C7istkte’n (a mostly underground type of home)
The Secwepemc Chapter
This Moonless Sky is a trilogy, and a lot has happened before we come to this chapter.
This book takes place on another planet, called Vweialer. The only reason humans live on it is because aliens have painstakingly transported them there.
A group of mechanized interstellar travelers called the Communicators – known as the Stchossian or, in their own alien language, Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh – have rescued various individuals and groups from deadly calamities on the planet Earth. They’ve brought them over to this new planet. Going from Earth to Vweialer is a deep-frozen voyage that requires 400,000 years. That’s long enough cover 40 light-years of space, which is not really very far.
That’s how it is with real, rather than magical (as in Star Trek, Star Wars) space travel.
The narrator of the book, Marrik, was snatched away from certain death somewhere in western North America. He was a typical smart, gay, isolated, depressed small town boy called Mark – ‘Marrik’ is a local name-change. He is now a citizen of a country called Diyyana.
The book doesn’t clue you in to what other sorts of people from the Earth have ended up on this planet, but for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to reveal the secret that some of them are a missing community of Secwepemc people. This is a nationality that hails from what is now central British Columbia in Canada. Though their traditional land has been heavily populated by English speakers for over 100 years, they are keeping a most amazing national language in good order – Secwepemctsin, known as ‘Shuswap’ to the English-speakers. The group in this book was rescued from the Earth long before English ever arrived in their homeland, so they speak their own language.
In this chapter, Marrik has just narrowly escaped with his life from the country next door to this one. Called Tsagaxk, it features a particularly deadly type of dictatorship. The system could be described as an Ayn Rand-influenced North Korea. Marrik’s boyfriend, alas, was killed in Tsagaxk. Yith was his name; originally, he was a mechanized Communicator alien, but he genetically engineered himself into human form just to spend one tiny human lifetime as the special friend of Marrik. It was a love story.
The country Marrik and his travelling companions know as Spikonikwamekh is the ultimate destination they’ve been trying to reach. It’s always been friendly to their home nation, and they’ve risked their lives, or sacrificed them, to carry out a task they were given in a court order – delivery of a precious historic manuscript, concealed inside a saddle blanket, to the hereditary chief. This court order was a punishment for one of them – the sentence was a kind of exile called being ‘sent for perspective.’
Marrik and his three surviving friends are extremely relieved to save their lives by crossing the border into this peaceful land. They know next to nothing about it other than that it’s friendly. The one preparation that has been made to help them is that they’ve been given some special gifts made of curved seashells that they’ve been told the locals will appreciate. The gifts are very light and have stayed intact through their flight from death.
They can’t linger too long in Spikonikwamekh, because they’ve discovered that Tsagaxk, the dictatorship, will soon invade their own country. Only a message from them can help to ward off the attack. Before they sail home, though, they must deliver their manuscript.
In the book, the Secwepemc phrases here mainly appear in phonetic spelling that approximates English pronunciation. Here, unlike in the book, I’ve also included the standard Secwepemc spellings, purely for the benefit of readers who speak the language.
A few passages here relate to other parts of the book and their significance may be obscure. Most of the story, though, is self-standing.
Marrik is 17 years old (+ around 400,000 years frozen); his friends Xus and Eleya are married boyfriend and girlfriend, also 17 – born on this planet, never frozen. Xati, who they met in a slave labour camp in Tsagaxk, is in his mid-20s.
There was nobody there, at first, in Spikonikwamekh. We walked through tall grasses, in an area where it seemed that some trees had been cleared off to make upland pasture. There were clumps of poplars and pines here and there.
Then I heard one of the signature sounds of this expedition, something I hadn’t heard for a long, long time.
It was one of the sweetest sounds on Earth, uh, Vweialer. Ullikummi.
There were cows.
They sounded like they were being herded. The note of protest or excitement – I was never sure which – was unmistakeable.
“Follow those cows,” I urged, “they’ll lead us to people.”
What the sounds led us to first, in fact, was dogs – a black and white border collie came rushing through the trees to greet us even before we got a clear look at the cows. Eleya gave it a pat – it was very friendly. A companion dog followed, also friendly.
Then, as we emerged through the trees, we saw a man on horseback. Yes, he was herding. He was in his forties, in Earth years, rather round of face and medium brown, with arching black eyebrows and a black circle beard – a very trim chin beard connecting to a very trim moustache. He looked perfectly at ease on his horse. His costume was fairly exotic: the shirt, made of soft hide, had fringes across the chest and around the elbows and shoulders, and patches of blue and red beadwork on the chest. Beneath that, his pants, or leggings, also had rings of fringe encircling the knees. His wide-brimmed hat looked like a slightly oversized, felty, round-topped version of a standard western North American cowboy hat from back on Earth.
When he saw us, he gave us his full attention, after whistling his two dogs to keep the herd together.
“Weytkp!” he hailed us.
Yith, I thought, we need you now. It was always so reassuring to have him there, understanding everything. What a treat that was. What a treat that ‘used to be,’ as my mind pseudo-corrected itself to say.
But all was not lost. Eleya pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of her jeans and began to unravel it.
“I made myself a little sheet in the library at home for just this sort of occasion,” she said. “sQodravtse and Spikonikwamekhtshiin greetings. It’s been beaten up pretty badly in my pocket, but I think I can still read it.”
She glanced at the sheet for a moment or two, then looked at the rider. “Weytk,” she said back.
That got a smile.
And then, squinting at the page, she said, “Tde Diyyana rwe s’t!,,e,,kwen.” [Te Diyyana re st’7e7kwen]
The man beckoned Eleya to hand up her piece of paper, and he did a survey to see what was there. His horse decided Eleya was a friend and nuzzled her shirt.
“T!he,,e k’t!ekukh?” [T’he7e k t’ekuc] he asked. I wondered if he was speaking Communicatorese. All those popping t’s, the ones they call ‘glottalized’ because you shut the back of your throat when you say them – they really sounded like Stchossian to my ear.
Eleya took her paper back. “Good thing I wrote down the Spikonikwamekhtshiin [Spikonikwemctsin] versions, too,” she remarked to us. “They were easy to copy, unlike the sQodravtse.” She looked back at the rider.
“Nensken tde Kwetshku’tsh!ke,, ,” [Nensken te Kwetskuts’ke7] she read off haltingly – syllable by syllable on the last word.
I recognized it as the name of the capital city of Spikonikwamekh.
You’d think they’d make a capital city with an easier name. Whatever happened to Rome, Paris, London, Regntum? This one was worse than Tegucigalpa. That’s the capital of Honduras if you’re not an Earth Studies fan.
“Sweti,, ke,, skwest?” [Sweti7 ke7 skwest?] the horseman asked. Eleya shrugged slightly – a gesture of modesty.
“Eleya rwen skwekwst,” [Eleya ren skwekwst] she said. “Elsls ye,,ene rwe Xus, ye,,ene rwe Xati, ye,,ene rwe Marrik.” [Ell ye7ene re Xus, ye7ene re Xati, ye7ene re Marrik]
“Kwoli,,la rwen skwekwst,” [Kwoli7la ren skwekwst] the man said, pointing to himself and looking at all of us in turn.
Obviously, we’d been introduced. Kwoli,,la , he was. (You can say Kwo lee la, but at the end of the ‘lee,’ insert a complete stop of your throat. It’s just like the one in the middle of ‘uh-uh,’ meaning ‘definitely no,’ in English) He reached his arm down and twiddled his fingers to signify putting the paper back into his hand. He looked again.
“Staghghtwenmentshemkhwes,” [Stagtwenmentsemcwes] he said with a slight smile.
“He’s inviting me, that is, us, to his place,” Eleya told us after she got the paper back. “Before that, I told him where we’re from and where we’re going.”
“Tshkhghwentkhwiyeh meh,, kh,,ilslsenkt,” [Tsxwentcwiye me7 c7illenkt] Kwoli,,la told us, beckoning us to come along. That phrase wasn’t on Eleya’s cheat-sheet. It seemed pretty friendly, anyways. Later, I found out it meant ‘come and let’s get something to eat.’”
(That last sentence of his is pretty daunting. Let me just diverge here to give you a skippable key [yes, you can skip over it to the next paragraph if you want] guide to the alien phonics of Spikonikwamekhtshin. I know that members of some language groups, like us native English speakers, never get used to these sounds – in fact, most of them are against our linguistic religion because they live in a taboo zone, the back of the throat. But some people from other backgrounds are willing to take them on. So: I’m using ‘khgh’ [x] as per our sDiyyanantse alphabet, to represent a single sound that’s like ‘kh’ but pronounced much deeper in your throat. Perhaps you remember that ‘lsls’ [ll] is the lateral ‘s’ that’s pronounced off the side of the tongue, sounding like a baby lisp to the English ear. And ‘ghgh,’ [g] as I said before, is the ‘uvular glide’ that is like a ‘y’ formed in the very back of your throat. The Spikonikwamekh ‘r’ sound is halfway between English ‘r’ and ‘w’ and it’s transcribed ‘rw’ here. I just said that the double comma [,, = ‘7’], as in Kwoli,,la [Kwoli7la], is a heavy glottal stop like the one in uh-uh or oh-oh, and now I’ll add that a single comma in the middle of a word like ‘sta,malt,’ ‘cow,’ is a similar throat-stop that comes in when a consonant is being formed, in other words a preglottalization, if you remember that one from my wedding speech and from the tsKorabaatse language. You know that the consonants that have an exclamation point behind, as in ‘k!welslsw,,ekh,’ [k’wellw7ec] ‘boyfriend,’ are explosively popped out with the throat closed off, that is, glottalized. Most of these, like t!, p! and k!, just have one letter, but ‘tsh!’ [ts’] has three. It is a single sound: you pop out a ‘ch’-like consonant made by putting the tip of your tongue against the ridge behind your upper incisors. ‘Td’ [t] is a non-breathy ‘t,’ like the ‘t’ in ‘star’ but not like the breathy ‘t’ in ‘tar.’ There, now you can pronounce the universe. Whew.)
I think Kwoli,,la actually reversed direction with his cows and drove them back to the home pasture just for us. It was slow progress herding the beasts across the countryside, but we pitched in and became auxiliary border collies, adding in our hisses and whoops to supplement their yaps. After an hour or so, we all came to a clearing that had a scenic looking home place in the middle of it. The homestead was a curious collection of buildings, including a small ‘modern’ cottage, a tent covered in hides, and what looked to be a sod-covered igloo partly dug into the ground. There was no ice involved in the last one; it was just a rounded dome over the ground with a pole going down into it on a slant. The pole had been cut with steps, like a ladder. There was another, smaller dome structure set over on the side of hill nearby. Based on the exhibits pegged to a clothesline stretched out in the yard, our host was a family man with at least one child, but no one else emerged as he whistled and whooped the cattle into a large fenced area on the flat land adjacent to his dwellings. The dogs were very enthusiastic about this process, play-nipping tails, running from the front of the herd to the back, and half-crouching with a smug, managerial look on their faces to yappily redirect cows that were trying to drool their way in the wrong direction. I hoped the happy looking, checker-furred geniuses weren’t letting their intellectual superiority go to their heads. The cows dimly knew they were being outsmarted.
Our host put his horse into a corral of its own, give it a little something to chew on, and gestured us into the yard. He took his hat in his hand and carried it along, waving it in the direction of the igloo.
“Rwe kh,,istkte,ns-kuukhw,” [Re c7istkte’ns-kucw] he explained as he caught up with us. As I later figured it out: ‘our family pit-house.’
He went in backwards, down the stepped pole, then Xus followed, then Eleya, Xati and me. The ground had been dug out below the low dome-roof to make a mostly underground room that offered plenty of headspace – it wasn’t cramped. It was high first-class compared to the just-above-bilge steerage of Tundoznein!’s crawlspace. (I wondered how he was doing back there.) My feet thumped onto the earthen floor; it was thinly covered with hides. The atmosphere in the pit-house was surprisingly warm and cosy: the trace remains of fire coals lay in a hollow below the entranceway, and that was enough to make the structure a well-heated home.
“Tsh’k!weghgh,” [Tsk’weg] he explained – ‘Not expensive’ – as he stirred up the coals a little and added fine kindling and a little dried grass to revive the flames. Then he added more wood. The smoke drifted up the entranceway, enveloping the top of the entry pole.
There was a bench built in all around the perimeter of the place, but nonetheless, he pointed to a two pairs of stacked chairs.
“Emuutkhwiye ne tshelkhwilep,” [Emutcwiye ne tselcwilep] he invited, clearly indicating the meaning by waving his hand from us to the chairs. Who needs to understand language, really?
We distributed chairs for ourselves. The room had four bedrolls along the side and a couple of small tables. Clearly, it was either beds or chairs in there; you couldn’t set out both at the same time. The wooden stacking chairs looked commercially made, with routed stiles supporting their perfectly curved backs, and with comfortably contoured seats.
There was a large metal tin sitting on one of the small tables, and our host opened it up. He pulled out some items that looked like misshapen breadrolls or buns. There was an alluring odour of sourdough – a distant memory for me.
Kwoli,,la turned first to Eleya. “Qwenenen k tek spikhle,,khw?” [Qwenenen k tek spicle7cw?] he asked.
She nodded and, after glancing down at her phrase sheet, said “meh,, leh,,” [me7 le7] – ‘that’d be nice.’
She accepted a piece and took the toothy plunge. “This is really tasty,” she announced to us. “It’s like some kind of lightly fried bread. Um, [glancing at her paper and pronouncing carefully] kuukwstshetshemkh.” [kukstsetsemc] ‘Thank you,’ in other words.
Our host gave a smile and a nod, and passed the bread around to the rest of us.
“Ta,,uus k slekhghe,yenkh,” [Ta7us k slexe’yenc] he said. ‘Don’t mention it.’ That phrase was on the paper.
As it turns out, the bread was fire-roasted sourdough bannock, originally cooked on a rod or a stick as a sort of bread shishkabob.
“Qwenenen k tek skhwik?” [Qwenenen k tek scwik?] Kwoli,,la had pulled out something else, which turned out to be dried salmon or trout. Very tasty. Then he offered us milk or water to drink from pitchers that were chilling under a cloth on a shelf near the entranceway.
“Ta,, k s’tsh!khghwentshiin,” [Ta7 k sts’xwentsin] he said [pardon me], and opened up a small cupboard that stood on a stand against the wall, or edge, whatever you’d call the circular margin of a pole-reinforced ground pit. Inside the cupboard – my mind did a backflip – was an old-fashioned rotary telephone. Kwoli,,la picked it up and made a brief call. He didn’t attempt to explain it to us. He helped himself to some of the food and drink and took up a place reclining against one of the bedrolls. He watched us indulgently.
“Kukwstekh-kuukh,” [Kukwstec-kuc] Eleya said, ‘thanks from all of us.’ Our host gave a little wave of the fingers to acknowledge.
“Guys,” I said, relaxing into the spell of good food, drink and atmosphere, “we made it. Not all of us did, and I get hammered with the pain of that every minute, but I realize I have to stash my grief away somewhere so I can go on. Those of us who survived, damn it, we did the near-impossible. I can hardly believe it.”
“Thank God,” Xati said, “ – and I say that even though I’d bet God would have preferred Yithi’k! to survive along with us. I only hope our friend has an especially nice corner of heaven to wait it out in, because he’s going to be missing someone most sorely. Anyways, we all have to go that way some time – that’s how life is. Hard, but true. Meantime, here we are. Thank you, thank you so much for including me in your friendship. You guys are the most exceptional and fantastic people ever. I never thought I’d get out of that country, and I have the feeling I not only got out, I might even have helped to make it a better place. We shall see.”
“We’ll see how our country makes out too,” Xus said. “We’d better get back there at twice light speed and make sure we can get a warning in. Xati, thanks, it’s a privilege for all of us to be your friend and I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have met you.”
Xati deeply nodded his thanks and pleasure.
Our host got up, made an ‘I’ll be back” gesture by advancing his raised forefinger, and climbed up the pole. He returned a few minutes later with two small baskets, each with a different sort of berry in it. He took a wooden bowl from a shelf and added some small, dully reddish berries to it; then he beat the berries with a wooden spoon until they began to produce a dense froth. Slowly, he added the other kind of berries, which looked like blueberries, until the froth turned deeply reddish purple and filled the bowl. Then he got out some small bowls and served some of the material to us.
“Skhghuusem,” [Sxusem] he said. The English translation turns out to be soopolallie ice cream. No ice or cream in it, though. ‘Soopolallie,’also called ‘soapberry,’ was the first kind of berries, the kind that made the foam. This was one weird substance, lighter than a mousse and edgy with bitterness, yet playfully foamy and delightfully tasty. It was one of those wacko things like the durian milkshake that could really become addictive once you got past the shock of first contact. Xati wasn’t fond of it, so I scavenged his with gratitude.
The phone rang and Kwoli,,la picked it up. He listened a moment.
“Rwe khghyuum tde kukwpi,, ,” [Re xyum te kukwpi7] he said to us as an aside, with a distinct air of ‘I’m impressed.’ The retrospective translation on that was ‘the big boss.’ He mitigated his marvelling with a half grin of worldly-wise stoicism. After listening to the caller for a few moments, he said “ekhtek,” [ectek] and held out the phone to us. Xus took it and said “With Xusxerron Tsvieitkoviich.”
The voice on the other end said, “I’m Selpakhghen, [Selpaxen] I’m going to translate for Kukwpi,, T!eyntshqel’q!lekhgh. [Kukwpi7 T’eyntsqelq’lex] I’m a third year student of your language at the university, so go slow, please, and don’t say anything too complicated.”
“OK,” Xus pledged. He told me later that he thought, ‘I’m certainly not going to say anything as complicated as your leader’s name.’
“On behalf of the kukwpi,, and all our people, we give you a very friendly welcome to Spikonikwamekh. How was your trip?”
“Amazing,” Xus said, “but difficult. One of us was killed in Tsagaxk just a few days ago and we’re still completely shocked about it. But we’re extremely glad to be here, and our host here has been more than kind.”
We heard the translation on the other end.
What came back was, “We have some information about who was expected. Which person was killed?”
“Yithythyth, our Communicator friend who became human, the khandsh of our companion Marrik.”
A moment of silence.
Then: “A terrible tragedy for Marrik and you and also for all of us, a very sad loss that will truly be felt throughout the known universe. I hope we can make your stay as pleasant as possible so nothing here adds to the difficulty you’re experiencing. We’re dispatching two guides and some horses for you from the nearest outpost of our national communications network. They’ll probably be with you before nightfall, but I think you’ll need to sleep where you are. Please put Kwoli,,la on the phone and we’ll continue to make arrangements. We’ll talk further when you meet us in our capital city. It will only take you two days to get here.”
Kwoli,,la took the phone back and some brief and efficient communications were uttered. I began to suspect he had a part-time job as a border officer, hence the secretive phone linkup. Later, I found out that the Spikonikwamekh people didn’t like to display any technology within easy access range of Tsagaxk. They recognized that there was a certain pernicious hunger going on there. Kwoli,,la’s wires were all in shielded underground cables. Of course, that was curiously appropriate for phone running to an underground house. He got a small subsidy and a free phone line for keeping an eye on matters related to the border.
After he got off the phone, he made a swirling motion with his arms arching up over his head, and then did a gesture that looked like someone fanning semself with seir hands.
“Tshuutstken en khple,m,” [Tsut.stken en cple’m] he told us, before heading up the ladder and out. On his way, he beckoned us to have more bread, and made a horizontal circular motion with his finger, starting at his chest, that seemed to indicate ‘I’ll go out and come back.’
Eleya looked at her sheet and verified that it held nothing like the sentence he’d spoken. I made a crude note of the sounds, and much later, after a lot of work, I can now tell you that the sentence meant “I’m going to heat up stones for the sweat lodge.” This sweat lodge is an item rather like a sauna in principle, but constructed like a dome-style tent with an earthen floor covered in fresh, soft conifer boughs. It turned out that it was the small hut I’d seen in the distance when we first came into the homestead. The thing that made our host’s sentence hard to decipher is that the Spikonikwamekh language has a particular verb that only means ‘to heat up stones for a sweat lodge,’ and you don’t find that sort of thing just everywhere. I’ve certainly never uttered such a concept – until now.
While Kwoli,,la was out, I had a few moments to sit quietly, chewing the edge of a bannock bun, and looking at my friends. Xus and Eleya were commenting and joking about who should make the bannock when they moved in together, one of these days – Eleya began to joke that she wouldn’t do it, but she’d teach their kids from an early age. This was assuming they could find the recipe somewhere. Mostly, I think, she was using the topic to tease Xus about having his wildness restrained with fatherhood. Xati, meanwhile, was looking at me without saying anything, just about as often as I was looking at him – I think we were sizing up if we ought to speak to each other or not. I was struck by how much these friends meant to me, especially now that I was alone, and I realized that I was still holding out on one detail with them – perhaps because to tell the story would falsely excite my own hopes. I must somehow have raised my storytelling crest-feathers, because Eleya and Xus both went silent and looked at me curiously.
“There’s one thing about Yith I didn’t tell you guys,” I began, “one important thing, I mean. Maybe important, I don’t know.”
“Okay,” Xus said, “take your time. I know it might be hard going to talk about it.”
“You two guys saw that they burned him, burned his body, and there wasn’t much there – I couldn’t see his wedding ring and I suppose one of them took it. Somehow, I got so agitated that I did something I don’t understand. I picked up a stick to hit it against a rock, and then I was horrified to see that it wasn’t a stick – it was piece of thigh bone with the hip party broken. And I felt a sort of thunderclap inside me and I hurled the bone onto the rock – and it splintered apart – and a little metal thing fell out. I have it in my pocket right now.”
I pulled it out and carefully unwrapped it to show it to them.
“Hm! Hm! Hmm!!” Eleya tocsined melodiously, “that must be something interesting, but what would it be?”
“I guess when we get home,” I said, “we can get on the radio and ask the crew. They must be far too far away to do anything about it, but maybe the next crew that comes along, in fifty years or so, can make something of it. Language chip or whatever.”
“That sure is intriguing, and frustrating,” Xus commented. “I hope it’s something that’ll really be, in some way, a gift from him to you as he would have been so eager to give.”
“Even if it was him in total,” I said, “all his memories – how could I wait so long, or even survive so long, to get him back? And then he wouldn’t have his body – he’d be a machine again. More power to him, but the boy I love is a boy.”
“You don’t need to apologize for being human,” Xus said. “We understand that a Yith machine wouldn’t be the perfect mate for you. That would truly be strange, though, because I think you’d still love each other just as much.”
“Absolutely,” I said, “by now, if his spirit were transferred over into a spider or a toad, all I could do was love a spider or a toad. But let’s not go there – it would be so easy for the Communicators to become spiders or toads. I want to ban the idea from the universe by not thinking of it.”
“A good, sound human strategy,” Xati interjected with a smile.
“Well, that’s a pretty interesting thing that happened to you there,” Eleya said slowly, as if still forming the thought she was speaking. She paused a moment before continuing and looked me in the eye. She shrugged.
“You smashed a bottle.” [refers to a previous story]
I have no doubt my mouth hung open. My mind jolted as if a wall of sheet lightning had hit it.
“Ha,” I finally uttered. “I wonder what that means. Nothing has miraculously happened to make the sun break out.”
“True,” she said, “I hope that there isn’t some kind of purely ironic bottle-smashing. Although, why not? If bursts of emotion could produce major miracles reliably, it would be a different universe. My moments of angst haven’t done much for me. Anyways, Marrik, I don’t want to drive you crazy with hope that the little pin will somehow bring Yithi’k! back. But I hope something good will happen. At least you prevented the tech from falling into the wrong hands. If is it tech.”
“Yeah, true, though it’s crossed my mind – maybe this is evidence that one of the guys made a medical error when they were fixing him up – you know, dropping a tool in surgery. It can’t be too difficult when you’re working on the small scales they work at. Maybe he was full of nano-tools of various kinds. Maybe they don’t even need to do a stringent cleanup – they can just leave all sorts of bits of mechanism lying around.”
“Yes, who knows. The mystery of Yith.”
“The wonder of him was endless.”
“And is, even after he’s gone.”
We were distracted by the sound of moderately distant hooves.
“Seems too early for our horses to have arrived already,” Xati remarked. He shunted up the laddered pole – the khghnikhw [xnicw], as I now know it’s called – to have a look.
“It’s the family,” he yelled down.
“Sure wish,” I said, “we had someone – someone – just someone – here who could understand these guys.”
“Don’t we all,” Xus said, “we’re missing our someone very much too. You know what. Marrik, even though I agree with what Eleya said about getting emotional not being a direct pipeline to miracles, it strikes me that what happened to you did have one rare element of true bottle-smashing, as I understand it.”
“For Eleya to have a major snit is rare, but when it happens, it’s not exactly para-physin. [‘against nature,’ the famous Greek expression of St. Paul, used against everything from surrogative sex to the wearing of long hair by males].” Eleya made a move to kick Xus’s ankle, but his foot did an instant retraction. “But you did something that seems to be completely against your nature. I can hardly imagine you hurling around your boyfriend’s bones – it’s not like you at all.”
“That’s for sure. But I don’t feel changed, and neither does the world. Anyways, let’s not set up an epistemic injunction that’ll filter every good thing that happens from here on in and make it relate to me desecrating Yith’s remains. He deserves better than to have some gaga, self-serving optimism built on his degradation.”
“I’d never set up a bias thing like that. I don’t think. Anyways, without prejudice, I find your little pin interesting. And now, I guess we’d better just drop the topic and let things go as they may.”
“Yes, I don’t want to get carpal tunnel syndrome from wringing my hands.”
You could hear a pin drop from the conversation.
Xati climbed back down, followed by Kwoli,,la. A boy of about six, in earth years, followed, and then a girl of about eight. And thereafter a woman. All were wearing fringed and beaded soft leathers, and all had longish, straight black hair.
“Weytkp,” Eleya, said, that is, ‘hi guys.’
“Weytk enwi,,!” [Weytk enwi7] the woman responded, ‘hello to you.’
“Rwen sem,,e,,em,” Kwoli,,la said, “Ye,,ene rwe Lekhuussniinei.” [Ren sem7e7em. Ye7ene re Lecusnine]
He surely meant his wife, who he was indicating, and her name must be Lekhuussniinei.
Eleya quickly unfolded her tattered paper again and came up with “Leh,, en k t!uukh?” [Le7 n ktuc], ‘how are you?’, which received the polite reply ‘Meh,,e leh,, ken, kuukwstshetshemkh,” [Me7e le7ken, kukwstsetsemc] ‘Yes, I’m good, thank you.’
“Rwen stshmemelt,” [Ren stsmemelt] Kwoli,,la said, indicating the boy and girl, “rwen s’t!emkekelt, Sekuse,nt,” – his daughter Sekuse,nt – elsls rwen squses,,e, Tmikhw re skwests” – his son Tmikhw. [ren st’emkekelt, Sekusen’t, ell ren squses7e, Tmicw re skwests]
Eleya introduced us all by name. There was an awkward pause as we ran out of things to say, and the Kwoli,,la issued his kids some instructions that sent them scooting back up the pole.
“Meh,, neskt te s’q!ilye,” [Me7 neskt te sq’ilye] he said to us, which I’m now proud to tell you (my notes actually worked) means ‘we’re going to go to the sweat-lodge.’
This led up to a remarkably convivial experience. First, though, we were given a tour of the homestead, including the main conventional house building (conventional to my idea of a house, that is), and given a chance to take care of any personal necessities. Then we were all issued towels and shorts to wear, plus a shirt for Eleya. So equipped and accoutred, we began our sauna experience by padding down a hillside path in our bare feet and bathing in a pool of water, a very cold pool – and I mean cold cold, as in, ‘cold’ – that had been widened out in the bed of a creek that ran through the property. But we couldn’t be too mesmerized by our blue, bumpy and shrivelled skin, because we could anticipate the heat of some very hot stones we could see glowing red inside the small, rounded hut nearby. We hastened over there next, popped inside the opening flap, and sat around in a close huddle, all eight of us with little room to spare. Kwoli,,la dipped his fingers into a bucket by his right side and cast water onto the stones to make steam for the hut. He sang something that sounded devotional, or at least very peaceful, and then reached into a little jar on his left side. The material that came up was leafy, herbal. He dashed a handful of these herbs on the stones, and this liberated an intense sagey aroma. In the context of the steam and the heat, the engagingly pervasive balm had a strangely liberating effect. Kwoli,,la said something, and little Tmikhw went around issuing each of us a tree branch, which I think came from a fir. He came back to his place and used his own branch to show us how to rub our skin to the best possible effect. This action also seemed to combine with the steam in a deeply cleansing way.
This was becoming more fabulous by the moment. It was powerful releaser, after all the labour and fear and torment of my Tsagaxk experience, and I suddenly found myself in tears in a way that felt good. By this time I was sweating enough that I could hope my emotional state might go unnoticed. Within seconds, though, I got a back-pat from Eleya, who was separated from me by Xus, and then Xus put his arm around my waist for a moment, almost a hug. They were really looking out for me.
From across the stones, Kwoli,,la gave me a slight, understanding nod. I guessed that his telephone contact had passed on the story of who had died. His daughter asked him something, and I saw the eyes of all the family members discreetly glancing at me. Kwoli,,la took some herbs up into his hands, gave me another nod, then looked at the stones and uttered a few lines that had the tonality of a prayer. He threw the leaves onto the fire. The fragrant smoke curled up to the ceiling of our little dome and drifted there, spreading out, taking the prayer around and down and back through all of us, infused in steam, connecting us in a presence, a memory, an existence. For you, my love.
We went four rounds of singing, steam-making and herbal smoke, all the while flowing all over like melting ice cubes. To be a human is such an amazing experience. You can actually make water all over your body, from head to foot. Think about it. No matter how hot the day is, you never get rained on by drippy birds flying around, nor do you ever look down to find a dog, drenched in its own sweat, shaking itself off onto your leg. Thank heavens for that! Horses partake of the sweating experience and can even foam – a cappuccino palomino, now, that’s class – but animals that can glaze themselves are relatively few in number. I hoped Yith had enjoyed this talent, this ability to exude your own swimming pool, while he was still a member of our bizarre species. And I wished he was here sweating with us today – but then, I’d wished he was here doing everything else with us too, at least since we left Tsagaxk, so there was nothing remarkable in that thought. All the same, he would have loved the sweat lodge experience. It took me back to our good times with Deiyah in the Asian baths of Regntum, but this lodge had a spiritual dimension that the baths didn’t aspire to. Didn’t perspire to, I guess you could say.
Our time in the sweat ended with all of us going outside and burning our fir boughs in the same fire that had earlier been used to heat the stones. Then we had another ice-cold dip in the stream, but our skins were ready for it and blocked the cold with their built-in excess heat. We were like baked-Alaska desserts in reverse, with our heated crusts repelling the ice-cold material rather than encasing it. The rivulets of cold coming through the heat had a tender, scouring effect.
The family led us back to the house so that we could get dressed. We were shown to our assigned rooms, and I realized that the house was more along the lines of a guest workers’ bunkhouse than a family dwelling. Lekhuussniinei and the kids fetched out blankets and more towels, and showed us the tea kettle and the preferred technique for running the wood stove. We made tea for ourselves while they went out and got some dinner going on a barbecue pit. Just as the sun was about to drop off the cliff, we heard more hoofclops on the road, and three people arrived leading a group of extra horses. Our government contacts had made it through.
“I thought we were expecting two people,” Xati remarked, “and one of those looks a little young for official business.”
We decided it wouldn’t be too pushy if we ventured out into the yard rather than waiting for our contacts to come visit us.
Kwoli,,la and his son and daughter were busy finding places for the new horses, and Lekhuussniinei had a fire and some pots to stir, so the new arrivals were momentarily at loose ends anyways. We walked over in their direction with a wave.
One of them was a white-haired man with a long, white moustache; he had a broad face and a warm and open demeanour. His companion was a much younger man, in his thirties by Earth standards, thinly bearded, pony-tailed, with a somewhat drawn-looking and lined face. He had his hand on the shoulders of the third person, a dark-haired, brown-faced boy of about twelve, with an exquisitely sloped chin line and with eyes that were slightly downcurved at the corners – an exotically beautiful face. And a nervous one. The boy was clearly shy, from his downcast look, and he held a book in one hand. I could see it shaking.
“Pyin,” urged the younger adult.
“D…d…,” the boy stammered, “does ‘nyone speaks the Engilish?”
“I speak English,” I answered with the best clarity I could muster. “My friends speak it too.”
The boy looked shocked.
“My name is Marrik, what is your name?” I asked, to give him some time to recover. I’m sure he was hoping no one would speak English and he’d be off the hook.
“My name is Khlekhtshiin [Clectsín].”
“Are you with your father?”
“Father? Yes – my father. His name is Lekhghlekhgh [Lexlex]. My grandfather name is Kwtuunt.” [Kwtunt]
“My friends are Xus and Eleya and Xati.” I pointed them out. “We are very glad to meet you.”
Everyone signalled hello.
“Thank you. Very nice to meet you. We will go to Kwetshku’tsh!ke,, [Kwetskuts’ke7] tomorrow.”
“We understand, thank you.”
His father said something to him.
“Father say in Kwetshku’tsh!ke,, there is man this ones…” he pointed at the rings on my arm and whistle-hissed with his tongue while making a zipping-off gesture.
“Good!” Xus and I said in unison. I wouldn’t object to having the vortex rings taken off my arms. After all, they didn’t belong to me, did they?
“Kukwstshetshelp,” [Kukwtsetselp] Eleya added, reading off her sheet and looking at the older people. This was a thank-you phrase for more than one person at a time – a thank-y’all.
The two adults gave her a smile and acknowledging nod.
Kwoli,,la was on his way back and said something from across the yard.
“He say go in kh,,istke,n,” [c7istken’] Khlekhtshiin said. I noticed his shakiness had declined a lot.
We each took our turn to go down the laddered pole. The newcomers went to sit on a bench that lined part of the periphery of the pit-house. Kwoli,,la soon arrived and started to make some tea – regular tea, as I would call it – by putting leaves in a teapot and setting some water to boil on the indoor fire. There was some conversation amongst the Spikonikwamekhtshin speakers.
The boy was more or less left out of the convo, and I decided to ask him what was on my mind.
“Excuse me, may I ask you something?”
“Ste,mi? [Ste’mi] Mm, I beg your pardon?”
“May I ask you a question?”
“Why are you studying English?”
The boy puzzled about this for a moment and then got it.
“Our people on Earth, many speaks English now – cona…”
“Conattainable?” [i.e., 400,000 years ago, but it’s the newest information you can get in physical form from a spaceship that has covered the distance]
“Yes! Books, newspaper use English.”
“There are Spikonikwamekh people on Earth? Where?”
“Many place. Not Spikonikwamekh – all Spikonikwamekh are here – but … family of Spikonikwamekh. Places: T’k!emluups, T’k!emtshiin, Skiitshesten, Khghe’ts!uulsls, Khghghghe’tl!te,m…” [Tk’emlups, Tk’emtsin, Skitsesten, Xets’ull, Xget’tem’]
I just stared at him. The last word was the most alien thing I’ve ever heard in my life. We must be talking about two different planets here.
That may not sound logical to you, since these people are human – but one thing I learned in shipboard chats with the Communicators is that they’ve transported people to several planets. Some were moved again if they had problems with the first place they went to. You never knew if some of the transanimates had given their first new planet the familiar, previously-enjoyed name of ‘Earth,’ just out of nostalgia. The towns there could be called anything imaginable. But let’s not jump to conclusions.
“So, these places are on the real Earth? Mostly blue coloured planet, number three from a yellow Sun?”
“Books and teachers say.”
“I come from Earth. I don’t know those places. Do you know any English names for places near to these places?”
“English name for close place?”
“Big river we call Se’t! [Set’] is English name Preisha.”
“Preisha?” Never heard of that one.
“Yes. Go down Penkuubeh.”
“Goes down to … wait a moment … the Fraser River goes down to Vancouver.”
“Yes, yes! That ones, bery hard to prononse. Pirst letter not use in Spikonikwamekhwtshiin.”
This was way over the top. Half a million years later, on the most arduously attained piece of alien territory on an alien planet, in a round sod-covered house built in what looked like a little lunar crater.
I’d come home.
No, not back to Earth per se.
To the nation that had ancestral title to the land I grew up on.
Or at least, their close cousins.
Meanwhile, my shy friend was slowly unveiling his own double-take.
“You from Earth? You live in Earth?”
“Yes, I come from a place maybe, on the horse, three days’ ride from the Fraser River.”
“How you come to our world?”
He shook his head and muttered “Ta,, k stshelkhghemsteten. [Ta7 k stselxemsteten]”
I could see the problem. He didn’t understand me on that last bit.
“Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh?” I ventured.
“Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh!” he exclaimed revelationally, with his eyes blazing like brown agate full moons. “Le,, , le,,! [Le7, le7] Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh!!
You have to remember to say things the simple way.
“Tshe’q!meke,, rwe S’k!wenmelslstiimkh!” [Tseq’meke7 re Skw’enmelltimc] he added. He tapped his father on the arm excitedly and told him about my unusual origin. His dad gave a nod of appreciation but then, as the slightest trace of a serious look hinted, probably advised him not to make a fuss about it. His exclamation I eventually translated as ‘thunderbird-arrow of the Communicators,’ in other words, their spaceship.
“Marrik was frozen for many thousands of years,” Eleya contributed.
The boy looked puzzled.
“Ice? Cold. Brrr…” Eleya explained with the appropriate gestures. She was good. I think Tsagaxk had taught her a lot about what it was like to be cold. It had certainly reminded me.
“Skhuyent!” [Scuyent!] he said, catching on. “Ice! Thousand of years! He?” He turned to me. “You?”
It isn’t easy to confess to being a frozen and thawed piece of meat, but I did it.
And so we went on to have a good minimalist conversation about my weird history. I was very glad he didn’t know more English than he did, so we didn’t have to go into the events leading up to my congelation. I wish there was some way that a boy like him, or a girl of the same age, could grow up without the concept of suicide ever coming into seir mind. Perhaps, on the other hand, given its deuheiktanal inevitability, one should discuss it and warn people that it’s something they’ll always regret, given any platform for reviewing the outcome. And who better to tell them than me? But I was glad I didn’t have to get into that with Khlekhtshiin. He looked pretty settled in to being alive.
I felt a little disconcerted being interviewed as an interstellar marvel when I knew there should have been someone there who could pipe up and say he used to be an eons-old trans-galactic machine. And you can’t get cooler than that. I was relatively cool because I’d been frozen – ha, ha – but imagine if I’d been made of metal and nanofibres – ah well, Khlekhtshiin didn’t know he was getting the lesser phenomenon, so he was free to be impressed by my humble self.
Not long after we began our interstellar conversation, we were interrupted by the return of the rest of the family members with the elements of a huge pot roast dinner. The roast was packed in strange, tiny potatoes – must have been another species of plant – and stringy onions with an enticing overtone of garlic. Then there was another tuber, mashed out, that tasted like sweet potato, plus lots of bannock. When the bannock was being distributed, Khlekhtshiin decided to teach me to say its name properly – s’p!ikhghle,,khw, that would be – and we both ended up having great hilarity at my inept attempts to say the word. He wanted to show me how it was written, to help me out, and borrowed a notepad from Sekuse,nt, Kwoli,,la’s daughter. To my surprise, he wrote the word out in mostly English letters as ‘sp’íxle7cw.’ And, yes indeed, why not redispose the number ‘7’ as a glottal stop? It does seem to sort of stand up and interrupt the flow of the word. Then just re-apply the unnecessary ‘x’ and ‘c,’ like the Chinese did in their Pinyin transliteration, and voila, a new letter code, looking beguilingly readable but not actually pronounceable until you learn the code.
So it was a very educational night for all of us. I really needed an emotional graded-gravel road to travel on for a while, and the evening was good for me that way. Part of me still wanted to spend every available moment doing Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ because of Yith – holding my head in my hands with my wraith-like mouth howling my agony – and part of me was jumping up and down wanting to get to Regntum and warn Deiyah about the invasion of the cranberry-munchers. It was very hard to sit still and eat dinner. The puzzle of trying to describe the interior of a Communicator thunderbird-arrow to a boy who spoke minimal English was a great soother. Linguistic confusion as a video game – try it sometime.
We slept well that night; even I did. The visitors took the cabin and the family stuck to its beloved pit-house. I could only thank God for being in such a safe place. It made a good back-fire to contain the still-rolling blaze of my inner horror.
On the way out in the morning, Eleya and Xus did something that would have slipped my mind completely – they pulled out the still-intact bag of scaphopod necklaces and bracelets that Deiyah had given us and gave some to Lekhussnineh and Sekusen,t. The little girl was especially excited and danced around saying, “ki,,khe, skhghiikhghnem, skhghiikhghnem!” – ‘mom, scaphopod shells!’ [ki7ce, sxixnem!]
Kwoli,,la said something and Khlekhtshiin translated it as “you pay too much one dinner, take two cows!”
Our host grinned. He was joking, but in a way that held a lot of truth. Post-ironic thanks.
“Say the shells are a gift from our kukwpi,, [kukwpi7],” Xus instructed the boy. “with his thanks and with our thanks.”
I was pleased to see something that had only survived this far by seeming worthless and anomalous had now been recognized as beautiful and valuable. It sort of reminded me of my own life up to a certain point.
And chalk up one point for Deiyah’s prescience in giving us the shells. He might come out of this looking OK if his cards played out right. In spite of … um, everything.
Boy, my mind is just full of bad stuff this morning, I’m sorry. (I actually wrote that last line down in my notes.) Missing my guy and flailing my mental sackcloth and ashes.
Grief is kinda ugly, isn’t it? What can you do for the person? Especially when you’re only reading his text. I’ll try to give you an exemption card, reader.
We said our goodbyes and more thanks, and trotted off into a day that was as much of a balm as the sweat lodge, in its own way. After three and a half hours or so, we arrived at a village that had a general store and a compact government building. The houses were mostly pit-houses. We could see a few sweat lodges around, and a number of barns. The periphery of the town was ringed with ranch-style fencing and infrastructure – tool sheds and so on.
“If my father say, I must stay,” Khlekhtshiin confided from his horse. “School today.” He pointed at the government building, which was quiet. School must have been in session. Almost lunch time, I’d guess.
As it happened, we carried on together, crossing over to the north side of the village, and repaired to a pit-house in a broad yard mostly covered in out-of-season berry bushes and canes. A woman in long and much-fringed suede robes was doing some roof maintenance while a baby slung around her back in a safety-strapped pouch played with the fringes on her shoulder seam.
“Rwen kik,,ekhe, [Ren kik7ece] my mother,” Khlekhtshiin said proudly. He lept off his horse, handing his dad the reins, and went over to give her a hand with a piece of woodwork she was trying to fix in place. Pretty soon they had things in order and we were invited in for lunch – dried stuff, mostly: beef jerky, or biltong, you might say, dried fish, and dried berries. But there was also some bannock and tea and, for a treat, some more skhghuusem, soopolallie ‘ice cream,’ flavoured with a different kind of berries than the last batch. Eleya had a chance to compliment Khlekhtshiin’s mom on her fine beadwork, as seen on the leathers of everyone in the family, including two girls who’d shown up from school on lunch break. I could see from clandestine glances and a general tone of excitement that I was the main object of conversation among the kids. Xus gave each of the kids one of our shell necklaces, which seemed to flabbergast everyone, especially the young recipients. I realized we were probably giving out the equivalent of semiprecious stones and it was probably way over-the-top, but hey, we didn’t know any better. So we could blithely ignore the clues and carry on as if we didn’t know any better, and everyone was happy. We added Khlekhtshiin’s mom into our gift list as thanks for the lunch. That went over very well too. I was enjoying the transition from desperately indebted worker, still burdened with his vortex rings, to bestower of wealth and elegance.
Then we were off again, with Khlekhtshiin still along as interpreter, much to his delight. This was no time to leave a friendly former ice-block in the lurch and go back to class. We had a leisurely ride through conifer forests – something much less bristly than the upland spruce of our cranberry zone – and were gazed at by many hawks and crows. At times, we’d break out into open land where there were landlocked ponds rimmed with white mineral salts, and in some of these, elegant black-and-white demoiselle cranes congregated in inward-facing circles, like attenuated avian priests waiting for a spirit to emerge from the water. On two occasions we came to spots where cables emerged from the ground and connected to a box on a stone pillar, and Lekhghlekhgh got some tools out of his saddle bag and did some work.
“My father has a job for telephone service of gupn’ment,” Khlekhtshiin announced proudly.
“What does your grandfather do?” Eleya asked.
The boy looked puzzled.
“Anything he want,” was the eventual answer.
“What work does he do?”
“Ah, he works kh’k!e,lmen.” [ck’el’men] He pointed at a tree and made a sawcutting gesture. “Also helps gupn’ment. Numbers, sqle,w.” [sqlew’]
An accountant. The technocrats of the village. And there was our sDiyyanantse word for money. We must have borrowed it from these guys. I had heard our countries had been on friendly terms for all recorded time on the planet.
We stayed that night at another pit-house, which Khlekhtshiin laboriously explained was one where the owners were subsidized by the government to take in travellers who needed a place to stay. Other than that, it was just a normal family dwelling with two parents and three kids, one of whom was a teenaged girl with Down’s syndrome. She took a liking to Eleya and coaxed her into being her partner in a game where the players had to guess how their opponents had shuffled four distinctive painted sticks that were hidden in one player’s closed hands. The rest of us took turns opposing them. I think she would have kept going all night if her mother hadn’t obliged her to stop at a certain point – not a happy moment, but she got over it. Eleya got lots of hugs and seemed genuinely taken with her adorer.
“It’s never exhausting to give out love,” she said afterwards. But she slept pretty soundly and needed a couple of extra shakes in the morning.
Midday the next day we met up with and started following a large river. Its banks regularly showed signs of fishing endeavours that had taken place in earlier weeks. We saw a great diversity of drying racks, weirs and wooden fish traps. The drying racks were empty – it was too late in the season to be drying fish. In the late afternoon, we reached the capital city, which amazed all us foreigners, I think, by presenting a broad fringe of suburbs mostly made up of pit-houses. Smoke from cooking fires came up around the laddered poles. A few above-ground, whitish tents, also dome-shaped, were scattered in among the pit-houses. The air was chilly – we’d been moving northeast and were now at the northernmost part of our trip – and we doubled up our layers of clothing with whatever we could find in our packsacks. The pattern of streets was obviously planned and was a perfect cross-hatching grid except where the ravine banks along the river obliged the roads to slant or twist up and down the hill. I later learned that the name of the town, Kwetshku’tsh!ke,, , [Kwetskuts’ke7] meant ‘fish-stretcher’ – it referred to little wooden sticks that were inserted as cross-pieces to keep a cleaned, opened-out fish maximally stretched out on the drying rack. The stretcher sticks always sat horizontally at a perfect 90-degree angle to the vertical rod of the drying rack, where the fish’s tail hung suspended by a ligature. What better name, then, to please someone who wanted to poke fun at the cross-hatched regularity of the town planning scheme? It’s the only city I know of with a self-satirizing name.
Mind you, I was also told later that the town on Earth that, conattainable, is the main centre for the T’k!emluluupsemkh, [Tk’emlulupsemc] a people closely related to our Spikonikwamekh, has a name that translates as ‘Buttocks River-Junction.’ I’m not really sure what to make of that. Is someone pulling my leg? I was told that the English speaking people who live in the district have no idea that their town’s name, though it’s been modified to be pronounceable by the English tongue, conveys this meaning to the knowledgeable.
As we entered the centre of the city, we reached structures that I, in my cultural insularity, think of as modern buildings, even though they have openable windows. We actually ended up in a real hotel with a desk clerk and everything, not to mention a triad of stable attendants, two girls and guy. Since many of the guests were wearing wide-brimmed hats that looked like cowboy hats, I was strongly reminded of western movies I’d seen. There was no bar, however, no fights, and certainly no guns being drawn. Some sort of a rancher’s conference was going on.
Khlekhtshiin ran up to me in the lobby as our rooms were arranged tapped my arm excitedly.
“Fast get ready,” he said. “We go over half hour to dinner with the kukwpi,,.”
“I am happy you will come,” I said. “Have you met him before?”
Some rephrasing was needed, and then he said “No! First time!”
I was glad to be the instrument of his social advancement, needless to say.
I deposited my minimal baggage in my room. The room had the equivalent of a queen-sized bed covered by a quilt made of turquoise and white patches, with red hummingbirds flying among the squares. It was the most gorgeous bed I’d seen in a long time – but what could be more painful to look at than a bed, when you know you should have been sharing it? I went back to the lobby as quickly as possible.
The whole group of us was met in the lobby by a pair of escorts, a young man and a middle-aged woman. The man had a fur hat on, one made of a short, cylindrical round of fur topped with a flat piece of fur, very much like a Russian ushanka with the earflaps up, or a Central Asian qaraqul hat. Emerging from the top of it was a fan-shaped array of five feathers, probably eagle feathers based on the size. He also had on several necklaces of different lengths, and some tufts of small feathers at the corners of his leather tunic. Not to be outdone, the woman had a hat on made of successive layers of what looked like inner birch bark strips, sewn together, studded on their surfaces with coloured quartz and jasper stones. A group of longish feathers with the tawny, stripey softness of owl feathers were inserted into to a leather disc that rested loosely on the inside of her right shoulder. The disc was held by a cord that went up over her shoulder and attached to the back of her hat. She wore a full-length soft-leather dress, belted at the waist, and over it, coming down to the waistline, a shawl made of brightly red, black and white, horizontally chevronned cloth with its lower one-third woven as long, triangular-ended strips. It had long, white fringes dangling all along its entire edge. Her look of pendulous delicacy was enhanced by long ear ornaments, each made of a series of ivory-white, curving scaphopod tooth shells, interconnected by black beads. Each ear ornament started off as a single ribbon of tooth shells, three shells wide, and then diverged into two ribbons as it draped down along her neck and reached her shawl-covered collarbone.
“I’m Selpakhghen, your interpreter; I talked on the phone with Xusxerron,” the young man said to us. He had a curiously weathered look for someone who seemed to be in his early mid-20s – I suspected he’d spent a lot of time outdoors. “With me is Yuyuwtetkwe, representing our government; she’s what you would call our minister of culture.”
Eleya had taught us to say a polite ‘weytk,’ ‘hello,’ so we did so, and shook hands in the sDiyyanantse manner, which seemed to go over well. Then our escort was introduced and young Khlekhtshiin got some pats on the head for his diplomatic services to the country.
“He speak other language,” he confided in me as we headed down the street together, indicating Selpakhghen.
“True,” I answered. I inquired with Selpakhghen if he spoke English, but he admitted he had never studied the language.
“It looks awful,” he said. “The spelling makes no sense.”
“It’s historic spelling,” I said, “and you just get used to recognizing words that way. It’s just as if, when you met a person, you saw a chart on sem that showed seir ancestry and you used that to help recognize sem. Scholars in the Age of Reason actually took pains to put unpronounced letters into English words, to bring back their similarity to the Latin words they grew out of – like the silent ‘b’ in the word ‘debt,’ for example.” I spelled the word out for him and told him about its Latin forbear, ‘debitam.’ This was a bit of didactic pabulum that all sDiyyanantse students of English were fed early on in their coursework.
“No silent letters in our language,” he said, “unless you count the seven [glottal stop]. I prefer to speak languages that make sense. I told our young friend he’s a braver man than I am.”
“Selpakhghen says he thinks you are good,” I said to Khlekhtshiin, just to bring him up to speed. The boy radiated.
“I not think book of school so much good thing,” he confessed, with wonder coruscating around in his ocular pools of brown.
Somehow we’re always skeptical about our education. It’s as if we’re born thinking that people plan school curricula to afflict us with nuisances rather than to provide things of practical use and imaginative fascination. I don’t argue that some educators prefer lifelessly flattened information. We students, though – we just seem to have this wary attitude about education no matter what we’re given. Unless, that is, we have the good fortune to be born in a completely impoverished area where education is nearly impossible – then, perhaps, we allow ourselves to crave the knowledge and extract the fun out of it. Otherwise, we have to be whacked on the head by the need for every scrap of knowledge we’ll consent to assimilate. We can be a very literal and hands-on species, even those of us – or should I say those of you? – who are intelligent. It’s another arisot problem, as you can see. We may or may not have faith in our schoolwork. We can approphetically make it boring by enjoining in advance that it’s irrelevant. If that salt – knowledge – loses its savour, what will restore it?
Everyone should get to be treated as a hero for a day if they’ve learned enough of another language to have a conversation with someone. I decided to give today’s hero a little more bootstrap support.
“If you want to keep talking to me in English,” I said to Khlekhtshiin, “you and I can write to each other when I get back home.”
Assuming my country still exists in some form, I thought. Well, let’s be optimistic about that.
“Yes, I like to write to you!” Khlekhtshiin chirped.
“Easiest address on the planet; you can even write it in English – Marrik Rajjarsen, Royal Palace, Regntum, Diyyana. I’ll write it out for you at dinner.”
He promised me his address, too, and we sealed the deal.
I couldn’t lose an English-speaking friend from home.
We arrived at some distinguished looking government buildings with stonework eagles all along the string courses. A large animal that appeared to be a fox or a wolf prowled around in the carvings of the frieze over the palatial front door.
Carved on the lintel, in English letters, was ‘Tk’wem7iple7smellcw,’ which in our highly readable phonics turns into ‘T’k!wem,,iple,,smelslskhw.’
“Gupn’ment house,” Khlekhtshiin explained after seeing me looking at the sign. He was obviously looking for any further chance to be helpful.
“You’re going to the dentist before dinner,” Selpakhghen announced. “I’m joking,” he added. “Actually the kukwpi,, has brought in a special smith to take off your Tssagakhghwmkh rings. Another kind of pain removal. He’s set up in the basement.”
We all hiked down the stairs and into a room with a bare concrete floor. The smith was there, and we were introduced to him, but to my surprise, there was nothing fiery going on. He had a complicated machine set up on wheels; it had a set of levers and gears attached to it, as well as a tank and some tubing. I got pointed at as the first guinea pig.
“Ten rings! You’ll be glad to get rid of those!” Selpakhghen translated. The smith wrapped a ring up in some insulating material. Then he attached three lever arms to it; each of them gripped the ring with a clasp that was screwed into place. Then a sort of capsule was placed around the solder joint. I could see it had rings of tubing inside it. It clipped together from two pieces placed over the joint; that brought its internal tubing together to make an intact coil. He stepped around behind his machine and opened the cock on the tank. Liquid rushed through the tubing and poured into a receptacle on the side of the machine. It fumed and smoked there.
The smith spoke. “Liquid nitrogen,” Selpakhghen translated. “They use very impure solder. Doesn’t like to get really cold suddenly.”
The smith momentarily flushed air through the nitrogen lines, unclipped the clasp with the tubules, and struck the ring sharply on the solder. I could see a fissure appear. At the same time, the three lever arms began to pull and the ring prised open a little. The smith hit a switch and the lever arms changed direction and began to bend the ring so that one end came in towards me and the other bent oppositely, away from me. The third arm served as a pivot and protected my skin. In no time, the ring was off me.
“Nine to go,” the smith said. “They must have liked you a lot.”
“I wasn’t their favourite,” I said. “That was someone else. They killed him. But if he were still with us, he’d be glad to see me getting these rings off.”
“I’m very sorry,” the smith said. “Something wrong with those people.”
“Well, something good is coming along in that country now. There’s an amazing underground. If the military moves out to invade our country, interesting things might happen.”
“The kukwpi,, will be very interested. It’s a good day for him that you came. I’ll concentrate on my work and get you there quicker.”
He set about knocking rings off with great focus, and before I knew it, I was free.
I had my hugging arms back. This thought made my emotions spike off the chart. All packed with love and no place to go. It’s so hard, so hard, this – death. Ugh. Eleya, meanwhile, was the next to be unringed, and it didn’t take long. Well, I could sure as heck hug her. And I did, as Xus stepped up to the smith. I didn’t want to cry in front of Khlekhtshiin, so I bit my mental lip as hard as I could. My eyes were almost closed. Eleya must have felt the effort I was making, because something pushed a little water out of her tear ducts.
Xus was soon with us. “Joining the scrum,” he said as he came in, but his arms were full of love. I looked around and saw Khlekhtshiin staring at us as if half-repulsed and half-hoping for an invitation.
“We will be okay again in two minutes,” I promised him with a wan half-smile. “We’re just remembering a good friend who died in Tsagaxk with many of these rings on his arms and legs.” Again, I had to wallop back tears with brute mental force. In the background, I heard the gentler banging of Xati having his rings released.
Khlekhtshiin smiled back slightly. “Lsls,,eghghwkhe,” [Ll7egwce] he said gently. His dad frowned at him with left eye slanted down.
“Don’t know in English,” he said, looking up at his dad from the corners of his eyes with dramatized pseudo-alarm.
“Basically a nonsense-word,” Selpakhghen explained, “but he says ‘go ahead and melt,’ kind of like a snowbank. I’m sorry, it sounds rude to me.”
This exchange abruptly changed my mood. “No, no,” I explained, feeling warmth overtake me, “it’s a private joke – I told him I was frozen like ice for a few thousand years on the Communicator ship. He’s just giving me the go-ahead to melt and get all slushy with my friends. He read my face so well, he might just as well have been reading my mind. He’s a very smart fellow.”
Selpakhghen said something to the boy that got a smile. Lekhghlekhgh gave his son a fond imitation cuff on the back of the head. His grandfather put his hand on his shoulder.
Xati came over and joined the team, which by this time was more in pats-on-the-back mode than in spring runoff. Finally we all raised our free arms up together in a fingery tepee, and gave a good ‘yaaay!’ or yells to that effect. Freedom from vortex. Yes! Absolutely a blessing. We saluted the smith and gave him a good round of ‘kuukwstshetshemkh!’ ‘thank you!,’ after a little coaching from Eleya.
The Minister of Culture said a few things.
“She says on behalf of the government, it’s our privilege to rid you of those hideous devices. And now, we should go upstairs. The kukwpi,,’s waiting, and he’s looking forward to the meeting so much that we should have mercy on him and hurry along his way.”
We cantered up the stairs with just a slight trace of dignity. I felt so much lighter that I could have run up making zooming sounds like a kid. I’m an airplane!
One more flight of stairs, and we came out into a large reception area, or what you might call an auditorium or a ballroom. And there at the entrance, waiting to meet us, was a lineup of official-looking people, all in fine leathers, fringes and feathers.
The Minister of Culture and Selpakhghen jumped right in to introductions.
“T!eyntshqel’q!lekhgh, [T’eyntsqelq’lex] our kukwpi,, ,” they began, and then went on to the kukwpi,,’s wife, who was introduced as the Coordinator of Fishing Rights and Inventories, then the Prime Minister, her same-sex partner, the Spirit Minister, and a list of others. We were introduced by name, except for the unheralded Xati, who had to introduce himself. Xus explained that he had been our ally and interpreter in Tsagaxk.
The kukwpi,, scanned us as political people do, painting us into the great mural of his memory. He was in his mid-sixties by my standards, white haired, surprisingly smooth of face, and one of those people who’d be film-star handsome into his nineties. His brown eyes absorbed and reflected away, moving under the twin porticos of slightly oversized, well-whitened eyebrows. He was so clean-shaven he looked like he might never have grown a beard.
I’ll give Selpakhghen credit in advance for translating all the Spikonikwamekhtshiin dialogue that follows.
“Ah, Xusxerron – here you are at last. So you’re the promising young man Deiyah wrote me about! I hope you were able to bring the item he said you’d bring me.”
“Promising young man? Um, okay. Yes, sir, Marrik has it. But I have to apologize for the condition of its carrying container. It was only saved from destruction in Tsagaxk by being, um, disguised this way.”
I took off Yithy’s backpack from my back and brought out the deplorable, diamond-patterned piece of cloth. As it came into the atmosphere, an overripe atmosphere of ammonia and ureic rot hit me like an olfactory pillowfight.
“The manuscript is inside the blanket in pouches, and I hope they haven’t been ruptured,” I said, “but we didn’t dare try to wash it, except in a small way that didn’t do anything. I apologize for its condition, but with luck, the treasure itself is still completely intact. We’ve taken great care to keep it that way.”
“Whew, well, I won’t argue with success. Yuyuwtetkwe,” the kukwpi,, addressed the Minister of Culture, “I trust you have people ready to deal with this.”
“Yes, no problem,” she said. “The university museum has sent us a conservator and two graduate students. They’d love to get involved in a challenging conservation effort.”
“I hope the museum has fume hoods,” the kukwpi,, said. “Well, we’re having dinner soon, we need to get this ‘container’ out of our atmosphere. My sDiyyanantse friends, congratulations, and I extend you the profound thanks of our nation for bringing us this, um, well defended treasure.”
“I can’t say it was our pleasure,” Xus answered, “but it was certainly our honour and I’m glad we did it. I might as well come clean with you – I was sent to deliver it this way as a punishment for some idiot things I did at home that I’ve almost forgotten about now. I feel like I’m 90 metres taller than the person who did those things. I regret more deeply than I can say that one of my favourite people ever, or favourite beings ever, died in our excursion – I guess you’ve heard … but … I suppose … if Deiyah’s object was to make me grow up, it certainly worked. In fact, I’m going to announce something officially to my friends and my partner right now.”
We looked at him.
“Guys, I have perspective.”
“Congrats, you needed it,” whispered Eleya, giving him a kiss on the left cheek.
“It will serve you well,” the kukwpi,, said. “In this mortal life, growing up can’t be entirely happy, but you’ve done something magnificent. And I can understand what Deiyah’s done with you. Shall we go sit down? Then I’ll explain.”
A young university student, meanwhile, had come over with a clear plastic bag and dropped Exhibit A into it. Goodbye, goodbye, last molecules of Yith. What a life I live. I was still in love with those molecules in a way that I couldn’t disavow. As awful as they were in the worlds of reality.
The treasure was surrendered.
He had certainly been ‘the mind of someone else.’
Wt’thet’th’t! Hey. Soweto.
Alif. Lam. Mim.
Mysterious words, must remember those mysterious words.
We took our seats at a long dining table that had been set up in the middle of the hall. I sat on one side of the kukwpi,, and Xus sat on the other. Eleya was beside Xus, Xati next to me, and the kukwpi,,’s wife sat across from him, flanked by Selpakhghen and the Minister of Culture. On the Minister’s side, Khlekhtshiin and his father and grandfather were strung out side by side. Khlekhtshiin was obviously in awe of the kukwpi,, and hung on every word he said. The kukwpi,, had the reins of the conversation in his hand and flicked them to excite a good trot.
“What Deiyah asked you to do, Xusxerron, is probably based on our culture,” he said. “We strongly recommend that all our young people at your age go on a vision quest to find the dwelling place of their greater spirit. In the old days, after being prepared by ceremonies, they would go into the forest and live by themselves for a month or two, perhaps fasting for many days, until they found an animal spirit to be their companion for life – a sort of otherself, as your language would put it, from the world of spirits. When we came to this planet, we found that those animals mostly weren’t here with us. Even our mainstay, the deer, was gone, along with the subject of so many of our traditional stories, the coyote, the trickster, the changeling. The bear was gone, the cougar, the elk, the moose, the weasel, the mink, the marten, the porcupine, squirrel, chipmunk, jumping-mouse, vole. We still had the eagle, the various hawks, the owls, the dog, the otter and the shrew, among others – the hummingbird, the jay, the strange black-and-white crane, almost like the one we’d known before with the red-and-white face, the sandhill crane. And we had those strange but likeable new beasts, the cow and the horse. Still, our world of spirits was depopulated. So we became more focused on the tqelt-kukwpi,, , no relation to my office, haha, the supreme being, who is everywhere in this universe. Our young people could still go and live off the land, but only if they were good at fishing and at hunting grouse and geese. Otherwise, they were allowed to drive some cattle off with them and subsist partly on the milk. Their vision quest could perhaps find them an animal spirit, or it could find them a revelation from the supreme being, or an upsurge from within themselves. They looked for something telling them how they could emerge from the tight and ever-so-firmly-believed reality of childhood and expand, with a new basis-of-power, into the galaxy-sized space of adult possibilities. Survival on your own terms, in some place of danger or constraint, seems to be helpful to finding this basis of power; now you know what it’s like to have your sense of reality tempered by the brutality of the real reality, your friendly enemy, your main supporter and your main saboteur.”
“I do indeed,” Xusxerron said, “we all do. Those of us who survived.”
“I deeply regret your loss. I’m profoundly sorry that it happened, in a way, in my service. All I can offer to make it up to you is my perpetual allegiance, my friendship, and the friendship and gratitude of my country. You can see from what I’ve told you already that we have a relationship with the central poem in your manuscript.
“This moonless sky
is the mind of someone else.
No legend of mine
“Our culture, in a way, lost its mind by coming here. Our legends, many of them, became historical curiosities. ‘No legend of mine lives there’ – that was certainly true for us. We still remember Se’k!lep, [Sek’lep] our Coyote trickster of legend, and the many amusing tales we told about him. You can see him out there on the front of our building. Yet, he certainly isn’t here with us. But – I would say that out of all the subnations of the Sekhwepemkhu,lekhw, [Secwepemcul’ecw] our overarching quilt of nations on Earth, we were the most likely to survive the shock of losing him. We were already in a cultural shift of some kind, and if you knew our culture you’d be able to hear it in our names. A few of us have traditional-type names, like my friend Yuyuwtetkwe here – though even her name is a witticism, not a real traditional name [Selpakhghen later clarified that it implied she liked to move slow when others moved fast] – but many of us have names that would strike others of our nationality as very odd indeed. My name, for example, just says ‘hoop dancer’ – though that’s because I was quite a champion at that in my youth, when I was called something else. Our friend Khlekhtshiin here, who now has a home address in my memory, has a non-traditional name, ‘beautiful of voice,’ but I hear that it suits him very well. Have you heard him sing?”
“No!” I exclaimed.
“By all accounts he sings very well.” The boy, meanwhile, had changed from radiant to concerned as it began to seem he’d be asked to do a performance. “Don’t worry, we won’t ask you for a demonstration now. But come to my office tomorrow before you go back and sing me something. Agreed?”
The boy simply nodded, with his eyes just slightly wider than usual. His dad and grandfather also discreetly nodded their encouragement. Perils of being a kid – I’ll never forget when my mom made me sing that choo-choo song at some random house we went to on Hallowe’en. It was so traumatic it gave me a persistent memory. Hmm. Maybe if they’d tortured me more, I wouldn’t be such a blank slate. It’s appalling how much we forget. Ahem, meanwhile, Marrik’sh!ss!, back to reality.
“Khlekhtshiin also speaks English well,” I offered.
“Well – a true bridge among cultures, with some of the coyote spirit of adaptation. You see, the old trickster does live among us still, in his way. We’ve had to be very clever and wily to make our way in this new world, where everything was different. Do you know what the other language of our country is, besides our Spikonikwamekhtshiin?”
“No,” Eleya said after we’d all looked at each other. “We’ve never heard of another language here.”
“When you came into our city, did you notice some white houses, some rounded tents above the ground?”
We realized that we had, and said so.
“When the Communicators brought us here to this place with no deer, they realized we’d still need meat, so they brought us cattle. But what did we ever have to do with herd animals? Or horses? So they did something to help us – they brought us some volunteers from a tribe of Mongolians who were living over next to your Korabaas province. Now, those Mongolians, they knew everything about herding, the cattle, and especially the horse. They taught us all they knew, and in return we gave them free range in our northwest province. Now it’s 75% Mongolian. They look much like us, and we have much in common despite the great gulf among our cultures. Probably we share some ancestors back in the stone axe days. The main thing that’s odd about them, from our perspective, is that they don’t dig. They say it disturbs the spirits of the ground. So they can’t build themselves a comfortable pit-house but must put up walls of flannel above the ground to make their geirr, their tent. In the city, at least, they’ll consent reluctantly to plumbing or outhouses, but in the country, they just walk out so many paces to the east of the tent and use the prairie, taking a cloak to wrap around them if they want privacy. Then their dog cleans the place up and the land is sanitized. But I wouldn’t let that dog lick me too much.
“You know, those Mongolians, you sort of have to give them their own space, because one of the things they won’t dig is fence posts. They herd on an open range, so they have to stay with their animals all the time, and you can’t grow crops or a garden in their territory unless you offend them by putting in a fence. Otherwise, their cattle try their darndest to eat everything you plant. They keep a piece of land in immaculate condition; they’re astonishing stewards of nature – but they don’t eat vegetables. Even their vitamin C they just get from raw milk. We, on the other hand, we eat a lot of plants. The Communicators were kind enough to transport for us, over time, all the good plants we liked, and we found places where almost all of them would grow, either in the wild or in gardens. That’s how you can have our national dish tonight – coming up soon – skhpe’t!aam [scpet’am], which needs the roots of the spii’t!em (no sDiyyanantse word, so Selpakhghen couldn’t translate it – it’s bitter-root in English) and berries of the speqpeq,,u,,wi (Saskatoon or serviceberry) [spit’em, speqpequ7wi] along with fish eggs and a bunch more mystery veggies for extra flavour. Some of these things, the cows won’t eat anyways, but now and again we have to put up a fence. And we like corrals and barns. For those luxuries, also, you have to dig.
“And of course, to eat roots, you have to dig a lot. Our relatives on Earth have commented in recent times, conattainable, that our land there used to be just like a garden, even though we had no fields. We harvested just so among the wild plants, leaving them good places to regrow and plenty of their own seed, and we went from place to place and didn’t put too much stress on any of the populations. We had no grazing animals to trample them or eat them up, and what the deer ate came to us anyways, in suitable proportion, so we had no problem with them. Marrik, Lekhghlekhgh called me on the phone this morning from the place you stayed overnight, and he happened to mention that you come from our old land! That’s amazing to me – I’ve never spoken to someone who personally has been there. [“You wouldn’t believe the processed cheeses they have now!” I thought.]. It must be gorgeous country.”
“It is,” I answered. “It’s quite spectacular. I don’t think you’d like all the highways, auto junkyards and so on, but surrounding them is a truly breathtaking piece of planet.”
“Well, the arrival of your ancestors in our land, you ‘people from stories,’ as we called you, caused our people immeasurable trouble. I’m sure you know – all those Eurasian diseases and so on. Even our national dogs couldn’t survive there – they only live here. Our group was already gone by the time all this happened, though, so we didn’t experience any of it. Anyways, all of our relatives on Earth have pretty much stayed on good terms with the seme,, [seme7], the Europeans, thanks to the great kukwpi,, Hwistesmekhghe,,qen [Hwistesmexe7qen], in the 1850s, so I can treat you as a transanimated homelander without qualm. Welcome back to our land.”
“Kuukwstshetshemkh!” I said fluidly. I wasn’t sure if I was smart for remembering that, or dumb for not having learned anything else. I wasn’t challenged to say more, anyways – I just got grins all around.
“How did your people come to be here on this planet?” Eleya inquired. “Do you know?”
“Oh yes, it’s a famous story. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it. We had a bad autumn and winter in our place along the Se’t! river, and as winter kept blowing its way down the canyon, we were getting desperately low on food. That wasn’t common in our area because it was pretty rich, but we’d had some trouble with the S’tl!a’tl!emkh [Stl’atl’emc] people to the west and our harvesting grounds had partly been lost. We were in a bad way. The time of the main fish run up the river, the spawning migration, was almost diabolically rainy, and with all our tricks and our fires, we were hard-pressed to dry our fish in good condition. If you dried it out, it just soaked moisture back up from the mist. A lot got moldy and two young kids died mysteriously, we think now from botulism. The wet summer led to a partly mild winter with a lot of wet and crusted snow in the valleys. Some game animals that usually came down to the river stayed up in the hills.
“No one had died of starvation yet, but a few travellers had seen our bad state, and before you knew it, we had a raid by some Peskhghlikhghlemkh [Pesxlixlemc] people, speakers of a very different language, thinking they could snatch our territory. We drove off the first attack, but it was looking bad for us. There were hundreds of them. One of our people was keeping watch from a pile of brush not far from his pit-house the night after the raid; he was looking out under a rich moonlight from a nearly full moon. What did he see but a coyote coming wandering into the area around his place! But though it looked like a coyote, there was something very strange about it. It really made his hair stand up. First of all, the dogs hadn’t smelled it. Ordinarily, if a coyote came that close on a night with so little wind, the scent would wake them up and they’d be bouncing around to chase the trickster off. Secondly, it wasn’t sniffing. It was looking. Looking.
“He decided it was a spirit coyote, come to offer something, or to snatch something, and he started singing a coyote song, very softly, to let it know he was there. Yes, the coyote stayed, it didn’t run – it watched him. He held out his fist as if there was food inside it – it was all he could think of to bring the spirit coyote closer. In his song, he invited it to come up and tell him what it had to say. It did come closer. Stiffly, it approached him. It walked like it had arthritis. It didn’t sniff towards him. He was like someone who sees a ghost in a ghost story, feeling as if his hair was going to turn white, yet he went on with his luring. When the coyote was close, he sprang out from the brush and grabbed it by the nape and the shoulders, expecting to die or be given immense gifts of magic. His spearpoint was in the hand that held the shoulder skin, but as he felt the animal under his hands, he realized it was less than half the weight of a real coyote, and his spear might just go through it like a bag of air.
“The coyote began to speak, in a poorly formed version of our language, and it said it was a very strange kind of person in disguise, a member of the nation of S’k!wenmelslstiimkh [Sk’wenmelltimc]. It said four hundred or more Peskhghlikhghlemkh were grouping around our area and we’d be wiped out tomorrow. But the coyote offered a flying canoe that could take us to a land that was rich and free of enemies, where we could live in prosperity for the next thousands of years, maybe longer. Now this fellow – we call him Kukwyey,,elkhken [Kukwyey7elcken] because he had long, skinny legs [his name means ‘water strider,’ an insect with long legs that can run across water], he put the coyote on a leather rope because he didn’t trust him, and he went around waking people up and getting them together. The coyote just walked beside him without saying anything, but that got their attention, all right. The dogs seemed to be sort of hypnotized by it – they looked like they were going to bark, and then they seemed confused. Later the Communicators told us that the coyote had a diffuser that picked up human scent and concentrated it, so the coyote smelled to the dogs like people they knew.
“It was still dark; the moon was the only light. When the people were all gathered together, the coyote started to talk. At the sound of its voice, the people jumped as if lightning had struck each of them in seir place. The coyote told them about the attackers, and asked if the people wanted it to request the flying canoe to come and rescue them. Well, Coyote as a spirit had such a reputation for strange uses of his sense of humour, and the people mostly thought it must be a joke. But how can you turn down the help of a talking coyote who’s offering to save your life? So they agreed – send the canoe. And to their shock, a second moon appeared and then became an enormous fire falling down through the sky towards them, illuminating the whole countryside.
“‘Don’t be scared,’ the coyote said, but a couple of foolish people ran off. The rest stayed and wouldn’t you know, out on the sandbar next to the river, in a giant blast of flying sand and dust, the fire went out and everyone could see that a long and shiny object was standing there, with a pointed end like a canoe’s. Several creatures looking like four-legged spiders with long necks and horned heads came out of it and they ran a transparent, hollow line over to the river. The coyote said they were taking up some water for us to drink on the trip. We couldn’t see how they’d get the water, since the line ran upward towards their canoe, but as soon as they touched the water with the tip of the line, it was as if part of the river tried to swim upstream into their line. This was enough extra magic to make sure that the people would take the coyote’s advice. So when he told them to grab a few of their favorite clothes and items and get into the standing canoe, they all did. Then they got settled in and something put them all to sleep … and the next day, it seemed, they were here beside our river, just looking at the salmon leaping in the water. There was no one around and there were so many fish, it didn’t seem anyone had ever fished that river.
“The coyote came up the river bank and took off its skin, and started handling its bones, building itself up into a skeleton resembling a human, but with shiny boxes instead of a heart and other organs. As it was doing this, it was telling us about the history of the S’k!wenmelslstiimkh nation and how they travelled among the stars of the heavens. Our kukwpi,, of that time had been killed in the initial raid by the Peskhghlikhghlemkh, and so had most of his family, so everyone called out to Kukwyey,,elkhken to take over the position, since the coyote, or the S’k!wenmelslstiimkh in general, had chosen him. He had the wit to treat the ex-coyote as if it were a person, and it gave him a name for itself that he found easy to say and remember – Tseqrnaghghtsetch Tmwakhne’t!e’t. [Tseqrnagt.sets Tmwacnet’et’.] So their friendship got off to a good start, and they negotiated matters like the cattle and the Mongolians, all in an atmosphere of triumph and celebration. Tseqrnaghghtsetch Tmwakhne’t!e’t asked what our name for the dog was, because people had all brought their dogs along, and Kukwyey,,elkhken told sem ‘sqekhghe [sqexe].’ That’s why to this day the Communicators call a dog ‘sqhweiowqh’wh!ph!hsses’t’ [~sqxweiowqx wh’ph’sesst’] – ‘sqhweiowqh’ from their own mutation of ‘sqekhghe,’ and ‘wh!ph!hsses’t!’ meaning animate creature. They got many more words from us as well. Tseqrnaghghtsetch Tmwakhne’t!e’t said he wished all human languages were as easy to pronounce as ours. We never know when those creatures are joking, though. Their sense of humour is a lot like ours.
“Anyways, now you know where I got the good legs that made me a champion hoop dancer. My ancestor all those generations ago was this very same Kukwyey,,elkhken, water-strider, and when I was your age I could almost dance across water myself. Now, I have to take other forms of satisfaction, and having you here as my guests and as emissaries of my brother Deiyah is a high pleasure. Thank you again for all the trouble and pain you underwent to visit us and to bring us your cultural treasure.”
Just about then, the food courses started arriving, including the savoury, berry-laden fish-roe pudding that the kukwpi,, had called skhpe’t!aam, and we all set to with gusto. Much more conversation ensued, but a terrible thing happened – not from my point of view, but perhaps from yours.
I stopped taking notes. I relaxed. Really relaxed. I laughed at things. I showed Khlekhtshiin how to high-five and taught him the word ‘dude.’ I revelled in the giggles that ensued. I gave Eleya a little neck massage. I spoke man-to-man nothings with Xus and Xati and listened to tales of the kukwpi,,’s life and times. I only drank water and berry juice, but most of the evening has flowed down the neural river and lost itself in the ocean of what-was-that-now? Avidya. Anyways, you got the best part.
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