Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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The Magic of the Quooda

by J. Davidson Hero

There is no such thing as magic. This thought repeated in the mind of the three-foot tall R'huku shaman as he stared up the flaring nostrils of the gant.

The gant, all red-tusked, wild-eyed, and razor-toothed, was an indiscriminate killer and towered above Frizzle like a cliff face above a pebble. Frizzle was the only thing standing between rampaging death and his people, but his whole body was shaking, the striped fur on his arms and down his back was standing up. The seeds in his fotchi rattle seemed to rattle of their own accord. The dried skull of a rodent, holes sealed with wax, stuck on the end of a carved stick, was supposed to house the shaman's magic, but Frizzle knew there was no magic; what was he going to do now?

Frizzle had learned long ago that there was no such thing as magic. At the death of the previous village shaman, he had assumed the role and years of reading and studying the quooda shells had taught him this simple fact: there is no magic. There were intricate meteorological measurements that gave him a commanding insight into the nature of the seasons. He could predict floods and droughts with a great deal of accuracy and have his people plan accordingly. This whole season his people had gathered twice the wild grain, twice the beljub fruit, and twice the roontog spores they normally did. He had forecast a terrible drought next year; it was in the stars and the level of the river, and it was written in the quooda.

There was also a great deal of medicinal information stored in the shells. He learned from reading the symbols how to prepare mixtures of roots and berries that could cure even serious ailments. Earlier this season Tregg had been bitten by a large spider. His leg had swollen up, around the bite the fur all the way up his thigh fell out, and the bite turned black and filled. Tregg's wife and children cried and wept and begged the shaman to use magic to save him. Frizzle found the cure in the quooda, and after a long afternoon searching the forest for the right roots and berries, he made the cure that saved Tregg's life. Tregg had said it was magic, but Frizzle insisted it was not. And Tregg and his family spared no time reinforcing the people's superstitions with every retelling.

There was though a history of real magic told of in the shells. Frizzle could not deny that. The oldest stories in the quooda were explicit in their descriptions of how the shamans of old grew the forests and positioned the sun and moons in the sky to provide light, and how they drove off wild beasts, like the gant, all with magic. But Frizzle had decided these were just myths, analogies for the struggles that his people had survived over the ages. For though the quooda told of magic, they did not tell of how such magic worked.

Frizzle had long felt his people depended on the shamans too much. They depended on him too much. They ran him ragged, always asking for wards against spirits, or blessings for their children, love potions, fortunes, silly things that didn't really protect or help them. But they were a small people, and their small stature required a balm against the world and its huge forces. That balm was the magic of the shaman.

If only he could pass the information he had on to the others. Take on apprentices. Teach them the knowledge that they could all possess if they didn't believe it required the supernatural vocation to understand. But there was never enough time. It had taken him years to even learn to read the quooda, years that most of his people spent toiling, scraping together the food and the shelter to survive in their harsh world. Having a shaman was a luxury. His people couldn't afford more than one at a time. And they just wanted him to perform his magic and make their lives better.

And then the gant appeared. It seemed to have come with the mroo, a herd of large migrating ruminants that moved through the land every other season. The R'huku found the huge cavernous corpses scattered about the valley, torn, chomped, half-eaten; the gant was wanton. It was hunting for hunting's sake. If only it had kept with the mroo and moved on. But it must have grown bored. It stumbled on one of Frizzle's people gathering wild grain near the river's edge. The R'huku had a novel scent, a unique taste, an intelligence that challenged the beast. The gant hunted the R'huku exclusively from that point on, toying with them then swallowing them whole, leaving no trace. It wasn't bored any more. And now Frizzle had purposefully thrown himself in its way.

The gant bellowed right in Frizzle's face. An angry guttural click in the back of its throat echoed in Frizzle's ears. It was some sort of prehistoric warning or call to a pack before a kill, he decided. Frizzle felt the rough bark of the tree he was pinned to digging into his back, and the gant's rancid breath enveloping him. His knees buckled as his eyes teared up in the stink. The fotchi rattle continued it rhythmic fear-induced chitter in his right hand. He was almost completely petrified and the gant was almost through playing with its food. Then Frizzle clenched his grip on the rattle. It felt like he was trying to hold onto an icicle with an already frozen hand. He threw the rattle forward and into the gant's dripping mouth. It felt like he was tossing a stick into a deep well. But the gant seemed surprised, if that was possible, and then bit down, grinding and crushing the rattle into splinters of bone and wood. Then it lurched backwards and heaving to the side in a sick motion it began to spit the pieces out, splinters of bone, wood, and the quooda seeds that had been rattling in the skull. So much for that, Frizzle thought, as he forced his body up and around the back of the tree. He turned only a moment to see the gant sniffing agitatedly at the pile. Frizzle took off at a run. He needed a chance to find his determination again.

Two days earlier, Frizzle had looked down at his niece Ooqua and smiled faintly. She sifted through the mash of pulp and seeds from the quooda half he had just handed her. She carefully separated the two, seeds in one pile, stringy innards to another pile.

"How many more do we have to do, Uncle Frizzle?" she asked, not unhappily.

"At least three more. That should be enough," he said. He liked Ooqua. He had many nieces and nephews, but the oldest were already wondering what his magic could accomplish for them, and the youngest were afraid of the powerful village shaman. Ooqua was interested in helping him, but never seemed overly impressed. That was the combination he liked. And she was, in actuality, quite a help.

"Don't you usually throw these out?" she asked holding up a seed for closer examination.

"Normally, but I've found a possible use for them. It was written in the quooda."

Frizzle held a chisel to the seam around the middle of the quooda in his lap and hammered at it with the wooden mallet. After a few solid taps the quooda split, its hard smooth shell separating into two perfect halves, the pulp and seeds dangled out onto his knees. The seeds were dark brown and the size of his thumb nail. Ooqua had collected probably a hundred or so. Each quooda came with about a handful. They were usually discarded, as was the pulp, since they were poisonous. The only part of the quooda that they normally used was the shell. The shell's smooth surface was easy to write on, originally in primeval times with charcoal, now with inks that Frizzle made from the juice of the beljub. Frizzle was the main consumer of the quooda, as were his predecessors for generations, recording all the history and knowledge of his people.

When Frizzle finally stopped to look back, he couldn't see the gant. That was a mistake. He should have stayed with it. But he had lost his nerve. The horrible image of the gant flashed for a moment in his mind and the fur on the back of his neck rose. He was drenched in a cold sweat now and he felt a horrible pain twist his stomach. At first it felt like a stitch from running too fast, but the pain didn't stopů it stayed, a cold lump of fear he would have to carry with him until this was done.

He had hoped that the rattle would work. Carefully he had replaced the stones that had filled the skull with quooda seeds. Ooqua brought the little pot of bubbling bizzerwax when he was ready and he resealed the eye socket. The seeds were hard like the pebbles that preceded them, but after, the rattle had a mellow soothing sound like rain instead of the tick, tick, tick that the stones had made. Frizzle never used the rattle. It had been his teacher's, the previous shaman, who embellished everything he did with the flair of a rattle shake.

"Will the seeds make the rattle more powerful?" Ooqua asked. Frizzle had talked at length with her about the reality of magic as he understood it, but never in too much detail, watered down to the level a child would understand. And he thought she understood that there was no such thing as magic, but he never knew for sure.

"No. But the seeds do serve an important purpose. And if the quooda shells are correct, they may deal with the gant."

But they hadn't. The gant, after crushing the rattle like a toy, tasted the poisonous quooda seeds and spat them right out. The magic rattle had failed the shaman, failed to deal with the problem he faced. It did tell him one thing though; the gant did not like the taste of the seeds. And that confirmed for Frizzle what the quooda had told him. The poisonous seeds might kill the gant. Perhaps the quooda were right.

Frizzle huffed along a path cut through reeds taller than him. Behind him, but at a distance, he heard the gant bellow. Frizzle flinched. It would cover the ground he'd put between them in heartbeats. He just needed a few moments to gather his shredded courage.

"Uncle, what are you going to do with the leftover seeds?" Ooqua asked that day pointing to what remained of the pile of brown seeds she had collected. Frizzle had only used about half to fill the rattle. He had carefully counted them out according to the information written in the quooda. He scooped the remaining seeds into a small leather pouch.

"I have a use," he told her.

The pain in Frizzle's side increased; he felt it stretching in all directions from his middle. And with the growing pain came doubt. Maybe he didn't have the strength to finish this. It was too much. But if he didn't, his people would go on, prey of the mad gant. It might never stop. In the quooda the early shamans were heroes. Frizzle didn't want to be a hero, but he knew his people needed one now. Who else was there?

Frizzle heard the whisper of a call in the clearing beyond the reeds. It was small, high pitched. He ran on, his worry outstripping the pain.

"Uncle?" Ooqua yelled. "Uuuuncle."

Frizzle came out of the reeds into the clearing in the trees. Ooqua stood dwarfed by her surroundings. Frizzle choked on his fear, hot prickles running up his neck.

"Ooqua! What are you doing here girl?" he whispered as loudly as he could. She had a leather food pouch slung over her shoulder and a hooded cloak on.

"I came to help Uncle."

Frizzle knelt in front of her. His hands were shaking. Sweat ran down his forehead. The pain in his middle was an icy fire. "Listen to me carefully Ooqua. You run. Run as fast as you can. You go straight home. Do you hear me?" He gripped her shoulders and stared into her eyes, trying to keep his fear in check.

"But Uncle..."

Behind them the gant bellowed. The stink of its breath engulfed them. Frizzle still stared into Ooqua's eyes. He watched as they widened to glassy moons reflecting the beast's shadow.

"Run!" he screamed pushing her away and turning, in the same determined moment, he leaped directly into the gaping mouth of the ravenous gant.

####

It took years of study to learn how to read the quooda, and years more to understand the import of the knowledge they held, but one day Ooqua the Shaman led the R'huku. And under her leadership, the R'huku prospered, and they advanced, so that they were no longer quite as scared by the world around them. And year after year, even in old age, on the anniversary of her uncle's death, she would gather the youngest of the R'huku about the village fire, and tell the story that only she knew, of the great shaman, the hero Frizzle and how he had sacrificed himself to rid the people of a horrible monster, and how he taught her that the only magic in the world is that which we find hidden inside ourselves.

THE END


© 2010 J. Davidson Hero

Bio: J. Davidson Hero fancies himself a fantasy and science fiction writer and a speculative poet. In college he minored in creative writing and ultimately completed an M.A. in English where he focused on science fiction. His master's thesis was about the science fiction of Cordwainer Smith. Recently he has been regularly published in Aphelion's poetry section and has also been a regular participant in Aphelion's Forum Flash Fiction Challenge (with multiple wins to his credit). He is a bibliophile, a husband, and the father of three.

E-mail: J. Davidson Hero

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