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?

Fiction: Half Shaman, 4

The Yellow City Dream

I dream.

I’m walking in the mid-day streets of the Yellow City again. I feel the warm dust between my bare toes. The sun’s light is yellow and kind.

In my reality I’ve never been there. The Yellow City doesn’t lie along the Great Parallel.

In my dreams I am there so often that I almost always know how the city got its name.

I’ve only dreamed the Yellow City since I came to the prison.

How is it possible that I can know that in a dream? I wish I had learned more in Shaman School.

Lotor learned about yellow dye from a settler, how to make it from onion-skins. From then on every Lotor-born grew onions and made yellow dye and hundreds, maybe thousands of yellow flags. They decorate every house, every building and every arch in the Yellow City.

Still walking, still in the dream, I turn a corner into a barely busy street. I turn another corner. Still none of the people I usually meet.

These people are always friendly to me even though I am an 8th generation Earth-human, and they are of the unfinished Lotor-kind. Their eyes are mud-brown the same as the mud-brick houses. Their head-hair is sparse and fine and they don’t have eyebrows or eyelashes. They look like walking talking human newborns.

I look for the stallholders and the vegetable vendors. The pharmacist, bag in hand, is nearly always running to save a life. And there are nearly always the water-men. They carry a drum of Lotor’s water on a stretcher and sell the chewy stuff by the spoonful.

Today the clay-brown street is empty and the city is a lonely place.

In the dreams I was getting used to the people. It seems impossible that they are all gone. How long since the previous time that I dreamed the Yellow City? 

Most of the walls are crumbling. The yards they enclose are dusty. They give the impression that the emptying happened quite a while ago.

Abruptly I am pulled upward. My feet lift from the street.

That’s what it feels like. As if someone didn’t like what I was thinking and pulled me out.

I’m flying?

More like sliding. My clothes aren’t sagging down as if I’m in the air. I’m sliding along a thick layer of …?

Bright doors here and there make the empty-city idea a lie. At the opposite edge of the city a stone house sits in a large walled enclosure. A pair of human people, a man and a woman, tend a garden of lush vegetables. Nearby is another stone house, also in a walled yard. A family of human girls keeps a home there under a grape arbor.

They all must be gathered in, says the dream. I need their …

Ahead now there’s a derelict tower, half-painted with a rose tint. The tower, the house at its base and the surrounding yard are empty. The tower invites me in and I glide through a window opening.

I see that the inside of the tower is lined with ten-cubes, the little cobble stones that the first settlers used to keep themselves up off the planet’s surface.

I glide back out and in the direction of the now setting sun I see the backs of the departing population, the Lotor-born, walking somewhere, a column like a river winding among the sand-hills beyond the city. I feel myself among them. Then I hear words.

“Bring along the rest of the fugitives to the …”  

Dark flames engulf the city and are coming to engulf me. Black smoke coils into the red sky. Falling ashes, and then embers, sting my arms and legs, too many to slap away. I scream.

My poor ears. Who is that screaming? My voice vibrates and sounds … sounds just like the trilled words in a totem song? They feel … like a signal?

The sounds join. Become words. Words gang up together and make sentences. A distant voice sings them as they fly by.

Gather up your people and go to the tower. The tower, the house and the walls enclosing the yard are all of settler-stone. From the tower you’ll see the path into the mountains.

I shiver. Lotor had me sliding along a thick layer of Lotor water. I fill in the planet’s missing words. <I need their energy>   <Bring along the rest of the fugitives to the Field of Dreams>

I fight my way down through the jellified water, to ground level.

***

I wake, remembering. To be safe from Lotor’s hunger, the new settlers cut ten-cube stones from Lotor’s waste mountains, and laid the stones in front of their feet until a path was made to a good place for a village.

The pioneers ate and drank and slept on the paths until more stones were cut and floors and walls and roofs and gardens could be built. Eventually nine little towns were built, the roads between them, the tower and a few houses in the Yellow City.

Lotor wove me a dream and almost caught me. Just before the end … a who-or-what burned the dream-net and sang me the path back into the mountains.

I shiver so hard that I’m cold in a minute. I wrap myself head to toe first in my cloak and then also in the blanket, and then scrunch up on the mud-brick bed. The white cell is mud-brick as is the whole prison. There’s no getting away from Lotor in here.

Thayne the Sea Eagle still snores.

Goosebumps ripple up and down my back, not only from the cold. The minute I entered shaman school the warnings began. Lotor sends dreams. She will try to catch you anyway she can.

Every time I dream about the Yellow City, it becomes more real. At the school, the head shaman warned us again and again. “Lotor will get you accustomed to her ideas by repetition,” he said. “The dreams will present an alternate reality you will begin to believe.”

I breathe to quiet my fluttering heart … it was a close call, but in the end the snarky planet failed.

I turn over on the bunk to help my brain turn my thoughts to the who-or-what who has a hundred Earth-born for me to gather up.

According to Thayne, there are half that hundred Earth-born outside right now looking for shamanic leadership. I used to comfort myself with the thought that with only three years training, I’d always be the least of the shamans. When I was taken, the school still had fourteen more suitable to lead.

I roll onto my back. How gather them up, with me in here?

The shadow that is my former self sits like a crow on my back, eating me.

I visualize the reflection of the Ark Ship faraway in the night sky.

The crow tells me the risks. What if you ready every man, woman and child for the event and it isn’t our Ark Ship? What then?

We’ll … we’ll … I don’t know. There isn’t a back-up story. I breathe deep, many times. Begin to hyperventilate. Dizzy in the head. There is no back-up story. There can be no back-up plan.

Meaning, I think after a while, I don’t … I don’t need one? Lotor will take care of us if our Ark Ship can’t?

I will not think that far. I will not.

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.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 2

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?

As if.

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.

Fiction: Half Shaman

Trial Book Cover
  1. Vigil

Jeb gulped water. She flailed and splashed, but sank to the top of her head. She hit a wall with her knuckles. Rose. Breathed, big gulps of air. Saw the sky, a round dark disk. No stars. Called. “Help!” Heard a couple of some-ones running away, their feet pounding on the hard dust of the central yard.

She trod the water faster to keep her head above it. Earth water was thinner than Lotor’s treacle-like stuff. The Earth-born ate Lotor’s water from a spoon. She bent her neck. Sucked in cool melt-in-her-mouth water with hardly a scent or flavor.

No cistern-woman would ever tolerate someone dunking in a cistern. Accidental or not, Jeb would be hauled to the magister and sentenced to waste-and-water-carrying for the rest of her time.

But this was a dream. Lucid dream, she’d had it so often. She stayed upright by paddling with her hands, hating the nightly drowning.

The sides of the dream-well tonight were dressed stone. Impossible. Lotor’s thirst for Earth’s water was legendary. Lotor would suck a human dry … say a man wandered home drunk between a pair of villages and accidentally stepped from the stone path … Lotor would’ve tossed aside his husk by the time the man’s friends came looking for him. As a child, Jeb always wondered how Lotor would suck a human dry?

But anyway, real cisterns had seamless metal envelopes inside their extruded-stone walls. How did this water not soak away between the dry-laid stones?

****

I open my eyes. Only while dreaming can I still be Jeb and even that isn’t my real name. I tip my head back to see the state of the day by the light in the window slot high in the wall opposite the door. The sky is grey. Therefore the time is dawn. Can I recall anything useful from the dream?

The fact that everything followed logically could mean something. I am getting better at lucid dreaming?

Clink.

Be still. Don’t move. I listen. I’ve been here for three years and now they put a prisoner in the next cell? Does it mean they have discovered me? Who I am? What I am? During my first week here, guards told me every day they’d be fixing the gap between the top of the share-wall and the ceiling. Nothing was ever done.

Suspicion flares through me. They left it undone purposely. It took them all this time to find the right informant? The gap is about the height of a ten-cube, enough that I hear every move the new prisoner makes. He snores now. Why not before? He snuffles sometimes. Am I meant to think that a guard broke his nose? To make me believe he is not in their pay?

Clink.

That tells me that he is in chains. He’s meant to be dangerous?

I grin silently and ferociously. He has to be dangerous to be next to me. I creep out of bed. Sling my cloak around me and silently slide down to sit cross-legged against the opposite wall.  

“I heard you, you little fake,” the prisoner says.

My cloak slithered down the wall. I laugh silently. I’m pretty sure we’ve never met. I doubt he’d call me names if he did know me.

“You’re the shaman,” he says. “It’s up to you to save me.”

“What?” I’m so astounded that I forget that I’m masquerading as a young man.

“You’re the shaman that people out there are talking about.”

The man appears not to have taken in the girlishness of my voice. I hug myself to hold still my wobbling heart. “I’m not a shaman. I was kidnapped from the school after only three years training.”

 “Half shaman, then. A fake. Couple of hundred of Lotor-born sleep in the right-hand yard. A Field of Dreams is their destination and you know what happens there?”

I don’t say a word of what I know. All Earth-born know Soowei’s story inside out. She who was the daughter of the first Captain-of-the-Ship, saved herself from the first Field of Dreams and told her story to all who came after her.

The man continues without even taking a breath. “The fifty Totems in the left-side yard are here for saving and though I’m not one of them, so am I. They’re saying that all the shamans know the way home and that there’s only the couple of you remaining. Process of elimination, wouldn’t you say?”

My heart rolls over, I swear it. When I was taken three years ago, there were eighteen shamans still in the world. Oh tell me tell me what do someone?

There’s never any answer to such whims, of course. Next time I have a minute, I’ll have to recall Soowei’s story. Might be something in it that I can use.

The prisoner is the griping sort. “Where I want to go too,” he says. “Home, I mean. I picked a fight so I could get in here alongside you. Get you going? If you do nothing, I’ll be taken to the Field of Dreams with the worn-out Lotor-spawn. So get your act together and save us.”

I narrow my mind’s eyes. Him fighting in the Lotor-born yard or in Earth-born yard makes a big difference to my suspicions as to whom he might be. I niggle at his logic. “And if you hadn’t picked a fight?”

“The salt mines. No one comes back from them either.”

With that he tells me he picked his fight among the Earth-born.

Clink. Clink.

 “Something going on outside,” he says. “Damn it, I can’t reach the window.”

Every night I stand below the wide slot in the wall that serves as my window and look up to see the stars. I look for a fast-moving speck crossing the sky. The Ark Ship. Never seen it yet.

To see the exercise yards at the base of the building, I need to step up onto the piss-pot and grab hold of the bars in the slot that stop me escaping. I cling to them while I wedge my elbows into the sides of the blessed width.

The slot’s narrow vertical dimensions are to prevent a grown man crawling through. How would it even help him with the cell not on the ground floor? Never mind, a prisoner’s lot is not to reason why. I push my right toe into a depression in the mud-bricks worn there by every prisoner in this cell since the beginning of time. With my other foot I scrabble for the angle the back wall makes with the side wall.

Spread-eagled, I can see out. “The Lotor-born are being encouraged to rise,” I say. “They that need it are helped quite gently. They are allowing themselves to be marshaled into lines. There’s a soldier doling out hunks of bread.”

 “To chew during their walk,” the prisoner says.

I contradict him. “Their gates remain shut. It seems to me that they are being trained in the lining-up procedure.”

I’m chilled by the sight of the Lotor-born cast out from their villages for being sick, lame, old, and unproductive and being ministered by prison guards. I slide down to the floor. I sit down again, hunching my cloak around me.

“If the guards don’t come to get me in the next three minutes, you’ll have till tomorrow to spare me from the salt mines,” my neighbor says.

Ideas Mash-Up

First, being in a state of nit-picking doubt about my novel Meld, I re-read about the need for micro tension at sentence level. The novel’s so far milky pale sentences paraded in front of my mind’s eyes. I wondered where or when to start. Continue writing pale and milky? Start writing micro tension when I’m about half way? I haven’t even finished the first draft?

That was last week.

I started writing micro tension in Zebe’s POV chapter—where my head was at that moment—but soon hit a place where Zebe’s mood needed to be able to play off a moment of micro-tension that should’ve been written several chapters earlier.

Writing is a lot like sketching. For me, anyway. Sketching, I make a mark on my paper. Another mark alongside it, or continuing from it. If I make a mark in what proves to be a wrong place, I’ll erase it, and redraw it in a better place, or draw over the top of it.

Getting a story down, if I change direction, I can’t just keep writing into the now incorrect direction. I need to go back and change where that direction is coming from, to be able to remember it correctly for the next swag of material to be fitted into place.

And so I decided I need to start again, again. Bring the manuscript up to scratch before continuing.

BUT the day I present the Fungi Walk-and-Talk is approaching. Saturday 21 at 1 pm I’ll be out in Brunswick Valley Heritage Park trailing twenty keen-to-learn-all-about-fungi learners. Gone are Zebe and her problems. Because this week I’ve needed to refresh my mind on all things fungi. The novel is on the back-burner of the writing stove again.

Path through Brunswick Valley Heritage Park

Because, yes, there is what started as a little idea on the front burner. I asked myself, what could be a better way to practice writing micro-tension than with single, or at most two sentence stories? Of course I agreed. Who doesn’t, when they’re talking positivity at themselves?

Little stories they’ll be, part of larger stories of approximately 30 sentences and or 300 words. With that word count it could only be a kid’s book. Inevitably, I mashed that idea onto the Duplo story idea.

The Duplo people are tired of living in a box … They build a staircase for everyone to get up, and out…


[The staircase (previous post) is a MOC I learned, which is an acronym for My Own Creation.]

I’m using these sentences to learn my new version of Powerpoint, which is the only appropriate format I could find to publish a read-aloud book for toddlers. That, as well as another idea, is also a justification/rationalization to continue with this much more finishable project when I could working on my so far 77k sf manuscript.

At the same time as studying up on Fungi, of course.