Dreamed 1996/7/15 by Wayan
I keep visiting this other world in dreams. Well, I visit a LOT of worlds in dreams. But this one's a regular, like Earth. It's a warm ocean-world, with only one real continent, and that's polar. So the only decent-sized habitable land is a forested finger like a big Malaya or Kamchatka, stretching all the way to the subtropics. Still, the warm seas swarm with atolls, reefs, and islands. Green isles, with flocks of flowers. And the people are friendly, playful, good-natured, beautiful, and loving... So I keep going back.
But on my last dream-trip, I somehow got myself BORN there.
Oops. More fun to visit. Up close, even Eden has fleas.
I grew up in a fishing village on the southeast coast. My people are loving, but so traditional! I felt stifled as I grew older--good girls obey the elders, good girls are modest and quiet. In revenge, I'll draw myself tall bold and glamorous here. You leaned on me, you tried to squash me--well now I'm leaning on YOU, world!
I'm not QUITE sure how we looked. Long noses ears legs and tails, gray fur and grace--but were we feline, canine, or more like lemur or aardvark people? My visual memory's even fuzzier than WE were. I think our eyes weren't shape-oriented. Glitter and motion drew me, like a cat. Sound and touch and smell...
I've tried to draw my life honestly, but when it comes to how things LOOKED exactly, my story stew is a little skimpy on memory fish. Mostly just the thin broth of guesswork.
But what we did and said and felt--that's not made up. It happened and I'll never forget.
This tale is true.
The others are my two best friends. No, dive all the way down, Gray! My ONLY friends.
That's Leaf up the tree, hiding behind her tail as usual. She's the youngest of us three, small and thin and very shy... but she's also the only person I know who's smarter than me, especially in math. She wants to be a navigator, though even her teacher laughs at her. "Girls aren't spatial thinkers."
Under the tree, playing her ammonite harp (it's made from a big Nautilus shell) is our best friend, Atoll--because her spots are hollow swirls like atoll-maps. She's, I don't know, our big sister I guess. The wise one. Well, the FIRST glyph I was going to paint was "sane." True too. She's not even a total misfit. She gets invited to some parties, even if they just want her there to sing. Of course they don't want HER songs, just traditional dance tunes. They don't know what they're missing! She composes these outrageous new ballads from her dreams. Mystical one verse, absurd the next. She gets lost in composing for days sometimes... like Leaf in her maps and stars.
It's up to me to drag them back into life and adventure. A volcano's job--to spice the soil with ash, spice life with a little chaos sauce.
I don't apologize for how plain we are. We don't wear fine ornaments. No flash and glitter. We're unpopular girls. No one to impress.
You might conclude we're poor.
You might be wrong.
Our village is metal-poor, so things look stone age, but don't be fooled: we're good biologists and ecologists. Other species are lovingly tended (especially if they taste good). Finding a new species wins you a LOT of respect--and we three plan to do it.
For months, Atoll and Leaf and I have been doing crafts and odd jobs, saving up to outfit our own boat, so we can explore the Edge of the World--not a real edge of course, we know the world's a ball (though my grandma tells me the Forest Folk two days inland still have a secret society called the Flat-Earth Cult. No surprise, they're all dumb as frogs in there).
We want to sail unknown tropical seas--and incidentally get away from our relatives.
Coming-of-age quests are nothing unusual, in our town, for boys. If you return, you're a man; if you find a new species or island or fishing bank, you're a hero.
If you don't come back, well, better to lose you now, before you have dimwit cubs. The science elders call it "The survival of the fit test."
But they make fun of us girls for wanting to sail! We're "unfeminine" to work so much and save up our credit--we should spend it on ornaments and dances like normal girls.
One reason we don't go to their parties is that our age-mates snub us--we're below their tideline. But they buy Leaf's featherweaves and my shell jewelry! Even Atoll--when she plays at their dances some people actually tip her a pearl or two like she's not a guest! And she swallows her anger and takes that!
It's for the boat. The boat out.
So we fix it up ourselves. I don't mind. It's best to know every hair of your own boat.
Some of the boys come out and taunt us. I think they're scared: if we come back with news of a new island or species, it's one less for them to find. We're competitors now--I wouldn't even put it past a few of them to sabotage our boat.
Still... it's pleasant working out here under the sky, away from the old termite mound and all its gossips.
Scraping off limpets I feel like a nursling cub again--tiny on the huge breast of Mother Boat. Shaggy with mussel shells though--scratchier than fur.And not much milk!
Or a lover--boat rolled over purring like a boy who likes you--the keel between my thighs, sun-warmed. Mmm. My own mate! One I can scrape the sharp bits off--the attitudes, the catty remarks... sorry!
The boys here don't want me--at least the way I am.
And I am the way I am.
The popular girls would claw my daydreams to splinters if I were stupid enough to tell them. Boat breasts, lover keels! Silly, useless.
But they're wrong. Dreams keep you working when there's tar on your fur again, and some boy laughing at you up a tree.
Or at least they help me.
We righted the hull, retied the deck, stepped the mast, and the old beast floated, stable and seaworthy. The village gossips just retreated one step. Now it's "Girls are too weak for deepsea sailing, and they can't do the math to navigate on such a long journey."
Right. Leaf's only better than Master Glasseye.
We stock up for the voyage as best we can. nervous, hearing their judgments we're sick, suicidal cubs. Funny how physical things all cooperate, as if Sea Mother welcomes us. The only difficult headwind blows from the mouths of our agemates, and their elders... It's hard to ignore everyone saying you're doomed.
And then, one day, there's no more delaying. Leap in the water, risking death, or live here, safe, in shame.
We untie the rope and raise the sail... As we cross the inlet, the village never looked so good. I feel pretty charitable toward the old fish barrel, now that we're leaping over the lip.
Thanks for your support, I think. What a relief to leave you all!
Some cubs throw rotten mangos. But... most DON'T. I thought ALL our agemates hissed at what we're doing! Maybe we have silent friends--just with more to lose than we do.
Now we HAVE to come back alive--to find out.
Oh squid guts! It was easier thinking they all hate us!
We sail southwest at first, through the settled isles.
Joyous days! Pale blue sky, green water, clouds reflecting the land- and sea-colors on their shaded bellies, white as shells above. I can breathe free, swing my tail without some boy grabbing it and sniffing at my girl-flower.
I can plant my hind legs far apart and stretch and HOWL, and my mom's not here to hiss and bat my whiskers and tell me I'm unfeminine.
Cares drop away under the horizon, with the mainland. Tired at night, but a good tired.
I can't recall exactly how those birds looked, just huge and sort of prehistoric, so I drew them like giant brown pelicans, the most pterodactylian birds on the sea-coast where I live when I'm human, on earth.
I also left off all the rigging on our boat--there were lots of ropes, but when I woke I couldn't figure where they all went--they just looked cluttered. I just didn't want you to think it was some senseless dream-boat. It was properly rigged.
It's just my memory that isn't.
No. That's not true. I remember the essentials. Exploring vast horizons. Friendship. Rebellion.
Leaf and Atoll seem happy too. Atoll sings like a spirit all day--new songs! I curl up happy next to them in the hut at night, or on deck if the stars are out. When the moons are up, the mast shines like a wish-bone. Why can't I sleep? What's my secret wish?
I love sailing with them, I wish I could forever. I wish I could express how much I love Atoll and Leaf--my aunts seem like that only about their mates. I wish I could marry them, marry them both. But our tongue lacks any word for it, our grammar won't say it.
We'll smell as popular as citrus if we find the ruins--enough to choose our own mates, not settle for arranged marriages. I want that more than anything--not that there's a boy I love, but I have to find one who'll let me travel and break custom and do things with my girl friends too. The freest life I can imagine... with the mind-tools I was given.
Until we found... what we found.
As the ocean turns so blue it's almost black, miles deep, and the swells stretch so far apart they're like horizons, we get a bit subdued: it really IS a small boat to go so far into the deep.
Most explorers sail much larger, better-crewed ships. But we gambled a tiny one was better for our quest: we're stalking an old myth of a labyrinth of reefs and channels, whose heart hides a secret: huge, alien ruins rising from the water--an ancient, drowned, high-tech city!
Weeks pass. At last, far to the southeast, we find a promising tangle of reefs, never charted. We squirm through narrow turquoise passages for two days, mapping carefully. On the third day, great rocks rise from the water.
Eroded concrete columns!
The legend's true. What a find, what a find!
Many walls are still intact, rising from the shallows. One great hall's nearly complete, though it's open to the sky. Its oval wall cups a wide pond, like a sky-pearl in the Queen of Clams.
The ancient gate is now a cliff-lined narrows. We glide through the arch with just paws to spare--glad now our boat's as small as a clitoris. No boy-size ship could have gotten in.
We chose right!
The pond is rain-fed: brackish but drinkable. It's choked with a green weed we've never seen. Round leaves. It smells like a giant watercress. Tastes sweet and spicy--real crop potential! Is it a feral survivor from an ancient alien garden? We put samples in a water-gourd.
A new species as well as a new land!
One of my sandals falls overboard, but the leaves are so thick it can't sink. Bladders on the stems make them nearly as buoyant as kelp-trees. The sandal bobbing on the water's face reminds me of that old legend of a shaman who could pull fish from the air and walk on water. Here, the soup's so dense you almost might. Could the old myth have been handed down from this place--from the aliens, even? Who were they, I wonder? Wonder-workers, certainly. Why not levitating fish-wizards?
Hmm.. I just thought of a delicious eco-niche. Even fish-multiplying shamans need someone to eat their miracles! Or they pile up and stink... I'd be useful--like a shrimp grooming those pesky parasites off bass... cleaning up those unwanted wonders, that annoying abundance! Maybe there IS a free lunch. (Uh-oh, eco-heresy again. Leave THAT fantasy out of my logbook!)
I've always suspected that ports and shores, where worlds and eco-zones meet, places with choices and elbow room, are the richest niches for big brains and new thoughts. Here we're on a shore of time, where the present meets a deep current upwelling from the past. Fertile water! I suspect if we stay here long, we'll find things to really stretch our brains.
And then the boys we'll really think we're plain! Swollen brains, ugh. They'd rather have a swollen flower all the time.
Gray, catch yourself! Do you think they're opposites? That's how they talk. I want both. Brain hot with good ideas and girl-flower hot with good desire, thank you. Opposites? Sssssssss.
You can sail away from home, but they stow away inside you, those village voices. Relatives. Remoras. Pry those suckers loose!
But I don't WANT to be a free lunch! I hate literary tension! Adventure is more fun when it's just squid ink on bark. I want my happiness risk-free, thank you.
Yet my dragon-bell keeps bonging--I'm SURE there's a monster hiding here! Is this only fear? Or... memory? Did I dream of this place? I do dream the future, now and then. Maybe I KNOW it's a dragon's lair. I don't have intuitions this strong for nothing.
Leaf is scared, but reluctantly agrees. Atoll steers us through winding channels in the pond-jungle to a little beach on the far side, under a fallen part of the wall that looks climbable.
We're going dragon-hunting.
We land on a beach of rubble across the pond. Fern-trees loom, twitching like the tails of giant green fishercats curled up dreaming, with just their rumps sticking out.
So tropical and mysterious. Like nothing back home--though we can't get the discovery-credit for them, they're known from plenty of nearer tropical atolls.
Still, they're new to me. And so beautiful.
And O! The magenta toothed herons! And great dragonflies, twice the size of home. Little skittery lizards I can barely see, they're so fast. Just green on green.
Above us is a low crumbled spot in the wall near the ruined tower. It must be taller than any tree in the world! I want to climb it and see what the builders saw, so long ago.
Leaf's the lightest, and the best climber, so she goes first up the wall. At the top she hisses in wonder, and won't tell us what's there, even when Atoll, guarding the boat, complains.
She'll only whisper "Just come see for yourself."
I scrabble up to the low point.
On the far side of the wall is a broad stone terrace just above the water.
And on that terrace...
...a giant silver clam, with crystal eyes! It's nearly as big as our fishing ship.
No barnacles either--it's no relic of the city-builders, but a living ship! Someone from a farther isle than ours has landed on this shore. Are they the ones who built the old city? Can they conjure fish and walk on water?
I have to meet them, these sky-sailors. I scramble down the far side of the wall, and sidle up to the glittering shell. Leaf, always shy, stays up on the gap. As I reach the clam, one eye blinks, becomes a door.
And a monster crawls out! Big, scaly, with spines and sharp jaws--the dragon I foolishly insisted we find.
Now what have I gotten us into?
I stand my ground--and the monster speaks. He (she? But he looked bold and toothy like a boy, so I'll call him that. Maybe they have other sexes. I thought it'd be rude to ask) he isn't that big a dragon, and not especially fierce. Friendly, in fact. I have a wonderful talk with him, over tea.
He's a lot like us--a tourist enjoying the romance of the ruins. His people usually travel alone, in these little clam clouds. They're legendary on many worlds, and sensible people always deny they're real, since a swarm of little sky-boats skipping around senselessly, never trading or swapping data with the local elders--well, it's economically absurd.
But profit's not everything. Once you get to know a dragon, their skittishness DOES make psychological sense. They're easy-going, they can't stand quarrels, and they won't take orders. So when they just can't agree, they LEAVE, and each do what they please. So most of their vast population is scattered around this galactic arm. Oh, they pretend to be traders and scientists and explorers, but really, the wind that blows them isn't profit, or even curiosity.
They're just out for some emotional whisker room.
Like certain unpopular girls.
But this itch is deeper. My freedom is itching.
The dragon shows me a microbe living here in the pond. Says it's his gift to me, a souvenir--a third species of life we can claim credit for. "It's already infected you. It's not harmful, though. You'll get a bit more sensitive to ultraviolet--you may burn your nose when the tropic sun is high, so learn to wear a hat. But in exchange, the microbe lets you control your own fertility! You'll only get pregnant if you will it, and mate over and over for days."
You know, I suspect the dragon didn't "find" this bug, but cooked it up somehow, after hearing my story. A very kind trick, if it is one.
So we set sail...
We sit on the Red Round Rug, and show our finds: lost city, blue genes, alien cress, contraceptive bug. I purr with pride as we present the Elders with the ritual samples of THREE new species. Just finding the legendary ruins is a huge coup, but those three species... it's lemon on our oysters! Sweet vindication, after they swore we'd sink an hour from shore.
Atoll and I overhear two fans of her music whispering "Why'd she get involved with THEM?" I feel a sudden surprise, realizing that all along, she may have played down her popularity, for our sake: but the truth is, she, like me, could've dumped her friends and had another life.
The judges glare skeptically, as I present our finds. When I explain that the blue bowl, with, apparently, plain brackish water in it, is a sample of a contraceptive bug that we can breed and give to all, they order the ritual halted!
This is unprecedented. The ritual is our time, not theirs to interrupt!
But they do it. The three confer, in low growls and mutters, for a long time...
Behind me, I can hear the debate-storm rising, already...
"Will they punish us for it?"
"Can we hide it?"
But as family groups start taking side, the argument is cut off.
The oldest of the Three Judges stands and howls for silence. Slowly, the arguments subside as he glares at us all. Only when the silence is absolute does he declare the Elders' Decision.
"These three, who have made themselves barren, and would spread their illness among us, are soiled, diseased, neuter, not real women, unfit for any mate...
"Therefore, we, the elders, cast them out.
"They are banished forever."
I wish I'd run off with the dragon in his shining clam. I'd be a savage out there, maybe just a pet--but I'd have learned a lot, and maybe, eventually, won their respect. At least their minds were open. Instead, I'm stuck here, cheated by the Elders.
Shall I sail meekly off into exile? No.
This isn't for me alone. Other girls need this. I'll tell them all! Even the ones who make my bristles rise? The rotten mango girls? Yes, even them.
I'm fighting back--and I won't be alone.
We stay that night in Leaf's house, for her father welcomes her back (her mom is dead). He's always supported her; I've always envied her a bit, having been raised by Aunt Ragged and her mate, who hardly seem to know my name. Leaf's dad cheerfully defies the ban, saying half the village disagrees with it, and it'll take time for the pot to boil over. He suggests we move into the old stilthouse just around the point--technically outside the village, but within an easy paddle.
Compared to the real issues, I suppose it's just a waterbug by a barge, but I have to admit I look forward to having all our village beauties coming to me in their moonday best--feather crests and fringed sashes and shell bracelets I made but couldn't afford to keep--all coming to US, who they ignored--to pet me and lick me all over and nurse at my breast and sleep in my arms--to catch my shame, my unfemininity.
And maybe more than that is catching.
Is pleasing yourself a disease?
Oh, I'll have fun. Maybe not as much fun as sailing the stars with a crazy dragon in a silver clam, but here in exile, I'll make what fun I can.
It'll be civil war, I expect. The women and the men, or more likely the young and old. But the elders chose this. They could have just accepted us.
They bred us to obey. That's why I came back, you know--I was a good little fisher girl. I brought back my catch to share.
Now they'll have to learn to live with it.
For this Web edition: I had no scanner, so I photographed them with a friend's borrowed digital camera, corrected any distortion in Photoshop 3, then sharpened, increased their contrast, and tinted them using the airbrush tool set on "color", so it couldn't darken or lighten, only tint things 10% or so. More looked lurid.
And to Easley's models--all anonymous, in this sex-scorning, body-hating age. May the wheel turn!
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