Fiction: Half Shaman, 10b

Creeping Desert (part 2)

I, Jeb, stopped with the reciting. Thought the next things, still too painful to even hear myself say them. Soowei’s father pushed her to the door like my father pushed me toward the door of his room.

My father gave me his serious words while he cut himself, then me, and held my wound closed after he transferred the amulet into me. What Soowei’s father called the chip? What Soowei thought the size of a groat pea, that same flat slightly rectangular object. Amulet is the Shaman word.

Then my father led me out. He shut his bedroom door between him and me because I wouldn’t leave. I heard him walk into my mother’s sick room. Heard her bed’s springs squeak from his weight. He was gone within days. I stood outside that door, hearing my mother hating my father, for leaving her to die alone beside him already dead. 

Uncle Puma, finding me so, took me to the Shaman School to get the right of it. To have the amulet transplanted from me into him, he thought. The Head Shaman sent him away. One hundred of the amulets came down with the settlers. Who knows how few still exist? The Shaman School once upon a time tried to keep track. It became too depressing.

I lift my attention from my high stepping. What is that thing ahead? The prison has squared corners and straight horizontal and vertical edges. This thing is a free form hump with a red glint on it. I slip slide a bit further, but slower. The hump rises out of the sand. It seems to have a stem. A mushroom?

There seems to be an insect on it, waving. I am so sleepy that I dream a micro-dream while I’m walking. The insect turns into the smiling man who turns into my uncle. He didn’t like me after the Head Shaman showed him the exit. My uncle raises his arm and waves forward a couple more of his kind.

I wake when a pair of young men arrive and take my arms.

“Sleeping while you walk,” says one. “One day you can show us how you do that.”

“Sure would help make night carrying more bearable,” says the other.

They are no older than I am. They help me to walk faster. My eyes droop despite the speed. Both of them talk at me, asking me things, but I am too tired to make sense of their words.

At the base of the mushroom they consult together and tie a cloth-plaited rope around me below my arms. One of the boys passes by me up a rope ladder. He and the smiling man pull me to the top of the mushroom.

“What’s it made of?” I ask.

The other young one smiles. I didn’t see where he came from. “It’s a glassed platform,” he says.

“Mm,” I manage to say. I crawl to a pile of swags. Let my eyes fall shut.

***

I wake but don’t open my eyes.

Near at hand I smell water, warm, in skins. Cooked rice folded and molded in rice cloths. The rice will be chewy, I remember from the past. Someone’s sweat permeates the blankets I lie on. The sand surrounding the mushroom to the horizon and beyond, smells of stale dried blood.

“It’s safe to open your eyes, Shaman Zjebella,” the smiling man says. I remember his voice.

I do open my eyes and see the fabric of a cloak tented over me. An open weave, it has a thousand starry squares of sunlight shining through it. In other words, it’s way past dawn.

Beside me, the smiling man smiles.

“Hello, Uncle,” I say.

When I last saw my uncle and my father hugging, my uncle was shorter by about the length of a head and neck, and not nearly as thin as my father. Their eyes were the same color. Dark staring cat eyes.

Uncle’s smile widens. “Glad to meet you again, Zjebella. Glad to start again. Be friends this time.”

He does something uncomfortable with my name. “There’s just you and me? I thought I noticed …?”

“The boys. They wait for us under-side. We have thirteen kilometers to travel to the next overnighting platform.”

“I’m quite thirsty,” I say. “Can you spare me some water?”

Uncle grins. “We dribbled a liter and a half into you while you slept, will you believe it?”

I lick my lips. My mouth and my tongue don’t feel dry. “I guess I can wait.” I know I sound graceless. I’m disappointed that it is Uncle I must tangle with first thing.

“There’s a hole down to the fundament of the platform for wastes,” he says out of his half-smile. “Clean water in a depression near it for washing. You should perhaps use the facilities before we go.”

Why does he think we can start over when he still behaves as if I am the ten-year-old he last knew?

There is nothing to do but to disappear beyond the sarong-wrap screening the facilities.

Washing my hands I see that my cuts and bruises have been dabbed with a yellow ointment. No memory of that attention either. I let my face and hands air-dry because my cloak is torn in several places and half-shredded everywhere else.

I shudder remembering the confines of the coffin-narrow slot. Settler-cut stones are never polished. There was never enough metal for files. Inert sand to rub over sharp edges to smoothe them is also lacking on Lotor. I search the platform for my slippers.

My uncle mimes throwing them over the edge of the platform. “Such rags, Zjebella. We’ll go quicker with you on bare feet. The planet will hardly have had a taste of you yet.”

That’s all you know, Uncle. Distant in my childhood, he seeks me out now? When I was a child, he talked about me as that overly dramatic girl child, hurting my father with his judgments. He forms the syllables of my name with smooth care and a loving intonation as if he now honors me. Does he think I’m stupid?

He points me toward the rag-and-rope ladder.

But I catch up the bottom of my cloak and tear off two squares. Folding them on a diagonal, I tie them around my feet, the long edges around my heels; the short angles folded over my toes and caught up in the tie-around. Then I climb down.

Uncle throws the folded screens and the swag I slept on over the edge; then follows me down the ladder. He twitches the ladder and the top of it comes loose and snaking down.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 10

The Creeping Desert

When I am a long way from the prison, though I can still see it, I can’t stop myself celebrating. “I’m out, out, out! Yes! I’m out!”

Capering on Lotor’s wide desert sands in my double slippers, I enjoy the night sky. At totem school I learned that Earth has a large natural satellite called the Moon. At night the Moon reflects the light of that system’s central star called the Sun.

Here on Lotor, the exploded superstar Procyon-A rules the night hours and so the desert sands are dark red. Some people think that whoever once lived on Moera, that star’s only planet, were Lotor’s first settlers. Others think that the Moeran people built Lotor.

How far have I come? The distance to walk is fifty kilometers. When my average speed might be four kilometers an hour that could take me twelve and a half hours. I look back. There’s a lump of rock on the horizon darker than night that I don’t recall passing. I’m disappointed that the prison still seems so near.

Speed when slide-footing in double slippers? What am I thinking? I’m starting to get quite thirsty. Later I’ll have water. When I catch up with the ones I’m going to catch up with. I don’t think as far as the other possibility though it lurks in my mind.

I look back again. Wait. What was that? I swear I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye. Darker than night. I blink. There’s nothing.

I’m slow. What if the ones I’m catching up to, leave before I get there? Stop looking back. I look at the slip-sliding tracks I’m leaving behind. No wonder I’m making hardly any progress.

I step out of the slippers straight into the high-stepping gait. Right away I feel the sand begin to engulf me. I pick up the slippers. I’ll probably need them again.

The sand covers my feet with prickling with every step I take, and doesn’t fall off when I raise my feet at the end of a pace. The sand seems hungrier than the creep back in the black cell.

I stop. After divesting my left foot by wiping down it with my hand, I step back into that slipper. Wipe my wrist and hand with my other hand. My right leg in the meantime is covered to the knee. Off! Get off me! Slip-sliding it must be.

Can’t stop yawning. If I had a staff I would lean on it and fall asleep between two steps. My jaws crack and my eyes water. My eyelids want to fall shut. I sleep for two paces and dream. That darker-than-night thing follows me still. Shock! I almost fall!

I jerk awake. Manage not to fall. Slip-slide. Slip-slide. It will be useless to peer back to look for the thing. It’s a dream, right?

Open wide! My eyes. I stare forward. I want to run. I slow. I sleep. I dream. A crack opens down the darker-than-dark thing’s chest. A man climbs out and rolls up a suit, stows it in his backpack. It’s Simmon. Pale skin flakes flutter from his forearm. He’s following me.

I fall over, wake before I hit the sand. I jump up! Twirl and shake. Wipe! Down my arms. Wipe! Down my legs. High-step. Wipe my chest. My back! Get off me!

Slip-slide. Open wide! Smile, grin, be a clown. Think, think, think of a way to stay awake! And I need to stay ahead of Simmon. I don’t dare to look back.

Telling myself Soowei’s story should keep me awake. I know it so well I’ll be able to attend to my walking too. So, start. I take a deep breath.

“Soowei, as I understand it, was the child of the Captain then. They were of the first generation of settlers, dropped off on Lotor by the Ark-Ship. My father, telling me the tale, never gave him a name. “Don’t interrupt,” he said. “I have no time. The First Captain had no totem to teach his child. It was before the totem system, before the shaman schooling. Before we had any idea that we might need to hide what we were about.

“Soowei ran up the uneven blocky stairs to her father’s rooms. When she’d been a four- year-old making her pronouncements, he’d got a job as night watchman over the food stores. The rooms came with the job—daytime jobs only got you a place in one of the dorms. He taught her to never tell anyone her dreams but him, and only up there in their little rooms.

“She twisted with the stairs. They were so narrow that her satchel swung over the drop. She slept in the dorms now, but still joined him for her evening meals. For her birthdays, Father always cooked up something special. She was sixteen today and her mouth filled with saliva, anticipating what he had made. She’d wait with telling him the dream. Or she mightn’t tell him at all.

“Because how should you tell your own father that you saw him die? Her heart galumphed again, thinking of it. She almost tripped. The open, un-protected side of the stairs yawned to the dark ground below. She clung to the outer wall. There was no balustrade, which was one of Father’s ways of discouraging visitors. 

“She knocked, and lifted the door a couple of centimeters to swing it open. The door forever sticking on the floor was another discouragement. “Hey,” she said, sniffing for the birthday treat. Tea towel covered dishes stood on the kitchen bench. Chicken curry? She hung her satchel on the hook by the door.

“Come and sit down,” her father said. “Opposite me.”

The chairs faced each other along a longer side of the table. First aid paraphernalia was laid out on the place-mats. She saw it all at a glance. Two tourniquets. Two sets of bandaging. Two needles threaded. Two scalpels. A cloth and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. She felt the blood leaving her face. “What are we doing?”

“The thing we need to do before we celebrate,” he said. “The thing I’ve got no words for. First I have to hurt myself. Then I have to hurt you. You know I love you. My own little girl despite that the planet owns you.”

He didn’t sound sober. She glanced about, searching the various shelves for the liquor he might be sipping.

Then she noticed the glass by his elbow. Clear liquid. The rubbing alcohol? “What’s with the grog?” she said.

“Crutch. Helping to steel myself for what I need to do.”

He’d treated her as an adult from the minute she’d spoken the first of her other-wordly judgments. That’s what he called them, judgments. As if she made them happen.

She’d told him that Steed Gulle would break his back in a fortnight. It was before she could count. She’d named the days on her fingers … Monday again, Tuesday again … The same week she dreamed that Bessit Brown was growing a lump in her belly, not a baby.

She’d been twelve before she found a different name for them, if not where they came from before she knew them. Fore-tellings. They came from her unconscious awareness and who put such thoughts into that part of her? “So maybe you should stop drinking now so you’ll still be able to cut straight?” she said. “I’m going by the presence of the scalpels,” she said to his eyes searching her soul.

He slumped. “Yeah. All right.”

“Tell me why?” she said. “Why we’re doing this, and why now?”

Silence.

“You’re leaving,” she said. Which was the first part of the dream. “You haven’t told me everything yet, the things that I might be able to use to survive. Maybe do something with my life other than being in the thrall of the planet.”

“You dreamed it? And then thought it through?” He sounded surprised. They normally analyzed the dreams together.

“No one sleeps next to me in the dorm,” Soowei said. “No one will work alongside me. People are afraid of me. The only reason they don’t stone me is because you have power over their food. Why would I stay when you leave?”

He grunted agreement. “That’s my girl. Your mother and I were the first to jump from the ship-to-surface-lander. We lay down and made love. Yes, I would call it that even though we did it to win a bet. Pregnant from day one, who would’ve believed that?”

He shook his head at the long-ago mystery. “After we discovered how alive the planet is and how resistant to us settling on it, I was afraid for you. I’ve missed your mother more than I can say.”

“Sixteen years,” Soowei said.

“I only knew her for a year. You are feisty the way she was. I was her anchor like I’ve been your anchor.”

He gathered in his voice, though the walls were thicker than a hand’s length and no one else lived on this level. “Something is coming that I can’t save you from. The town committee got the news yesterday and are crying and weeping. A lot of them in the same situation as me, kids in the nominated age group.”

“What?” Soowei said.

He didn’t listen or didn’t hear. Didn’t even look at her. “All I can do is give you my chip. Make you known to the ship and so maximize your chances of surviving. Why it’s got to be done now! Before the announcement.”

“Surviving what?” She joggled his arm. “What?” 

He still didn’t say though he stared at her now. “The planet has ordered a round-up.”

“Lotor has ordered? How?” She heard herself being strident. Everything to do with the planet was important to her. How would she ever be her own person when she still didn’t know what Lotor could do to her?

“Her father got that severe expression on his face. His face was made for stern. Grey eyes. Grey stubble. Lank, uncared-for grey hair. “We know the planet can influence humans, because of you. There must be others. Someone who listens.” All her life he had sheltered her from the planet in every way he could think up.

Soowei stepped off a path sometimes, testing Lotor. The creep or whatever grew in that place always lay down quiescent before her, telling her that Lotor still knew Soowei.”

Slip slide, slip slide. My eyes feel so grainy I can barely see.

Keep at it. Each of my feet is in the air fifty percent of the time. My robe drags behind me, giving free rides to the sand. More and more collects at the frayed edge. I think I thought I could spread it on the sand to sleep on, but now I don’t dare.

The prison isn’t visible now even when I am up on a dune. That’s progress, isn’t it? I was going to stop looking behind me. Keep going with Soowei.

“Soowei made herself ask the next thing. “What’s a round-up?”

Her father frowned. “It’s all the towns sending all individuals of a certain age group to a certain place. They are never seen again. Even the guards that look after them aren’t heard of again. The planet tells its lackey to tell us that we are outstripping our resources.” He swallowed. “This time it is all young people aged fourteen to eighteen.”

Soowei perched on the edge of her chair. When had she risen? She felt faint. “We’re such a little population. Eight villages. If they are never heard of again it means they are killed, doesn’t it?”

During one part of the nightmare she’d felt herself in a frightened crowd, a claustrophobic crush. A reddish glow hung over them. People coughed as though the glow had dust in it. “I think the planet has been waiting to catch me.”

“Hush a bye baby,” he said. “A dream?” He held out one of the tourniquets. Showed her the place to tie it on his arm. Swabbed his arm with the rubbing alcohol.

“Nightmare,” she said.

“Tighter.” He handed her a table knife to slide under the bandage and twist it, to help restrict the blood flow. He took up a scalpel. Sliced into his arm below the constriction. Dropped the blade and gripped the wound together. “Ah!” He grimaced pursed-lipped.

Soowei swallowed. She wouldn’t feel faint. She wouldn’t feel faint. Her father prodded in his wound. The edges bled despite the tourniquet. 

“Got it.”

He laid the chip onto the bit of alcohol-sodden swab. Took up the needle. “Help me with this? With that?” He glanced toward his pocket-knife. He poked a hole into his flesh, into the opposite side of the cut. Drew the edges together with a knot. “Now.”

She pinched the thread together and inserted the knife tip. Pulled. Snap. Three times. Three stitches.

“Bandage,” he said.

She wound it round his arm. Firmly. It turned red straightaway he released the tourniquet. “It’ll do for now,” he said. He picked up the second tourniquet. “Roll up your sleeve, Petal.”

She would never again hear him calling her by his nickname for her. If she cried she would be lost as well. She clenched her teeth against the sting of the blade. Looked away from her blood flowing.

Her father shoved something into the wound. The chip. It felt as big as a groat pea.

The sewing was almost unbearable. Five stitches. Ten holes. She was crying now. “More stitches than you got.” As if he hadn’t sewed himself up. She laughed, blubbering.

He slathered alcohol over the wound.

She managed to not cry out.

“There.” He’d bandaged her without her noticing. “Wrap the tourniquet over mine? Better not leave a trail.”

She knew exactly what he meant. Leave a blood trail and the planet will have you. “What will you do?” She asked him, dry-mouthed. Whatever he did, she already knew how it would end.

He wedged the scalpels and the needles in the wall. Places that he years ago had carved into the soft cement. “Chicken curry,” he said. “Your favorite.” Set the bowl in front of her. Put the spoon in her hand as if she was three again.

She laughed. It meant he’d shaped the tofu mix into little chickens. The only way he’d got her to eat the eternal tofu. Their town had six hens. They were far too precious to eat. The hens laid four eggs a day and Soowei had eaten approximately one egg in her life so far. Everyone was on the list.

“Got the satchel? Yes,” he answered himself, fetching it to the table.

She frowned. “You knew a long time ago this was going to happen? When you told me to take the satchel everywhere I went, to get people accustomed?”

“Ben Cloff takes size eight boots,” he said. “Take them. The planet shouldn’t know you among the rest.”

He never called the planet by the name the settlers picked for it. Glade. He figured it would have its own name for itself. Anyway it was wishful thinking they’d ever turn it into a glade.

“My leather gloves.” He put them in the satchel. “Same as the boots. Good for climbing the mountain. The flying horses live at the top. Could be they’ll help you. Food.” He put in three thick carrots and a round turnip. “Ben Cloff again, good gardener.” Last he put in his pocket-knife.

She made a sound of disagreement.

“I won’t need it again. I won’t be leaving the town. That way neither the town nor the planet will know what I did. The committee will shortly make the announcement and everyone will suddenly be busy dealing with that. You should go now, Soowei.”

He rose and she rose. He rolled down her sleeve. He hugged her hugging him. A big sob escaped her.

“Remember how much I love you, Soowei. And how much your mother loved you. If she hadn’t wrapped you in her shawl, the only thing not blood-stained, the planet might have taken you too. You lay in a little nest she made in the grasses. Go now, Soowei, my child of the swaying grasses.”

Fiction: Half Shaman, 9

Escape

… 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.

Squish splat.

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.  

Fiction: Half Shaman, 8

The Black Cell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait.

My fingers brush a bump.

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

How high are they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction: Half Shaman, 7

7: The Narrow Yard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He comes for me, fist raised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…far-seeing over fold and forest …”

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

“… He brings solutions to relieve a soul …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction: Half Shaman, 6

6: The Meerkat Totem

I’m thinking about everything to do with signaling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For what?

Sting sting sting in my arm.

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

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

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

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

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

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?