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, 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.