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The One-Armed Elek
a short story by Stepan Chapman

A small gray-haired man walked west across the crust of the snow fields, carrying a hoop drum and leaning on a staff.

Tath didn't think of himself as a gray-haired man. He thought of himself as a trance singer with two arms. Even before his hair had turned gray, having two arms had loomed largely in his thoughts. This was because he'd known for many years that he was destined to lose an arm. The time of this loss was drawing near.

Tath paused to stamp the snow from his boots. His destiny couldn't be avoided, and he had work to do down by the shore. He hiked onward.

Ever since the death of his teacher, Tath had served as trance singer for the village of Kantek Kau. When the hunters went out in their kayaks to hunt the seal, Tath's drum songs persuaded the winds to behave themselves. When the hunters went inland to the deer herds on their dog sleds, his songs protected them from avalanche.

And when the hunts failed, when famine came, he journeyed deep into the sea to plead for the mercy of Sedna, the ocean mother. Twice before, Kantek Kau had suffered famine. Twice before, Tath had combed the tangled hair of the goddess and listened to her reasons for withholding her bounty. But this year's famine was worse. In four generations, no one could remember a famine so terrible.

No seal would rise to the hunters' bait. No deer would fall to their lances. Not even a salmon could be hooked, nor a ptarmigan snared. Men chewed their parka sleeves from hunger. Nursing mothers lost their milk. Children wandered the village like stumbling ghosts. Elders died in the night by twos and threes.

So it was natural that Uthek Va, the hunt leader of the village, had instructed Tath to visit Sedna. Someone's bad thoughts must have tangled Sedna's hair. Whoever was to blame, he would have to mend his ways.

Tath sang to himself to raise his spirits. At last he came to the cliff face where the white waters crashed. He stripped off his gloves and boots and sealskin clothing. He stood naked in the bitter wind. He sang until his skin was glowing hot. For half a day and half a night, he beat on his hoop drum and sang his way out of his shaking body. When he was entirely made of wind, he sat down in his drum and rode it out to sea.

Tath rode many miles to the place of Sedna's fortress. He sang to the churning sea and begged it to open a tunnel for him. A tunnel opened and sucked his drum down its whirling sides. At the bottom of the sea, he stepped from his drum and walked through fire-blue water. He approached the dwelling that Sedna had built from whale ribs and fish scales.

Sedna's three dogs came bounding at him. Tath pulled off three of his fingers and tossed them to the dogs. Each dog snapped a finger out of the air. Then they recognized him and licked his ankles and dipped their heads to have their ears scratched. The largest of the dogs took Tath's neck between its teeth and carried him through Sedna's door flap into the house.

Sedna's home was warm and dry. A fire was burning in a small cave set into a stone wall. The goddess was seated on a bear skin, facing away from the door. She was wrapped in the pelt of a woolly mammoth. Her back was very straight, but her long green hair was a solid mass of knots. Tath had never seen her face.

She raised her right hand and offered Tath her comb, which was the petrified skeleton of a coelacanth. Tath approached her and took the comb. Cautiously he began to untangle her hair. Sand fleas leapt in all directions.

"Aren't you going to ask me about the famine?" Sedna wondered.

"Unless I am mistaken," he said, "I already know the nature of the problem."

"You are not mistaken," she told him.

"I must tell Uthek Va what sort of man he is."

"That is the way of it."

"And the uthek will rip my arm out."

"So he will, my elek. The left arm."

Tath sighed. The dog lay down beside its mistress. It chewed at its hindquarters and yawned. Sedna's hair was already much improved.

"That is a serious misfortune," he said.

"Perhaps," said the goddess.

The next day a village meeting was held outside the skin house of the men's lodge. Elek Tath presented himself to Uthek Va in the presence of all the people.

"Speak," the uthek commanded. "Tell us the cause of the famine. Whose misconduct is responsible?"

"You are the cause of the famine," Tath replied. "You are arrogant and envious. You refuse to teach the secrets of your hunting skills to your son. In a few year's time, Tifu's prowess will surpass your own, and your envy poisons your teaching."

"You dare to accuse me of negligence?" Va thundered. "Dog's balls! What do you know about hunting, you stay-at-home weakling?"

"It is not I who accuse you," Tath answered. "Sedna accuses you. And apart from your envy, she is displeased by your violent temper."

"What temper?" the hunt leader bellowed. "I am a man of icy self-control! My self-control is legendary!"

"This very day," said Elek Tath, "you will maim an innocent man to indulge your anger. Sedna has foreseen it."

"Gull shit! You never even saw her. You're trying to cover up for your own misconduct. Tell us where you disappear to every summer. Are you off at some hermitage, fasting and praying? Or are you up to something shameful?"

"I go to a village to the west of here. I have a wife there."

"Aha. Just as I suspected. Your sins caused the famine."

"Say what you like, Uthek Va. The truth remains the truth. You must change your ways, or you must pass your position to your son."

Uthek Va stood with his fists at his sides, his face flushed as red as raw meat. Growling like a wolf, he fell upon Tath, threw Tath to the snow, and planted his boot on the smaller man's chest. He took a two-handed grip on Tath's left wrist, and with a terrible roar, he ripped Tath's arm from its socket. He swung the arm around his head, then clubbed the elek with it, while steaming blood sprayed from Tath's shoulder like a geyser. Women hid their eyes, and men went pale as death.

"Crawl off and die!" Va raged. "For your fakery and your lies, I banish you!"

Slowly and awkwardly, the elek rose to his feet. Tath staggered through the crowd, gripping his torn shoulder, and ran behind the lodge house. Va dropped the arm and ran after him. But he had vanished into the air. And when the villagers looked for the severed arm, that was gone too. There was only spilled blood on the snow.

Va was soon troubled by nightmares. He cried out in the dead of night and awakened in a sweat. In his dreams he saw a bloody arm crawling toward him across his sleeping furs. His wife would light a lamp and comfort him. But she was beginning to see the arm herself. During the day, from the corner of her eye, she would catch it in her house, peeking out from behind bundles.

That winter, during the long night, an awful croak awakened her. She lit a lamp and found her husband strangled. A cold dead hand was clutching his throat. It was his own left hand.

Va's son, Kifu, became the new hunt leader. He followed the deer herds with a skill that excelled even his father's. But still the famine continued. The people feared Tath's angry ghost. With no one to take his place as their trance singer, they saw little hope for their survival.

Kifu sent word to other villages to ask whether any elek had an apprentice that could be spared. But after the murder, no strange elek was likely to be so generous.

In the spring, one morning when the sky was dark with storm clouds, Sedna sent the village a miracle of good luck. A party of hunters were checking their traps when Kifu happened across a young stranger. The man was lying on a hillside, half frozen. They dragged him on a travois to Kantek Kau.

When the stranger revived, he told them that his name was Dal. He'd been wandering for days, lost and alone. His home village lay to the north, so he said--a village that no one had heard of. All of his people had perished in a snow slide. Only Dal had escaped. What was more, he claimed that his mother had trained him as a trance singer.

When Dal recovered his strength, he proved his skill. He sang the sacred songs and summoned the wind spirits from the caves beyond the world. Kifu invited him to stay, and he became the new elek. The kayak hunters went to sea again, and this time, they brought back many seals. The famine ended in feasting. Dal and his rescuer, Kifu, became fast friends. The village rejoiced.

In summer, two ravens flew to the house of Elek Dal. They perched on Dal's arm, and he took them inside. Later that day he walked around the village with an old man and an old woman that no one had seen before. Dal introduced them as his uncle and aunt. The old man was lacking one arm and looked very much like Elek Tath. But for some reason, no one at Kantek Kau noticed the resemblance.

The reason for this was that his wife, Elek Naau, had cast a spell on them. Naau was the wife that Tath had gone to visit during the summers.

The people believed Dal's tale about the snow slide that buried his village. But actually he was the son of Tath and Naau. After Tath's misfortune, the old man had gone west to live with Naau. She had sent Dal to take his place.

For many years, Naau's village had a wealth of trance singers. Even without Dal, it had two eleks--Naau and her one-armed husband. And after their daughter grew up, there was a third elek, Nakana. Nakana, as you might expect, became a very accomplished elek.

This isn't a story that most of our people know. Just between you and me and all these hungry wolves, it's a secret story that was told to me by my teacher.

And just in case one of us gets off of this glacier alive, it's a story that I wanted you to know.

© Stepan Chapman 2001.

Dossier by Stepan Chapman
This story first appeared in Stepan's collection, Dossier.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

  • non-fiction - Keith Brooke reviews Chapman's Dossier and his Philip K Dick Award-winning The Troika.

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