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The Magician


Bobby McCutcheon

Ka-li-haa crouched slowly, watching between squinted eyes as rivulets of human blood flowed with the rainwater around dark beach pebbles, under his sealskin boots, and into the saltwater surf that lapped at his heels. All afternoon he’d been working the Kha to try to save the souls of the dead from escaping into the forest, and still the massacre around him was as horrifying as it was hours ago. His voice was hoarse, but there would be no rest. Not yet. He was the magician, the shaman, the Ixt, and his duties this day were the heaviest and most miserable he had ever known.  
    The Ixt raised his crab shell rattle and shook it over the body of Tsa-tete, the Chieftain’s youngest son. The battered legs of the crab dangled from leather strips and bobbed wildly around the magician’s bloodied bare hand. The handle was made from a small branch of fir, intricately carved and polished to a high sheen from generations of use. A hoarse chant issued from Ka-li-haa’s lips: a deep monotone of words whose secret meanings were known only by him; words passed down from Ixt to Ixt each time the mantle changed from old man to young. Words known well by the invisible spirits, both the good—the Kha, and the evil—the Teil.
    The rattle rasped through the air above the dead body, keeping time with the primitive chant. Ka-li-haa began at the corpse’s booted feet and, after long moments of complex, precise hand movements that drew forth uncanny sounds from the seed-filled rattle, ended above the stone-crushed skull. In a dance of conclusion, the rattle shook slowly downward and stopped, just over the young hunter’s silent heart. Ka-li-haa reached out with his free hand, turned the boy’s cloven head, then sucked in a great breath and blew up and down the body, with the last of the air in his lungs emptying into Tsa-tete’s bloodied right ear. Now his soul would not emerge until the fires of cremation coaxed it out.
    With a flourish, the rattle disappeared into the folds of his mammoth fur cape. In its place emerged a taught skin drum and double-ended, bone mallet carved with the images of Whale and Raven. The rhythm was the unique, a distinctive beat reserved for the untimely dead, to lull the soul to sleep and to frighten away the Teil, the thieving spirits of the woods who could snatch a confused soul and hold it captive for eternity, a slave to their evil. The magician’s rhythm hammered on, speaking to the spirit world of the superior power of Good; of the suffering the Kha would heap onto the heads of the cowardly yet vindictive Teil should they dare try to rape the victims of their souls. Presently, the beat ended. Ka-li-haa stood and moved on to the next, lumbering with bruised body along the beach in the rain, unmindful of the pathetic wails of mourners coming from all directions.
    The Ixt for the Qwahn of the Ice Bear was not graceful, nor was he handsome. Ka-li-haa was huge, a mass of grotesquely hard muscles. And tall, abnormally tall. Following the custom for his status, his black hair was uncut, uncombed, and when working, as he was now, he released it from the rawhide ties to fall in loose, snaky ropes down his back and over his shoulders. Shorter matted knaps fell across his forehead, partially obscuring the cedar-ash tattoos that fiercely decorated much of his face. The skull of a short-faced Ice Bear rode atop his head. The under-fur was a rare bluish, the tips of the long hairs silver, but dull and molting from age and use—the skull’s age was nknown.  The young man’s jaw was square and solid. His brow was high, his prominent cheekbones shone with fresh seal oil and even when graced with a rare smile his slightly cleft upper lip appeared to scowl, a deformity since the awful day of his birth.
    Today Ka-li-haa looked more callous and forceful than ever before. The aura of spirits he attracted were almost tangible around him as he moved on legs the size of aspen boles from victim to victim, performing the exhaustive rituals over and over for the murdered who lay scattered around the modest sea-side village. A surprise attack from a clan unknown was unprecedented; nothing in their legends equaled the violence brought down upon their village this day. Caught unprepared, the Qwahn had paid dearly with the lives of half their hunters. What had they done to anger the Teil that deserved such devastation? Ka-li-haa did not know for sure, but he feared he might know the truth.
    He stopped before another dead hunter and stooped to his task. The young magician was a sinister and loathsome sight in his tattoos and heavy mammoth cape of course, russet-colored hair; in his wealthy display of carved bone and ivory paraphernalia that hung from his neck, arms and waist belt; in his misshapen ceremonial bear skull hat that held a frozen grimace so frightening none other than he dared touch it. Yet, if anyone could look deeply into the Ixt’s shining black eyes they would see a man completely different than the powerful magician the Qwahn of the Ice Bear had trained. What the people saw was the man on the surface, the image intended to frighten the evil spirits frightened his clansmen as well. Clipped courtesy and brief nods were as close as his clansmen came to him. Children feared him for no other reason than his size and looks. Maidens shrank immediately, if not politely from his gaze anytime he happened to glance their way for he had yet to choose a bride. None cared to be the first. His own people feared him, the spirits of the Teil feared him, the proof being in the mildest of all winters just recently spent, and in the wild success of every land and sea hunt since he took old Gutu-heeni’s place, four seasons past. So why had this terrible thing happened? Why had the Teil convinced strangers dressed in unfamiliar clothing to openly attack their camp—a confrontation as of today unparalleled—and murder their members? And for what? A few racks of half-dried, early-summer salmon, a handful of good fishing boats, some stone tools and four slaves is all they made off with in the end. It did not make sense to Ka-li-haa. He needed time to work it out in his head. But secretly he suspected the reason; a reason he could do nothing to change. The evil Teil could be jealous of him, jealous of the favor shown his Qwahn by the Kha since his taking the robe of the Ixt. This might all be his fault, however unwittingly. He thought about that. The spirits talked to the Ixt in ways no one else could understand and some ideas that formed in his mind came as messages from the Kha. Warnings. If the reasons were simple jealousy, then he didn’t know what to do, a circumstance in itself being quite unique.
    Ignoring another of the enemy slain, the Ixt walked past the stranger’s dead body as if it did not exist and approached an old woman lying face down in front of one of the women’s moon huts. Ka-li-haa’s expression darkened. It was Isonques, the woman he called mother. He inhaled raggedly, trying not to show emotional weakness to the Teil. He could feel them hovering. His natural mother died during his birth, bleeding to death, as he was too large for her body. Ka-li-haa came into the world as an orphan. The Elders say he never stopped crying as the women left his dead mother where she lay while the birthing hut burned down around her.
    With shaking hand, the crab rattle appeared and he held it tightly against the blisters growing on the inside of his hand. Isonques was the last. She should have been the first, thought the shaman. It took Ka-li-haa three tries before he could draw the words cleanly from his throat as he performed the rights over his adopted mother, the only Qwahn member who had ever loved him unreservedly. The prayer must not be garbled. The Kha must understand each syllable.
    Unless the dead was the Chief or an Ixt, the ritual was the same for everyone. When he was finished, Ka-li-haa rose slowly to his feet and looked down one last time at his mother. Inside, his emotions were in turmoil. All he wanted was to turn and run screaming in the direction the enemy had retreated, to hunt them down and kill each one of the intruders, painfully, with the name of Isonques on his lips to punctuate each blow of his stone axe. But he was the Ixt, the man who commanded the spirits and who must at all times control his emotions, for each expression revealed and every move he made was held in judgment by both the spirits and the living. Trained from toddler-hood, it was a roll for him chosen by others. Saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time could result in bad omens and when the next accident befell the Qwahn, the blame would lie with the Ixt. Without the slightest outward display of sorrow, the Ixt, orphaned for the second time in his life, turned and walked away. The rituals for the dead were over. It was time again to visit the Chief.
    Situated halfway between the high tide line and the evergreen forest on an open stretch of beach scattered with rock, sand, and thick clusters of yellow-green sea grass, sat the permanent summer camp for the Qwahn of the Ice Bear. During the winter the people would roam inland, away from the furious weather conjured by the eternal conflict between the spirits of the water and of the land and of the air. Traveling by foot they would scale the treeless rock battlements of the coastal mountains and once on the other side, set up a small town of temporary hide huts and hunt big game on the vast open steppes: long-haired, giant ground sloths; the powerful and slow-witted steppe bison; the dwindling herds of stout camel and occasionally, if the Kha favored, the great woolly mammoth itself. The ocean village consisted simply of a few women’s moon huts, a deep and dark dried-food cellar, and one big community lodge where the Qwahn lived as one family. The women’s privacy huts were round domes of hide stretched over a frame of old whalebones. The hides were decorated with drawings done using a glowing hot stick that would brand the shapes of animals and birds of good omen onto the sides. Dozens of cedar dugouts, simple in design yet high in efficiency, sat overturned on the beach, enough to hold the entire village and their belongings should they choose to pick up and move. Six were missing, stolen by the hands of the invaders.
    Nearby, a swift and shallow, glacially-fed salmon stream emptied into a wide bay riddled with icebergs calved not far away from the bosom of the thundering Ice Animal, who fertilizes the sea bottom by carrying with it streaks of new soil as it sacrifices its life to the waters. The wandering bergs serve as island homes for thousands of seals, the basis of existence for the Qwahn of the Ice bear. Today, the bodies of three of their men partially dammed the creek’s milted waters. The tribe was intimately in tune with the natural world around them, but none more so than Ka-li-haa. For him, the stream’s merry repertoire that always brought the day’s gossip from the hills was altered, subdued. It was a bad sign. Change was in the making.
    He lifted his face and inhaled the sweetness of the wind. The warm season was upon them, the season of days-without-night. Far in the distance, beyond the forest of half naked cedar and fir, against the advancing backdrop of perpetual twilight, the conical peaks of mountains boasted the brilliant pink of the sun as it started its brief dip below the horizon. Ka-li-haa shuddered. It was the color of blood in the snow. Another omen from the Teil.
    Greatly troubled, the Ixt forgot the ache in his joints earned in battle with half-crazed wild men and walked purposely to the main lodge, his intense strides eating up the ground faster than a child could run. The living house was an elongated, low-ceilinged, skin and sod-covered dome with heavy skins at each end serving as walls. Stooping, the Ixt lifted a windbreak: pieced-together fish-skin covering a man-sized circle cut into the heavy mammoth hide wall, the latter being tightly laced to an archway of crossed mammoth tusks. Squeezing through, he stepped down and entered the smoky gloom of the interior. Deep layers of fur pelts of every kind carpeted the floor, which was dug down from the beach surface as deep as the length of an adult’s arm, as wide as three grown men standing feet-to-shoulder, and as long as two humpback whales. There were four cooking hearths, around each of which the dirt floor was left bare. The wall forest-ward was actually the side of a small hill and terraces were carved out along its length for sleeping platforms. For privacy, the fur-covered platforms were divided into closer family groups by hides hung from whale rib bone. The ribs arched across the ceiling into the animals’ thick spines; the whole skeleton was used intact. The intersections where rib met vertebrae were tightly lashed with green leather making for a very solid roof that could withstand the heavy winter snows during the cold storm season when there was no one to maintain them. On the seaward side each rib bone was lashed tightly into the fork of a partially split log sunk into the beach at an angle, to maximize space. Smoke holes were sliced out above each cooking hearth and outside, large pelvic bones from some animal or another made for passable rain breaks, positioned against the direction from where the storms most often came.
    Ka-li-haa’s eyes adjusted quickly. People stopped what they were doing to look at him as he strode slightly bent through the long house toward the divan of the Chief. The Ixt slowed, respectfully, as he approached and the lodge fell into a strained hush. He could feel everyone’s eyes on him but he pretended he was alone, just himself and Chief Taashuka. The Chief’s wives bustled silently aside and melted into the shadows. They had been busying themselves around their old husband, placing his most favored belongings at his sides and adjusting around him a beautiful blanket he always wore indoors, one woven of the differentiated hues of sheep and goat hair into a design of Raven, his personal family totem.    
  The Ixt dropped heavily to his knees before Taashuka and at once spiritual incantation rolled off his tongue like distant thunder. When the verse was finished he looked up into the dead man’s eyes. They were dull and lifeless, yet they were the same eyes he had looked at all his life and had always associated with the highest wisdom in the land. The sorrow of the day was almost more than he could bear.
    “Great Taashuka, with much heaviness on my heart I come before you.” His voice was deep and gruff, like the grinding of logs being pulled over loose stone, and it wavered with fatigue. Though the Chief was dead, custom demanded the shaman make known to him the outcome of the day for his soul still dwelt within, as it would for sixty days. “Of the ninety six people of our village, twenty nine lay dead, twenty of them strong hunters. It is a great loss. Four other hunters are injured so badly they may not survive. Twelve hunters are injured but with the favor of Kha may be allowed to live. Of the enemy, outside lay sixteen bodies, which is roughly half their number. The man who killed you is dead. As the Kha favors my strength and aim, I drove a short spear through his heart from a great distance as he ran from me, screaming like a child and a coward. There are four children missing, taken for slaves, and six of our boats are gone. Valuable weapons of the hunters who fell are stolen. With the help of the Kha, those of us who were not killed chased them away just as the sun reached the zenith of the day. Your sons…all of your sons…will follow you to the land of the Unknown. Your wives and daughters are safe, for, as you instructed, I stood guard at the entrance that faces the setting sun and fought away ten men, killing five. Your wisdom will ever remain…unmatched.”
    Bowing his head, Ka-li-haa made gestures to the north, south, east, and west accompanied by uttered words, and then he played his rattle and drum while dancing at the feet of the body. Surrounding the Ixt and the platform where the Chief lay in state were a dozen flat stone lamps fueled by moss wicks reclining in a pool of black-burning seal oil. The Ixt’s rapid movements caused the mellow flames to shimmy and his daunting shadows grew and shrank on the pelt-lined inner walls of the lodge as if responding to his magic. Breath escaped mightily from his lungs, forcing the soul of the Chief to stay within the cold, slain body. Then suddenly, like the report of a tree cracking under a bolt of lighting, Ka-li-haa whirled, struck the drum mallet against a mammoth bone support and the ceremony was finished with shocking abruptness. No one spoke. Only the wood hearth fire behind him dared to crackle in appreciation. The Ixt turned away, dismissing himself from the audience of Taashuka for the last time. Nothing would be the same for him again.

© 2002 Bobbi McCutcheon
Though she originally hails from Boise, Idaho, writer Bobbi McCutcheon now lives with her husband and three sons in Juneau, Alaska. She began her first novel, "Father Mars, Mother Earth" in 1996, finished it in 1999, landed a rookie agent shortly afterward, then suffered through the disappointment of being rejected by every sci-fi publisher approached, none wanting to take a chance on a new author with a 200,000 word novel. Through the same agent she accepted a writing project with Facts On File Publishing to do a Marine Science Handbook, co-authored by her husband, Scott McCutcheon. She is currently working on an Alaskan adventure novel titled "The Alaska Nunatak". For those who are interested in her work, her self-published novel, "Father Mars, Mother Earth" is available online at www.justbookz.com under the Science Fiction category. Her "Marine Science Handbook" publishes in June, 2003 and will be available in schools and libraries. She has also just won the Southern Cross Reveiw short fiction contest with this story.
E-mail: fmccutch@gci.net