Fiction by Christian Shuck
After the Waters Receded
The pain was incredible. As atoms composed to form each nerve ending, waves of sensation crept up unfamiliar appendages. Perhaps the feeling was not pain. It might have only been akin to the feeling of the birth of the solar system itself. It was pleasure, and pain. Wonder, and also grief. The whole spectrum of joy tossed into the black hole of despair. The awareness was vision as well as sound. And as It separated Its half-formed lips It forced air away from Its presence. The current of motion spiraled the stardust before It which settled into shapes and colors. Light reflecting from a distant source revealed a landscape, alien and frightening.
It floated. Then, after a moment, It stood. On two, wobbly, insecure limbs. It fell, unfamiliar with the weight of Itself. Searing, torrid pain blinded Its vision and the landscape disappeared, before reappearing again. This time in sharper, focused pieces. Thin green strips poked up from a brown, grainy station. Hundreds of them. It looked out and felt the air move across its back.
Startled, It reached another appendage behind and felt its own surface. Soft sensitive. A shudder coursed through its whole being, contorting in unfamiliar dynamics, overwhelmed with perception. For days, perhaps years, or merely seconds, it writhed and flailed as the sensory overload solidified in its middle. It opened the mouth It did not yet control and concentrated the energy pulsating throughout. It sounded a barbaric yawp that shook the contours of everything before It.
At this exclamation, the onslaught of light and sound and color and feeling began to subside. Now understanding the primitive, limited functions of Itself, It opened Its eyes and saw for the first time. There in the glow of an orange and white light, were two glinting stars, staring back at It.
Wikvaya sat back from the tiny flames he had stoked in his kindling. The little orange blaze danced their way up, tickling the bottoms of the next layer of sticks. He watched the bark turn black and then, white. The change in the appearance of the wood gave him pause, and he remembered that winter would soon be upon them. How quickly the flames consumed the dead material, giving it a brief, last bright life before perishing within its own ashes. Those same ashes would give life to new growth. And so the cycle of the world would move on.
Behind him, he gathered the wolf skin that his mother had made for him. With the change in seasons underway, the fire would not be enough to keep him warm through the night. Wikvaya sighed as his stomach rumbled with hunger. According to their tribal tradition, he had not eaten for four moons, or the day before his vision quest. He salivated at the thought of fresh deer meat waiting for him upon his return in the morning. Along with the celebration that would follow that night, when he would be recognized as a man. He took a sip from his waterskin, careful not to drink too much. If he did not meet his spirit animal this night, he would need rations for the the next day. Perhaps two.
The fire popped and grew up the next layer of logs. Wicasa had warned him to practice this often. No one would be coming to check on him and if he could not build a fire, it would be a very long night. The Great Spirit, Wicasa said, would have no light to find Wikvaya. And if he could not be found, he could not commune with the ancestors and receive his vision. Wikvaya smiled at the thought of the old sage’s encouragement.
Then the more serious words came into his mind. The importance of why he was out by himself, alone in the coming cold. To become the leader he knew was inside of his soul he needed the approval of his ancestors. With this, he could finally serve his tribe and have the respect of his peers; he would finally have the respect of Wikimak, whom he adored; he would finally have the honor of his father’s love.
“Do not fear what you do not know,” Wicasa said to Wikvaya. “You do not know the faces of those that came before you, but you will know their hearts, for they beat with the same strength you seek.”
The fire began to settle after its initial birth into the night and Wikvaya pulled the wolf skin up around his shoulders. The eeriness of the night was not unknown to him. But without the distant chatter of the camp settling down in the dark it was empty. The crickets chirped their final evening songs. Above his head, bats flitted about in the dusk eating the insects from the air. These creatures were not uncommon, and so Wikvaya shrugged off the eagerness to meet his spirit guides so soon.
Sitting with his legs crossed he closed his eyes and began to breathe deeply. Soon he realized he was rocking his body to a rhythm; the rhythm of the world surrounding him. Toads croaked their guttural drums, the insects chirped and hummed in time, and in the distance brother coyote howled at the full moon above. The music of mother earth made under the dark veil of father sky brought a smile to his face. In his mind Wikvaya saw the elements of the world united in harmony he had never before witnessed. He felt the pulse of the earth below him, grounding his soul to the dirt from which he, and all that came before him, had been born. The intensity of the natural harmony moved his heart. A small tear trickled out from under his eyelid and slid gently down his cheek.
Then something even more unexpected happened. Behind his eyelids Wikvaya could see a shape in the distance. At first, he believed it a trick of the firelight. But soon the shape moved closer. It was not one form or another, but a cloud of golden flecks, like the escaping embers from a bonfire. The cloud bobbed and shifted in the air, eventually hovering a short distance away from him.
Now frightened, Wikvaya opened his eyes.
The swirl he had seen behind his eyelids was just as plain with his eyes open. Unsure of what was to come, he clutched the edges of the wolf skin blanket and pulled it tight around his shoulders. Slowly, he leaned forward to get a better look.
Madly, the golden flecks buzzed among themselves, like fireflies warring against one another.
Wikvaya did not know what to make of this. He had expected something extraordinary,
but more of a wolf walking out of the trees to nuzzle his waiting open palm. Not a confused swarm of golden insects.
Faster and faster the tiny lights began to form a shape. A head, a human head, was the first thing to appear. Then an arm, hanging in midair, before a chest and stomach formed and the wind carried them together. A leg quickly followed, then another. Fingers spread out on deformed hands and toes sprouted from twisted feet.
My ancestor! Wikvaya thought with great excitement.
To be visited by an animal totem was a wonderful sign on a vision quest. To be gifted with the presence of a distant relative in their own form was the highest honor. This, truly, was to be a great beginning to a wonderful journey.
After observing this mid-air transformation, Wikvaya’s excitement shifted to worry. The body forming in front of him was not anything like he had seen before. It was contorted; half formed. As it solidified out of the gold flakes and into flesh it became more apparent the being was in some kind of pain. The appendages flailed in the air, as if uncontrolled. The whole body turned and flopped; expanding and contracting. Its mouth, or what Wikvaya thought was its mouth, opened and a great wave poured out. The sound was deafening. Wikvaya covered his ears in fear as the ground shook beneath him.
When the noise ceased, and the body before him had stopped wriggling, Wikvaya took his hands away from his head. The logs in the fire were shifted in the tremor giving the flames a sudden surge of brightness. Embers floated up. Wikvaya wondered if another being was about to appear. He leaned around the fire to get a better look at it. That’s when their eyes met.
Wikvaya stared at the thing laying on the ground across the fire. Slowly, through what appeared as stiffness and pain, it pushed itself up from the ground. Its skin was gray and white. Its eyes sunken and black. Any excitement he had felt moments before had now left him and turned to fear.
Quickly, Wicasa’s words passed through Wikvaya’s mind. You will not know what they look like, you will know their heart.
Wikvaya struggled to believe his tribe had descended from such a horrid thing. He clutched his cloak, and hoped this vision would pass.
The thing moved, clumsily, as a baby learning to crawl. It looked back at Wikvaya. The orange reflection of the fire the only color in its eyes. A sound lurched out of its face, like no other sound Wikvaya had heard. The music of the earth around him ceased, replaced by a wretching, searing song of sadness.
Wikvaya’s heart pounded in his chest. He did not want to abandon his quest, for fear of being ridiculed. But he did not want this vision to continue.
He watched as the other being seemed to study him for a moment. It moved its contorted shape, until Wikvaya finally realized it was trying to mimic his sitting position. Unable to full control itself, the thing pulled its legs so they were almost crossed.
It occurred to Wikvaya that this vision, though terrifying, was a test. Rather than sit in fear, waiting for it to end, he repeated Wikasa’s words to himself and decided to be bold.
He let go of his grip on his cloak, and set it behind him. The air was chilly, so he reached forward to warm his hands on the fire.
The thing watched Wikvaya, and slowly held its awkward, gnarled fingers to the fire also. It seemed to appreciate the warmth of the fire. But, after a moment, its face changed and it looked worried. It pulled its hands back from the flames and looked at its milky white palms as if something had hurt them.
Understanding that the being had burned its hands, Wikvaya pulled his hands back too, and rubbed his palms together to show the pain would go away. He watched as the thing mimicked him again.
Wikvaya’s confidence grew, and so he stood to walk around the fire and get closer to the being. As it had done before, the being stood and copied Wikvaya’s movements. They met each other, and Wikvaya did all he could to hide his lingering fear.
Now closer together, Wikvaya could see just how deformed the thing was. It had no hair on its head, no eyebrows. Its pasty skin hung on its bones the way an animal skin hung on a drying rack. The left ear drooped and there was no right ear. It smelled of sulfur, which made Wikvaya want to vomit. But he would not be deterred, and so he stood firm.
Clearly the other being was studying him the same way. It reached up to touch Wikvaya’s arm and when its curled finger a bright spark erupted.
This startled the both of them. Wikvaya took a step back, rubbing the place where the thing had touched him. It itched and burned.
Though taken back, the entity did not appear to have the same reaction. It examined the tip of its finger with some awe. Then it stepped toward Wikvaya and held out its finger again.
Another, brighter spark this time.
At this, the itching, burning sensation increased and Wikvaya shouted with pain. He clutched his arm and tried to back away again.
The being grabbed onto Wikvaya’s other arm. Despite his cries of agony it would not let go. Red light surged up underneath Wikvaya’s feet, from the ground through his body and into the middle of the entity. It glowed there, as if a fire in its belly. The sensation intensified as it only gripped Wikvaya tighter.
Flooding colors and tingling sensations surged all over.
No longer able to move, trapped in fear and now realizing he was about to die, Wikvaya watched the reflection of his face in the black opals of the being’s eyes. He saw his face drain its brown tint and turn to the color of the wood ash.
With no strength left, Wikvaya let himself sink to the ground, exhausted. He closed his eyes, begging for his nightmare to end.
When the now white, wrinkled thing before It had fallen to the ground, It looked over
Itself. The pale, gray skin was gone and now resembled the tint the other being had once
been. The pain and stiffness in Its extremities now felt light and loose. Its appendages were straightened. It reached up to touch Its eyes. It moved its jaw to open and close Its mouth. It felt the softness of Its lips. Now, with an increasing understanding of Itself, It touched Its face and let Its cheeks pull upward. Though It did not yet know what it was called, for the first time, the entity smiled.
Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com. He currently lives in Terre Haute.