The ferret’s claws clicked echoes into the silence. I wanted to scream out. Instead I listened to the rasp of grandfather scratching his chin. Everyone’s gaze followed the ferret as it scurried around the compass, but I turned away. Without looking I knew the ferret would be running in dizzying circles. The dull thunk of ferret teeth sinking into wood rang out into the divining room. Grandfather’s robes rustled as he stood.
It was only compulsion—not faith, not hope—that pulled me toward the compass. I stood behind grandfather as he leaned over the ferret’s inert body. He unfurled a long bony finger and stroked the ferret’s head. The ferret loosened its grip and a servant removed the wood block from the ferret’s jaws. My breath caught in anticipation. I hated my body for that. I knew every movement of this divination was empty—useless—yet here were my cheeks, flushed, as the servant hung the block in the space for the speed directive.
“D,” the crowd yelled in a burst of noise. The servant turned back to the compass. They all watched the ferret begin circling the compass again, but I kept my eyes on the block. After years of use, the letters were almost obscured by teeth marks. I squinted, wanting to be certain the block did indeed have a “D” carved on its face. My scrutiny was aborted by the sound of the ferret sinking its teeth into another block. The servant lifted that one, and placed it in the space for the direction coordinates. By the time the crowd yelled out “U”, the ferret had already selected the last block: “B”—the distance directive.
“D—U—B,” my grandfather mumbled to himself as the ferret backed away from the compass.
He turned to all gathered and proclaimed “Dub!” in a loud voice. The crowd, fools that they were, started clapping. They still believed grandfather and his ferret avtandi would bring us home.
Grandfather redirected our aimless little bubble according to the new speed:direction:distance directives, then drifted away from the compass. He called his avtandi with low clicking noises, and I prepared to leave his side. Grandfather held a shaky hand in front of his solar plexus. It took a full minute for the sphere of flesh and organs to detach from his torso. Slowly, the five-inch globe of flesh gravitated toward his hand, leaving a circular hole straight through his body.
The sphere floated silently down to the floor, and the ferret approached. The sphere undulated, and the ferret stepped into it. Rather than watch the remainder of the ritual, I fell to the floor, scattering my body into a thousand round molecules and rolling into a distant corner of the divining room. Even so dissolved, I heard the hiss of grandfather’s sphere engulfing the ferret. I heard the whisper of grandfather’s hand as he waved his sphere of flesh up from the floor and guided it back into his center.
A gnawing ugliness had begun to eat at my insides. I was certain the servants’ whispers were true: we were at the bitter end of our five-year supplies. Every day, as grandfather paced the marble halls of our bubble, I struggled against terrible anger. The reality rested cold and hard inside me: Grandfather would soon decide who would feed and who would starve.
“Granddaughter!” grandfather yelled.
I gathered myself up, molecules sliding across the floor to rejoin and reform my tall lanky body. Grandfather stood in the middle of the divining room with his avtandi in his hand.
“I mean to consult the compass again,” grandfather said.
The ferret looked at me with beady glimmering eyes.
“But Grandfather, you just checked it this morning.”
Grandfather paused and parted his beard obsessively. Then he repeated himself in a shaky voice.
“Yes, but I mean to consult the compass again.”
I lowered my head, but I could see Grandfather’s forearm struggling to hold the ferret steady. When the ferret’s claws started rattling, I watched its every move. After it sank its teeth into the blocks and the servant had hung them, grandfather neared the compass. I followed a few steps behind. The crowd yelled “D!—U!—B!” with the enthusiasm of children, but grandfather made no grand announcement this time.
“They’re exactly the same, grandfather,” I said.
Grandfather said nothing. His fingers returned to his chin to fondle his beard.
While watching his worried motions, something took over me. Even as I did it I did not know my reasons for my actions. When the ferret scampered away from the compass to return to its haven of grandfather flesh, I placed my hand in front of my belly and coaxed a sphere of my own flesh toward my palm. My sphere drifted to the ground, and the ferret halted, confused. Its beady eyes swung from my sphere to grandfather’s and back again.
The ferret crawled cautiously toward my grandfather’s flesh, then turned away to sniff at mine. Grandfather watched his avtandi’s confusion impassively. Not one of his bony fingers left his beard to alter the outcome. The ferret’s cautiousness deteriorated into panic as it scuttled back and forth between our spheres so rapidly, it became a blur. I took a deep breath and glanced at grandfather. His face was marked by a dull resignation I could not stomach. I lifted my hand to retract the challenge, but before I could withdraw my flesh, the ferret veered sharply, and plunged into my sphere.
My flesh encircled grandfather’s avtandi; a deep, ragged breath seeped from my grandfather’s lungs. Was that a slight smile creasing grandfather’s lips? Fear, paranoia, and regret exploded in my chest. Why was it so hard to breathe? Grandfather’s voice cut through my hysteria. “It is done,” he muttered.
Those grave words pushed me into action. I waved my hand over my sphere as if my muscles had performed the task a thousand times. My flesh drifted up from the floor, but grandfather didn’t bother with his. He left his globe of organs discarded at his feet, preferring to watch me—eyes dark with anticipation—as my sphere refitted into my torso.
The moment the flesh rejoined my body an electric shock ripped through me. I yelled and fell to my knees. My palms and forehead were wet with sweat. The room receded from my eyesight as visions flashed before my eyes. I saw me begging my parents to let me go on a brief day trip in grandfather’s bubble. My parents arguing about grandfather’s incompetence. Grandfather intentionally setting the bubble on the wrong course. Grandfather taking this ferret, this same avtandi from his grandfather. Grandfather watching his grandfather die.
Terror welled in my throat, but my mind—making sense of the visions at a feverish pace—quelled my emotions. When I regained focus, I was staring at the marble floor. A palpable hush filled the divining room; everyone stared mutely. I heard a muffled groan behind me. When I twisted around on all fours, I saw grandfather, shriveled into a tiny ball, dying just as his grandfather had. I looked into his eyes searching for a flicker of recognition, hatred, pain, but there was nothing there.
“You…” The condemnation burning in my lungs would not spring from my mouth. Could I blame grandfather for attempting to escape extinction?
“I…” I started to claim ignorance for my actions, but the apology died on my lips.
“How…” I wanted to ask what alternative I’d had, but my need to be proclaimed innocent wilted just as quickly as it sprouted. We passengers were the innocents here. He would starve us, before taking us home. Those visions did not lie.
I shook off the last remnants of concern I held for grandfather and struggled to stand. The unfamiliar weight in my belly pulled me back toward the floor. I strained against the increased gravity and fought my way to my feet.
“Dub,” I whispered while forcing myself to forget grandfather’s dying body. There was no time for mourning.
I shuffled forward, testing the new balance my avtandi-heavy body required. I neared the compass searching my subconscious for a vision of grandfather navigating the bubble. I almost lost my breath when I mimicked grandfather’s navigating stance. I bent over, momentarily disoriented. Then I straightened, took a big gulp of air, and set a course for home.
Published on InfiniteMatrix.com © 2003