Fiction: Half Shaman, 13

Ant’s Idea

I can’t make a mistake on this. Simmon’s forearm skin is a mosaic of skin flaps, which when shed, become the infectious flakes fluttering from the doomed person every move they make, if they are not fully contained by their clothes.

The settler-kind die within days, and though Simmon’s DNA pattern is straight from Earth and the Earthborn believed themselves to be immune to the skin-sloughing disease, they just take longer to die.

Simmon seems to be following us. Why? And he carries a rolled up, darker-than-night life-suit in his bag, with its insides likely littered with skin-flakes and so as infectious as he is. Though it needn’t be that he intends to hide the life-suit from us.

“Yon Earthborn is in a hurry to catch up with Uncle,” Ant says while he and Mongoose reorganize my seating.

“Alliances … change,” Mongoose says between paces, when we get going again. “How come … he doesn’t know …. that?”

“Ha!” Ant explodes a little. “Haven’t they just? Good … that tonight … we are … with eight.”

Does he mean four more people waiting? The group doubles.

“Let’s walk a bit, Ant,” Mongoose says.

“Suits me, brother.”

When his breathing is back to normal, Mongoose jiggles his end of the front of my seat. “A lot to think about, Jeb.”

“Yes,” I say. More than anything I want to be me for a minute. Simmon has joined Uncle. They are way ahead. “If you could’ve heard the times at the school someone told me to mind my tongue, you would be laughing now to hear me so silent. What I mean to say …” I collect my thoughts. “It’s hard being around friendly people while trying to be someone else.” I hurry on. “When I haven’t had any kind of practice being a shaman.”

“When I heard you trying out the different voices up in the white cell,” Ant says. “I thought, there’s a girl my age still learning her place in the Great Project, the same as I am still learning my place. That’s when I decided to stick around in the group around you, Shaman Jeb, to help you. Like, be part of your support group. If you’ll have me?”

I don’t know what to say. Again. “Umm. Thanks. That’ll be good. Because I …”

Mongoose interrupts. He’s blushing again. “When the damned Lotor-born threw you out and you lay there crying and laughing, I would’ve jumped through the fence and picked you up if Lithe hadn’t held me back.”

I blush because he blushes. 

Ant laughs. “Look at the pair of you. Tsk. Tsk. Good thing Lithe was right there, Mongoose, my friend. You would’ve been slaughtered and where would Jeb be then?”

I shudder. I care about them so much already. How can that be good? 

“That danger is past,” Mongoose says. “Let’s sing. We’ll need teach you some words too, Jeb. You probably having had a fairly sheltered upbringing.”

We all laugh, probably about different things.

“This song is a rhythm for running, Shaman Jeb,” Ant said. “Pick up your left foot, right foot … is always the first part of a line. Here we go, running.”

Pick up your left foot, right foot, step high through the sands of Lotor’s hell,

“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step low over stone and mountain,  

“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step wide through gelid waters,

“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step narrow along the Great Meridian.”

“What’s the Great Meridian?” I say, jouncing in time to their beat.

Mongoose passes the question. “Ant?”

“Mm-mm. I just sing it,” Ant says. “I’m nearly always carrying a load. Pardon me, Shaman.”

“Only if you’ll pardon me for being what I am.”

“Has you there, brother,” Mongoose says. “I hereby decree … no more pardoning among us three. Jeb, your uncle is a Puma.”

A Puma? My feelings speed faster than light into an idea. I tremble. “He is a Puma-in-waiting?”

“I think you nailed it,” Mongoose says.

“A Puma will be a better chief than a shaman who is also the Ark-Ship’s Mouth,” I hear myself say.

“I see that,” Ant says.

“What?” Mongoose’s voice is scor with saw-edged emotions. He clears his throat. “I mean, why?”

“Much less confusion,” Ant says. “What the Ship says, not knowing the conditions on the ground, might be a lot different to what a chief would recommend?”

Mongoose doesn’t comment.

I don’t comment because I don’t trust my feelings not to overflow. What I know about a certain shaman, who also was a chief, was that he had a lot of advisers. What I know about these advisors is that they thought they were right about everything to do with the man’s life. The advisers had no kind of patience for the chief to have any kind of private life. And which meant that he hadn’t.

Mongoose grins with the corner of his mouth because I stroke his side with the back of my knuckles where I’m holding onto his shirt. I do not want to live the way that old shaman lived.

Ant continues. “Better to have any compromises made by way of discussion and a chief’s final vote than by Jeb alone, and her worrying.”

“I see what you see,” Mongoose says with unsteady breathing.

Ant chuckles. “Thought you would.”

Ahead of us, the new platform is now near enough that we can see a rag-and-rope ladder hurtling down the sloped cap of the mushroom-shaped formation.

“They lower the ladder to inspire us to speed,” Mongoose says.

“Such a way with words your Mongoose has, oh Shaman,” Ant says, laughing. “The mongoose goes chittering … oops … goes glittering to his … to his …”

Mongoose thumps Ant before he has a chance to finish. Probably good if I ignore all that. Don’t know what to do with it. Hints of … innuendo? If I go there, I’ll blush again.

Instantly business-like, Mongoose says, “Ant, you go first. I’d love it if you could break the mirror of expectation and old habits. I’ll be up as soon as I’ve picked up after the damned uncle still in his noble patrician mode.”

Ant glances over the pack and swag at the base of the ladder. “Yeah, we’ve got to train everybody out of that. I’ll talk with a couple more of the pack animals.”

I don’t see the Earth-born’s swag. He considers the life-suit is too precious to be left lying about?

Ant and Mongoose set my feet on the first rag-plaited rung of the ladder. My hands on the twisted rope sides. “Only one at the time climbing, Jeb.” Mongoose puts his hand over mine to hold me back.

Mm. Nice. Can’t call it accidental. But, realistically, who am I to hope? I saw five beautiful girls in the Yellow City dream.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 12

Note to readers from the beginning: After some editing, I discovered that the Earth-born Thayne’s name was too similar to that of another, more important character. One of them had to be changed. So, he that was Thayne is now Simmon.

What I Know

“We’ve done five kilometers,” Ant says from behind. “More than a third of the stage.”

I guess he is trying to be encouraging.

“But we will need to speed up,” Uncle says.

Straightaway I’m even more conscious of my feet. Raspy snail teeth are grazing over them. No! It’s the carnivorous sand! I almost stumble at the feeling of my foot-coverings worn through.

I swallow a sob of fear. “I need two … two … squares of cloth, bandanna-sized, folded arm-sling style.” A demand, not even a please or thank you. “Sorry. I … I meant to say please.” I’m almost in tears.

Then I’m ashamed. I did so much yesterday without any childish emotions. I pull my hood up over my head and stump along without looking at the men or my feet. But I feel the sand-creatures advancing over my ankle-bones.

“Use the priest’s cloak,” Uncle says.

I feel faint at the thought. “He lay down on the creep as I left the chapel. He said he was letting me go to make up for all the people he led to their end.” I want to keep in mind that I did what I did. Be strong. None of what I did was handed to me.

“I have the squares ready, Shaman Jeb,” Ant says.

Mongoose stops me with his hand on my elbow. He drops his pack behind me. “Sit on that, Jeb.”

Ant stops too. He kneels to help, sees what I dreaded, Lotor’s liking for the skin of my feet. I catch my lips between my teeth. Ant helps by pulling the new cloths tight around my feet, while I knot them in front. I keep my eyes on my work.

Mongoose and Ant pull me to my feet. Ant scoops up the shredded cloths then helps Mongoose shrug back into his pack. They exchange a meaningful glance while I high-step in place.

I walk on, hiding my face and staring only at the next place to put my feet.

Uncle exclaims. “There! See it?”

“Yes,” Ant says. “The damned planet is re-arranging the landscape as we approach. Changing hard sand to soft sand. It knows us.”

“Not good for Jeb,” Mongoose says. “Uncle old man, you will need to lug the luggage while Ant and I shimmy the shaman.”

The way he grins at his own joke helps me swallow down my embarrassment. I walk my usual fast sprint on the spot while he and Ant tie one of their packs crosswise over the top of the other.

Mongoose takes over Uncle’s pack and they both help Uncle into the double pack’s harness. Uncle jogs into the soft sand. I get that he can’t waste a minute of his strength standing around waiting for Mongoose and Ant to organize me. 

Ant slides the sticks that were used to prop up the screens back at the platform from Uncle’s pack. He and Mongoose help each other loop a rope each from the back of their belts and pass it over their shoulders. They tie the ends to the front of their belts.

“To stop us losing our pants, Shaman Jeb,” Ant says straight-faced to my interest. A side-flung grin tells me he joked.

They each thread an end of one of the sticks through the back of the other’s rope loops. Then thread one through the fronts. Ant has a folded cloth ready to rest over the resulting two-bar seat. They sidle up behind me and take my arms.

“Hup,” Mongoose says.

I am jumped backward onto the sticks so that I’m sitting between Ant and my loon. I study Mongoose’s face. Faint flush along his jawline, faint smile in the corner of his mouth. 

“Best foot forward, brother.” Ant slings his forearm onto Mongoose’s nearest shoulder. “So far the planet doesn’t care who we are.” 

“Don’t feel shy about holding on, Jeb,” Mongoose says.

Ant looks past me, and laughs. “Don’t feel shy about holding on, Shaman Jeb. Or you can lean back against our arms.”

The flushing along Mongoose’s jawline deepens and makes me feel shy, so I don’t lean anywhere. But I find out straightaway that for them to jog and for me not to fall, I do need to hold on. What a problem to get into a tizzy about.

A capital-L Loon is a totem. Mongoose wears a Mongoose tattoo on his arm. They’re both wearing long shirts, Sauger-hide belts. I take a good handful of cloth above their belts. Rest the back of my fingers on the belt. Try not to touch Ant’s side through the cloth.

Uncle is a long way ahead. Well out of hearing. “The next thing you know, brother,” Ant says. “Is that our elders will start cleaving you to the Loon Totem.”

“It’s useless to tease, brother,” Mongoose says. “Jeb and I already discussed it.” He winks at me. Not angry. I feel almost weightless. “I’ll refuse to hear them,” he says.

A long while later Ant says, “Four kilometers more. When we get there, there’ll be ointment. For her feet,” he says over my head.

I do a little vigil. Do such words hurt anybody? I’m a bossy-britches, always wanting to be a part of everything. In a minute the group will double. Later it will be huge. Then what? Can one person be part of everything that goes on in a large group? How good was I ever at ignoring what isn’t my own business?

It doesn’t feel like a vigil when I’m just worrying. What happened to the rest of the shamans? My teachers? The whole Shaman School? I’m too scared to ask. In the three years, I only learned enough to sing the totems and signal the ship.  

Then I worry about Ant and Mongoose having to carry me, for pity’s sake. I never wanted to be that kind of person.

Carrying physically is different to the other sort of carrying. That’s my crow talking, I realize. I feel better.

How can I thank Ant and Mongoose without making them embarrassed? Remember how good it felt back in school when the lesson of the day began with my totem? It’s my crow again, telling me how to be a shaman. It’s what they got me for, isn’t it?

Time will tell. I push back my hood and I clear my throat. Start with the Ant Totem song. “Ants together carry their towns … a stone at the time …

Ant grunts surprise, then joins in with grunts on the strongest words. We make a fine rhythm. “… Ants together carry their country … a heart at the time. … Together we live, singly we die.”

I follow it with the Mongoose Totem.

“Mongoose strides into the unknown, untrammeled by fear …  He fights through unenviable risks to rescue what he holds …”

Slof slof slof is a sound coming through the sand behind us. “You pack animals really get off on the little fucker singing? He’s got such a tinny little voice, you’d think he’s a girl in drag.”

Simmon skips as he passes us to be out of the way of any kick Mongoose might aim at him for his insults.

Mongoose and Ant laugh so hard and so totally out of sync with one another, that they shake the contraption and I almost fall through.

On Simmon’s uplifted arm, I see the nightmare to come.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 11

The Love-struck Loon

One of the young men drags the ladder into the shade of the platform, and rolls it up. When he sees how I’m looking at him, he drops his gaze quicker than a fish flicking its tail. He’s taller than me by about the width of my hand and he has smooth honey skin. His hair is straight and flops over his forehead.

I follow him under the mushroom’s cap to stand out of the sun.

He reaches up and bundles the ladder into a hollow carved into the underside of the cap. He moistens his lips.

It’s a catching move. I lick mine. It’s difficult in the dry desert air to keep lips feeling smooth. The mushroom stem is fibrous.

“The planet itself carved the cavity, Shaman. With sand and wind. I’m ….”

His voice shakes. His gaze slides away again though not before I see his eyes. They shine as with emotion?

I frown. How am I supposed to react? How can I ignore such a devoted expression? It can’t be for me.

“Hey,” he says. “I’m … Mongoose.” He pinches moisture from his eyes—with finger and thumb—and holds out his hand in one speedy move.

If he’s ignoring his emotions I must too. Hesitantly I take his hand. Despite the wet patch under his thumb, his hand slips round mine oh so comfortably. It feels like I’ve known him forever, that we are …. I get hot in the face, like I’m blushing. I try to swallow but fail.

The formality I had ready shreds in the breeze. Jeb is the name I prefer to be known by. I’m an idiot. “I’m … I’m … Jeb!” Like him I stumble through the two easy words. What’s wrong with me?

He grins as if commiserating. Handsome white teeth. He fingertip-touches my elbow bone. Rests his thumb on the inner pulse, a microsecond only. 

I’m gaping slack-jawed. Stutter. “What’s … what’s that about?” How can this be happening to me?

“I’m a loon for you, Jeb. Since I first saw you. Lithe held me back so I wasn’t killed. I wanted you to know so that you don’t misunderstand me. Because of what everyone will say. Teasing and such.” Hope flares in his eyes.

“I’m …”

I’m astounded I want to say. I start again. “A loon?” I lift my cloak to show him my lumpy shins. I push out my all but flat chest at him.

Mongoose smiles lopsidedly. “Eye of the beholder, Jeb.”

He slides his palm around my elbow. “All of us young people are counted as pack animals. Let’s get you harnessed up?” Bright sparkling teasing smile?

By the time he fits me with the smallest backpack in history, I know he made it especially for me and that he loves a joke. At the same time I’m certain that he totally means what he said about being a loon for me.

At my entry to my third year of study, the Head Shaman asked, “Will you do, or will you have your life done to you, Jeb?”

The most important thing anyone ever asked me. At the time I swore to being the hero in my life. How will that work now with a loon called Mongoose in the picture? My feelings swoop here and there like I am a harpy eagle drunk on cactus-wine.

What is not a wonderful feeling is the revolting way that my uncle strokes me with my once-upon-a-time birth name.

All parents wish beauty for their children. My parents knew from the beginning that my genetic inheritance might prevent beauty from gaining a toehold. I believe that they gave me that name so that I would know that I was beautiful to them.

My uncle judged me ugly. I was a child in the next room hearing him say it. My father told him he could leave, never to return, if he ever said it again. I hate my uncle now using my beautiful name. It feels as though he plans to trick me into being his creature. The Head Shaman sent him away and I want to, too.

***

Uncle walks in the lead; he carries a medium-sized pack on his back. The second young man follows Uncle, with a huge pack on his back. Mongoose placed me third in the line. He tails us with another large pack.

I use my boy-voice. “Call me Jeb, Uncle. I escaped by way of the black cell. Your Eagle follows me. I doubt that he had to come the same way, or that he was schooled on Lotor. I don’t trust him.” I didn’t mention my three-second micro-sleep dream though it was my long-time habit of dreaming that convinced the shamans to train me.

“Will you have a sip of water, Shaman Jeb?” Mongoose wedges a skin of water in the crook of my arm. “Pass it on. Ant will have one after you. Uncle maybe too.”

I almost laugh. He is a smart one, this Mongoose. I enjoy his joke tremendously and since no one is watching my face, I smile broadly. A small joke with many ramifications.

First, Mongoose named me Shaman Jeb, signaling by that that he accepts that name for me. Second, he introduced me to Ant and Ant to me. Third, he teasingly called the man who proved to be my uncle, Uncle, letting that man know that Mongoose will be watching Uncle’s interpretation of his relationship to me. Fourth, he communicated all that to Ant. 

I peer around Ant to see how Mongoose’s joke affects Uncle. Uncle marches as if he has a steel blade tied against his spine. Uh-oh. I don’t want him to take against me. I’ll need to relax him. I cast about for another joke. Or will a compliment do it?

“Thank you, Uncle, for the way you stopped Simmon from punching me back in the prison. He is quite impulsive.”

The tension in Uncle’s back relaxes a little.

“I’m still wondering how you worked the fence?” I say.

All three of them laugh. “Ant, take the front?” Uncle says.

He drops back to walk beside me. “That fencing is made to a settler-invented recipe. We use it for doors and panels.”

I think I remember it. “Hemp fibers covered with sand and heated to make a kind of leathery paneling?”

Uncle nods. “The fencing is made in long zigzag strips that are mounted horizontally. The prison’s idea probably is that often a visual barrier is all it needs to keep people in place.”

“The Lotor-born? The fauns? You all? Kept in your places by a visual fence?” It seems wrong to me.

“The Lotor-born are programmed to gather in such a place when they tire of life on Lotor’s outside. The poor fauns could not be saved. The old one refused our help on all their behalf.”

I feel regret about the fauns. “You?” I meant what kept a bunch of settler-descendants from walking away?

“There was a certain young shaman who didn’t return to the Shaman School after her semester break three years ago, and as she hadn’t been accounted for among the losses since then …” He shrugged. “This was the only place not yet searched. We hoped. So you see, we went there for a reason.”

I remember how Uncle smiles with the corner of his mouth. There’s bad and good in his explanation. Bad news about the losses, though I already heard the rumors, and good for me that my people hoped to find me.

Mongoose, carrying a tall load, jogs past Uncle towards the front of our little cavalcade. He grins back at me. “Remember that they kept the really dangerous prisoners in the cells,” he says.

As laden as Mongoose, Ant slows enough that Uncle and I come level to him. Ant carries rice balls, each in its own cloth, along his folded arm.

“But you all?” I say. “On your way to the salt-mines?”

Uncle sets his jaws in that way he had when I was a child. Like I am still a little girl to him. He doesn’t explain. Or say anything else for that matter.

“We slipped away from the guards in bunches,” Ant says. He passes me one of the rice ball packages. “Mongoose and I stayed back to help Uncle rescue you. But you rescued yourself and I am over the moon with admiration.” He mimes over the moon by raising his shoulders—he’s got that load, his hands full—and rolling his eyes up to an ellipted octahedronal moon.

Huh? I never saw that satellite before. “Is that new?” I ask Ant not giving him the chance to say. “I suppose I could’ve missed seeing it while I was in the prison but not before that.” At shaman school we studied all the quadrants of sky. “An octahedron in a doughnut. Who’d plan a thing like that?”

Ant takes back the package and unfolds the cloth until it resembles a flower. Sets it back in my hand. “These rice balls have a center of ginger and soy.” 

Yum. My stomach rumbles. I accept the change of topic though I desperately want to know what happened to the fully trained shamans. And where we are going. And the satellite.

After I eat every last grain, I fold the cloth and store it in my pocket. Mongoose walks backward pointing a gadget at the sun, and reading something from the other end of it.

“What are you doing?” I’m looking for distractions. My feet hurt.