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Power Sources (sample)
Julia H. West
Originally printed in Realms of Fantasy, February 2004. Finalist for 2004 Utah Speculative Short Story Award.
Dry grass rustled against Hallelujah Tuckett's legs as she squatted in the shade of a cotton tree. She wriggled her shoulders, wishing she could scratch where the sweat was trickling down. But she had better things to do with her hands. She wouldn't let a little itch stop her from learning the magic.
Tlakh, the Boon witch doctor, would dump her quick if she didn't pay attention. Tlakh made it clear he didn't care if she was an offworlder—she was just another apprentice to him. Halley was determined to be a good apprentice. She knew Tlakh's tales were magic—hadn't he cured her flu in about five minutes?
With the other apprentices—rusty-furred Pellag, Jhiweel of the golden eyes, and tiny Suftek—Halley watched taleweaver Tlakh's movements. The long gray fingers of his left hand swooped toward his right, caught a loop of string, and pulled back. He tipped his hands so the apprentices could see. "Tchon."
"Tchon," Halley echoed with the apprentices, copying the movement with the red yarn looping her own hands. A hammock, she translated to herself. She followed as he bent his index fingers over a set of loops and twisted his hands. "Ekha troon, the rising sun."
Halley copied his every move, grunting with satisfaction when her completed string figure looked like Tlakh's. "Kazha mokee," said the taleweaver, and Halley thought a water hole. The figure looked like a round, deep pool—and she could change its depth by moving her index fingers.
While Tlakh helped Jhiweel, who kept twisting the string the wrong way around his hands, Halley, Pellag and Suftek practiced the figure. When Tlakh was satisfied, he said, "Now my story." As his long fingers manipulated the string, with movements graceful as dancing, his story unfolded. "The hunter wakes in the dark, stretches and climbs out of his hammock. He is thirsty, so he goes out to fill the water basket. The sun rises as he walks toward the mountains. And there, in the plain, is the water hole, deep, full of cool water." Halley was glad his words were simple ones. She actually understood him.
At the story's end the apprentices sighed their appreciation. Halley never understood the point of Tlakh's stories, but she knew there was more to taleweaving than just stories.
The taleweaver dropped the loops from his fingers and returned the string to its place around his neck. "Now, Khallee," he told her in heavily accented English. "Look at our braids."
Pellag sidled up, her long nose twitching in nervousness, and gave Halley three braids, each carefully tied at the end and decorated with a bead, as Halley had shown them. As Halley turned them, checking for how tightly and evenly the braids were made, the apprentices crowded close, breath whistling between their teeth in excitement. "This one's too loose—see how the strands separate? The other two look fine."
"Do you think you could braid skekki fur?" asked Tlakh. "To show us how you get braids all over?"
"I'll try." Halley didn't like teaching, but it was worth it for the magic. Shy Suftek ran out into the compound, caught one of the long-haired beasts, and brought it to Halley. The skekki settled into her lap, making comfortable heh-heh noises, and she began combing the tangles from its fur.
"Do you tell a tale as you braid?" asked Tlakh, watching intently as she separated out strands.
"Uh, yeah, sure." Since he expected it, Halley began one of the stories her mama used to tell her, changing it a little for the Boons. "My mama, Glory, used to tell this tale. Ol' man, uh, wererabbit wanted a wife. So he went to a hunter's camp while the hunter was away and asked his wife to come live with him. 'I've got a great pot, full of khip roots and meat every day.' The wife was hungry, so she went away with ol' man wererabbit." As Halley talked her fingers flew, making a braid in the animal's long fur, tying off the braid with colored string and a bead, and starting another.
"But after a day in ol' man wererabbit's den, she saw no great pot, and got only grass to eat. She knew she'd made a bad mistake. But she was far from her band's territory, and didn't know how to get back to the camp. So she said to ol' man wererabbit, 'You've shared your den and your food. Come to my camp, and I'll make dinner.' Ol' man wererabbit eagerly ran back to the camp, and the woman followed. 'Gather wood while I dig khip,' she said, and ol' man wererabbit did. She filled her pot with water, and when ol' man wererabbit came back she popped him in the pot, sealed it with ghatt sap and leaves, and built a fire under it. When her man came back from hunting she told him she'd caught wererabbit for dinner, and he never knew what happened."
Half the skekki's fur was braided now, and she stopped and looked up at Tlakh. He stared at the braids, his long nose twitching. "You do this with all the hair on a khuman's head?" he asked.
Halley nodded, forgetting that didn't mean "yes" for the Boons, and the bells and beads in her braided hair clicked and jingled together. "Yes."
This seemed to puzzle Tlakh. "Your strings are different and your tales are different. I do not yet understand khuman taleweavers."
Tlakh lifted his hands, signaling an end to the lesson. "We will finish the braids, and when you come back you can tell us if we did well." The apprentices covered their faces with their hands and backed off.
Tlakh put one of his long-fingered gray hands on her shoulder and drew her away from the knot of apprentices. She followed the taleweaver through the dusty courtyard, dodging skekki, into a hut half hidden in the cotton tree grove. The air was cooler there, but it was dark and a little stuffy, and smelled of spices and dung.
"Khallee, some of the Eblekh Zai—not of Ghuxi band—are unhappy that we learn from each other." Tlakh rubbed his hands together, back and forth. "You must stay away for a time."
"But I want to learn the tales!" Halley protested. And the magic, she thought but didn't say. "You said you'd show me how to make a proper string."
Tlakh sat carefully on the pounded-earth floor and fumbled in a pouch that hung from his belt. "I have not taught you enough yet. But you can practice. Collect dead fibers like these." He brought out a handful of what looked like fur.
"Okay," she said, "I'll collect dead fibers." She squatted in front of him, watching his fingers.
"Roll them against your hip, and keep adding more fibers." As she watched, squinting in the dim light, a long piece of twine grew under his fingers against the smooth leather of his shorts. His fingers moved almost too quickly, feeding in the bits of fur.
"Can I try with some of yours?" she asked, not sure she could make string like that.
The twine dropped to the floor when he hesitated. Quickly, Halley bent and picked it up. She rolled it on her hip; the tiny hairs prickled against her palm.
Tlakh's nose quivered, and his hand moved forward, as if to snatch the string back from her.
"I add more fiber to the end?" she asked, and held her hand out to the taleweaver.
He stared at her for a moment, then pressed a wad of fur into her hand. "Add it a little at a time; it must twist in with the rest of the string."
Halley's end of the twine was lumpy, but held when she pulled on it. "I will practice."
Tlakh smoothed his heavy mane and turned away. "Be careful. I have not taught you enough."
Cover design by Danica B. West, all rights reserved. Composited and photomanipulated from: string art: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sfslim/5501089130/ background: http://www.flickr.com/photos/20872388@N06/2829197847/ All photos used under Creative Commons license.
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Other stories by Julia H. West from Callihoo Publishing:
The Peachwood Flute (collaboration with Brook West)
Weeds (collaboration with Brook West)
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This page created 26 September 2011
Last update 20 March 2014