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, 5

Still in the Stone Cell

Harpy Eagle, Jeb’s totem before she went to shaman school.
Image from zoo.sandiegozoo.org

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?

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.