the same configuration as the cells upstairs. At the end of the corridor is a door at right angles to where Simmon’s cell is upstairs.

Is there such a door upstairs as well? I don’t have time to remember because this door is yanked open and I am thrust in. Door slams. I am in the dark.

Pitch dark. Though I see lots of after-perceptions to begin with. The shapes of the men in the enclosure in their opposite colors. Sand-colored, they uncannily resemble Lotor-born melting into a Field of Dreams.

I blink that uncomfortable vision away and in its place see the fencing zig-zagging everywhere. I don’t recall that it was yellow? In its opposite hue it’s a zinging blue. It zig-zags over a face and the diamond shapes within the outlines slowly peel away.

My heart lurches. I know what I’m looking at.

Then I hear the singing. It’s the people in the yard because they sing the Meerkat Totem. Their strong many-voiced singing lifts my spirit.

Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Charged with caring, a meerkat protects the young. Charged with food gathering, a meerkat leads the foraging. Carrying your family, you carry yourself. Whoever reaches the top, reaches down for the rest.

I hear the whole thing through before I realize they are inserting words. I listen harder. A creeping has begun of something up over my feet.

Charged with surveillance, we will slip away. Charged with caring, slip away from our guards.

The sound is fading because they are moving away, I realize. They’ve been started on their journey. I shift my feet and rub one off with the other. Cockroaches? Wood lice? What else lives in the dark?

Charged with food gathering, we make for the city by the mountains. Carry your family, walk twelve kilometers to the small platform and thirteen more, both into the setting sun. Who reaches the large platform set your face north. Walk twenty-five more.

They will slip away from their guards and make for the Yellow City, fifty kilometers distant and they are telling me the way. Can I walk fifty kilometers?

I’m already walking at a fast clip on the spot in the little area near the door. It’s weird that I don’t feel any insect carapaces crackling under my feet.

No. I know exactly why no crackling. Fear almost has me freezing.

I can’t freeze. Keep walking. Freeze and you will die. I get walking again. I warned my Meerkats to steer away from Lotor’s maw and I am in one myself? Lotor uses a couple of different awful-to-human-people ways to consume us. I snivel. The one in here is called black creep.

It is said that all creatures from off-planet are Lotor’s prey. I’ve never seen any creatures from off-planet other than us, descended from our Ark-Ship’s settlers, and the Earthborn who came as patterns and were reconstituted by the planet. I laugh. How does that make the Earthborn from off-planet?

The sounds I made just then laughing and sniveling, seemed to rise? I laugh some more while I keep walking, mostly on the spot. Almost-echoes from above? How wide, how tall is this cell? I fling out my arms to explore. Ouch! I hit a wall with my fingertips.

I twirl. Yes, my outstretched fingers skim past walls on all three sides, the door I came in through on the fourth. It feels like I am in a chimney.

Still walking, aka lifting my feet and mashing down on the creep, I explore the walls. Every second row is made of squared stones, the length breadth and depth of my forefinger when measured from the outside, knuckle to fingertip.

Ten-cubes, the Shamans call these. The rows between are doubles, two ten-cubes long. Also called bricks, they are just the things to cobble together a little platform to rest on.

I continue exploring, shifting my feet little by little to keep my speed steady. I brush my fingertips up the walls. All building stone is split from the mountains that Lotor extrudes. The Shamans consider them Lotor’s wastes.

I’m searching for missing stones or stones set crookedly. Places where I can get my fingers into, to pull. One unevenly laid cube will give me an in. I ignore the facts I do not have any tools, and that the walls are well made and blank as high as I can reach.

My feet and my legs are always the first to give up. Whenever my big toes don’t make it off the ground, I need to bend over to wipe away the creep by hand. It’s hard to keep up the lifting and setting down while I’m doubled over. No idea of the time outside, and why would I care? How many kilometers have I already walked in here?

For a change I sweep my hands down the wall, stopping short of the ground. Having Lotor’s hungry sand as close as the soles of my feet is near enough.

Wait.

My fingers brush a bump.

A couple of ten-cubes stick out down there. There’s a rim a fingernail-width deep, two cubes wide. Two cubes further, another such interruption. And another two cubes further, that same row again. That makes three of these strange configurations because they can’t have been accidental?

How high are they?

Five ten-cubes and they finish a single cube’s height above the level of the sand. I let myself get excited. The picture I’m getting is of vertical bars with the cubes between them sticking out, as if they were fitted in after the original build.

All kinds of knowledge cascade through me, the walls aren’t high because they were built to be a prison cell? I bet there are similar sets of columns-and-gaps in the adjacent, and the opposite walls. My knees hit my chest every step I take. Thud. Thud. I’ll be black and blue if I live that long.

I brush the stones with my fingertips, feeling for the irregularities introduced when the gaps were filled. Yes. I grin just for me. Here and here. Leaning into the nearest corner, I un-crick my back in stages because I must not forget to step. Can I rest my two feet on the nearest ledges set as they are at right angles, minuscule though they are? I’ll do anything for a little break from the walking action.

I’m in an evaporation tower that has its air-intake grates bricked in. Not a prison cell at all. Will it help, this knowing? It must. Each of the intake sections has twenty cubes, sixty per grate … I picture the intake vents made to look like grates in a house I once knew. Three grates making one hundred eighty cubes.

My feet keep slipping down. The creep is winning. The height of the evaporation tower will be equivalent to three floors including the ground. It was made by Ark-Ship settlers. There will be no getting through the walls. No getting through the ground floor air intakes low to the ground with their three-slotted structure.

The height of the house in this case is two floors. I know that from seeing it from the outside. The ground floor walls have two interlocking skins of bricks to carry the weight of the second floor. The upper rooms are walled with a single skin of stones to lighten the load.

With one hundred and eighty stones I can make myself a little floor and try to live forever on no food and no water–because the guards won’t feed me in here–or …

Fiction: Half Shaman, 7

7: The Narrow Yard

Where I lay crying and laughing. Nobody comes near me and I don’t, don’t care. The Ark Ship talked to me! I feel so … unbounded! I can do anything. And I am still me still the Harpy.

I’m scraped raw from being flung to the ground and skidding over the hard-packed dirt. A gravel rash that I barely notice is set with grains of sand and microscopic fragments of all the lives snuffed by the planet.

A guard reads hysteria in my actions or he knows just what I need. He turns a hose on me that spurts with a mixture of Lotor and Earth water. Lumps-in-a-liquid splatter over me.

All of me stings except the parts where the Lotor-water sticks to me. It seems Lotor is healing me. Does its central management know it’s healing me, or is it regional? As in, does Lotor’s heart know what Lotor’s elbow does? A life time study is Lotor. Soon to be truncated, at least by me. Ha ha ha!

I’m smiling so widely my face hurts. I sit up and smoothe the gel over my arm. Might as well. I look at them that couldn’t rush to my aid. There’s a fence separating us. Some look at the ground, seemingly ashamed that they couldn’t help. Some stare at me. I read a longing in them. Some smile fiercely to help along my joy.

Behind me in my yard are five fauns. In front, standing over by the fence on my side of it, where he is chatting with one of the Earth-born, is the one whom I suspect to be Thayne. He’s the only one in chains. He looks embarrassed.

“What’s your problem?” I inquire. I can’t stop smiling.

He shakes his head like he can’t believe what just happened. “You little fucker,” he says. “You made me a laughing stock. I built you up out here. Made you a real Harpy!”

A change of attitude rustles through the Earth-born. I didn’t see a signal. Men and women come to attention with various small incremental movements. Some look at me and then at Thayne. They seem to measure the distance between us, and move towards him despite the fence in their way.

Some stare fleetingly at the fauns also in the narrow yard. Four of the fauns are youths and the fifth is the man who might be their chief. He is made of frown lines, it seems to me. There’s no movement toward the fauns. No danger is expected from them apparently.

“Nobody I see is laughing,” I say, looking straight at the man on the other side of the fence conversing just now with Thayne. If anyone laughs, apart from me, it will be him. A smile sits waiting at the corners of his mouth. He’s a head shorter than Thayne and seems a few years the elder. He’s a taller than me … who isn’t … and stocky. From where do I remember him?

 “Why the fuck did you sing the Meerkat Totem?” Thayne says.

“What?” His complaint is so unexpected, I laugh; it shoots out of me, a long burbling glissade.

He comes for me, fist raised.

I try to control myself but can’t stop giggling.

He’s furious. “It’s not your totem! Not mine! Not anybody’s here! How will a Meerkat Totem help to get us out of here? The salt-mines, I told you!”

“Touch the Shaman and you’re dead,” says the man by the fence. The rest have gathered near him. There’s a threatening murmur confirming his meaning.

I get that the man by the fence probably sees through my disguise. He might even know me?

I frown at him. This is not a good time to be unmasked. What can I do to prevent it? The Head Shaman often controlled the students with his eternal lessons. The structure pops into my mind ready-made.

“Nevertheless, the Meerkat is the totem of the day,” I say. “Lesson One. Each day we begin with the previous Lesson’s Totem. Yesterday that was the Eagle.” I recall the Eagle Totem’s positive attributes quite well after yesterday’s efforts, though Thayne and I did not sing them.

Interesting that he did not comment or complain then. I don’t believe he knows there’s a difference. Now, among all these people, hearing the totem he professes as his own sung properly, he will be forced to attend, and sing, to keep his disguise. He may still be needed. Alive.

While organizing my thoughts I’m organizing myself. I’ve turned to face the left, where the Earth-born are gathered beyond their fence. Thayne is to my right. The Fauns are to my new left along with a couple of guards flanking the entrance into the building.

I start with the first phrase of the call, “He soars with his great wings …”

All the Earth-born sing and the words roar back at me.  “… reaching across the world …”

Thayne is still silent. I haven’t sung any of the real words yet.

“…far-seeing over fold and forest …”

Now he starts. Yesterday I gave him the words of the Fishing Eagle totem. Today we sing the Spirit Eagle totem.

“… He brings solutions to relieve a soul …”

“Now you dare!” he shouts. “I’m onto you now. I’ll …”

He doesn’t continue because the man at the fence pushes his hand through the wire faster than lightning—wire with slots too small to take a child’s wrist let alone a man’s arm—and grabs hold of Thayne. He pulls him close to the wire and talks to Thayne only.

Thayne, after he’s released, wears a diamond pattern in white on that side of his red face. And he wears a confused expression.

I miss seeing how the man gets his hand back through the wire, but sing the next phrase: “… a spirit and a heart …” Later, I think. Later I’ll think it through. The fence. The man. His hand.

My scholars sing the last phrase. The poor young fauns stare open-mouthed. I gather to my mind the line that the Head Shaman added in. “… The wind of his flight blows through our minds. …”

I suspect it gave the Head Shaman a few more words for a Shaman-to-Ship message. I don’t recall whether we dragged out any of the words to denote the dashes. I just remember the words and what they meant to me. Will they speak to anyone here?

Thayne snorts. The younger fauns sing it starry-eyed. The old faun glowers.

Well, on we go. “Next in the lesson is usually a story containing a homily,” I say. “I’m in difficulty here today. Knowing that many of you may be marched away at any moment, I have two stories that I want to tell you, both equally important to your survival.”

“With respect, Shaman Zjeb,” says the man by the fence. “Guards are getting toe-y. Tell us both as one-liners, if you please.”

The man by the fence knows my name! That abbreviation is how my father called me. What else does he know? To hide my trepidation I glance to where the guards are getting restless. They rock from their heels to toes, heels to toes. Ready to run for me? They’re mumbling. Deciding something. Looking at me, looking at my audience.

The old Faun, he no doubt being within hearing distance, looks even more forbidding.

“Make for the city by the mountains,” I sing.

The guards stop their fidgeting. Singing is all right with them?

“A salt mine is no less than a maw. Waiting in the landscape to slake. The planet’s greatest hunger.”

I manage not to mention the planet’s name but one of the guards gets my meaning and springs for me.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 6

6: The Meerkat Totem

I’m thinking about everything to do with signaling.

A shaman-to-Ship signal is hidden in a totem couplet that has more beats than the signal has elements. Or the couplet needs at least a beat for each element of the signal.

Which limits the couplets available? Or, different signals use different couplets. I mean, some couplets are quite short. Signals may be long. ‘Couplets’ is a bit of a misnomer too. Often there are four lines, not two.

Second, there is the fact that a dot and a dash are different in length. Must dots fall on short beats and dashes on long beats? I don’t know.

Give me, give me, give me a couplet to work on. Ants together carry their towns a stone at the time. Totems together carry their country a heart at the time. Together we live singly we die.

Don’t know why that one sprang into my mind, for I don’t know any Ant Totems. It is customary to capitalize the word when referring to people, says a shaman-teacher in my mind. I had the Shamans to guide me for three years. Ignore the meanings of the songs. Leave them for those who live the totems to cogitate on, the Head Shaman said.

So if I sing “Z to A” will the Ant totem couplet give me enough elements?

Mm. Write it down somewhere? Inner arm. Scratch it there with fingernail. Four letters. Ten elements. Dash dash dot dot / dash / dash dash dash / dot dash.Yes, there are plenty of elements in the Ant song. But not the shorts and longs in the right sequence, I think.

Use another couplet. Not any of the Eagles. The Meerkat?

I sing the words under my breath. Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Charged with caring, a meerkat protects the young. Charged with food gathering, a meerkat leads the foraging. To carry your family is to carry yourself. Whoever reaches the top, reaches down for the rest.

Yes.

There’s a sequence but don’t cheer yet. It’s only the first step. The code for Z, dash dash dot dot, can be sung as Sta-a-ands se-e-en tin el, where the two dots are short plosive sounds.To’ will become dash / dash dash dash, and can be sung as cha-a-ar ged wi-i-ith su-u-ur vei-ei-eill ance. ‘A’ is equal to dot dash, and will bea meer ka-a-at.

I sweat. It seems to work. But I’ve changed the sequencing around. Will that matter? Will it matter in the singing? What if I sing it three times and hide the wrong-way-round section between the other two?

I gasp because now I must sing. My cell will be my sound chamber, I remind myself. Start softly, normal speaking voice. Stand with my heels touching the bottom of the door. Face out toward the window. Remember to sing alto-tenor. Normal enunciation.

I sing the first two lines. “Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Charged with caring, a meerkat protects the young.”

Now the sequence. I raise my chin, fill my lungs, sing as loud as I can. “Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Sta-a-ands se-e-en tin el. cha-a-ar ged wi-i-ith su-u-ur vei-ei-eill ance. a meer ka-a-atCharged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel.”

Down in the yards, the murmuring stops. I’ve been hearing it without realizing. The Earth-born are listening and maybe the Lotor-born as well. I can’t help it. I fill my lungs and sing again. “Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Sta-a-ands se-e-en tin el. Cha-a-ar ged wi-i-ith su-u-ur vei-ei-eill ance. A meer ka-a-at.Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel.”

The phrases blend as if they belong. I’m cheered despite being the one and only doing the singing. Guards, who else, come tramping up the stairs.

I sing again, “Charged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel. Sta-a-ands se-e-en tin el. cha-a-ar ged wi-i-ith su-u-ur vei-ei-eill ance. a meer ka-a-atCharged with surveillance, a meerkat stands sentinel.”

The guards arrive at my door. They stand on the other side of it. They’re apparently waiting.

For what?

Sting sting sting in my arm.

I gasp. These stings are patterned something like my coding.

A thing vibrates in my arm! My amulet, of course. My flesh around it vibrates. I feel my letters in my arm the way I felt them vibrating in my throat when I sang them.

The coding simplifies. Pin-prick, needle-stab, stab, stab, prick, prick. Which represents AZ. Prick, prick, stab, stab, stab, prick. Which represents ZA.

I weep because the Ark Ship gives me its call sign and mine. Then I scream joy scream dance cry sing dance pull my hair. The ship! I want to scream. It talked. It signed me. It still knows me. I swallow and swallow and I cry and cry. Snivel snot and tears.

The guards shove open the door finally, shoving me along the floor with it. Yank me up, an arm each. Run me down the stairs. They throw me into the narrow yard between the two wide yards.

A Cat’s Story Ends

Miss Maggy-bag

A sad thing to report … Miss Maggy-bag was euthanased this morning due to tick paralysis. She was eleven years old and the most intrepid cat I’ve ever had the pleasure of guesting.

Intrepid because though she was too swaggy and inept to climb trees, she ran up walls after Asian House geckos, up fences to see off intruding felines and up the shade-cloth shed to sneer at the neighbor’s dogs.

She lost every collar with bells she was forced to wear as well as every flea collar. Under the house there will be a place where all these things lie, a testimony to a smart cat.

She was missing for sixteen hours. When I called her I only heard that squashed-frog sound, that frogs make when they are stuck in the drainpipes and it’s raining.

Finally found her at the bottom of the steps, cold, wet and unable to move. That noise was her, even her vocal chords were paralyzed.

I could’ve taken out a loan and gone through all the rigmarole of seeing if she’d make it with the antivenin, but she was 8x smaller than my dog who got a tick the same size and barely made it.

So I have her at home, swaddled in a towel, dead on my lap. It’s easy to imagine she is still alive because she is lying against me and I am breathing, she with me. It’s raining at the present, softening the ground. Later I’ll go out and dig a hole.

Maggy, wishful thinking. She tore off her toe on a fence and she could not go outside