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.

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.