This ongoing project should wrap up soon although i will probably do a wheel of greens some time down the track …
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.
As well as tripping over imagery while researching online, I use photos and any images I may have produced in the past and present, as inspiration for my writing.
Though inspiration may not be the exact word.
Often I need to describe something so that it resembles reality. Landscapes are easy. Find a photo of a landscape and describe how your MC operates in it. Old calendars are great, although they do get cliched, almost always using the same Disney-esque castle in Bavaria, for example. Travel photos, my own and anyone else’s, are my next resource. But, of course, sometimes I’ll want a landscape not on Earth.
And this year I tripped over #huevember. “Make one painting every day of the week, using the appropriate color on the color wheel as the main color for that day.”
I could do that, I thought. If I was painting. [I hadn’t painted for over 6 months when I thought that.]
But, once you do start thinking that way, it’s hard not to get excited by something like #huevember. So. I fell for the dark orange dedicated to November 7, got my paints out and continued the journey of learning to paint with watercolors.
Here I painted over the top of an uninteresting yellow scene. Turned out pretty impressive and got me over my initial will-I-won’t-I-commit doubts.
I painted this one over an uninteresting pink scene and didn’t get the desired burn-orange hue. May do it again sometime …
Scarlet … I don’t have a cool red tubepaint, or watercolor crayon. Had to dig out some old aquarelle pencils. This is an experimental animal-look pattern that might work for a shaman’s cloak.
… or I can pry out the one hundred and eighty cubes and build a staircase to the top of the door. It’s locked, of course. My target is further up.
I set to prying out a brick, stepping high impatiently when I need to straighten to take a breath, before bending again to the knee-high intake aperture. I pull, push to and fro, shift, and shove at the only stone that shifted when I tested them.
Then I’ve got it out. Hug it to myself. Forget my stepping. Balance myself on one foot on that one stone and wipe creep from my feet. The second stone is easier. I take out the third, then the fourth.
Blessed stones! I am off the ground! I rest, leaning against the wall. The creep does not follow me up the stones. I can plan standing still.
I imagine one foot planted on the door lintel and the other on the stair yet to be built. I wonder how the lintel gets its strength? Will it hold me? What holds it up apart from the two mud-brick door jambs? It feels to be made of a row of doubles glued together by their wide flat faces. Directly above it is another such row. This one reaching past the first rows ends. Its ends are puzzled into the wall either side.
Mm. I prefer not to trust the lintel.
And anyway, why would I want to? There is no bricked-up air intake above the lintel. The door’s surrounds are mud bricks and were added later, they’re obviously part of the repurposing to transform the villa into a prison. Both the sidewalls above lintel height will have bricked-in air intakes, I hope.
I’m sure. The prison is a made-over settler villa. Every house I once knew had air intakes down near the floor.
I build the beginning of my stair against the sundown sidewall. Never in my experience was there movement by the guards into that direction. I’m quite hopeful there is no cell there. Besides, Simmon’s cell lies beyond the wall on the sunrise side.
I try to run up the steps with me not touching the wall so much that the stones slip from under my feet, me with them. When I fall, I must straightaway get the creeping bloodsuckers off me. Flick flick. Finally, I squash the ones I can’t reach by rubbing my back up against the wall.
Next try I fall again. I jump straight back onto my little floor. But, flick flick by the time I have got rid of most of the velvety little finger-things, some of them are already burrowing into me?
Uuh-uu-huh! I nearly have the horrors.
I have to weave their bodies between my shuddering fingers and pull the ghastly things out of the holes they made in me.
Have I got them all? I know I’ll have scars.
I can’t forget that to survive herself, Soowei was forced to watch a Field of Dreams consume her whole age group—when she was fifteen—all the young people of eight villages.
Rebuilding two ten-cubes wide is the plan forged on the spot. Consequently I have to make each step four ten-cubes high to get the stair to the level of the door lintel. I teeter up there, while I feel along the wall beside me for the bricked-in air intake that must be there. I can’t afford to fall again.
There it is. It’s not safe to cheer. I have to make do with feeling satisfaction that I guessed right. Happy. Pick and pry at the stone sticking out the most. I break another fingernail getting the stone from its seating.
Is it a cell through there or is it an office room? I peer through the gap. Gape.
A dozen candle flames sift light from the dark. I dredge a word from my memory. It’s a chapel. An old word for what is a mud-brick extension in the blind spot of the prison.
A prison chapel where once upon a time the Earthborn celebrated their special days and then disappeared from settler histories. They went into the chapels and didn’t come out.
Or should I say the Earthborn who did not take to totems or Shamans. “Or so it is said,” I whisper. My Earthborn mother took a totem and married my settler father.
The dark behind me feels almost friendly compared to the dark beyond the candle flames. Who keeps these flames going? It looks like it has been years since anyone has prayed here, there’s such a layer of dust.
I close my eyes. I can’t let the old suspicions get to me. I let the stones that I pick out of the wall fall into the chapel.
They fall on a field of creep massing over the chapel floor. Below me, thick shaggy carpet-like finger-things stand to attention, so many that they are supported by each other. Can they smell me?
I feel sick and escape for a minute, imagining that I am already outside and walking. At night the desert is dark red with the red star’s light. Red sand as far as the eye can see. Who can I pretend to be for a single adventurous minute?
Stupid. What could be more adventurous than the place where I am right now, when adventure is what I’m always wanting? But why does adventure always have to equal to scrapes? No one else gets themselves into the kind of scrapes I manage. And if not scrapes, then flat lonely places.
I swallow all that down. I should be worrying about getting out. As usual I shudder at the responsibility. This time, as a result, I wobble on my stony stair to nowhere. Hole just isn’t big enough. Keep at it.
I lean side-wards loosening stones and pushing them through to fall into the chapel. The air intake aperture into this room is almost as wide as the room itself. Which in a special room, such as a chapel, was covered with a metal grill.
Very fortunately the grill is gone and the space is filled with ten-cubes about five rows high. I’m going to squeeze through. It’s a long narrow hole like a transverse-section of a coffin.
I could sleep here, between the two maws. The temptation blind-sides me and I relax without having to try. I sleep and dream. I’m walking, slip-sliding through the sand. There’s a platform ahead with people on it, waiting there for me. A Meerkat, a Mongoose and a Puma. The Puma is the smiling man, the one who seemed familiar. Then I remember him. The platform fades away and I wake in the slot.
The smiling man is my father’s younger brother! Very resentful at the time that I knew him. He’d expected to win the amulet. Had come especially. How will he be now, apart from smiling and trying to keep me young and dependent?
It’s still only a dream. I’m not there yet.
A whisper comes out of the dark beyond the candle flames. “My poor child.”
I teeter and roll out of the hole, feet first. Legs, hips slide down. I hang by my hands. Let go. Whip around to see. Who? What?
With my feet I search for the stones that I dropped this side. Balance up onto a couple.
I can’t see.
Then I can.
A bent figure shuffles forward. It’s wearing slippers and the creepy finger-things bend down for him to walk over them. “We should put those stones back,” it says.
It’s a very old man. “Stand on my back and I’ll hoist you up,” he says. “Climb into the hole and I’ll hand the stones back up to you. You’ll be safer in the prison than outside it.” He blinks and blinks.
Did I really hear an old Earthborn man telling me to get back into the prison? I decide that the wind from beyond the stars blew between my ears and I didn’t hear him. Stepping high, I sidle into the shadows.
I recall a floor plan I saw at Shaman School. At the back of a chapel, when sundown is at my left hand, there is often a foyer. There is, with a mountain more of slippers. I take two pairs, a smaller to fit into a larger. My feet, almost habitually in high-stepping mode, slide in gratefully.
There is a pile of hassocks as well, cushions to kneel on. Another of cassocks, gowns for a priest. Behind me the old man moans. I glance back. He’s lying on the creep. I ignore him. I have to ignore him. I take a dark robe to cover my father’s cloak.
I make for the back of the ventilation tower. I’m lucky again, there are no windows.
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.
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 …
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.
Still in the Stone Cell
Anyway, I’m forgetting. There can be no preparing until I have contacted the ship and the ship has replied. I set myself to recalling the business of making contact.
I have the code, by head and by heart.
Don’t get cocky, my crow reminds me.
Then the totem songs, do I still know them? Revision, revision, revision is the name of the game, I think in the voice of the singing master. I know them. I revise them often, singing them silently, for they comfort me when I feel heart-sore.
For the singing-out-loud, I’ll need more voices than just mine, and a sound shell to bounce the sound outward and up. I don’t know what to do about more voices. But my cell will be my personal sound shell.
First things first. Silently I rise from the bunk. With every move I make, I listen for waking-up sounds from the cell next door. I shrug into my tunic, sleeveless and knee-length.
I inherited my cloak from my beanpole-tall father, the 7th generation ship-less captain of an Ark Ship so injured, that for all of my father’s life the Ark Ship still drifted helplessly in the void. I am the 8th generation in that sequence, and I will captain the ship through the maneuvers requiring a human’s input. So it is said.
The forefathers long ago deemed a shaman to be well-dressed with a cloth of a width that could be measured by her or his outstretched arms, and measuring the other direction, one and a half of her or his lengths. So I need to blouse the upper parts of my cloak above my belt to get the bottom edge up off the floor, and fold back the arm-edges a few turns.
I begin my push-aways against the wall opposite my bunk. This exercise is so habitual that I can meanwhile think about anything under the sun. If I saw the ship, others will have seen it too and I don’t mean other shamans.
The crow digs into my fears with its sturdy black beak.
Every man and woman, boy and girl, granny and grand, if they are related to Earth-human stock, studies a totem. Everyone, in their early youth, attends a totem school. Every totem is a creature of Earth.
Physically, I am the stunted, drum-chested daughter of a sylph. I’m lucky, the shamans told me, in what the geneticist was able to do for me.
I said, “Huh? What she did for me?” My mother was the geneticist consulted, one of my proud father’s little jokes. “You children are the result of a complicated bit of genetic mingle-mangle,” he used to say.
I remember most of all how my mother died of the Earth-born disease. Horribly. How can I ask anyone about that? My father tried to explain why I won’t die in the same way. I didn’t understand it. I was too young, too traumatized. I inspect myself every day for the beginnings of my mother’s fate.
Get back to it. And also, I was a Harpy Eagle. And at age fourteen Earth-years, young for my age and young for the school, the shamans took me on. Because, apparently, I am more like my father than I am like my mother in the ways that count.
Another huh. My father was tall and skinny. And look at me. And my father was the hereditary bio-captain of the Ark Ship. Look at me again.
During a home-visit after my third year at the Shaman School, my handsome brothers, hurt on numerous occasions by my cruel harpy tongue, saw a chance and carried me face-first between them to a dry cistern. They draped me over the rim to hang there while they changed their grip.
I worried about my dignity. How would it look? Then I looked down. A dark reflection looked up at me for that short moment.
My brothers reached down for my ankles and toppled me into the jelly seepage. The stone sides hold back only sand, never the planet’s plasma.
No air. No air! I might never breathe again! The well held only Lotor’s approximation of Earth’s water, a thick jelly. Could. Not. Breathe. At the last horrendous moment I recalled a myth about quicksand back on Earth.
I dragged my head out of the brawny gel at the same time rolling half onto my back. I swam two hesitant strokes to the side and with slow arms dragged myself up the ladder. Too tired to run from the guards alerted by my brothers, I gave myself into the hands of Lotor and am still here, a thousand days later.
A sixth of my life has gone into not giving in to my twanging legs and my groaning shoulders arms wrists and hands. To keep fit. Every day I ask myself, for what?
And I tell myself. It is to get my bravery back, my courage, to haul them from under the soles of my feet where I keep such things that remind me who I am and what I am not. My brothers might already be dead. The same disease my mother couldn’t save herself from. Maybe it really really won’t come to take me. I wish I knew.
I never heard of the Ark Ship replying to a singing by light flashes that anybody might see? So how will the ship reply, if not by light flashes?
The morning’s food arrives without me having heard the approach of the guards almost as if I’m deaf and blind to the changes. Thayne also is silent. Because he listens to every move I make? There’s nothing different about the way the food comes. The plate is shoved through the slot at floor level. Porridge.
A guard checks my condition by way of the eyehole in the door.
I keep my yellow eyes hooded against his frank and interested stare. In the same way, we of the Earth-born hood our shamanic deceptions with the practical applications of totem schooling. Everyone is helped and everyone helps, most without awareness of the latter.
With half of the hundred Earth-born in the yard downstairs, can I afford to wait for someone else to set things into motion?
The Yellow City Dream
I’m walking in the mid-day streets of the Yellow City again. I feel the warm dust between my bare toes. The sun’s light is yellow and kind.
In my reality I’ve never been there. The Yellow City doesn’t lie along the Great Parallel.
In my dreams I am there so often that I almost always know how the city got its name.
I’ve only dreamed the Yellow City since I came to the prison.
How is it possible that I can know that in a dream? I wish I had learned more in Shaman School.
Lotor learned about yellow dye from a settler, how to make it from onion-skins. From then on every Lotor-born grew onions and made yellow dye and hundreds, maybe thousands of yellow flags. They decorate every house, every building and every arch in the Yellow City.
Still walking, still in the dream, I turn a corner into a barely busy street. I turn another corner. Still none of the people I usually meet.
These people are always friendly to me even though I am an 8th generation Earth-human, and they are of the unfinished Lotor-kind. Their eyes are mud-brown the same as the mud-brick houses. Their head-hair is sparse and fine and they don’t have eyebrows or eyelashes. They look like walking talking human newborns.
I look for the stallholders and the vegetable vendors. The pharmacist, bag in hand, is nearly always running to save a life. And there are nearly always the water-men. They carry a drum of Lotor’s water on a stretcher and sell the chewy stuff by the spoonful.
Today the clay-brown street is empty and the city is a lonely place.
In the dreams I was getting used to the people. It seems impossible that they are all gone. How long since the previous time that I dreamed the Yellow City?
Most of the walls are crumbling. The yards they enclose are dusty. They give the impression that the emptying happened quite a while ago.
Abruptly I am pulled upward. My feet lift from the street.
That’s what it feels like. As if someone didn’t like what I was thinking and pulled me out.
More like sliding. My clothes aren’t sagging down as if I’m in the air. I’m sliding along a thick layer of …?
Bright doors here and there make the empty-city idea a lie. At the opposite edge of the city a stone house sits in a large walled enclosure. A pair of human people, a man and a woman, tend a garden of lush vegetables. Nearby is another stone house, also in a walled yard. A family of human girls keeps a home there under a grape arbor.
They all must be gathered in, says the dream. I need their …
Ahead now there’s a derelict tower, half-painted with a rose tint. The tower, the house at its base and the surrounding yard are empty. The tower invites me in and I glide through a window opening.
I see that the inside of the tower is lined with ten-cubes, the little cobble stones that the first settlers used to keep themselves up off the planet’s surface.
I glide back out and in the direction of the now setting sun I see the backs of the departing population, the Lotor-born, walking somewhere, a column like a river winding among the sand-hills beyond the city. I feel myself among them. Then I hear words.
“Bring along the rest of the fugitives to the …”
Dark flames engulf the city and are coming to engulf me. Black smoke coils into the red sky. Falling ashes, and then embers, sting my arms and legs, too many to slap away. I scream.
My poor ears. Who is that screaming? My voice vibrates and sounds … sounds just like the trilled words in a totem song? They feel … like a signal?
The sounds join. Become words. Words gang up together and make sentences. A distant voice sings them as they fly by.
Gather up your people and go to the tower. The tower, the house and the walls enclosing the yard are all of settler-stone. From the tower you’ll see the path into the mountains.
I shiver. Lotor had me sliding along a thick layer of Lotor water. I fill in the planet’s missing words. <I need their energy> <Bring along the rest of the fugitives to the Field of Dreams>
I fight my way down through the jellified water, to ground level.
I wake, remembering. To be safe from Lotor’s hunger, the new settlers cut ten-cube stones from Lotor’s waste mountains, and laid the stones in front of their feet until a path was made to a good place for a village.
The pioneers ate and drank and slept on the paths until more stones were cut and floors and walls and roofs and gardens could be built. Eventually nine little towns were built, the roads between them, the tower and a few houses in the Yellow City.
Lotor wove me a dream and almost caught me. Just before the end … a who-or-what burned the dream-net and sang me the path back into the mountains.
I shiver so hard that I’m cold in a minute. I wrap myself head to toe first in my cloak and then also in the blanket, and then scrunch up on the mud-brick bed. The white cell is mud-brick as is the whole prison. There’s no getting away from Lotor in here.
Thayne the Sea Eagle still snores.
Goosebumps ripple up and down my back, not only from the cold. The minute I entered shaman school the warnings began. Lotor sends dreams. She will try to catch you anyway she can.
Every time I dream about the Yellow City, it becomes more real. At the school, the head shaman warned us again and again. “Lotor will get you accustomed to her ideas by repetition,” he said. “The dreams will present an alternate reality you will begin to believe.”
I breathe to quiet my fluttering heart … it was a close call, but in the end the snarky planet failed.
I turn over on the bunk to help my brain turn my thoughts to the who-or-what who has a hundred Earth-born for me to gather up.
According to Thayne, there are half that hundred Earth-born outside right now looking for shamanic leadership. I used to comfort myself with the thought that with only three years training, I’d always be the least of the shamans. When I was taken, the school still had fourteen more suitable to lead.
I roll onto my back. How gather them up, with me in here?
The shadow that is my former self sits like a crow on my back, eating me.
I visualize the reflection of the Ark Ship faraway in the night sky.
The crow tells me the risks. What if you ready every man, woman and child for the event and it isn’t our Ark Ship? What then?
We’ll … we’ll … I don’t know. There isn’t a back-up story. I breathe deep, many times. Begin to hyperventilate. Dizzy in the head. There is no back-up story. There can be no back-up plan.
Meaning, I think after a while, I don’t … I don’t need one? Lotor will take care of us if our Ark Ship can’t?
I will not think that far. I will not.
3: The Ark Ship in the Night Sky
During the night I stand below the window and stare into the quadrant of sky where I was instructed that the Ark Ship might re-appear. I see a speck of light on a regular if speedy trajectory.
My heart lurches. Is it the Ark Ship? I reach up and clutch the edge of the window hole. Can that fast-moving spot of light really be our Ark Ship?
Lightness-of-being fills me: its other name is hope.
It must be the Ark Ship repaired and coming to fetch us! The shaman school had fourteen teachers when I was taken. Are they also gone? I backtrack.
All of them were shamans and therefore, all of them were the Ark Ship’s would-be crew. They were six-year trained and for many years practiced their skills in a theoretical way.
My father died early and I was deemed to be our Ark Ship’s rightful captain by my DNA. Deemed seems to mean as said by an authority. If you ask me, rightful, sounds as though somebody might try to take the job without rights.
But the whole three years at the school, I wondered why the Ark Ship even needs a human captain? At one time I worried about that more than anything. It still doesn’t make sense. The Ark Ship runs itself, right? And if that fast-moving light-point up there is our ship, does that mean it has repaired itself after the mysterious entity’s attack? So why does the Ark Ship need a human to captain it?
My first concern has to be to get free.
There’s a crow living in my belly saying dark things about that escape. I tell it that I am still alive. The crow tells me that I am nothing but a piece of flotsam, a scrap caught in a plot organized by Lotor.
I feel my lightness-of-being start to leak away. Because who am I to hope? That too drains to my feet. Where I also keep my resolve, courage, and every other thing that needs to be trodden down because how else to survive than by rejecting anything that will endanger me?
Any little gleam in my eyes, a laugh, a smile, even a cheerful posture earns me a thump on the head or a kick where it will hurt. Sometimes, when I upset a guard or the administrator, I get the feeling I’m a finger-width from being thrown into the Black Cell.
But look, the dot of light makes another pass. It seems like it travels quite a fast orbit for it to be overhead again so soon. What if it’s the star-ship of some other visitor coming even as we arrived several hundred years ago?
I wait for a sign from the star-ship that will tell me its identity.
Or must it be the captain who begins the conversation? I think I can remember how. As a reward for being promoted into the second year of my shaman studies, I got to talk with the ship. I laugh at my expectations then. I meant to say It’s me, Zjebelle, talking with our Ark Ship.
The Head Shaman shook his head. “We’d be singing for hours. You’ll be J for Jeb. Dash dash dot dot.”
The head shaman had a soft spot for me and I wasn’t afraid to tell him my thoughts. “I don’t want the J for Jeb when the Ship’s sign is dot dash and I don’t want the C for Captain when that is dash dot dash dot. They’d be too similar in a situation of hurry,” I said intersecting a glance of thoughtful surprise between two shamans.
I’d learned about the difficulty of similar call signs … as in being called for dinner … from my mother’s inability to distinguish between Jeb, Jed and Jake when she was in a hurry. She always ended up shouting, “You lot.”
My fellow second-year shamans shuffled their feet like they said, “Get on with it, Harpy.”
Nobody stopped calling me that just because I was in shaman school.
The head shaman had us write our signals in longhand. I understood my stupidity after the first two words, and began again. Dash dash dot dot / dot / dot dot dot dot / dot dash. In longhand, I remember, gaps between letters are denoted by a slash. Giving us thirteen elements to weave into a totem song and which, in a burst of generosity, the shaman choir made the Harpy’s positive attributes. Which felt oh so good at the time. One of my classmates sent his initial letter, the other her crew initial, dash dash dot dash, and both of them were sung with the Meerkat song.
The dot of light does pass again. It doesn’t signal.
I’m disappointed though I don’t know what I should be looking for. If it is dots and dashes, should I be looking for a flickering light?
Stupid. I knock my head against the wall soundlessly, it wouldn’t do to wake the snorer in the adjacent cell. If it is the Ark Ship, its light is only a reflection of Lotor’s star, Procyon B. And, in the same way that the shamans’ signal to the ship must be secret and is hidden in the totem singing, so probably the ship’s signals to us must be made secretly, hidden in ….?
I frown. I don’t remember how the answers came when I was still in the school. If they came.
But if the ship does still know me, it will be as Z. When I realize that, I also realize that if I can contact the Ark Ship, I’ll be able to ask it anything I want to know, including how the chain of command will work and what the crew, and everyone else, will be doing the whole long way back to Earth. If that’s where we’ll be going …
Sleep on it. That was the head shaman’s favorite vigil for getting in touch with one’s unconscious awareness which, according to that old man, is the repository of ten times more knowledge than the conscious awareness allows its owner. He often said, “Added to which, it’s a vigil we can work at without much extra work, every night.”
I lie down to sleep.
Strings (2004) is a film acted by marionettes though it could be said that all the actors are puppeteer-marionette-pairs. This reading would help explain the only instance that a part of a marionette handler is seen.
A problem for me personally is the lack of subtitles in lieu of the absence of living lips to read. Hence, the intricacies of plot and story, for me are gappy. It’s a coming-of-age story.
A king kills himself and leaves a letter explaining–the letter is taken before his son can read it–and not knowing any better, the son goes out to avenge his father. There is a happy ending, but not before the scene (above) where the prince makes it home to witness his sister’s death.
It’s easy to become so engrossed in the Strings world that one would forget that marionettes are dependent on their human technicians and human voices for every move, every expression, and every placement in a scene.
In one scene a human foot is seen hastening up a stair out of a cellar after the puppeteer apparently drops their character to the ground with a definite and frightening crash.
I wondered about the editorial decision to leave that scene as-is. Is it that the foot can be seen as a reminder of who the agents are in this entertainment, or is it to remind viewers of the technical skills that have got the story so far? Either of those could then be seen as instances where the viewer trips and falls out of the story. A no-no in fiction in general that I didn’t want to suspect of the producers.
After some thought, it seems to me that there was no possibility other than a deux ex machina moment, literally a god-in-the-machine, to explain how that character came to be in that cellar, and that the puppet’s handler as portrayed by her foot represents that god.
While I knew that there is much more to world-building than concrete nuts-and-bolts world design, seeing in Strings how dialogue and character actions translate into very specific cultural metaphors, had me on the edge of my seat.
On the Plain of Death, for example, the soldiers’ strings snap-freeze and break. In a contrasting war scene portraying war with a desert people, death is signified by strings burning.
“We are all connected,” says the Prince’s desert princess. She glances at the string-filled heavens where all strings go, and where, above the clouds, it is believed that strings are connected. The pair making love is symbolized by their strings mixing and weaving together.
Writers of science fiction are warned away from metaphor. (Card, 1990) Yet in Strings, the outcome of many of the actions hinge on, or are influenced by marionette-specific metaphor. One of many such actions is the outgoing king committing suicide by cutting his own head-string. He isn’t buried, but god-like, is strung up on a wall.
The Prince’s sister tries to stop him leaving her by holding onto his hand-strings.
A pair of children quarreling get themselves tangled up in their strings.
The Prince’s uncle goes to receive a prophecy from a bunch of ancient puppets, bunches of slack stringless limbs, with only their head-strings still intact.
The gestation of a baby is signified by being carved from an appropriate wood. At the moment of its coming-to-life, light-filled strings descend from heaven that are reverently attached to the head, hands and feet.
There are dozens more of such moving moments.
If a story is to be more than a theatrical experience, it needs visual backdrops, props, and processes for the characters to interact with.
The Prince is of a people who have plenty of water in their land. Rain is common at times of great sadness. Raindrops on sad puppet faces in lieu of tears is a nice extrapolation.
Cells in a prison are delineated by overhead frames that contain prisoners’ strings and restrict their movement.
When all strings attached to the living rise up to an unseen heaven, it makes sense that hooked machetes, for instance, are a preferred war weapon. An enemy can hook in and cut an opponent’s head-string to kill them. Or an enemy will gather all their target’s strings and cut through the lot with one fell stroke to deliver an even worse fate.
Slave drivers use a weapon reminiscent of a carpet hook to in-gather the strings with which to control their captives.
The tents of the desert people are truncated into architecturally natural shapes to allow for the ascent of strings to the heavens.
Again, these are only a few of the instances. Watch the film, is what I’m saying.
There is a better quality version than the one below available on SBS, an Australian free-to-air television station.
How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy (p91-92) 1990, Orson Scott Card, Writers Digest Books, NY.