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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
In retrospect, Katie should have seen it coming...or at least had an inkling about what was coming.
“Tell her I’m sorry,” she said to Father Cork, her ears working nervously back and forth, “but in my culture, females don’t appear bare-breasted in public.”
The priest duly translated for the Bala’a, the Ayon’s guardian of the female traditions, (whatever the Hell THAT meant,) and received an immediate, yammering reply. And judging by the unhappy expression on the good Father’s features while he listened to it, the old shrew-mouse was not being particularly accommodating.
Not hardly. Trying not to grimace, Father Cork turned to her again.
“She says you’re not in your culture, you’re in HER culture now. So you’d errr... best uncover your breasts, same as all the other females in the village.” he put a fist against his mouth and coughed, “She uhhhh...says it would be very unwise of you not to co-operate.”
Katie wanted to scream...or at least break the old buzzard’s neck in half. She had anticipated that the Ayon would be curious about the fact that she always kept her breasts covered...but it had never, for a second crossed her mind that she might be presented with a Goddam ‘when-in-Rome-or-ELSE’ ultimatum by the little yiffers.
And now she noticed that several of the warriors had gathered to watch the confrontation...all of them with scowls on their faces. Ohhhhh, WHY hadn’t she stayed back in Iso with all the nice bugs and the heat?
With tight, piqued nicker, Katie reached up and began to unbutton her shirt. The whole time, she gave the Bala’a both barrels of her differently colored eyes. For all the good it did her, she might as well have been trying to stare down a fencepost. The ancient shrew mouse just gave it right back to her, with an unwavering, flinty gaze.
“Easy Katie,” she told herself silently, as she undid the last button and tugged her shirt away. “Who’s going to see you, after all? A Catholic priest and a bunch of pygmies who’ve probably never seen a female NOT go topless before.”
She reached around and began to undo the clasp of her brassiere.
“It’s no big deal.” she added, inwardly, “They won’t even give you a second look.”
A second later, EVERY femme in Katie’s vicinity was pointing at her and jabbering.
“Mmmnh-mnh-mnh-mnh-mnh-mnh!” she nickered, tightly, ears vanishing as she rounded on Father Cork. “NOW what?!”
The grasshopper mouse’s face became that of a student about to be caned. (At least HE wasn’t goggling at her.)
“They, uh...want to know why you don’t have any fur on your breasts.”
“Tell them they would be very wise to mind their own yiffing business.” Katie snarled through a clenched jaw...and then hurriedly corrected herself, “No, tell them that all equine femmes have furless breasts. I don’t know why; it’s just the way we are.”
While the priest translated, Katie was offering a silent prayer to anybody that the Ayon would not be equally curious about whether a mare’s nether regions were similarly devoid of fur. (They were.) Fortunately for her, the little rodents asked no further questions. As a matter of fact, the instant Father Cork finished relaying her explanation, they seemed to lose all interest in her upper body as well. Just as she had hoped, it was no big deal.
But then the Bala’a decided that as long as Katie had gone this far, she should dress as an Ayon female all the way, and ordered her escorted to the femme’s long-house to get properly changed. It was times like this that Katie was grateful for her relatively small size. The roof was just barely high enough that she did not need to duck her head in order to move about. And the Bala’a at least, did not insist that she change in front of everyone. She simply had one of the others show her how to put on a grass skirt, and left her alone to finish the process. Katie fully expected the skirt to be about a hundred sizes too small, but it fit her perfectly. (She later learned it had belonged to a femme who had worn it during the final month of her pregnancy.)
Katie drew the line however at wearing nothing under the skirt and left her drawers where they were. Luckily, when she emerged from the long-house, the Bala’a didn’t seem to give a damn...and there, standing in front of her, was something that almost made the ordeal worthwhile: Father Cork, wearing nothing but a huge, puffy, headdress, a grass bag over his groin, and a section of horn capping his sheath. His face had been painted a vibrant red and yellow.
And it was also daubed with the most lugubrious expression the pinto mare had ever seen.
“If you say one word...” the grasshopper mouse hissed when she approached.
Katie said more than one word:
“Don’t look at me; it was YOUR idea to accept their invitation.”
Before the priest could reply, one of the Ayon femmes took Katie by the hoof and led her over to when another group of females were applying body paint to each other. Nothing fancy here, merely simple swirls and spirals, all of them rendered in plain white. (Colors were for males only, Father Cork explained.) This produced another unexpected difficulty -- Katie was a piebald; that rendered the white paint all but invisible against her snowy sections. This dilemma was solved in short, Solomonic fashion by the Bala’a, who simply declared that Katie’s white section be daubed in paint to match her chestnut areas. This time, she did not protest, and even managed to get into the spirit of the occasion. Taking one of the brushes, she started a spiral in brown on one of her white areas, and finished it in white when it crossed over onto a chestnut patch.
This resulted in the first genuine smile on the face of the Bala’a that Katie had seen since meeting her. The wizened shrew-mouse femme was so pleased in fact, she insisted upon fursonally doing a similar design on Katie’s back; a high honor, according to what Father Cork told her.
Katie would later detail the layout of the Ayon village in Gold From Hell:
“The enclosure was dominated by three main long-houses, one for the males, one for the females, ( Which was smaller and plainer than the males’ dwelling. ) and the largest one, which was communal in nature. This was where the members of the village met in council, performed their religious ceremonies, and ate the main meal of the day. It was also here also that disputes were settled in trial by combat, that sentence was pronounced against those who had broken the tribal laws, and that guests were accommodated. For Father Cork and myself, this consisted of a hammock for each of them in a different part of the house and a basket for the clothes and other items they had brought with them. What was truly astonishing from the good Father’s point of view was that while we might have been the first western furs to be welcomed as guests by the Ayon, we were far from the only outsiders ever to have set hoof in their village.”
‘“See that mask over there?” he said to me, pointing to a carved wooden face, hanging from one wall, with an ironic grin“That’s not Ayon artwork, it’s from the Gimi tribe, who live northwest of here.”’
I thought about that for a second and then suggested that it might be a war-trophy. Father Cork immediately shook his head.
‘“If that were the case, it’d be kept over in the warrior’s lodge...and anyway, that’s not a war-mask. No, I think it was taken as trade goods, and if it was, it puts to rest one of the longest held notions about the Ayon. Up until now, it’s been generally believed that they don’t have friendly relations with the other Papuan tribes.”’
“Just then, several warriors entered the long-house, accompanied by the chief. Father Cork immediately said something in the interrogative to the shrew-mouse and on hearing the reply, he turned to me, grinning in triumph.”
‘“He says yes, it is trade-goods...oh, and we’re invited to visit the sacred room, closest thing the Ayon have to a temple.”’
The Sacred room as things turned out, was nothing more than a section of the long-house cordoned off from the rest of it by what appeared to be two makeshift partitions. Inside were numerous figures and fetishes, including three other renditions of Tumbrenjak. ( Though none as fine as the one from Iso.) In a corner of the room, two old Ayon mels, presumably too aged to fight, were using obsidian chisels to carve out a log into a pedestal for the new arrival. As Katie and the father entered, they each looked up, smiling broadly.
And that was when she saw them -- a pair of wooden racks, stretching from one end of the room to the other.
Each was stacked with long rows of fleshless skulls. Immediately, Katie had a vision of her own skull piled amongst them, and felt a small shiver rippling up her spine. She must have had an equally apprehensive expression on her face, because Father Cork quickly explained.
“Those aren’t war trophies either, Your Grace. They’re the remains of the tribes own members who have passed away...the more distinguished ones, anyway. It’s how they honor them.”
Katie thought that was a pretty grotesque way to hallow the dead, but was wise enough to keep it to herself. It did make her wonder about something else, though.
“Are these all male skulls, or are any of them female?”
“All male,” was the chief’s answer via Father Cork, “Except for a few Bala’a skulls.” While the priest was translating, the chief’s expression became thoughtful, then he said something else to Father Cork.
“The chief says he just realized something,” the grasshopper mouse told her, “that you being the only female in Iso, you’re also the oldest female there and that makes you the Bala’a of Iso”
The pinto mare responded with a grave nod, as if this realization had only just occurred to her as well. Actually, it wasn’t quite true. Katie’s housemaid, Hsing, had a good two decades on her, but the Chinese pony had opted to remain out of sight when the Ayon had arrived in Iso, so as far as they knew, SHE was the camp’s female elder.
In the meantime, the chief had summoned HIS Bala’a and was speaking to her while waving a paw at Katie, presumably informing her of the pinto mare’s newly discovered status. The old femme responded by bobbing her head once and then disappearing from the communal house. A moment later, the sorcerer arrived, and said something to the chief, who turned and relayed it to Katie and her companion.
“He says we need to clear out of here.” said Father Cork, “They’re going to bring out the other images of Tumbrenjak for the ceremony, and he doesn’t want any extra bodies in the way.”
Katie, still a bit disconcerted over all the empty eye sockets staring at her, was only too happy to comply.
When they exited the big long-house, they found more of the Ayon busily piling brush in the village rotunda for a ceremonial bonfire. For once, she noted, both the males and the females were working communally, and she asked the chief if she could help out as well.
“Building fires to celebrate is a custom with our tribe too.” she explained. The chief immediately agreed, and then insisted that Father Cork participate as well, something that earned Katie a baleful look from the mouse as they helped to stack the wood together. This being done, the firewood was covered with makeshift awnings of bamboo and pandanus leaves. Meanwhile, the figures of Tumbrenjak were brought from the long-house and assembled in a semi-circle around the brush-pile, with the empty pedestal reserved for the new arrival placed at the center.
When this was done, the Ayon assembled in the rotunda for the ceremony, males in the front, femmes in the back. (except for Katie, who was permitted to sit beside the chief, along with Father Cork .)
Before the ritual began, the Bala’a appeared in front of Katie and beckoned her to rise. She did, and then the old shrew mouse fastened around her neck a rosary of bird-skulls similar to the one she herself was wearing. Katie immediately wanted to tear the thing off and throw it way; it was about as comfortable as a hair-shirt, especially where the beaks were poking her. (She had no idea then that it would one day morph into one of her most treasured items of jewelry.)
The ceremony commenced with an interpretive dance that told the story of how Tumbrenjak came to earth and was given his four earthly brides. Katie noted with some amusement that the part of these femmes was not played by any of the village females but by four of the males, dressed in drag. She was particularly humored when the dancers graphically pantomimed the part of the story where Tumbrenjak impregnated them...not by the spectacle itself, but by Father Cork’s desperate attempts to keep his face impassive as he watched.
While all this was going on, the old sorcerer’s face was undergoing a change as well. All his facial muscles seemed to slacken, as though he were having stroke, and his eyes were becoming glassy and otherworldly.
There was no acclamation as the dance ended, not even an acknowledgment. That wasn’t the Ayon way. Instead, the chief stood up and began to make a speech. At first, the other tribal members regarded him intently, but then several of the younger mels began looking boredly at each other and then at the ground. Before long they seemed to have completely lost interest, and few even had to be forced to pay attention by way of a sharp rap on the back from one of their elders.
“He’s reciting his ancestry.” Father Cork explained in an aside. “And telling of his ancestors’ war deeds.” Katie nodded, half knowing, half puzzled. She could understand that the genealogy recitation would bore the youngsters, but since when did kits find war-tales cloying?
That thought had obviously occurred to Father Cork as well.. “Our Ayon chieftain may a be a great warrior,” he observed under his breath, “but when it comes to public speaking, he’s no Benito Mussolini. You’re lucky you can’t understand him Your Grace; you could dry three loads of laundry with what he’s saying.”
Indeed, the attention given the chief throughout his entire address was polite at best, even from his fellow warriors. Only when he announced that Tumbrenjak had been found in the earth and brought home, did any of the eyes observing him show a spark of fire...and then quickly dulled over again when he added, almost as an afterthought, the part that Katie MacArran and the miners of Iso had played in finding him, minimizing their role nearly to the point of nonexistence. (Katie herself found this amusing rather than irritating.)
The next Ayon to speak was a much more gifted orator than the chief and mercifully, much more succinct in his remarks. He was also the first one to observe that for the first time, Anglo furs had come to the village, and he hoped that in the future, the Ayon and the miners of Iso would remain on cordial terms. “For know that we generous with friends, white-and-brown horse-femme- with-one-blue-eye... but with enemies, Ayon are no mercy.”
“Should I respond?” Katie asked Father Cork. The grasshopper mouse immediately shook his head. “No, only warriors and the sorcerer are permitted to speak here.”
Katie did not speak, but she did nod her understanding at the rodent who had just spoken. It was a fair warning, and she took no offense. While neither she, nor anyone else in Iso would ever betray the Ayon’s trust, she was perfectly aware that there were plenty of other Anglos in Papua who would do so in a heartbeat.
The shrew mouse who had been speaking sat down and another got up to take his place.
The speeches that followed were all pretty much generic...a recitation of ancestry followed by a brief oration, deliveries that were as varied as those who gave them. Some of the speeches brought the audience to rapt attention, others appeared to have the same effect as a low dose of chloroform.
When the last warrior to speak sat down again, the chief started to rise once more...only to be forestalled by a paw on his shoulder from the sorcerer, a highly unusual occurrence given the reaction of the tribe as a whole. With glassy, faraway eyes, the old shrew mouse addressed the chieftain, speaking in a slow, sonorous voice that reminded Katie of phonograph record played at too slow a speed. She tilted her head towards Father Cork. “What’s he saying?”
“Something about there being another warrior here,” the grasshopper mouse replied, “and that they must be permitted to speak before the ceremony can continue.” he shifted slightly, then added, “Mind, I can’t be certain, Your Grace. The old boy’s voice is so strange right now, it’s just about impossible to understand him.”
“Mmmm, yeah, I noticed that.” said the pinto mare, nodding, “Sounds to me like he’s in a trance or something.”
But no one needed to understand the wizened shrew-mouse’s next words to comprehend his meaning. With a short, sharp declaration, he his thrust out his arm and pointed directly at Katie.
“ME?” she said, clasping at the base of her neck, “B-But I’m no warrior. And I’m a female.”
Father Cork did not bother to translate this; it would have been lost in the uproar. Every single member of the Ayon tribe seemed to be in agreement with Katie’s assessment of herself. But then the sorcerer raised his arms and shouted for silence, his voice an impossibly deep bass that would have been more appropriate to an ursine than a rodent. If Katie had only suspected that he was in a trance a moment ago, now she was certain of it.
The effect was to transform the Ayon tribesfurs from a howling mob into a docile flock. Everyone quieted immediately; a few even bent over and pressed their faces into the earth.
Then the sorcerer rose, seemingly pulled upright by invisible marionette strings, and began to move towards Katie on legs that appeared to have minds of their own. All the while, his face remained as immobile as a wax mask. Stopping before her, he dropped suddenly onto his haunches, gazing into her eyes with the intensity of a scientist peering through a microscope. For a long moment, he just held there, then began to speak, talking in that same creeping, cadenced voice...this time so slowly that Father Cork was able to translate almost simultaneously.
“He says that here he sees a warrior...one who will fly to her enemies and strike them down, one who will show them no pity....and when she has defeated them, she will one day fly far away to strike down new and even greater enemies."
For as long as she lived, Katie would never forget the words that Father Cork next translated.
“He says that you will not merely defeat your enemies, you will destroy them...and that because this is so, you must also be permitted to speak...and anyone who disagrees will be most unwise.”
This was greeted by silence from the assembled throng and finally few grudging murmurs of assent.
“I suppose it would be equally unwise of me to decline to?” Katie asked. Father Cork nodded so vigorously, his headdress almost flew off.
“Just give ‘em a brief rundown of your family history on your father’s side, say a few things about how you wish for good relations between the Iso mine and the Ayon, that sort of thing.”
Katie did not give the Ayon a brief recap of the history of the MacArrans, she gave them the full course, from her father, the 12th Duke of Strathdern, wounded at the Battle of Jutland, all the way back to William MacArran, the 1st Duke of Strathdern, awarded the title in gratitude for his service at Battle of Langside in 1568. She finished up with s few remarks about how she hoped the Ayon and the Miners of Iso would continue to remain on good terms with one another, and promising never to break her side of the agreement between them.
When she took her seat again, Father Cork was shaking his head in disbelief.
“Oh don’t look so surprised, Father,” she told him with a wink, “I’m a British peer, remember? We get family histories drummed into our heads practically before we’re out of diapers.”
What followed next was highly anticlimactic. Both Katie and Father Cork had expected for the new figure of Tumbrenjak to be unveiled with a great deal of pomp and ceremony. Instead, four of the warriors simply brought him out, still swaddled in the packaging used to transport him from the Iso valley and unwrapped him in full view of the tribe. No one cheered. No one sang. Only when the statue was fully revealed was there any excitement to be seen, and even then it was only in the Ayon’s eyes. Other than that, the Tumbrenjak figure might as well have been load of bananas. As the covering way removed only the old shaman spoke, holding his paws over the statue and muttering a slow chant. Afterwards, the Ayon simply gathered up the new image, and it’s smaller brethren, and unceremoniously carried them into the big longhouse. Then everyone just stood up and began to move inside the houses and huts, apparently unconcerned.
Katie could not understand why there was no immediate celebration...until she heard the first, faint rumble of thunder and felt the first droplet of rain on her breast. By the time she and Father Cork were safely under cover, the rain was descending in solid glass sheets. Yes, of course...if anyone should be able to know when a storm was about to hit, it would be these shrew mice. They had only been dealing with New Guinea’s capricious weather for HOW many generations?
It was during the wait for the storm to subside that one of the Ayon explained that the real festivities would begin after moonrise. In the meantime, as soon as the rain stopped, the females would gather vegetables and the warriors would slaughter some of the village’s precious non-anthro pigs for the feast. Katie immediately asked if she and Father Cork should help but the warrior quickly shook his head. “No...you guests.” He then went on to talk excitedly...about the upcoming jubilee, Katie presumed. But instead of translating, Father Cork just stood there, his face set into a rigid mask of clay.
“Wha...What is it, Father?” Katie asked, blinking in confusion.
“He’s...describing how he and his lover are going to celebrate privately when the feast is over,” the grasshopper mouse responded through tightly pursed lips, “in full detail.”
That was just a little too much for the pinto mare to resist.
“Now, now Father. The ancient Spartans did roughly the same thing, remember?”
The next thing she said was, “Tch, tch...such language! WHAT would the Monsignor say?”
When the rains ceased (as abruptly as they had commenced) the chief took Katie and Father Cork on a tour of the parts of the village they had not yet seen. As it turned out, the little shrew mice had a far more sophisticated culture than either she or the good Father had imagined. There were storage huts on one side of the village, and others dedicated as workshops on the side opposite. These also were divided into different quarters; pottery, and basket weaving, (all done by femmes) and wood-carving and the fashioning of obsidian into tools and weapons. (the mels’ job) There was even an armory of sorts; an open-sided log structure stacked with bundles of arrows and spears. There were no war-clubs, however. Each warrior was required to carve his own club and never let it out of his sight. There were also no specialists in any of the crafts. Basket-weaving was simply done here, woodworking here. “This way, no trash left on floors in long-houses.” the chief explained.
It was during the tour of the gardens that Katie noticed a large stand of rather sickly-looking matoa-fruit trees. (one of the four staples thrown down to Tumbrenjak by his celestial wife, if she remembered correctly.) It struck her as very odd that these trees should be doing do poorly here when all the other crops were flourishing; she had never seen yams so plump, or plantain so big.
Once again, Father Cork supplied the explanation.
“That’s because the matoa is a lowland tree. We’re over 6000 feet above sea-level here. And for some reason, it doesn’t do well in volcanic soil.”
“No,” said Katie, excitedly, “but according to what Sir Hubert Wilkins once told me, it does VERY well in mine tailings. Why don’t you tell the chief that? And also tell him that the Ayon are welcome to come down to Iso and take some of our tailings any time they wish.”
The Father’s whiskers twitched uneasily.
“I-I-I-I wouldn’t do that, Your Grace. If you make him a gift like that, it’ll put him under an obligation to return the favor in kind.”
“Oh, but he will, Father, he will,” Katie answered, grinning, “ Tell him I want to make this offer because what other tribe would dare to interfere with the Iso mine if they know the Ayon have an interest there?”
Father Cork’s face lit up like a theater marquee. “Ohhh, yes...VERY good. I’ll tell him right away.”
When he did, the chief was clapping his paws and almost doubling over with laughter.
“Can I take that as a yes?” Katie asked, the picture of equine innocence.
From there they went to see the lake. As it turned out, the shoreline was one vast marsh that smelled faintly of rotten eggs. Fortunately, the Ayon had thought to contrive a series of wood-and bamboo causeways, leading out over the water. (Which doubled as the fishing platforms Katie has seen earlier.) When the chief took her and the Father out on the lake in a dugout canoe, it became immediately apparent why the shrew mice had gone to all that trouble-- the water was teeming with fish; about ten yards away Katie could see the occupants of another canoe hauling aboard a net brimming with what looked like some kind of bream. Also, according to the chieftain, a kind of wild rice grew on the far shoreline, and there were freshwater shrimp, too.
“But they not good eat right now,” the shrew-mouse had said, rubbing his abdomen, “make sickness.”
When they returned to the village, they found the males lazing around, while the females were off preparing the feast. Katie almost asked if she should help, then remembered as a guest that she wasn’t supposed to. Just the same, well okay this WAS the Ayon village, but it bothered her that the mels were just sitting on their duffs while the femmes were doing all the work. The sorcerer, who was standing nearby must have noted her expression, because he immediately pointed out that the femmes had been able to rest while the mels were bringing Tumbrenjak home, so now it was the warriors’ turn to take a break while the females worked.
When the sun was down, and the moon came up, the festivities finally commenced. It began with the lighting of the big bonfire which despite the earlier rains, caught at once and blazed rapidly. As the flames rose into the darkness, Katie remarked to the chief that in Britain it was customary to light bonfires at the base of Nelson’s column to celebrate a victory in battle.
“What god Nelson?” the chief asked, curious. Katie explained that Horatio Nelson was not a god, but a great warrior who won two of Britain’s foremost naval victories, The Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, where he had died courageously in battle. When Father Cork explained this, the chieftain look highly pleased.
“Right you should honor him with fire.” he said.
From somewhere on the other side of the flames, a lone drum began to beat. Then another took up the tempo, and another, and another. Then the chief and the front row of mels (the first order of warriors) all rose in unison, and stepped forward to dance. Their gyrations were more athletic than graceful...and through Father Cork, the sorcerer confirmed their dance was intended a show of strength and stamina more than anything else. It was only when half the mels had fallen out with fatigue that they took their seats again. Then it was the second tier of warriors’ turn...and this time, Father Cork was invited to join them.
(Katie, for her part was not. The Ayon might be willing to let her SPEAK as a warrior...but that, apparently, was where they drew the line.)
Watching the grasshopper mouse dancing, the piebald mare had to admire his spirit, if not his stamina. Father Cork lasted for all of five minutes before he collapsed, but he never stopped trying to hold his own before he did.
It was not until all the males had taken finished dancing that the femmes were given their turn...and this time Katie was invited to join in. At first, she had something of a difficult time of it. The sensation of her bared breasts bouncing, with everyone looking on, was more than a little unsettling.
But after a minute or two, much sooner than she would have expected, Katie was used to it and plunged wholeheartedly into the rhythm. Here, thanks to the relentless work regimen she had given herself, and her innate, Mustang toughness, she more than acquitted herself. When she sat down next to Father Cork once more, even the old Bala’a was nodding and smiling.
Then, with the dances finished, everyone retired to the communal long-house to enjoy the evening feast.
Katie was a bit uneasy as she took her seat; the Ayon were omnivores, but being part shrew, they owned a voracious appetite for meat. She wondered how she could explain to them that she was herbivorous with giving offense. As things turned out, it wasn’t necessary. Though not a vegetarian species themselves, the Ayon had frequent dealings with other tribes that were...and in fact they had already guessed that Katie was an herbivore from the shape of her teeth.
And so, none of the meat or fish found its way in front of the pinto mare. Instead she was served a meal consisting of the four staples that Tumbrenjak’s wife had thrown down to him when he’d found himself marooned on Earth – plantain, yams, cassava and mateo-fruit. (The latter of which tasted something like a cross between a banana and a sour-orange.)
Father Cork, on the other paw, wasn’t so lucky. Grasshopper mice are also meat eaters, and so the priest was served a generous portion of pork. Unfortunately for him, the Ayon considered the choicest part of the pig to be it’s brain...and being such generous hosts, they insisted the good father be feted with an extra large serving of this delicacy.
“At least they cooked it first,” Katie reflected, watching the good father consume his meal with the most forced expression of enjoyment she had ever seen. (Some of the warriors were eating their pork brains raw.)
That was when one of them dropped the biggest bombshell of all. Almost casually, between bites of his meal, he turned and made a remark to Father Cork. When Katie looked to the grasshopper mouse for a translation, she saw that his eyes had swollen to the size of golf-balls.
“Wha...What is it, Father.”
The rodent answered her in a breathless, trembling voice.
“He wants to know why you dig so deep in the ground for the yellow nuggets, when there’s a place less than a long-walk upstream from Iso where you can find them laying all over the streambed.”
Katie didn’t respond to this...she was too busy choking on her food. A long walk in Ayon parlance meant how far you could travel between sunrise and sunset. There was a huge bonanza just waiting to be picked up...THAT close to Iso?
“Because...we don’t...want to trespass.” she explained between coughs, “You...know we’ve never ventured past...the totems that mark the Ayon sacred areas.”
“This not in sacred area.” the shrew mouse replied by way of Father Cork
The priest nodded and then answered on his own, explaining to Katie afterwards, “I told him, yes...but you and your miners don’t know that. How could you? You didn’t even know there was such a place until this very minute.”
Katie slipped a hoof beneath the table and crossed her fingers. “Ask him if the Ayon can show us the place where the yellow nuggets are on the way back to Iso.”
Father Cork did...and the warrior duly relayed his request to the chief and the sorcerer, both of whom responded with highly puzzled looks.
“They say yes, but they can’t understand what you want with the yellow nuggets anyway.” the priest told her, “You can’t make weapons or tools with them; they’re useless for anything but decorations.”
Katie responded by deliberately misquoting Hernando Cortez, “Tell them there’s an illness amongst my species that can only be cured by those nuggets.”
Father Cork frowned at this but did as she requested.
After that, Katie was certain she wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink that night. Instead, the instant she crawled into her hammock, she was dead to the world, even with the beaks of her new, bird-skull necklace still poking her. (The Bala’a had insisted she keep it on.)
The next morning, when Katie awoke, the old rodent-femme was standing there with her clothing basket in her paws and repeatedly thrusting it in her direction. This time Katie didn’t have to speak Ayon to know what the old crone wanted and she was only too happy to comply...though when she snapped the clasp of her brassiere back into place, she was surprised to discover an odd sensation of confinement.
Exiting the longhouse, Katie found Father Cork there, face-paint gone, and also dressed in the clothes in which he had arrived. Though the Ayon were still as friendly and courteous as they’d ever been, it was clear that they wanted the two westerners away from their village as soon as possible.
Not, however without a few farewell gifts, a clay water jar, a ceremonial war-mask, and a freshly carved replica of the Tumbrenjak figure that had brought them to the village.
They were also given a solemn admonition by the sorcerer.
“You always welcome this village...but never come not asking or without Ayon to guide you. You come village alone or come not ask, you not go back Iso again.”
Katie replied that the Ayon were welcome in Iso as well... but must not take anything except the mine tailings without offering goods in trade.
“And would we need to ask permission to go to the place where the yellow nuggets are?” she asked, trying not to sound hopeful. “And can we take them for ourselves?”
The reaction from the chief and the sorcerer was a disgusted look from one, and a dismissive wave of the paw from the other.
Finding the spot was almost ridiculously easy...if you knew where to look. When they reached the creek where the figure of Tumbrenjak had almost fallen into the water, instead of crossing it, they simply turned and followed it downstream. The going here was much more steep than the trail by which they had arrived; the ground was broken by deep furrows and outcrops of sharp rock. Several times they were obliged to help each other down short drops-off and the pace slowed considerably.
But then, after what seemed an eternity of this madness, the stream began to broaden and level out. Soon it had widened into a small river and they were passing through a deep canyon with tall cliffs on either side -- but also with a nearly flat gravel bottom.
It was here that one of the warriors took Katie by the arm and pointed towards a long riffle. Breathing lightly, she padded tentatively towards the little river, and got down on one knee, peering into the water. There was nothing to see; it could have been any gravel bed, in any river, anywhere.
She reached in and scooped out a hoof of the rubble.
And almost dropped it. Mixed in with the debris were a pair of shiny yellow nuggets the size of cocktail peanuts.
Katie was trembling as she put them in her pocket.
And not long afterwards, she received another surprise. Not two miles after leaving the place when the nuggets were, the canyon opened into a broad valley, and there, in the distance, was the unmistakable spire of Clarinet Rock.
“Wonder why we didn’t come this way in the first place.” she heard Father Cork muttering.
Katie nickered in amusement.
“You kidding me Father?” she said, just barely keeping her elation in check “It was hard enough getting DOWN that canyon for the first few miles, so just imagine trying to climb UP that way.”
“Ah yes,” said the priest, nodding sagely, “and carrying that figure of Tumbrenjak too. I forgot.” He pulled at his nose, and looked at the jungle for a second, “Uh, Your Grace...uh, one thing. I’d...errrr, appreciate it if...when we get to Iso, you’d not say anythin’ to anyone about my having to wear nothin’ but that, errrr horn over the end of my...and that, uh grass bag over my...”
Katie’s answer was swift and immediate.
“Only if you promise not to say anything about me having to bare my breasts...deal?”
“Deal!” said the priest, so loudly that several of the Ayon turned to stare at him for a second.
When they arrived back at the mining camp, the sun was just touching the rim of the Iso valley. Katie offered to put their escort up for the night, but the warriors graciously declined, explaining that if they left now, they could make it back to their village before sunrise. How the Hell anyone could traverse the Papuan jungle in the dark was a mystery to Katie, but she didn’t argue the point.
Besides, she had business to attend to.
As soon as Father Cork had retired for the evening, she summoned Drigo, Striper, Shang, and Drake Hackett to a meeting at her house, leaving strict instructions that any miner caught within ten yards of the place while they were talking would be fired and expelled on the spot.
As anyone could have predicted, her four underlings were perplexed by such an abrupt summons, but said nothing about it. They were also eager to hear about the Ayon village, especially Drake Hackett. What was it like? What were THEY like? Did they really take the heads of their enemies? All this interest in the Ayon culture vanished immediately when the pinto mare dropped the two gold nuggets on the table in front of the quartet.
“Cor!” said Striper McKenna, picking up one of them between his thumb an forefinger and examining it closely, “That’s bigger n’ the ones we found when we first came to Iso...an’ right on the bloody surface.”
“Si,” said Drigo, and then looked at Katie, “You sure they Ayon won’t mind us goin’ there?”
“That’s what the chief and sorcerer told me.” she responded.
“Huh...didn’t you learn any of their names while you were there?” asked Drake, “But never mind. The question is, how’re we gonna get the gear up that place to do the diggin’s? Native porters?”
“Forget it.” said Shang Li-Sung, disgustedly. “When they find out what’s up there, they’ll start stealing us blind. And besides, by law they’re not allowed to carry more than fifty pounds a trip.”
“Yiffin’ League of Nations rules!” said Drigo, to no one in particular.
“What about pack animals, then?” queried the Striper, and for the first time, Katie noted how haggard and worn the Tasmanian tiger looked. She would later learn that he had spent her entire absence pacing and fretting about her safety -- and had wanted to dispatch a search party after her. He would have too, had Shang not firmly put his foot down and forbade it.
“Well, that might work as a last resort,” Katie told him, “But I had another idea. What about building a spur line of the Toonerville Trolley up into that canyon? It can’t be more than six, seven miles at the most. Eventually, when the surface is worked over, we’re going to need to bring the diggings from up there down to the dredges, so why not get set up for it right now?”
“You think that’s possible?” asked Drigo Chavez.
“Yes,” said the pinto mare, “from what I saw, I think it can be done. .Shang? You think you can find that place from my description so far?”
“Er, yes-s-sss.” said the red panda, tentatively, “If you can point it out on a map. But why, Your Grace?”
“Because I’d like you to take Tu Wa-Fong up that way and see what he thinks about building a rail-spur into that canyon.” she said, and Shang nodded immediately in agreement. Something occurred to her then, and she looked over at Drake Hackett “As a matter of fact...Drake? Can you go find Tu right now and bring him to the house? We really should have him here, now that I think of it.”
While the heeler went to fetch the Fishing Cat and bamboo engineer, Katie got out her map of the Iso highlands and spread it out on the table. She spent a few moments tracing her finger over the surface, as if it were a Ouija board, then stopped and looked at the others.
“Here’s the place.” she said, tapping twice where she was pointing, “This is it...I’m sure it is.”
Drigo Chavez leaned over and looked at where she was indicating. “Don’t see no river there, Senorita Duchessa.” he noted, speaking with neither skepticism, nor with irritation. The possibility that there could be a new and uncharted watercourse in the Papuan uplands was far from a remote one.
“Hmmm.” said Shang, also bending over the map, “We’d better leave at first light, then.” He winced as if bitten by a mosquito. “But you’d better be aware of something, Your Grace. Tu is probably going to insist on bringing Fo Li-Han along...and you know what that means.”
Katie did. The Feng-Shui specialist had a mouth like an outboard motor.
“No problem.” said Drigo Chavez, with a lazy laconic grin. “Just tell Tu that the Ayon are gonna be meeting you and your guys up that canyon. When Fo hears, that you won’t be able to MAKE that yiffin' deer tag along.”
This suggestion was met with a hearty laugh and a quick endorsement all around the table. But then the coati grew serious.
“But before we do anything Senorita Duchessa,” he said, regarding her with a wary eye, “Ain’t you gonna have to file a claim on that canyon?”
“Way ahead of you, Drigo,” said the piebald mare, nodding. “I plan to take care of that in Lae, after I drop Father Cork back at his parish tomorrow.”
Just then, Drake Hackett reappeared, with Tu Wa-Fong in tow. The Fishing Cat spent the next twenty minutes poring over the map while sucking his breath between his teeth, then he looked up and asked Katie for a description of the terrain.
“If you look South, up the Iso River Valley above the camp,” she told him in her best, still-shaky Mandarin. “It stays more or less the same, all the way up into the canyon.”
“Then it is at least possible.” the feline answered, nodding at the map, “But of course, I shall need to see it for myself.”
When the meeting broke up, Striper McKenna lingered for a moment...and as soon as the others were gone, he took his battered hat in his paws and spoke to Katie with his eyes glued firmly to the floor.
“Uhhhh...Y’ Grace?” the Tasmanian Tiger said in a near mumble, “I just wanted to tell y’ that...well, about us stackin’ our guns an’ lettin’ the Ayon in here. Wellllll, you was right, an’ I was wrong...an’ I just want to...”
Katie cut him off with a friendly nicker and a hoof laid on his shoulder.
“Striper...forget it. You spoke up when you thought it was necessary...and I want you to keep right on doing that. Nobody’s right every time, least of all me...okay?”
“Okay.” said The Striper, looking considerably relieved.
Though Katie could not have realized it at the time, Striper McKenna would soon voice his opinion on another matter...and this time she would follow his advice.
And when she did, it would mark the beginning of new era for both the International Dirigible Company, and Iso Mining and Extraction.