Under the cracked blue plastic sign, carefully preserved against the elements, the Shaman met the children of the tribe.
The little ones chanted the remaining letters. It had once said more, before it crumbled. They shouted “al-Ma! al-Ma! al-Ma!” until the Shaman beckoned the gift-givers forward. They adorned the hood of an ancient chariot with ancient coins rubbed nearly flat, feathers, bones of birds and a wisdom tooth.
“The gifts are given! Please tell us a tale of the Ancients, oh Shaman,” said the oldest boy, near to becoming a warrior.
With a spreading of old arms as tough as braided cables, the Shaman bid them sit. The sacred fire had burned down to a mere glow.
“In the days when the A’Murikins came to this temple of abundance, the hand of time was already upon their throats, yet they knew it not. The goddess of this place, all-giving al-Ma, blessed them with every earthly thing, even those lost to us now. They had the boxes that bring spirits who speak and dance, the nectars of bubbling drinks, the sticks of fire that can fell the mightiest warrior. In a nearly forgotten language, al-Ma means ‘soul’ and so it was. She was the soul of their magnificent civilization.”
The audience was rapt. As permitted by custom, the oldest boy spoke: “Did they anger this goddess?”
Again, the silence was dramatic until the Shaman answered with a story the youngest were hearing for the first time.
“Their elders were mighty, but in the end, they sold their souls for the knowledge, that which had once belonged to Mar-ket and Capi-Tal and the other gods. Then came the time of the beguiling, when even the poorest of the Ancients had a hut and a chariot, sometimes two or more!”
“How, oh Shaman, could anyone live alone in a hut? They are for sharing between families!”
The Shaman picked up his talking drum and began to play, his features craggy in the dying firelight, his toothless grin that of a corpse. The smallest children recoiled, and they bit their tongues to keep from whimpering in fear.
“There was also a demon who moved among them. Debitt the trickster, who told the Ancients, often posing as one of their nobility, that they could have something for nothing. In those days Fed-Ral, protector of the weak, had been put to sleep by the evil spells of the dark goddess Rand. Thus Debitt could whisper in the ears of the traders the heresy of derivation, which meant that one could bet gold, usually someone else’s gold, against the likelihood of another losing his gold in a trade gone wrong.”
The children were all versed in basic math and cocked their heads, the fear ebbing. A few dared to laugh but a stern look from the Shaman shut them up.
“We chuckle now, since we have so little. We return gifts to al-Ma to appease her anger over the long-ago idiocy of the A’Murikins who came here with little more than a sliver of the plas-tick to exchange for things of value! But she was not appeased. In the time of the sliding the plas-tick had no value, the only the most corrupt of the traders and their minions grew fat and wealthy from the heresy of derivation that Debitt taught them. Then fell the long, cold night.”
“And what happened then? Was not the weather warmer, as the Ancients fouled the air with their poisons?”
The Shaman nodded to a girl barely into her teens. She had been appointed fire keeper, and she would be shaman after him. She placed a few sticks on the embers and blew them into a little blaze.
“As things crumbled, the rulers said do not worry, for a rising tide lifts all boats. They forgot that the boats of the poor were made of paper. When they got waterlogged and sank, the poor swam for the traders’ boats of wood and metal. The waters floated with their bodies, poor and ruler alike. In time, the air grew clean and the A’Murikins’ works fell into ruin, a reminder of their folly. But beware. …”
The Shaman gave a nod imperceptible to everyone save the fire keeper, who in turn made a hand gesture. A rustling then sounded in the undergrowth beyond al-Ma’s sanctuary, out where once the Ancients had left their gleaming chariots when they entered her temple.
The children began to quail in fear. This was new even to the oldest boy, who clutched his war club tightly.
“Beware, children.” The Shaman’s rheumy eyes gleamed suddenly like a young man in love for the first time. “Beware. Debitt is with us still!”
At this, a figure jumped into the ring of renewed firelight. It was clad in rags of black cloth that bore faint gray stripes. A long ribbon of red, the symbol of ancient power, was about its neck. Odd leather foot-coverings that gleamed, despite the cracking and crazing of decades, shod its feet. Its face was painted green like a totem in the village, the one marking the heresy of greed.
“Give me your worship! I will make you wealthy!” The figure capered now, approaching the children. They made to run but the Shaman nodded to the oldest boy.
“Drive it from us, if you wish to be a warrior! Drive the trickster Debitt from our temple!”
And the boy rose, club rising as he ran at Debitt. The other children rose, too.
“Bash it! Smash it! Tear it up!” And then a merry chase began, across the rubble-floored woodland. The Shaman turned to his apprentice.
“Every new year, make them do this when I am gone. So they never forget. Every year.” S
Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.