I staggered down the street away from the shaman with the roll of parchment under my arm. “The only chance in the whole village, and he does nothing but give me a map,” I thought. It was already two weeks since I felt wrong. I should have gone then, but I thought I would get over it.
I could not even explain what ‘felt wrong’ meant. Something was wrong with my vision, and I had a headache. I staggered instead of walked, my feet wide apart for balance. The ground seemed to vibrate and sway under me, yet no one else in the village seemed to notice.
I realized that I had walked past my own house with its bright blue door as I tried to recall the shaman’s words. I turned back and thought, “What did he say about my leaving the village?” It had something to do with the moon and the harvest, and something about his reputation. And something about tomorrow.
I looked up and found myself right back at the shaman’s door, the faded red stain and its bundle of bones tied with string and hung on a nail. I had walked right past my house again without noticing. I turned and hurried away in case he came out and saw me in the street.
When I made my way home and closed the door behind me, I looked around the house. I squinted in the bright sunlight that leaked between the sticks and boards of its four walls. The soft chittering of creatures in the palm frond ceiling felt comforting and familiar, and I relaxed my shoulders with a sigh of relief. I let thoughts of the shaman drift through my mind, and tried to catch the meaning of his words.
Not so long ago, the shaman poked & prodded me with his strange traditional instruments, never explaining what they were, how they worked, or what they told him about me. At one point, his breath hissed sharply as if I stepped on his foot. “You haven’t stopped by to see me in a while, have you?”
“The last time you said I wouldn’t need to, remember?” I said. “I had that rash on my hands and feet, and you said the spots would go away. They did, so didn’t come back. Was that wrong?”
He shook his head. “No, nothing I could do anyway,” he said. “And that first spot went away?”
“What spot?” I asked. I rolled up my sleeve and glanced at all the bumps, scratches and cuts I collect during my days in the fields. “Which one? I get a hundred every day.” I looked at his smooth arms that never held a hoe or a shovel.
“That big open sore across your finger,” he said. “It was a big mess, what I call a chancre, remember?”
I cringed at the memory of the oozing sore. “That was long ago, months ago,” I said. I looked at my hands, unable to remember which finger had suffered. “It didn’t hurt, didn’t itch, it just looked gross.”
“And the rash didn’t itch either, right?” he asked.
“No, but some of the spots were like warts,” I said. “Wasn’t that all a couple years ago? You were right, though, I started getting headaches back then, and I still get them.”
He rubbed his chin and said, “Hmmmm. Now you have trouble keeping your balance. I noticed you had a problem walking straight across the floor.”
I had forgotten about my balance. “I walk funny now, more like a drunken sailor. But I don’t fall down as often. Ow!” I jumped at the needle stab in my toe. I looked down and saw nothing there. “Do you have rats in here?” I bent over and cradled my foot but could see no bite or stab mark. “That hurt, whatever it was. You didn’t inject me with your needle, did you?” I looked across the several feet between us, then at the ground. “I don’t know why I said that. I’ll shut up now.” There was a silent space of time.
Then the shaman said, “I have something in the magic box, but this is outside – I think we need to send you to, to, to another place. A bigger place. A bigger village – no, a city.” He went to a fancy desk and pulled something out of a drawer. It looked like a rolled up tube of glossy paper or animal skin. As he handed it to me, he said, “This is a map of the whole state. You see, here we are. These are the highways in thick red. The roads and paths are in smaller lines. Way over on that side is a much larger village, a city with a much more powerful shaman. You will need his help on this. Just head west, into the sunset. When you meet the ocean, go south.”
“Is it something I did wrong?” I asked. “Something done to me?”
“If you stepped on a nail, you would feel the sharp pain right away,” he said. “If someone attacked you, you would feel the blow on the back of your head. If someone poisoned you, you would feel ill.” He scratched his chin and blinked. “A disease would make you feverish and you would need to recover somehow. Our magic boxes used to have something to help your body cure itself, but that magic was used up years ago. You understand these are not really magic boxes, don’t you? They are things that help me to help you.
“Centuries ago, I would have tried giving you poisons like arsenic, bismuth or mercury compounds. Then we learned to stop trying to kill our patients that way.
I pulled away from him, afraid that he might try to kill me with those things. I knew Mercury is a planet but could not remember ever hearing about the other two things he mentioned.
His eyebrows went up as I moved away, and he said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to inject you with any of those.” He looked around his small office. “I don’t even have any needles anyway. No one bothers making them any more.
“We once had what were called antibiotics, what you would call magic charms against diseases,” he said.
That confused me. “I know I heard something about probiotics,” I said. “So those cause disease?”
He shook his head and grunted. “Not all biotics are bad, they don’t all cause disease. Some of them we need. So if the strong antibiotics kill off all the good bugs along with the bad, we used probiotics to give us new good bugs.”
“Bugs?” I asked. “Like the roaches and beetles?”
“I wish we could kill off some of them too,” he said. “But the bugs I mean are very tiny. Anyway, antibiotics are long gone. When we used them, someone needs to refill the boxes. Mine has not been refilled in all these years. I hope Doctor Sagroma is more fortunate. You must find him, starting tomorrow. I could be wrong about this, and he might just send you home.”
The shaman used a stylus and etched something onto the map. “This is his name, Sagroma. You might find him in the temple.” He squinted at the map and said, “It says, ‘Not drawn to scale.’ I have no idea how far away this is or how long will it take you. So you had better get started now, tomorrow, before it’s too late.”
“Sagroma,” I said. “Temple. Temple temple temple.”
He handed me a saltshaker and said, “This is not table salt, it’s potassium iodide. Try some of that on food or make a tea with it. Use an infusion of hops and a little sugar syrup. See if it helps relieve the pain and lets you sleep.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you about that,” I said. “Yes, I have trouble sleeping at night. Did I already tell you that? Temple.”
Only as I sat on the floor of my house did I realize I had no idea of where I was going or the city’s name. I unrolled the map and found what I thought was the spot. There were several spots, each with writing next to it. I chose the largest spot and tried to read its name. The handwriting was lush and florid but the characters blended together into swirling patterns that only suggested letters I knew. It could have been Triandium.
Someone knocked on the door. Through the gaps in the wall I could see it was the shaman and someone else. “Enter and be welcome,” I called out as the door opened too quickly. As it banged against the wall and swung shut again, I saw the shaman and a large burly man, both with their arms full of something.
“I will not send you out to starve,” the shaman said. “Here is a bag of things I collected for you. People in the village are grateful for all your work in the fields, and already gave more than you can hope to carry. Cograt here will act as your summons tomorrow morning. He will sleep right outside the door and make sure you are up before it gets too hot for travel.”
I looked at Cograt standing in the doorway. His arms were full of a sleeping mat and a large bag. He looked around and set his load down just outside my door. I knew his face from somewhere, I must have seen him without noticing. The village is small enough to know everyone in it. “Where have I seen him?” I thought. “Was it the fields? The market? He looks like…” I could not remember who he looked like. I thought of my days, weeks and years in the fields just outside the village. “Did this Cograt stand next to me with a sickle during wheat harvest time?” I thought. I tried to picture the time I spent, the hours waddling and stooping. Mostly I pictured the dirt, wheat, and clover as my hands danced. The short handle of the village sickles made us all squat close to the ground as we worked. I never cut myself in all that time once I had a rhythm going. My left hand reached down to grasp hold of stalks, and my right hand pulled the sickle close but not too close. I let go and took a waddling step to the next handful. Maybe it was normal that I couldn’t remember faces, even of people who worked next to me. Better to forget and keep all my fingers.
Betanda walked ahead of me through the trees for most of the morning, but slowed down when she passed a tiny hut on the side of the road. I saw her approach and peer into the hut, which was shorter than she was. As I got closer, she said, “I think it’s a shrine. There’s a wick in a bowl of oil, and it’s lit. Someone must be near enough to tend this.”
“Shrine?” I asked. “Then we must be near a village.” I looked around and listened, but did not hear any human activity. “No one on the ground, maybe they live up in the trees.” I scanned the green canopy shading us from sunlight, but saw nothing indicating people. “Could be a problem, they must be mole men.” I eyed the ground warily, ready to jump if the ground opened up to spew warriors at us like angry wasps from a disturbed nest.
Betanda straightened up and looked at me. “You must be deaf,” she said. “Listen, it’s like there’s a wedding going on. Let’s go see.”
I realized she was right, and that I had been hearing loud bells for a while. I did not remember wedding festivals with bells like that, low gongings mixed with high pinging sounds. I hurried after her, and saw bright white robes through the trees.
I could not tell who were the bride and groom among the throng of gyrating dancers. People flitted between trees and swept around us trailing their glowing garments. Men, women, children, all wore such a blinding white that my eyes could not find where fabric started or ended. No one stood still in the constant swirling motion of the dance. I saw people’s smiles approach and recede in sheer joy of life, while arms swept the long sleeves through the air. Their fingers gracefully traced out figures in the air, figures of butterflies, rainbows and smiles. The bells rang, bonged, and pinged.
A higher pitched whine swelled from nothing until I noticed movement in the trees over our heads. I could not see any detail with all the swirl of dancers and linens. The dancers did not slow down at all, but the smiles stretched straight across their mouths. Their teeth champed straight up and down, and I heard a clomping noise from them. I saw that something peeped out from under their robes, something with hundreds of eyes that looked at me. The eyes had tiny mandibles that clacked open and shut, and long hairy legs swept aside the white robes.
The sound of the bells faded away, replaced by a low growling swell of a thunderous bass. I turned towards the growl and saw through the trees a giant shadow of darkness made of legs, millions of legs. A huge wave, a tsunami of spiders descended on the trees and swept towards the dancers and towards me. The high pinging of bells became the piercing screams of people as they ran in all directions around me. Their arms kept the robes floating in air as they moved, but the robes were coated with crawling clacking legs and mandibles.
I stood rooted to the spot as the wedding party and spiders swirled around me. Human-sized pillars of spiders ran and dove across my vision in all directions, towards me and away, into and away from trees. I grabbed a large tree branch and swept it in a protective arc around me. “No, you filthy beasts won’t have me,” I said. “Not today, not ever.” I swung the branch down onto a pile of spiders hiding behind a tree. Another pile collected as the spiders tried to gather into a mass for an attack on me. I crashed into the mass and swatted the scattered creatures before they could regroup. Single spiders climbed up my legs. Some dropped out of the trees into my hair and bit me. I rubbed my head against trees to clear the spiders off.
Betanda ran to me and said, “It’s the floods, they flee to higher ground.” She turned away and screamed in pain. A wash of flame crashed up a tree and I heard someone say, “Burn them all” in the roar. Betanda ran towards the flames, then away. Something stung my foot and I looked down to see some kind of tarantula wrestle with my toe. I swatted with my branch and felt the scrape and burn on my ankle. When I looked up again, Betanda was gone and several waving posts of flames staggered past me.
I felt spider bites on my legs as I stomped as fast and hard as I could. I saw a mass of spiders with a flower garland pass close by. “That must be the bride,” I thought, “she’s buried by poisonous spiders.” My arm brought the branch crashing into the mass of mandibles. A whole column of spiders dropped from the trees onto my shoulders. I pushed sideways and crashed into a tree to shake them off. They let out a screeching roar as they split and splattered across the tree trunk. The roar deafened me and lifted me off the ground into the spinning darkness. I willed my arm to sweep the branch around me as I felt myself go airborne and fly into the gathering night.
We picked our way back down the cold, damp stairs. The temple acolyte’s dim smoking oil lamp showed which direction to go, but did not point out the trash or rat corpses. Were there so many new corpses already? My feet did not remember so many, with their bones poking around and through my rotting sandals. The huge key looped around my arm banged and clattered against the wall. At last I found level ground and followed as the lamp swung past several metal doors along a wall to halt in front of the one, my goal. The familiar nightmare figures carved onto the door glinted in the flickering light. I stood in front of the great door, surrounded by the others in the flickering torchlight. “This is Vault B, as you wish,” the elder priest said as he stepped behind me. They all watched me silently. Something slimy passed across my foot, and I heard the hiss and chitter of creatures in the near-darkness.
“Will you open it?” the priest continued. “You should not.” His voice took on a lilt of reciting a poem. “You should not, for your own good. You should not, for our good. The curse you will rain down upon us and the whole land, nothing inside this room can compensate. Nothing you do can atone. I urge you, go now in peace.”
“Why don’t you stop me?” I asked. The ache in my head squeezed my eyeballs and pressed my ears to meet my nose. “I can’t get back upstairs if I wanted to.”
“This is your decision,” he said. “I only read what is etched here, as we have read for thousands of years. So. Will you go in?”
I gasped with the exertion and wrestled the key loose. It fit into the large keyhole as they told me it would. I cranked the key to the left and leaned against the doorframe. My knees wobbled and my fevered eyesight grew cloudy.
“Is it safe to open it?” he asked.
I grunted, spat on the ground, turned the key and swung the door open. “I’ve got nothing to lose,” I said before I stepped inside.