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The Jaguar's Paw

By Jennifer Abeles

Listen. Do you think you know what you want or why you want it? You attend my stories because I am so old, because you have heard of my great dealings from your mothers and grandmothers, and you believe that you reverence my challengings and my forwardings, the Road I travelled with H’han Day’keeper, the Choice I battled with the dravitshes of Aebiliyya’a. These are only stories, are they not, lordlings? You cannot read the ahk’alendar from my face anymore, my ahk’aunges are so gouged with wrinkles. Though my dealings have been spoken of over many fires—admit it, won’t you?—you cannot help but scorn me a little. I am older than anyone you’ve ever seen, and you think that Eb holds death’s door open for me in one of our near tomorrows. You believe that with one so old, the past’matrix holds all my dealings, however few or many, however magnificent or spare. While you, with only a single ahk’aunge, or maybe two, have a storehouse of dealings in future’matrix. But it is not that way—it is your elders who master the future’matrix, and you, lordlings, master nothing at all.

The story you hear next is about what some say is my most radiant’revealing, the revealing of the onehundred’thirteenth name of matter’states, the Unspeaking. I ask you to put your heart here, in my shaking hands, for this moment, this small present’matrix that is all you can claim, for the duration of the story I tell you. Your mothers have paid me well, but their beryl-stones will shine just as bright whether you listen or not. It’s up to you, of course. All your dealings are up to you.

When I was as young as you, my dealings had already won me fame in Korlhnn, which many say was then the greatest city in our space’matrix. You know already how I had been carried there as a small child on the swaying back of an ayriefaunt, on a long journey from somewhere, but no one knew where because my mother suffered a vanishing before we reached the agate walls of Korlhnn. It is possible she ran off or was abducted, but with all the abundant vanishing that marks this age, she most likely got lost in the forwardings of time, the hinterlands between one known place and another, a Road’vanishing. Wherever she went, she took my name with her. My history after that everyone knows very well, how quickly my long legs grew fetching and carrying for H’han Day’keeper, living in her beryl palace in the center of the city. There I learned the Day’keeper’s magics, though no one expected me, a girl whose dress never fit, a lanky, nameless girl from nowhere, to learn her magics quicker than any of the lordlings—like you—brought to study on litters studded with turquoise and amythyst, but that’s how it was. I absorbed the Day’keeper’s magic, and left her palace, and became a Jjkeall, one of the onehundred’twenty Time’keepers in my own right, tending to the ills and disappointments of wealthy clients throughout Korlhnn.

My forwardings had been successful. The rain sang sweetly to me over the misting city streets, and the old ahteeks patted my hands kindly, smiling toothless smiles behind their shapeless lips as they put an extra quince or chiea in my basket, but I was not satisfied with the city or city magics. Time’keeping is city magic, you know, the magic of paving stones and rooftops that stretch for miles, the magic of babbling tongues and mercantilism. These magics fitted me as poorly as my wardobe of gowns, though they had made me rich. I knew Korlhnn was not my home. I wanted wilder magics, the high, soaring magics of the mountains, and it is possible I wanted to know if there was any place I better belonged. From where had my mother brought me, lordlings, before she vanished behind the thousand’veils? I did not ask that question, but rather I was that question, and it drove me in ways I could not then fathom.

In truth, lordlings, I did not have a firm grip on Etznab, my Sharp’knife, but still I left Korlhnn one morning, on foot, alone, and headed for the twinned horns of Aebeliyya’a, home of devils and dravitshes that rode on night winds. None of the Day’keepers or Jjkealls of Korlhnn had ever met a dravitsh. They were spoken of in Korlhnn in terms that even bad children no longer believed. Already, the dravitshes were vanishing into another space’matrix, and our congress with them had dwindled to nothing. The Mong’g people of the mountains still spoke of dravitshes, but they were considered ignorant people, their knowledge less than useless. Stories of dravitsh spells and dealings enchanted my imagination, however, and though it was Qwetzma’ab the sorceress I longed to meet, I would’ve been glad to share dreamings with any dravitshes remaining in the caves of Aebiliyya’a.

We all fear our own vanishing, but in that vanishing await the mothers of motherless ones—do you see, lordlings? Without fear, I lacked a teacher, and so I sought something to frighten me, though I did not know it then. Day’Keepers will caution you to carry Etznab close in your fist, but I walked weaponless, waiting for and wanting a terrible thing to instruct me.           

Travelling through deserts and villages alone, it was necessary that I continuously repeat the onehundred’twelve names of matter’states in order to keep my feet on one ground, without anyone to relieve me of the chant. You, lordlings, have never travelled alone, and are unlikely to ever be so near the thin veils of a Road’vanishing as I was then, but, even with my constant chanting, I managed to speak with the creatures along my path to learn their voices and names. I saw scampering qkawls and silver-eyed bats and hunting fowlxes on the wing, and their wildness made my blood live and beat within my body. Back in Korlhnn, I had earned the name you know me by, Kna’Eb, Fate’keeper, but no one outside the city had yet heard that name. I was still a nameless child out there in the stone and dry earth of the world, but I was happy each passing hour, because I began to lose city orientation. I had not gone out of Korlhnn. I had gone into the world, and it was, I believed, where I belonged. The stony spires of Aebeliyya’a called to me, day by day, from the black mouths of their many caves.

As I walked, lordlings, the minaret cliffs of Aebeliyya’a seemed motionless against the sky’s prismatic blue, the single still point in a world that shifted with brown rock and orange sand. The villages I passed looked poorer and poorer the further I went from Korlhnn, and the Mong’g carrying their baskets of golgumes and tilling their paddy fields began to more closely resemble the craggy, brown ground they slept on and ate from. The further I walked from the city, the less able my tongue was to make their sounds, my ear less tuned to their meaning. But I already had four deep ahk’aunges on my face, and even those who had never heard of Time’keeping saw that I walked the power’path, that I was versed in unseen mysteries. They made room in their squat dwellings for my sleeping blanket, and fed me from their buckets of soft cheeses, made with milk taken from shantle ewes, which roamed in flocks through the rocky land. As Aebeliyya’a neared, the shantle became hardier looking, less fat and more sinew, and the people became more silent, watching the flames of their fires in the evenings with their lips seamed shut. Every so often among them, a face could be seen with a single ahk’aunge, but mostly the people who lived in these lands had simple dealings in a world that was to them simple. I would say that their dealings were simple, but their challengings, lordlings, are as complicated as any Jjkeall, though they won no ahk’aunges from them.

I was taller than any of these Mong’g people of mountain dust, people of the rock, and my eyes, hair, and skin lighter. During my walking days, I spoke the twentyfirst matter’state name, Sib’brighteye, to protect myself from being scorched by the long lived sun. And I began to speak the name of that dread dravitsh, Qwetzma’ab, to the Mong’g who sheltered and fed me. Mostly they turned their eyes to the fire and said nothing. Sometimes they made the napastock’sign above their heads to ward off danger.

At last I reached the base cliffs of the mountains, and began to climb, day by day, and when I rested at night, my dreamings floated a little higher than they had the night before. I was careful to keep my dreamings close, to not send them roaming as I was used to doing, to collect power from the night. I had always run a little reckless, lordlings, amongst the Night’keepers, which may have been why I had as many ahk’aunges as I did for one so young, although the Day’keepers cautioned me that I risked collecting corpse’dreams instead of power. In such unknown lands, so close to the caves of Aebeliyya’a, I became as cautious as they. My body ached and strained with climbing, and I spoke the seventh name of matter’state, Oc’airmatrix, to cushion my movements and make it easier to breathe.

On one scorching afternoon, so hot that even the air seemed burnt, I reached a small village dangling from a pebble cliff, and a youth ran out from behind a shantle patty wall to take my hand and welcome me. He smiled and rapidly spoke the words of his language. This had never happened, lordlings, in all the days of my journey. The Mong’g were a quiet, somber people, without the affective displays you’ve seen in the cities you all hail from, where easy abundance lifts so many of the burdens from the heart. But this Mong’g youth cavorted and chatted with the lightness of a Ti’graeb prince, and I wondered if he was simple or touched by some lightning’finger.

Unravelling his tongue by combining two matter’state names, I learned his name was Cib, one of the great names, the name of revealings. It had taken his mother some courage, or foolishness, to name her child one of the great names, I thought. He led me to the shade of his hut, painted in the traditional colors of copweet, gold, and orange, and ladled some broth into a cup for me. I was intrigued by this talkative youth, and listened carefully to his narrative spill. I recognized the names of dravitshes among many words my spells could not translate fast enough. I sat there through the heat of the day, suspending my upward climb toward the cave’mouths, and when I stepped out of his hut in the first shadow of evening, my white skin was covered in a fine sweat, and the other villagers regarded me darkly. I searched for water, and found the thin stream that served the village at its eastern edge, stooping there to wash. An ahteek hobbled near, making a polite gesture excusing my nakedness, and said,

“It is not wise for you to sleep in the hut of Cib’phantom. He has lost all his dreamings to the dravitshes, and we only let him stay here out of pity. He has no mother and he will never have a child. The ahk’alandar has made no space for him. Soon the sun will scorch away his flesh and the sand will grind down his bones.”

“Has anyone tried to retrieve his dreamings?” I asked. “Is there a dravitsh that serves this village?” I chanted certain matter’state names with my mind and my fingers in order to have this conversation.

“There is a powerful dravitsh nearby, but we do not seek her service. She serves only when she finds needful. We must have faith and fear.”

“What is the name of your dravitsh?” I asked, my fingers faltering in their spell’making as my excitement leapt, knowing which name was destined next to enter the air between us.

“By the power of your ahk’aunges, preserve me from entanglements, her name is Qwetzma’ab,” and the ahteek skillfully made four napastock’signs over her head.

“I will sleep in Cib’s hut tonight, ahteek’ba’a. May you be preserved from entanglements,” and I ran back to Cib’s hut without even covering my nakedness, my gown dripping from my fingertips.

Cib the smiling one, the one they called Cib’phantom because he had lost all his dreamings, had stoked the fire while I was gone and the smell of hot golgumes in cheese greeted me as I entered the low hut. I hung my dress to dry by the fire and sat, bare, in the dust, waiting for food. Cib smiled at me, but did not continue his narrative. His smile emerged from a heart that has no proper place in the ahk’alandar—he lived well outside Time’Keeping. Instead of being powerful and rich, I could have been like him, Cib’Phantom, living outside the world. I thought to ask him what had happened to his mother, but decided instead to stalk this knowledge later in my dreamings when he was powerless to yield anything but the truth entire. I wish I could tell you, lordlings, that my intent was clear, what it was I wanted to do in the hut of Cib’phantom, but I had lost track of Etznab, my sharp’knife, and I knew only that tonight my dreamings would hover near the dreamings of Qweztma’ab the dravitsh. You may think this was foolish of me, then just a Jjkeall, and you would be right, lordlings. Somewhere above us, the cave’mouths yawned. I ate my golgumes and lay down, a bit too eager to sleep.

The fire burned down, and so did my blood, and I waited, my hands on my face, tracing my four hard-won ahk’aunges. I was young for such dealings, lordlings, and felt that meant I had power yet to be discovered and that this power would protect me from vanishings, but Jjkealls of many ahk’aunges had suffered vanishings before, swallowed by the many-mouthed face of the time’matrix, and no Day’keeper could retrieve them again. I knew this and still I felt unafraid, waiting to send my dreamings into the night.

My dreamings had just begun to rise out of my skin when I felt a shift in the darkness of the hut. The dark was of a kind I’d never felt before, hot and pungent, from the other side of the mouth of some terrible vanishing. For the first time, a bud of fear crested my heart’soil, and I wondered if I should’ve stayed in Korlhnn. I sat up, the names of matter’states about to bloom on my lips, when the night pounced as one great form, swatting a paw very powerfully over my face, five sharp’knife claws fastening into my skin. My lips were sealed under that paw pulsing with animal heat, and I could not speak. My hands were pinned under a body as lithe and heavy as a river and I could make no spells, no signs, but worse, lordlings, was that my mind beneath the sharp intent of Storm’jaguar’s fist could not summon the matter’state names I knew so well.

A Jjkeall rendered silent and motionless, I began to disintegrate into the void, my being sifted by the thousand’veils, and in my vanishing, I saw with one open eye, the body of Cib rise from the floor of his hut, alight with dreamings. They were my own wan dreamings, thin and unfully formed, but they illuminated him and raised him, and he began to take on my features. His hair grew and gleamed—my gold but golder than mine. His face blanched the color of the moon and from it, his eyes glistened like two blue stars. His limbs shimmered with length and grace. He was beautiful, lordlings, though I had never been beautiful. He was still smiling as I had never smiled. And he was more myself than I had ever been, beyond Time’keeping.

I watched Cib’s transformation and then felt as Storm’jaguar bounded away, back into the night, his retreating claws tearing my eyes and lips, the ahk’aunges of my cheeks ripped open. Blinded with my mouth hanging shredded from my face, I could not even scream as I tumbled through the thousand’veils into the void.

The strangest thing of all was that the morning shouts of fowlxes on the wing woke me from this cavernous sleep, this corpse’dream, and I jumped awake, streaked with dust and sweat, my hands covering my ravaged face, which now felt entire and sound. Quickly, I began to mumble all the onehundred’twelve names of matter’states, eager for the earth’matrix I knew under my feet, the air’matrix I knew in my lungs, the time’matrix I knew emanating from my ahk’aunges and creating my ahk’alandar. I stood there like that, as the silver dawn air invaded Cib’s hut, the coals still glowing in his fire, his dishes still smeared with golgumes, and everything as it had been before my fearsome vanishing except that Cib was not there. Nothing in my spell’chanting could tell me where he was. This was magic beyond the verge of Time’keeping, beyond the power’path of a Jjkeall. Except, lordlings, I feared I was no longer a Jjkeall, but a phantom’Jjkeall, outside the world.

Uncalmed by my magics, hardly aware of what I was doing, I stumbled out of Cib’s hut into the morning. Behind me, the village had begun to shuffle and speak, and I did not know if the other Mong’g were aware of what had happened in the hut on the edge of their village. I faced the east, where Korlhnn awaited me, and the rising sun. I spoke the twentyfirst matter’state name, Sib’brighteye, watched as the sun shuddered and hastened at my request, but I was not assured by the Time’keeping power given to me by H’han Day’keeper. It seemed like a limp trick, dangling the sun on the chain of my magics. I could return even now to Korlhnn with these same tricks, but did not want to, even though everyone there reverenced me for them. Behind me were the silent mouths of the caves of Aebeliyya’a where Qwetzma’ab rested, her dreamings more powerful than mine. On the end of the leash of her dreamings, she kept Storm’jaguar, a being from somewhere beyond our time’matrix, seen only in the oldest records of the ahk’alander. I had never before heard of a Jjkeall, or any Time’keeper having an encounter like mine with Storm’jaguar. I could begin walking east, away from this place, without ever knowing why I came here, carrying the bud of fear I’d sown in my heart’soil, without unravelling the entanglement of the Choice I battled here.

Instead, I began chanting the onehundred’seventh matter’state name, Etznab’Knife, over and again, until the dust at my feet began to swirl and tremble. My eyes dried out with staring, but they were rewarded with the glint of sun on a sudden blade, and I snatched the blade from the ground and returned to Cib’s hut. I stoked the embers of his fire and put on his kettle to warm more golgumes. Such daily tasks were necessary for the Choice I was about to battle. The greatest of our Choices must be battled within the everyday, lordlings—do not forget. With the scent of hot golgumes in the air, I raised Etznab over my head, and chanted its intention.

“I will find Cib’Phantom, retrieve him from his vanishing, and encounter Qwetzma’ab the dravitsh in my dreamings,” lordlings, is what I said, and I plunged Etznab into the dust of my corpse’dream the night before.

Then I took the golgumes from the fire, stirred them into a bowl with soft cheese, and ate. That day I bathed once more in the stream, speaking to no one, dug roots in the dry forest, swept out Cib’s hut, and chanted the onehundred’twelve names of matter’states, feeling them soft upon my lips, saying them gently, almost shyly, as though I were learning them for the first time. I listened carefully to the sounds of the village, unweaving the words of the villagers with my magics, though none of them came near me or spoke to me. As evening began to rise from the dust and gradually overcome the air and sky, I resisted the desire to walk away from the setting sun. Though my bud of fear began to bloom, I scorned to return to Korlhnn with the same powers I had when I left. I chanted the names, and ate a small dinner from Cib’s dwindling stores. I slept, keeping my dreamings as close to me as a shroud, waiting for the dreamings of Qwetzma’ab. Perhaps she stalked near me, but I did not see her or her dreamings, and when I awoke, I felt rested and strong.

I spent my days and nights in Cib’s hut, lordlings, just like that, very simply. And the moon changed many times through the nights. I began to help the Mong’g to make their cheeses, holding the bleating heads of shantle as they were milked, and a small basket of golgumes appeared outside my door every morning. I watched the animals in the forest, and stalked with them in my dreamings. Soon, I knew the mountainside and its air’matrix and its earth’matrix as well as the Mong’g, and began to walk in wider and wider spirals, nearing the caves. I was as plain and ordinary as anyone, but I never forgot that I was here to battle a Choice.

On one of my walks, on a day split by silver skies and lightning, I spotted a strange figure ahead on the path, though what about her was strange, I could not say. I wondered if it was a dravitsh. I hastened my step, trying to catch up, and spoke a greeting, but the figure did not turn around. Over the orange mountain, a cloud appeared, flickering dark silver and then deep steel. Day had become night, and I wasn’t sure anymore if I’d been following my spiral path up the mountain, or if I were on the floor of Cib’s hut, enwrapped in dreamings. But I did not hesitate, lordlings, I kept following that figure without ever getting nearer, until, sudden as lightning, I was upon her, breathless, and I reached out and touched a shoulder. The face that turned then was beyond my words to say, lordlings. It was Cib.

But Cib wearing my face, the face that had been devastated by Storm’jaguar that first night, a face raked by five deep claw marks, the eyes split and unseeing, cheeks gouged open, lips hanging from shreds of skin around the jaws. I stared, and when I could speak, I spoke one of the great names, though I meant only the smiling boy who had lost all his dreamings.

Cib.

You have all heard, lordlings, how Cib’Owl was one of the first people to live in this space’matrix, speaking so many of the matter’states we now take for granted. But though we in the present’matrix need the air and wind and dust and animals to round out our existence, it was Cib in her deep wisdom who thought to provide them to us, Cib who inscribed their names in the record of matter’state’keeping. Only the wise, lordlings, can see what needful things do not yet exist and summon them from the world’s own dreamings.

My torn and ravaged face gazed back at me, blankly. I reached out to touch Cib, but he drew away, and fled up the path, his body moving with the lanky awkwardness I recognized as my own. It was then I realized that the body I had inhabited these many moons was different from the one I’d always known before—more graceful, more at ease. And my magics, when I spoke and thought them, emerged not just from my lips and my mind, but from my skin and flesh, and deeper, from my bones, and deeper—from the same heart’soil where that bud of fear had appeared. My magics had changed since I’d lived among the Mong’g people of the mountains. I lifted my hands to feel for my ahk’aunges—still four, deep marks running horizontally across my face, an ahk’alendar of my dealings, a record of my young life.

Many Jjkeall are content to have four ahk’aunges, lordlings, content to cease their forwardings and challengings. You have seen them in the cities riding in bejewelled litters, accepting the homage of people on the street. They sleep on beryl beds and Keep the Days effectively with their magics and dreamings. They do not seek further dealings with mystery and matter’states, however, and have become static bodies in the flowings of time’matrix. Do you know how old I am, lordlings? I doubt you’d believe me, but my last Forwarding was accomplished when I was onehundred’six, giving me this ahk’aunge here, below my chin, because there was no more room on my face to Keep my many Forwardings. I may have more yet. The future’matrix belongs to me, and I alone know what is best to be done with it. Do you believe that I am Kna’Eb, Fate’Keeper?

That morning, I did not know what the future’matrix held. I only knew that I wanted to release Cib from the spell that bound him to my own ruined face, even if it meant wearing that face myself for the rest of my Days. So I did a foolish thing. I continued to follow Cib further up the path, past many cave’mouths, my fear’flower climbing and entangling all my heart, until we reached a very small cave mostly hidden by talons of dry sage. He bent low, and vanished inside, and I went right behind him, into the darkness that Day could not illuminate.

What could I do in such darkness, lordlings? I took two steps inside the cave and all light was gone as though it had never been born from Cib’Owl’s dreamings. Darker than Eb, here I was blinded completely, and without sight, my other senses contorted and whirled, so that I could smell, touch, hear, and taste only darkness, and very, very keenly. Darkness smelled and tasted like earth and stone. It sounded like the stars falling, or the river stones singing under rushing water. And it felt—well, lordlings, it felt like my mother’s embrace, though how I could know that when my mother was lost in her vanishing so many years ago, I cannot tell you. What could I do blinded in such darkness with all my other senses so passionately panicked? I had followed Cib, but Cib was blind already, and whatever he did in the cave was hardly an example for me to follow. So I sat down, I was sure, on the floor of the cave of Qwetzma’ab, where my fear’flower took root, and I waited.

I think I waited through the revealing of the world. Then I waited through the all’vanishing and new radiant’revealings. I waited through the painful hunger and exhaustion of my body until the pain and hunger and fatigue left me and then my body left me, and I simply hung on the darkness the way fowlxes hang on the air or Night hangs in the sky. I dangled like a drop of shining dew from the immense petals of my fear’flower. And through all this time, my mother’darkness held me, singing her river’stone songs, her falling’star songs, and my dreamings flowed and surged like dark water under a dark moon. Finally a new magic was revealed to me, but when I opened my mouth to scream it, Storm’jaguar of Qwetzma’ab’s dreamings pounced again, her pulsing paw closing my magic upon itself, ending my chanting of matter’states, and this time, lordlings, I surrendered to the inevitability of my vanishing, compelling myself through the thousand’veils toward my mother’darkness, under the jaguar’s paw.

Do you think you know what you want, lordlings? You are not so great an entity, even, to want anything. You are yourself a dreaming in the mind of the world, and the world speaks you and all your dealings, and the world unspeaks you. Silenced by Storm’jaguar a second time, I found my true home, in the darkness, and I have never needed to seek another. That was my radiant’revealing in the cave of Qwetzma’ab, to discover the onehundred’thirteenth matter’state, Unspeaking, and Storm’jaguar’s paw dissolved into my mouth, sealed in Unspeaking now, and the jaguar herself dissolved into my mother’darkness, split with the forked lightning of my forwarding.

Cib stood before me, and blindly, I regarded my torn and bloody face, filled with Unspeaking. I moved to embrace Cib with all my darkness and all my darkened senses, and Cib’Motherless flowed back into his mother, who sat open-palmed in the center of my Unspeaking. I could feel my face bleeding, and I laughed with wonder, as Cib would laugh. Then, lordlings, Qwetzma’ab herself appeared before my blindness. She plucked my fear’flower and wove a garland for her hair, and I regarded her beauty with blind wonder. We sat together in her cave for so long that Day and Night had stopped existing, and the Day’keepers and the Night’Keepers, all the Time’keepers, were silenced in Unspeaking. When at last I stood and left the cave, Night danced around the world with radiant’revealing joy, the stars occupying all their spaces at once in defiance of Time’keeping, and the world shimmered and buzzed with the exuberance of newborn space’matrices.

The Mong’g people of the Mountains do not breathe this world’s air anymore, and you will never see their faces at all, let alone their unflappable faces gaping with surprise, as they gaped at me that morning. Throughout their own long ahk’alendar, whoever had entered Storm’jaguar’s cave had not come out again, and I had come back to them with no fewer than five new ahk’aunges, one for each terrible claw that rent the face of Cib, my motherless twin.

I have not told you a story. I have been Unspeaking you. What were my five dealings in the horned peaks of Aebiliyya’a, lordlings, that earned me five new ahk’aunges? You must tell me when we sit together tomorrow. And you must tell me how the speaking and unspeaking of matter’states changes the dealings of Time’keepers as the Ahk’alendar winds down to its end and we prepare for All’vanishing. And you must tell me what is the purpose of Day’keepers, as you aspire to be, lordlings, when we have run out of Days. And tomorrow you must tell me, what we will do tomorrow, when we have plucked the last tomorrow from future’matrix. That is your assignment. Now go to your dreamings, lordlings, and suffer their entanglements upon you.

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HAUNTED by Julie Dapper