2: Wake-Up Call
We have till the following day.
“Hear that?” he says. “Guards tramping up the stairs. Do something!”
“I hear them.” There’s nothing gentle about the sound of guards and their echoes tramping. I wake into the moment. “We will sing the Eagle’s Totem. Repeat each phrase exactly as you hear it.” I don’t tell him which Eagle’s Totem we’ll sing.
“A sing-and-response chant,” the prisoner says. “Easy-peasy.”
I begin. “He soars with his great wings reaching across the … His yellow feet clench the fish that is his …”
I aspirate the final word of each phrase, needing that little silence to keep track of the guards along the stone corridor. The prisoner copies me exactly.
The guards stop halfway and make a lot of work unlocking and opening a fiberglass door. An awkward squawk comes from the person they thrust into the cell.
The guards tramp away and down the stone stairs while the prisoner and I sing the rest of the Fishing Eagle’s lines: “He grasps a problem as if it is prey. Tears it apart and consumes it.”
As the guards come tramping up again, I begin to sing the Harpy Eagle’s difficult qualities. “Lest the soul in a harpy eagle’s care founders … The harpy tears through the self-imposed …”
This time, I hear a light hard-edged pattering in the echoing stairwell.
“They’re bringing up the fauns,” the prisoner chants. “They’re throwing them into the cells.”
No sound from the guards for a minute. By my calculations they have just closed a door on a young faun, a man with hooves said to have descended from genetically engineered stock from the Ark Ship. I don’t believe it.
Were the guards only listening to the prisoner, or to both of us? Was he singing to them, telling them what he is telling me at the same time that he is telling me? Is he telling them he has my trust?
The prisoner continues to rephrase the traditional replies. “They’re just kids. Except for the faking headman. He’ll probably double-cross you.”
The guards laugh as if they know exactly what is going on. They have one up on me there, for I have no idea what the prisoner intends with his information. Though the totem learning was never a secret, I worry that the Lotor-born might begin to listen more carefully.
The guards stop near my door. Apparently there is another cell between the one they stopped at previously and mine.
“We’ll repeat the qualities of the Sea Eagle,” I say.
This time the prisoner sings them proud and strong.
The cell door to my right squeals open then squeals shut. Click clack go the feet of a faun into the cell without any help of the Lotor-born. The guards tramp away, chatting and laughing among themselves.
“You are a Sea Eagle,” I sing.
“And you were a Harpy Eagle.” He laughs. “Is that why you went to be a shaman? Because to be shaman you get to drop your totem for the chance to study them all?”
He knows that? By every word he speaks and sings, I learn things about him. He has a lot of volume to his singing so he is strong and fit. I learn that he is taller than me from where his voice echoes against the wall between us.
He continues his teasing. “He must have hated you who gave you that totem.”
“She,” I say. I want to hear the lengths he will go to to discomfort me. “A woman shaman gave me that totem.” I don’t tell him what she added. “With the Harpy Eagle’s qualities to live up to, you may turn into a decent person.” At the time it sounded more like a curse than a compliment.
The prison’s inner walls are a double ten-cube thick where a ten-cube is about as long, wide & deep as a forefinger. Maybe the original forefinger was exactly ten what-evers. They are a measurement lost in history.
I hear no sound all night from the cells to the right (this is with me facing the cell door) not even via the gap under the door. Only when the porridge is brought next morning, I hear a whisper, like the rustling of someone pushing through dry corn stalks. The head-faun speaks? I can distinguish no words.
The Sea Eagle spooning his porridge up echoes me scraping my porridge from my bowl. The exact moment I put my spoon down after my last mouthful, he says, “I’m Thayne. What can I call you? I’m thinking now that I know you better, that we should keep your half-title a secret.”
He knows me hardly at all and he asks me my name? He suggests we keep a secret together? I think not. Only when I am dreaming, am I still Jeb.
The river of memories unleashed in me by the totem singing, becomes a slipstream of unfamiliar moments: things that haven’t happened yet, I realize. In one of the scenes I imagine being called by a strange name and not answering. That mustn’t be allowed to happen. “My name is Jeb.”
“So. Jeb,” Thayne says. “When you look at the gap above the wall between our cells, what do you see? What color is the light from over my side?”
It seems to me that Thayne wants me to think that he speaks ideas as they come to him. And that this is meant to be just such an artless comment. Though it sounds calculated. “Um,” I say. “I see the color of unpainted stone.”
“The walls in here are unpainted stone. I see a glaring white stripe on your side. Why?”
I wonder if it is safe to tell him. “Because everything in here is painted white,” I say. “Floor, walls, ceiling. I need to peer from under a blindfold half the day to protect my sight against the sun-soaked brightness.”
“Have you sketched the totems?” Thayne asks hungrily. “They teach you that in shaman school, don’t they? I guess I’ll have to imagine the wall covered with their glory. The Harpy Eagle at the top, her wings outstretched over the whole pantheon.”
He knows I haven’t? He must have contact with the guards. He is not an ordinary prisoner. Do they really think I’ll unburden myself to the likes of him?
“What would I use for a writing stick?” I say when a fingernail is the only writing stick I needed to inscribe the stars as they appear to anyone living on Earth. My half-training has readied me to imagine the lines between.
I shiver. What if the prisoner is an emissary of Lotor, and Lotor wishes to learn the map of Earth’s skies? One of the secrets taught at shaman school is that Lotor is a manufactured entity, a hostile self-learning construct.