TWICE, AT ONCE, SEPARATED
LINDA D. ADDISON
“The shaman came together to find a cure for the sickness in the people’s souls that caused children to be born sick. They changed into strong hekura—jaguar, ocelot, puma—and climbed the ladder of the earth to search for the soul-eater’s path. The only way to save their children’s souls was to leave the poisoned place, go beyond the sky layer. The people entered Ship to follow the path to the demon’s birthplace, where they will once again change into strong hekura and destroy the demon’s nest, releasing the captured souls so children can again be born strong and healthy.”
Chant taught to every Yanomami shaman
The artificial sunlight of Ship drew sharp shadows around the men sitting in the dirt of the central plaza of Bataasiteri village. The scent of roasted plantains, from the communal fire, filled the air. Xotama stood in the shade of the circular village and listened to the wedding contract play out. Mayomi, her grandmother, sat within listening distance, nodding at their shaman, Hurewa, when an acceptable number of valuable items were mentioned. They were haggling about woven baskets. Hurewa, with his usual calm, simply shook his head at the numbers they proposed.
Mayomi had spent a long time, the night before, talking to Xotama about the planned marriage. No matter what she said, Xotama felt sick inside. A restless night made her feel no better today. Her life was haunted by a sense of being splintered. She had gone through the cleansing ceremony to remove the pain left by her mother’s death, but no amount of meditation or rituals helped. Only her dreams gave her temporary comfort. Dreams of being with someone she didn’t know, whose face she never saw.
“Tutewa will be a good husband,” Rahimi, her best friend, said. “He’s generous and not bad to look at. He’s moving here to look after your grandmother, so we’ll still see each other.”
Xotama found his round face and deep brown eyes attractive. He had meticulously painted circles and bands of red ochre over his entire body.
She turned the slender white stick that pierced her nasal septum. “I know. It’s not him, it’s me. I’m not—” The expected path of her life caught in her throat.
Rahimi put her arm around Xotama’s waist. “Is it the dreams again?” she whispered.
Xotama nodded. “I’ve tried to forget them but she came to me again last night. I can’t do this now.” She pulled away from Rahimi and walked into the central plaza. The conversation stopped.
“What is this, does the bride need a closer look at her husband-to-be?” Tutewa’s father said. “Stand up, son, let her see how strong you are. There will be no empty bellies in your hammock. We are good hunters.” He prodded Tutewa.
He started to stand, but Xotama gestured for him to sit. “No, I’m sorry, this isn’t...” Her voice faded under their stares.
Mayomi rushed over to her. “Forgive my granddaughter. She’s not herself today.”
“She seems very much herself today, grandmother,” Hurewa said. “What are you trying to say, Xotama?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to agree to a marriage contract,” Xotama said. She saw Rahimi put her hands over her mouth.
Everyone started shouting at once.
Above the villages and forest, beyond the sky created by technology, a meta-plasmic layer contained the neural web called Ship. A Watcher let her mind roam the forest quadrant of the hollowed out, terra-formed asteroid where Xotama stood. Their minds touched through the bio-implants all Yanomami had in their brains. The Watcher’s real body was in slow stasis, growing old a hundred times slower than those who inhabited the forests. Her mind lived in the virtual world sustained by Ship.
Today she worked in navigation, in the form of a green-furred monkey with four arms. Long fingers moved quickly over a multi-colored ball of writhing vines, tapping any ends that snaked out. Each touch generated a bright spark of light, making the end flow back into the center of the vine ball. The echo of dreams shared with Xotama sang back at her, just as they haunted Xotama.
She drank in Xotama’s turmoil, smoothed it over her virtual face, breathing in the sharp, sweet flavor of discontent. There was a corresponding hunger in her, a breach. Though she knew more than Xotama, the knowledge did little to feed the unsettling emptiness.
...tell me, what troubles you... Ship asked, a gentle whisper in her mind.
Talking with Ship was like floating under water. She surrendered to the smothering, reminding herself there was no body to suffocate, just a sensation in the mind, to treat it like a dream and enter gently, as if falling asleep.
(I cannot find the words) she thought to it.
...what does it look like?...
She let the hunger take shape: a dark circle broken in two, one jagged piece disappears, the other grows larger, one eye appears in the center, tears of light slowly fall from the eye, the dark half becomes a tattered sail, beating wildly in a firestorm that consumes the light, the eye begins to close.
...enough... Ship said, dissolving the images.
In navigation, tendrils of vine whipped through the air. She worked rapidly to get the vines back in control. An otter with orange skin and three pairs of arms swam into navigation. He licked her face, transmitting his genetic designation, and began to work over the vines.
...I have tasted your discomfort for a long time but hoped you would settle it on your own... Ship said. ...she cannot heal without you...you must find a way or you will both be lost...
She thought the word ‘home’ and was in her virtual hammock, in the vast circular village that housed all the Watchers. A neighbor in the shape of a golden panther nudged her with his shoulder. His touch was like an early morning breeze. He asked, (why are you afraid?)
(I am broken and I don’t know how to become whole) she said.
Mayomi grabbed Xotama’s arm to pull her away. Hurewa stood and gently moved the grandmother aside. He cupped Xotama’s face in his hands, stared hard into her eyes. After caressing the moon-shaped birthmark on her left cheek, he clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention.
Xotama looked at Tutewa and felt a flutter of desire mixed with sadness.
“What is wrong with this girl?” Tutewa’s father said, pointing at her. “Does she think my son is not good enough?”
“Let her be, father,” Tutewa said. “I want to hear what she has to say.”
Xotama fought back tears, wanting to give some explanation, but she didn’t know where to start.
“Let me tell you about a dream I had last night,” Hurewa said. “I saw Xotama’s birthmark on the beak of a golden toucan surrounded by other birds, with bright red and blue feathers, perched on white rocks. They rose into the sky as one, leaving the golden bird on the ground. A hekura in the shape of a young leopard crept into the circle of rocks. Its eyes glowed red. I recognized it as my hekura and stood in front of the golden bird as the leopard leapt. I took it into my chest and saw the bird’s true form through the leopard eyes. A young girl, staring at her shadow on the ground, drawn by bright moonlight. Her shadow lifted off the ground and stood next to her. The moon came closer until it was so bright I had to run into the forest.
“What do you see in your dreams, Xotama?”
She took a deep breath and said, “There is another in my dreams, someone I never see but can sense. She has shown me many things. Last night we flew high above a green forest, dotted sparsely with villages, brown circular pots, their edges stretched inward to a flickering center. I wasn’t afraid because she was with me. I don’t know who she is or what the dreams mean. When I wake I feel like half a person.
“I think only Ship can help me understand what these dreams mean.”
A young man from Tutewa’s village said, “Women are not allowed to talk to Ship.”
“There are women Watchers,” Xotama said. “There are stories of women shaman. I don’t think Ship cares that I have a womb.”
This started the yelling again. Hurewa had to bang two gourds to get everyone’s attention. “We live inside Ship, not unlike a womb. Without Ship we would spill into the airless trail we follow, our souls eaten by the Soul Killer. I’m not going to judge for Ship. Which of you think you can?” No one said a word.
“When I woke this morning, the air was full of big and small magic,” the shaman said. “Xotama must walk the path of the spirits before we have any more discussions of marriage. Important dreams have to be honored.”
Tutewa walked over to Xotama and spit on the ground in front of her to signify the path was clear between them. “I accept that you need to settle this storm inside. I will wait twenty days for a message from you. If I hear nothing, I’ll consider our marriage bond dissolved.”
He walked away, followed by his father and the three other men from his village. They ducked out the narrow opening of the walled village, into the forest.
Part of her didn’t want him to go. If only she could push this pain away and be happy in her life. She balled up her fists. What was wrong with her?
Hurewa took Xotama’s hand and led her across the center court to a shaded area. Mayomi followed. The three of them sat on the ground. They sat out of earshot of everyone else. More people drifted into the village center. Men, women and children gathered on the far side of the center fire, keeping a cautious distance between themselves and Xotama.
“A path of fire waits in front of you before your journey ends,” Hurewa said. “The end is the beginning. Enter the circle. I have seen this as a waking dream.”
“The circle?” Xotama asked.
“You’ll understand when the time comes. It will take all your courage to heal this breach. The flow of this day has been changed by your words and my dream messenger. It wouldn’t be wise to stop now. Are you ready to begin?”
Xotama took a quick breath. She hadn’t thought beyond the aching need to stop today’s events. “I—I don’t know. Will you come with me?”
“No. You must do this alone. It will be dangerous. Not everyone who seeks Ship returns.”
“There must be another way,” Mayomi pleaded. “I’ve taken care of her since her mother died giving birth. Her father entrusted me with her life when he moved to another village to marry. I fear her mother’s spirit lingers nearby, pulling at her.”
“Someone lingers near, but it’s not her mother.” The shaman stared hard at Mayomi.
Mayomi looked stricken, opened her mouth as if to speak, but put her fist over it instead.
“You will follow the river to the place where no one lives.” Hurewa held Xotama’s hands. “There, if Ship is agreeable, you may be returned to the shadow in your dreams. We will sit vigil for your return.”
Tears fell from Mayomi’s eyes, but she said nothing.
“Let’s go,” he said.
They stood and walked to the village’s exit. No one approached them. Rahimi looked like she wanted to follow them but her mother was holding her arm.
“What about supplies?” Mayomi asked.
“Ship will give her what she needs,” he said. “We should go from here alone, Mayomi.”
“Remember that I love you,” Mayomi whispered in Xotama’s ear, hugging her tightly.
They walked to the river down a rarely used path. The thick, sweet scent of flowering vines lifted Xotama’s soul; their red blossoms made her smile. The hõrema bird began its afternoon song: “were, were, were...” A little of her fear dissipated in the air of the forest. This could be just another day if not for the fact that she was leaving everyone she knew to search for an unknown person in a place she’d never been before.
A freshly carved canoe waited on the bank.
“This is my personal canoe. It will carry you to the next place,” the shaman said. He mixed some earth with spit in his hands and smoothed the mixture over the bow of the canoe, working a spell of protection into the wood.
“Thank you for believing me,” she said.
“There is strong magic in you. I wouldn’t be a good shaman if I ignored it.” He helped her into the canoe, handed her a paddle and pushed the canoe towards the center of the river.
She waved at him as the river carried her away. The current moved well enough that she only used the paddle to push away from rocks or fallen tree trunks. Light from the afternoon sky, and the water’s rocking motion, made her sleepy. Her hand slipped over the edge of the canoe, trailing in the current.
Xotama dreamed she changed into an eel and slid into the river. The other was also there as an eel. They danced in the water, slithering around each other, over and under thick tree roots. There were no words between them, just a perfect dance. Their tails and heads wrapped together to make a wing shape that lifted into the sky as, below, the canoe filled with water.
Xotama woke to water flooding the canoe. She tried using her cupped hands to bail it out, but the canoe tipped over, dumping her into the foaming waves. Under water, a tangle of tree roots threatened to hold her down. She kicked up to the surface before she got too snarled in the roots and swam to the bank.
She sat on the muddy edge, catching her breath. Now what? The river had carried her away from known territory, and without a canoe she had no idea where to go next. The ground rose, not far from the river, to a hill dense with growth. Trapped between the water and the thick bush, she reasoned that, if this was as far as the canoe took her, the rest of her journey would have to be on foot. Xotama worked her way up the hill, away from the river’s edge.
In the overgrown bush, little sunlight passed through the thick canopy. Scrub brush and thick vines, in shades of gray, covered the ground, making walking difficult. There was no sign anyone ever walked this way, not even an overgrown trail. Pushing through whatever vegetation yielded, she heard a rumble overhead, like a coming storm.
She tried not to think about the snakes and rodents living under the tangle of vines and rotting leaves. Twice, Xotama stopped to dig a thorn out of her foot. By the time she reached dry ground, she was limping, her body covered with bleeding scratches. Despite eating a couple of tangerine colored ediweshi on the way, she was dizzy from lack of food. The palm fruit took the edge off her thirst but left her hungry and weak. The rumbling above grew louder. Nausea twisted her stomach, but she pushed on until she found a small opening in a hillside. She picked up a stick in case snakes lived in the cave; it would be safer there than in the dark jungle if a storm broke.
Just as she squeezed into the cave, a palm tree crashed down at the entrance. Her scream was swallowed by the thunder of a summer storm. Unable to hold back the nausea, she vomited. Choking on bile, Xotama squeezed deeper into the cave. She listened for sounds of something alive besides her but could hear nothing over the roar of the storm.
Too weak to go on, she crouched with her back against a stone wall. She would die here. Alone, with no songs or rituals to take care of her decaying body, her spirit lost forever. She cried softly, curling into a ball.
What made her think Ship would talk to her, even let her enter its sacred space to answer her questions? What place did her small lost life have in Ship’s larger existence; in the journey of the people? Drifting into unconsciousness, her last thought was that she had no one to blame except herself.
Xotama stood outside the cave. Wind and rain threw tree branches at her, ripping flesh from her body. She felt no pain. In a flash of lightning, she saw the cave opening was almost completely covered with debris. She looked down at her hands. Bone peeked through the raw flesh that remained. Under the roar of the storm, she heard her grandmother and the shaman chanting. The ground became very hot, blistering what little skin was left on her feet.
Without taking a single step, she moved down the hill, back to the river’s edge. Standing at the spot where she had climbed out of the river, she looked across the white caps of the water and saw her canoe rise into the air. Shoro, dark-feathered birds with long tails, were lifting it. The chanting grew louder. It was a song of protection from the water demons.
Xotama looked down at her arms and legs. The burning had stopped, and her limbs transformed themselves into wings and claws, like the shoro. The lost feeling she had carried her whole life became a single stabbing pain inside her chest. A ring of fire blazed in the sky. Was this the circle in Hurewa’s warning? Trembling, she rose on her new wings and flew towards the flames.
She skimmed through the center of the ring. Her feathers burned away. Xotama fell, not down but up, hurtling through a tunnel of colors, to land on a soft pile of leaves. When she opened her eyes, she was an infant being picked up by her grandmother, younger in years but with the same face. A woman, the mother she never knew, squatted against a large tree, grimacing in pain as blood ran down her thighs.
Mayomi lay Xotama carefully on the ground. An infant cried. Not her, Xotama realized, but another baby, coming out of their mother.
Her mother collapsed as the placenta was delivered. Mayomi cut the umbilical cord and tried to revive Xotama’s mother, but she was dead. Mayomi’s cries mixed with the hungry newborns’ wail.
Twins. Everything made sense now. The dreams, the feeling of being broken in two. Relief mixed with anger. Mayomi knew all along that Xotama was a twin, and never said anything. All the years of feeling lost explained in one word. Twins.
Their grandmother picked the babies up and ran crying into the forest. She stopped at an opening in a hill, laid both babies down to examine them. They were exactly the same, except for the sliver of a moon birthmark on Xotama’s face. Mayomi touched the birthmark, kissed the other baby, picked up Xotama and rushed away from the cave.
Inexplicably, Xotama floated above her abandoned sister, helpless. An old man came out of the cave and picked up the baby. A Watcher, his skin was iridescent blue, like the sky at sunset, covered with the curling patterns every Yanomami knew as Ship’s design. He carried her sister into the cave.
The cries faded. Xotama was on her knees, weeding in her grandmother’s tobacco garden. A reflection of Xotama pulled weeds to her left. Xotama shrieked in joy and grabbed her sister, pulling them both to the ground.
“It’s you! I can’t believe I’ve found you.” Xotama held her sister’s face in her hands. She kissed and hugged her tightly.
“Yes, my sister,” she answered, embracing Xotama.
Xotama pulled away, looked around. “But how can we be here? Am I dead?”
“You are very much alive.” Her twin smiled. “I wanted a familiar place for us to meet. You have happy memories of this garden.”
“You can make a place out of memories?” Xotama asked.
“Anything imagined can take form here. Is there another place you would like to be?”
Xotama looked around. Everything seemed so real, she expected Mayomi to walk out of the forest edge. “This is fine. I didn’t know Watchers could do this. I guess there’s a lot I don’t know about Ship and Watchers. Before this day I didn’t know I had a sister. I—I thought I was losing my mind.”
“I know. I haven’t been doing well myself.” She wiped Xotama’s tears away. “Even though I knew you lived, I needed to touch you.”
“But if we aren’t really here, how can you touch me?”
She took Xotama’s hand. “Doesn’t this feel real? As real as any two bodies. More real than dreams.”
“Except in my dreams I never saw your face. Didn’t know you were my sister. I don’t even know your name.”
“I don’t have a name like you do. Here we know each other by touch.”
Xotama thought for a moment. “Can I call you Notama?”
She smiled. “I would like that.”
“This is unbelievable. There’s so much I don’t understand,” Xotama said.
“Do you trust me?” Notama asked.
Xotama looked into the copy of her face, without the birthmark, and nodded.
Notama reached up, her arm stretching until it touched the sky. Xotama looked down at where her sister held her hand. Their flesh melted together. Xotama’s eyes closed. She felt as if she was falling asleep again.
They were a wind moving over forests, flowing up into the false sky of Ship, swiftly passing through a thick wall until they were beyond the asteroid’s shell and in outer space. Points of light shimmered around them. Below, a long, dark sliver laid against the starry background: the rough rock that contained everyone Xotama loved, everything she knew of life. They plummeted down, through the vessel’s strata of protective minerals, into its meta-plasmic web, caught like insects in the immense memory banks of the intelligence called Ship. It existed in the living plasma that flowed through the outer shell, and under the forest ground. It was more than a machine and less than human.
Images from Ship’s memory rushed past: First Earth, twisted, dying infants born to sick mothers, poison in the air, in the ground, in many humans: DNA spirals mangled into broken, twisted puzzle pieces; another memory bank filled with an endless stream of undamaged genetic codes, tagged and indexed, the genes of the Yanomami living inside the rock as it hurtled through space. Each new marriage, each new infant produces another flow of genetic possibilities. Xotama and Notama’s genetic history undulated from First Earth and extrapolated into patterns that exploded into data streams that even Notama had not experienced.
More and more information poured into their minds. They saw the debates that led to the decision to maintain the forest society among the villages; to keep the people safe and sane during a long journey that would see the birth and death of generations. They saw the bodies of Watchers in stasis pods, clustered like peas throughout the asteroid. Notama’s body curled in a pod: still the size of a child. Older Watchers in gleaming blue body suits in the forests, observing the villages, taking samples from the water, ground, plants; surveying animals: wild pigs, tapir, giant anteaters; giant rodents, snakes, armadillos, tortoises, monkeys.
Xotama’s mind was stripped down by the waves of information. Each new concept carried countless layers of explanation, information to explain data to explain information. Images slipped and slid into forms she couldn’t comprehend. She wanted to tear her eyes out, rip her ears off, anything, anything to stop the roar, but she had no body. Notama was near her, also terrified by the flood of data.
They had unlocked something immense and it was consuming them.
(stopstopstopstop) Notama screamed in images: white lightning, bitter hot freezing decaying piercing gnawing...
Xotama was losing words, her thoughts tumbled into ragged sounds, tastes, colors...
An old woman’s face formed in the deluge of sensations, older than any Yanomami either of them had seen.
(Stop data retrieval, repair memory break, restore previous visualization), her voice was soothing.
The storm slowed and dissipated like morning mist. They were back in the garden of Notama’s making, sitting on the ground. The pain and chaos faded rapidly.
“Who was that?” Xotama asked, gasping for air. She grabbed a handful of earth and centered on the feeling of the soil in her fist.
“One of the first Watchers. Someone who’s been with Ship from the early days,” Notama said, shaking her head.
They helped each other stand.
“I’m sorry, Xotama. I made a terrible mistake.” Notama tears welled up in her eyes. “I thought if I showed you what this was, Ship, the world I live in, that maybe you could stay here. But I took us into the neural web too quickly, I almost –”
“No, don’t apologize,” Xotama interrupted. “I had the same hope when I found you. For us to be together. But I couldn’t live with things shifting around me, or these strange words and things. I need to walk through the real forests every day on legs. I need to hold people. I saw your body, it’s too young and your mind too grown to live in a world you couldn’t fly in or change whenever you choose.”
They held each other. “It’s time you returned,” Notama said. “I wouldn’t want Grandmother to worry too long about you. What will you do with the information you have?”
“Keep it close to my heart,” Xotama said. “I see that knowing too much, too soon, is not wisdom.”
“Yes, my arrogance has shown me I have a lot to learn,” Notama said.
“Will we dream together again?” Xotama asked.
“I believe we will, but without the confusion. Are you ready to go?”
“Yes. You are forever in my heart and my genes.” Xotama smiled at using the new word.
Notama kissed her forehead.
Xotama blinked. She stood in the mouth of a cave. Sunlight spilled over the forest. Other than some scratches, she was uninjured. This was not the cave she hid in from the storm. She had been returned to the cave her sister had been carried into as a newborn.
Her sister. Tears ran down her face and she laughed. She has a sister.
This cave was not far from her village. She took her time walking back, enjoying every familiar sound and scent along the way. She had seen many things with Notama. It would take a long time for her to understand even a small part of it. Maybe a lifetime.
For the first time, she looked forward to the future. She and Tutewa would marry, have children. Perhaps one of them would be a Watcher. Xotama wouldn’t see the end of their journey, nor her children’s children, but one day Yanomami would see the end of this path, and the beginning of something she could only taste at the back of her mind. Perhaps some of these Yanomami would carry her genes.
Xotama entered her village as the sky began to dim. The smell of roasted armadillo and plantains filled the air. Many people feasted around the center fire. Conversation stopped as she walked across the dusty space.
Rahimi ran up and grabbed her in a tight hug. “I’m so happy you’re safe.”
Xotama pulled away, looking past Rahimi to her grandmother, who stood transfixed at the edge of her hammock.
“What’s wrong?” her friend asked.
“Nothing. Everything’s fine. I’m going to be okay.” She hugged Rahimi back. “I have to talk to my grandmother.”
She walked to Mayomi. Hurewa signs of protection were painted in red over Xotama’s hammock. She smiled. When she left the village, the shaman knew more than anyone about Ship, but now she returned with so much more knowledge.
Mayomi met her gaze. Tears began to fall from her eyes. She sat on the ground in front of their private fire. Xotama sat next to her.
“You know?” Mayomi whispered.
“Yes, everything. I found her. She’s not a dream, any more than I am. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s hard enough making a place for one child without a mother. I had just lost a daughter, and held two babies in my arms. On First Earth, one of you would have been left in the forest to die. Here, I knew the Watchers would take care of the one I left behind. It was the only way both could have a life not filled with burden.
“I couldn’t tell you what had happened.” Mayomi looked down. “It’s not permitted to speak of these things. Your mother’s spirit might have been pulled back by my words, to haunt us.”
Xotama shook her head. “You and I will not speak of this again.” She took her grandmother’s hand and kissed it. “I’ve found my lost self. I can be whole. Now we are both here.” Xotama cupped her hands over her chest.
They stood and held each other. Xotama closed her eyes and saw the rock, their world, hurtling through space towards an unknown future. She would marry and have children and, in spite of the taboos, teach them about their aunt and what she learned from Ship during that time of almost-madness.