Fiction: Half Shaman, 3

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. 

World-building: Strings (2004)

Rain = tears: from Strings (2004)

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.