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art by Tim Stewart

A Ribbon For A Shaman

S.J.Hirons was born in Greenwich, England in 1973. Educated at Rugby and Cambridge, he currently resides in Leamington Spa, where he works for Warwickshire’s Young Asylum Seekers Project. He has studied creative writing at the UK’s National Academy of Writing and Birmingham City University. More of his short fiction can be found in print in: Clockwork Phoenix 3 (Norilana Books), Subtle Edens: An Anthology of Slipstream Fiction (Elastic Press), 52 Stitches: A Horror Anthology (Strange Publications), Title Goes Here magazine and online at: Farrago’s Wainscot, The Absent Willow Review, Pantechnicon and A Fly in Amber.
When the shaman was done tying his ribbon around the middle of our pig, my father stood and watched the old man doddering off down the lane for a long time. A few months ago I would have expected my father, the notary of our little town, to have berated the old man, but now I was not surprised when he did no such thing. He only leant on the slats of our fence, pensively watching the shaman depart, uttering not one word. We could neither feed nor water the pig now until the shaman was done with whatever spell it was he had been casting these last few weeks.
"I didn't like the way he tipped his hat to me," my father muttered as he strode past me and back to the house. "That's all." I watched him go into the house, knowing he would be ascending the stairs one last time, before he left for his office, to see to mother.
I went and stood where he had stood and looked along the lane myself, but the shaman was gone.
Mother's illness had started the year before, a strange and sleepy sickness that knocked all the breath from her, like one of those strong, errant gusts that can make you feel like you're suffocating as you walk along the High Folds. That feeling is like drowning on dry land. Mother's healthy tan had etiolated through the summer until she wore only a wan pallor and she'd had to take to her bed--the bed from which she still hadn't stirred. Plans for me to go to university had been postponed until some arrangement for her could be made, or she evinced a sustained recovery. I didn't mind. I had always made good grades but was never one for career paths. Friends who had gone away last Ten-Month made out that I wasn't missing much at first, but at year's end, when they were home, it was apparent from their riotous talk that life in The Gosling's big cities was more thrilling than anything our sleepy, slumbering existence on the borderlands offered. I didn't care; I wanted my mother back--that was all.
Consensus opinion in the town was that the shaman had fallen to incipient senility. Over the last few weeks the number of his ribbons bedecking the town had multiplied a thousand-fold. A shaman's ribbons are, of course, inviolable. Once a shaman has tied his ribbon to a thing--whatever it may be--no other human being may interfere with that thing until the ribbon is removed. When I was younger the only shamans' ribbons I ever saw were those that were tied around the Split-Tree on the edge of town, where the reign of The Gosling begins to end and the land falls in its till towards the country of the Jen-An. Later, in my teenage years, my friends and I might see a rock, or suchlike, on our rambles that the old fellow had made sacrosanct. The ribbons meant "…do not touch this thing. This thing has business with me, or I with it…" and, even as teenagers, we respected that. None in our land would dare disrupt the business of any shaman.
I don't know how it stands in your cities but that is the way it is here in the old country.
Now, however, almost every stationary thing in the town had one of his blood-red ribbons tied to it--from the bell in Veris Tower to the pens in the bookmaker's yard. Even some ducks on the old pond had been spotted sporting these singular sigils, "…like a parade of fashionistas," as one local wag put it. At first we had all thought the shaman had some grand spell in mind, but now we were not so sure. His elevation of nearly everything around us made us doubt.
Maybe we cannot see the value of these things the way he does, some voices said.
A duck is a duck whatever the weather, said others.
On the basis of this dichotomy a Moot-Meet was called.
My father went.
Mr. Saxopholus, who occupied the office my father referred to as "Chief Meddler", spoke first. He argued for a petition to demand the replacement of our shaman with a younger man, one more cosmopolitan in his ways. Modernity was what a thriving town like ours demanded.
The modern businessmen of the town agreed with Saxopholus my father noted, in his wry summation of the mooting later, but they were badly outclassed by those with old values. The Beddleman of Veris Tower reminded everyone of the shaman from Rezidabah who had predicted that that city would only fall when every bit of glass within it was broken. Others interjected, saying that since the residents of that city had hidden all the glass they could find in the mines of Mount Ember--and so incurred the wrath of said volcano upon their fragile city--such a tale had little bearing on our current situation--unless the Beddleman was intimating something about the veracity of shaman in general.
Exactly, responded the Beddleman.
My father stood up. "Old tales mean little," he said. "On that at least we are all agreed. What we are talking about is transience and permanence… something none of us will be as well versed in as the shaman."
They told him to sit down and shut up.
A voice heckled him from the back rows: "All of us have loved ones!"
After my father got back and reported to me, I took a grateful break from looking after mother. Past the squealing protestations of our pig and out into the gloamy twilight of the valley I walked, watching as the lights of town were lit to a soft, but somehow not reassuring, glow and listening for the low rumble of life. It was here I spied the shaman, knee-deep in the brook that runs behind our property and Mr. Hustavson's. He might have been tying his ribbons to the fish for all I knew, or cared, but I watched him for what seemed a long time before I decided what I was going to do.
Back in the house my father had the radio on in the pantry. He looked up when I came in.
"The Gosling has broken our treaty with the Southlands," he said.
"What will that mean?" I asked, but I was too weary for an answer and, if one came, I didn't hear it. I told my father I needed to go to bed: Mother would have to rely on him in the night. He nodded, hardly listening--his head bending low to the radio's speaker, trying to discern and ascertain the future somewhere in that furtive static.
Before dawn I came to the shaman's yurt. His fire had burned down to just nubbins and ash. I attended to it and had it lit and ready for when he woke up. Whilst I waited I looked over his motorbike.
Elf-fashioned, the shaman's bike has always fascinated us. Generations have grown up to wonder at its marvelous mechanics, its supernatural balance and suspension, from the time he first arrived in our town as a young man, virile in the saddle and beaming at us in love and friendship, to now.
I checked the oil and spark-plugs and made sure the tyres were at the right pressure for these cooling days of not-quite autumn. When I was done I turned and saw him regarding me from within his tent. He considered me, and the little patch of sky behind me, for some time and then nodded, resigned. He knew why I had come. He didn't speak--he hadn't spoken to anyone for weeks, I realized--as he rose and toileted, dressed, made tea. As he did these things he gestured at the bags he kept in the yurt, those bags full of bright and dark ribbons, showing me which was for what purpose in that same silence. He put on his bicycle clips and grimaced, half-toothlessly, gesturing for me to go on, he would follow.
In mother's bedroom the old man lit a fire of sedge and almond in her fireplace before he began. He tied a ribbon of gold to her wrist and then went into his trance. My father and I observed for a time.
"This is stupid," my father hissed in my ear, petulantly. "He wouldn't come when I asked! Now, when everyone believes him mad, he comes! If this gets out…"
"Be quiet," I said. I was watching intently.
"Why didn't he come before?" My father whined.
"He was waiting for me to ask him," I said. The shaman opened his eyes. He nodded. He stood up and crossed the room to leave, pausing only to pat me on the shoulder, his face running tired and grim as he went back to his business elsewhere.
At my mother's wrist the gold ribbon gleamed in the gloaming.
They came the next dawn, the sound of their tanks waking us all before they were even close to town. Those brute vehicles shook bricks loose, paintings from frames, made the bell of the tower ring.
We took to the streets, all of us, and watched the army of the Jen-An approach. Around every building, every tree even, I could see a band of blood-red ribbon now.
"Go back inside," I said to my father. "Go back inside!" I called out. I kept calling it out as I ran into town and people listened.
In the town square I found the shaman, slumped against the back wheel of his motorbike. For a second I thought he was dead, but then he opened his eyes. Saw me. Smiled. He held up a shaking hand and I pulled him to his feet. In one deceptively deft movement he transferred the bag of ribbons from his shoulder to mine just as the first of the Jen-An's tanks rumbled into view. The war-machine stopped abruptly before us and a hatch at the top was flung open from within. A young officer emerged first, and then a scar-faced shaman of the Jen-An clan who looked just about as aged as the old man next to me.
"You are their shaman?" The Jen-An officer demanded of me.
"Yes," I said. The Jen-An soldier sniffed. He took in our ribbon-bedecked town. "Very clever," he said. He bitterly eyed his own shaman, who shrugged: The law was the law. "Oh, very well," the officer said, sourly. "We'll move on then, if that's the case…" He paused, eyeing the old man next to me. "Who is that?" He asked.
"No one," I answered. Beside me the old shaman nodded, happily.
"He wears no ribbon," the officer noted with some satisfaction.
"No." I agreed.
The Jen-An pulled his revolver from its holster and shot our old shaman through the throat. He looked momentarily shocked at his own action. Then he put his gun back in its holster. I don't think he realized how hot the metal would be; he winced as if it scalded him. The Jen-An shaman eyed me curiously, looked at the elf-fashioned bike behind me, and shrugged.
"Times are changing then," he croaked. "Mayhap we will meet again, brother."
"Maybe," I said. I kept my voice neutral. Neutral, too, was my gaze as I watched them both descend back into the guts of their iron juggernaut. I watched for a long time as their army passed through our town.
When they were gone I lifted the dead man into the saddle of his bike. I tied a purple ribbon around both and then I ran home. I was full of incredible news but my tale was one that would have to wait: when I arrived, mother was awake with stories of her own--about where she'd been and all she'd seen--to tell.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 15th, 2011


"A Ribbon for a Shaman" was inspired by my recent travels in Russia and the many journeys I made in my grandmother’s backyard when I was a boy. She was a shaman, in her way.  

- S.J. Hirons

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