Matajam Meets Himself
An Agemonia story by Mike Pohjola
The crew of laborers dutifully sawed down tree after tree with their big eight-handed merentas saws. One sawyer would hold one end of the merentas with her four hands and pull. When the saw reached its peak, the other would pull with his four hands. Occasionally a third worker would come in and strike wedges in the kerf in tree to prevent it from closing.
Once the tree was felled, other workers would cut off the branches and saw it into lumber. And then a third group would move the logs into neat piles, which would be transported from the Clacker Jungle to Copperton, the Amethyst Order capital, to build new ships and houses.
The workers called Matajam the boss, although his official title was Forestry Foreman. His nighteye boss sometimes called him The Four-arm Forestry Foreman, a racist term, which he had to chuckle at.
Truth was he was nothing like most Pattangans. And certainly not like those totemfucking pedophags who were behind the fence clacking in protest. He was civilized, he lived in a house with his family, he had not eaten even one of his children, and he had a proper job.
Matajam gave some instructions to the workers, and went to see the protesters. Most of them were from the Berizai Clan, which lived in Fever Forest, which they were approaching. Matajam’s own Bitajin Clan had lived in the former Wet Pine Wood, which was now civilized and was replaced with schools, shops, homes, roads, farms, gardens and ample pasture. And they were fine!
A few Bitajin clan soldiers were protecting the fence holding a bow, a shield and a spear. The Berizai protestors did not dare come too close, but chose to make a racket with their clackers instead.
Clackers were traditional Pattangan castanets made from the husks of blacao seeds or the shells of various kinds of nut. Small ones were tied to each finger, big ones were held in one hand each. Like this each Berizai protestor was equipped with between two and twenty clackers, which they played with a complex rhythm and a deafening volume. Matajam had bought some clackers for his children to play with, but saw himself as above those primitive instruments.
The protestors were dressed in loin cloths made of leaves and leather tunics. The green and brown scales of their bodies were visible and their dorsal fins were painted with primitive colors. Some sported flower wreathes or feather jewelry. In short: the very image of some the past as if from some offensive Copperton freak show.
There certainly were people of a similar style among the Bitajin Clan, as well, but Mattajam himself always tried to lead by example. He was dressed in the Amethyst Order’s long grey robes with purple trimmings and inlaid amethysts. His dorsal fins were clean and tied back – which was no easy feat for a Pattangan.
Nor did he carry along a necklace of a bitajin, the saucer eyed predatory monkey-lizard that was the totem of their clan. He told everyone he carried a bitajin in his heart, and that was enough. Although if truth be told, he did not really think about the totem animal at all.
He wore simple leather shoes and certainly did not carry clackers or bows or spears. Not anymore. Not even if he had been an expert archer. No, he had a paper book and pen for notes, in his third hand a knife of nighteye manufacture for marking trees to be felled, and in the fourth hand a walking stick made of Berizai ivory.
In short, he was the epitome of a contemporary urban pattangan.
“Matajam!” yelled Jowthen, the Berizai shaman. The clacking stopped abruptly. A wrinkly old woman dressed in nothing but a loincloth and feathers, strange bony protrusions piercing her skin at odd places. “Matajam! Stop this madness! The jungle is your home just as it is ours!”
“How dare you?” Matajam yelled over the fence. “I live in a house. You live in a tree.”
“The jungle was already in pain. Demons and voidblooms and strange fungi plague the Fever Forest. You know this. Do not destroy what little is left.”
“The Amethyst Order has nothing to do with that. Probably you people called them there with some totem magic.”
“No, they are coming from the White House of the Ancients.”
“Be that as it may, isn’t it good that someone makes use of the jungle before the fungi and the Aox demons infest all of it?”
“No! We should work together to stop the demons!”
“It’s hard to work together when your clan just clacks and complains. Why don’t you get a job? All of you? There’s so much work to be done.”
“We will never destroy the jungle no matter what your foreign overlords pay us. Look at you, you even dress like them now!”
There was no use arguing with fanatics. Matajam turned his back and the clacking continued louder than before.
After the working day Matajam drove home in his carriage drawn by a strong Kambu’Kek lizard. He ate with his family, helped the older children with their homework, had a glass of honey wine with his wife in the evening, and went to sleep.
In his dream he saw himself as a young man, walking barefoot in the Wet Pine Wood with his old bow and scimitar and dagger, loincloth flapping in the wind. He could smell the thousand scents of the rainforest, from rotting fruit to blooming flowers, from musky animal hormones to insect nests dripping with sweet honey. He was hunting for something, perhaps Berizai, but had lost the trail. He could neither smell nor see any sign of his prey. He stayed put and tried to listen.
He heard an animal breathing behind him. Not a Berizai, something smaller. He turned and saw a strange, fat lizard sitting on the trail. It was a nalam, a rare beast which he had thought extinct years ago.
The nalam stared at him and seemed to smile. It opened its mouth and flicked its tongue as if to catch a fly.
Then it spoke. “Eat a voidbloom to meet yourself.”
Matajam stared at the lizard. “What?”
“Eat a voidbloom to meet yourself.”
“Where am I going to find a voidbloom? They only grow in the infested area in the Fever Forest.”
But then he saw that was not true. They were everywhere. The glowing voidbloom and the strange purple fungi covered the floor of Wet Pine Wood.
“But aren’t they poisonous?”
The nalam smiled enigmatically.
Matajam crouched to pick a voidbloom with his lower left hand when he realized the flower was much bigger than he had thought. Or maybe he was smaller. No, the flower was growing, growing, taller than he was now. The blue petals with its glowing white stamen reaching out at him, like tongues. As if the flower was hungry for pattangan flesh.
All the voidblooms were bigger than him, bending towards him, hungry. Their stamen curled around his hands and legs, their sticky petals covered him, he could no longer see anything, and only feel the acidic burn of being digested by the plant.
He cried in pain.
And with that he woke up.
It was the same thing every night. No wonder he had little patience with the primitive pedophags.
At work he lost his temper with the workers once or twice. They had learned to avoid the boss when he was at a mood like this.
He crossed the fence into Fever Forest to mark the trees with his little nighteye knife, which the merchant had called a goelell. Two guards were walking in front of him cutting down vines and undergrowth with machetes. The flowery scent of the jungle reminded him of his nightmare. He chose the straight trees and carved an X in them. He regretted wearing his shoes which were getting wet and dirty.
And then he heard the clacking. The guards should have spotted the Berizai clansmen, but this time there was only one of them.
Jowthen the shaman stared at him. She was alone, clackers in three hands, voidbloom in the fourth. Why was she carrying that?
“What?” he said exasperatedly.
“You should listen to the nalam.”
“What nalam?” How would she know about his dreams?
“You have met her. Now listen to her.”
“What is that, your medical opinion?”
“It is no opinion. It is the truth.”
And with that she turned and left. The guards approached, one of them making a claw sign for whacking and another for question. Matajam signed no. He was irritated enough with himself already without resorting to murdering primitives.
“Get back to work”, he told the guards.
The rest of the day he kept thinking of the nalam and the nightmare and Jowthen. How could she know of her dreams? Had she sent them through some sort of totem ritual? Or had she seen his dreams? Or was the nalam some sort of magical totem guardian and it was obvious from his face that he had seen it? No, that was all superstition. She was playing mind games with him. Next time he would get the guards to give her a good beating.
He drew another X on a tree.
That evening Matajam set the tables together with his wife Rajen. His four hands working seamlessly together with hers, thanks to many years of repetition. They set the chopsticks, cups and napking for twenty-nine in three layers: The floor for the small ones, the low table for the second batch, and the high table for the parents and the first batch kids who had not yet left home. There were three cages of flying insects, one for each layer.
The tables were set but the children were nowhere to be seen. They were climbing in the tree again.
“Kids! Dinner!” Matajam yelled. And, receiving no reply, repeated himself again and again. Eventually some of the first batch kids arrived.
“Where are the others?” he demanded. The kids shrugged.
“Let’s just start”, Rajen said.
“No. I want everyone at the table”, he declared. He walked to the big tree in the middle of their tent house, and looked up, cursing under his breath. “I’ll just let these bugs fly off, shall I?” he threatened.
“We’re coming down soon”, one of the kids replied.
“No, not soon. Now.”
Disgruntled voices accompanied the kids descending from the tree. Twenty-four, twenty-five, he counted. Twenty-eight.
“Where is Pasangam?” he asked.
One of the second batch kids pointed to a puddle of mud in the back of the yard. The one they used for fertilizing the garden.
“Totemfucking Breach!” he cursed. “What on Agemonia do you think you’re doing?”
“Matajam, go easy on him”, Rajen said from the dining area.
“No, I will not! He knows it’s totemfucking dinner time! Why are you rolling in mud? What have we taught you? Are we primitive jungle scum who climb trees and roll in mud and eat their children? Or are we civilized modern pattangans who live in houses and sleep in beds?”
The mud-covered Pasangam muttered something.
“What was that?”
“Then why are you rolling in mud like those pedophags?”
“I don’t know”, the child said with a trembling voice.
“Honey, just let it go,” Rajen tried again. “Kids are kids.”
Matajam did not let it go. He kept yelling until everyone was crying, and he just kept getting angrier. Eventually Matajam left the house to walk off his steam.
Why was he so aggressive towards the kids? Was it really because of them being late for dinner? He had rolled in mud every day as a child, when he wasn’t climbing trees. He had to, to prevent his parents from eating him. But that was then, when they really did live in Wet Pine Wood. But those days were gone. Wet Pine Wood was gone.
It was the lack of sleep, he decided. If only he could get one proper nights’s sleep, he would be alright. But here he was, walking the streets of the quiet neighborhood when the moons were already up.
When he finally returned home, all the kids were sleeping. Rajen was still awake, sipping honey wine. It was clear she was waiting for him to return to have a talk. A Talk.
“What is going on with you?” she asked him when he finally joined her on the floor.
“I’m just so tired all the time.”
“Everyone’s tired with twenty-seven kids. But not everyone has bursts like that. Look, I realize you’re going through something, and I’ll support you. But I won’t wait forever for you to get better. You have to change. Whatever you have to do, do it. And become a good husband and father again.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“You have to figure it out for yourself”, she said. They were both silent for a moment, and then she continued, “You know, I think you were much happier when you were a hunter gatherer.”
“Much younger, you mean? No kids, no house, no nine-to-five, no responsibilities.”
“No, I mean happier. You were so good with that longbow.”
“We decided not to eat any of the kids. And we simply can’t support this many children by hunting vermin and gathering fruit. Not even if we both did it.”
She let the quip pass, and replied, “You could take the older kids with you. Teach them how to shoot a bow.”
“That’s not why I’m stressed!”
Could he tell her about the strange nightmares? No, she would just laugh.
“I don’t know. Can we just go to bed?”
Rajen made a claw sign indicating agreement, and finished her honey wine.
In his dream the nalam came again.
“Eat a voidbloom to meet yourself.”
When the gigantic flowers devoured him, he woke up. As always.
But this time he got up, put on his shoes and his embroidered grey robe, and went outside in the middle of the night. The light of the two moons made the whole world seem strange and dreamlike.
He left the neighborhood and harnessed his Kambu’Kek with a carriage. He drove it to the edge of the clearing where there was a cage in the fence. He got off the carriage and walked through the fence into Fever Forest, and found the path his guards had cleared during the day.
Matajam realized the nightmares would not stop until he did what the nalam bid him. But where was he going to find a voidbloom? They rarely appeared in these parts, but they were more and more common near the center of the Fever Forest. No sensible person went there because of the Aox demons, but perhaps they too would be asleep, he told himself.
He got to the end of the path. It was dark since the tall trees hid the sky from him. He lit his Agura lantern which shone with an eerie blueish luminescence of some lake plants. But it sufficed to show him where to step.
The shoes were a stupid idea. He should have known better. Matajam took them off, tied them togeher by the straps, and hung them around his neck. Much better! He could feel the ground and the wet grass and the roots against his soft feet.
He moved on through the vines and the bushes and the plants which he knew by heart. He had always loved plants and had majored in herbalism in school. He used his skills as a forestry foreman, but they were useful now, too.
The jungle was full of sounds of nocturnal birds, beasts, and insects. Most flowers had closed for the night, others opening only in the dark. While walking he picked some edible flowers and fruits for a midnight snack.
Upon an hour or two he a fallen tree with purple fungi growing all over it, like a cancerous growth that was taking over. He was getting closer. As he advanced, he saw fungi more and more. The jungle grew quieter, as if all the animals were avoiding this place. Because of the Aox demons, no doubt. He had to be quick.
But then he saw it, glowing with the same blue light as his lantern: a voidbloom! Its petals blue, its snake-like white stamen reaching towards the sky, pink pollen flying everywhere.
The feeling was not at all like in his dream. The ubiquituous fungi felt oppressive and the voidbloom almost insignificant by its side. He certainly was not in danger of being eaten by it. Clearly it was not even carnivorous like some plants.
Without further ado, he cut the stem with his expensive goelell knife, and picked the voidbloom in one of his hands. He was about to leave when he heard a distant strange sound, like the clack of a castanet but somehow moist and final. He turned around to see a chalemak, a big jungle bird, run for its life towards him away from some hidden danger. Then a long whip-like tentacle coiled around it and pulled it back. In the shrubbery he saw a nightmare creature: A bipedal as tall as him, but with the face of a hairless fruitbat and the claws of a lobster. The tentacle was its long tail, which brought the chalemak in front of its eyes. The demon open its huge claw and cut the bird in half. The headless chalemak ran chaotically in the fungi, blood spattering everywhere.
The demon threw out the bird head, and looked at Matajam. He had no way to defend himself from something like that, so he fled. He could feel the creature’s tail whip the air behind him, not quite grabbing a hold of him.
Having no other option, he ran towards the center of the mushroom infested area. There were hardly any trees anymore, only fungi and glowing voidblooms. More demons approached from everywhere, in various shapes and sizes. With them were ferocious animals driven mad by the mushrooms growing on them.
Matajam ran as fast as he could. In the middle of the fungous sea he saw what looked like a large white box. It was uncontaminated by the alien growths but completely surrounded by them.
He had no time to stop and admire it. Instead he made a quick turn to the right to avoid a leaping Aox demon riding a maddened smilodon.
Matajam realized could not leave the mushroom sea alive. There were too many enemies and they were too fast. His only chance was to climb one of the few trees still erect in the polluted area. Hopefully he still knew how.
He found the biggest, tallest cotton tree, some of its enormous fin-like roots slightly covered by fungi, but most of the tree intact. He ran to the crevice between two roots, struck the claws of his hands and feet into the bark, and started climbing.
His claws were not used to this kind of pressure, but fear gave him strength. Soon he was ten feet high, then twenty. Looking down he saw the Aox demons try to climb the tree but failing. Some of them tried to send infested birds to catch him, but they were made too stupid by the fungi to understand.
He climbed higher and higher until he found a branch on which to lay and rest. He had escaped the demons at least temporarily. But he still was inside hostile territory with no hope of escaping.
What else was he going to do?
He ate the voidbloom.
Nothing happened. The moonlit mutated wasteland was just as purple and alien as before. The jungle beyond it as vibrant as before. The Aox demons down the tree as horrible and disgusting, the treebranch as hard and uncompromising.
Matajam looked at one of his hands, but it just seemed normal. The only thing not normal was his belly. The voidbloom was slightly poisonous, but he thought he could stomach it. Getting sick up here would really make things even worse.
He tried to focus on something else. The white box in the middle of the sea of fungi. What had Jowthen called it? The White House of the Demons? No. The Ancients! Yes, that was it! It was not big enough for a house, not really, but maybe a room or a shack. It glowed a faint blue-green light, the same as his lantern and the voidbloom. A hatch opened in the side of the white shack, and a large Aox demon climbed out, antlers first, then it turned its back, put its tail and hooves out, and carefully walked backward out of the box. The white shack seemed barely big enough to hold a demon that big. Had it been there all along? Or did it contain a staircase leading to some subterranean demon hideout?
The blueish glow from the White House of the Ancients had grown brighter, almost disturbing in the dark. Did that have something to do with the demon appearing?
“You must cleanse this forest.”
He looked up and saw the nalam sitting on the same branch, smiling. Had he fallen asleep?
“You must cleanse this forest.”
“Aren’t you going to tell me to eat a voidbloom to meet myself?”
“You have eaten it,” the nalam said. It’s mouth moved but it was an animal mouth, not made for speech. Yet it spoke with a child-like voice. “Good. I am happy. You are very obedient.”
While he listened to the nalam he realized the light from the white shack was now brighter than that of the midday sun. It was threatening, burning, dangerous. He would not look at it again.
With the everpresent blue lightning in the ground, everything else changed also. The tree, the sky, the jungle, when not luminated by the glow, was red and black.
If he looked at the light he would die.
“You must cleanse the forest,” the nalam repeated.
“That light is going to kill me!” He hugged the tree branch with all four arms, desperate not to let go.
“Not necessarily. Not if you cleanse the forest.”
“And how do I do that?” He was yelling because he felt the light would somehow drown out most sounds. In fact, it was a sound, a loud music, like that of flutes. It was almost deafening.
“You must meet yourself.” The nalam spoke at a normal volume, but Matajam could hear it just fine. “You must meet yourself in the other reality. In the one that you have just arrived at. Come with me.”
The nalam jumped to the trunk of the tree and climbed up. Matajam understood nothing, but crawled after the nalam first on the branch and then up the trunk towards the leaves. Away from the light, that was good.
The tree was oddly bent, as if it made a loop in the sky around the forest. Soon the light was coming from behind him and then from the above. In front he saw the jungle again. But they were going up. How was that possible?
The tree top touched a mushroom the size of a palm tree, and the nalam expertly jumped off to it. Did it radiate some sort of inner glow or warmth? Or wa she imagining it? On the ground he saw three tentacled Aox demons smell around the mushroom, looking up. Had they got his scent?
“You must hide your smell,” the nalam adviced.
But how? The best way to do that was to cover yourself in mud, or… He broke the mushroom cap’s hard chitin outer layer with his goelell, and got into its shining, moist, pink flesh. He grabbed it with three hands and mushed it into a paste. With the goelell hand he opened his grey robe and spread the fluorescent, pink paste on his body to mask his scent.
He climbed down, and sure enough, the demons could not sense him and galloped off.
The radiant house was still in the vicinity, casting long red shadows in the jungle. The shadows seemed to vibrate until the whole land was a strange dance of red and blue lines, like a nest of vipers all crawling on top of each other.
“You must approach the light”, the nalam said.
“No! It will kill me!”
“You must approach the light.”
Alright, Matajam thought. Perhaps if I could approach it without looking at it, I could do it? He turned his back to the bright blue-green light and walked backwards just as the demon had coming out of the shack.
The ground was no longer covered in fungi but in twisting vines full of long sharp thorns which pierced the skin on his feet and caught the hem of his robe until he could no longer move. Not towards the light anyway.
He looked at the landscape with the mushroom trees and the thorny vines and the galloping demons and above all the sickening red shadows and blue lights, that moved, and even the sky was not the sky but the flower of a giant voidbloom about to eat the whole world. The demons that went past him had the faces of his children, his workers, his parents, his wife.
He threw up. He felt faint, but knew he must not lose consciousness, he must not lose control, he must focus. But focusing was impossible, because everything was wrong, and that made him even more nauseous. Even he himself was covered in the sickeningly glowing pink mushroom paste. He crawled up on the spiky ground so he would not faint. Gaining control was harder than ever but he knew he must try. “Do not fight the feeling,” the nalam said. It seemed unaffected by all this. “Ride it. It is not your weakness. It is your strength.”
He did not understand. But he opened his eyes and looked at the swirl of colors. He tried to stop thinking it was wrong. He tried to think it was right. And then he realized there was a rhythm to it all. A complex, hard to fathom rhythm, but it was there. To the voidbloom in the sky, to the vines and the mushrooms and the demons, to the pulsating colors, even to the light itself.
He picked up some nuts from the vines, cleaned them of their innards with his fancy goelell, and made himself simple clackers. He started clacking to the rhythm, becoming one with it, playing together with the light. Matajam no longer felt sick. He got up, let go of his robe which was stuck in the vines, and still clacking the rhythm, Matajam turned to look at the light.
The blue-green light shone from the box which he now saw was more like a gateway than a house. Above the white cube was a wooden sphere hanging in the air. Was this what he had come for?
“Hello,” he said to the sphere.
“Hello,” he replied. The word came from his mouth, but he knew it was the sphere that was speaking.
“I came here to meet myself,” he told the wooden ball. “I need to cleanse the forest.”
“You must reverse the direction of the device”, the sphere replied with his mouth.
“Which device?” he asked, but realized immediately what it was. The White House of the Ancients was, of course, a machine made by the Ancients. But why would they want to send Aox demons to Clacker jungle? They would not! That is why he would have to reverse the direction. To get the demons out!
“Great! Can you show me how to reverse it?”
“You need the Heart Wheel,” he was being told.
“Sure. Do you have one here?”
“You must find the device inside water.”
“That’s not really helpful.”
“Go to Ambergate, and you will understand.”
The light grew dimmer. Matajam thanked the wooden sphere and left. The nalam walked with him.
They walked through the vines, by the large mushrooms, climbed the looping tree, through the sea of fungi, in the jungle, they walked and walked and walked.
At some point he realized the sun was rising and birds singing in the trees. There was no sign of demons anywhere. How had he escaped them? He was not sure anymore. Had all that really happened? Or was it just a very detailed hallucination? No, the fat nalam was still walking beside him. Nevertheless, he seemed to be safe now.
Looking around he realized he was in Fever Forest near where his guards had chopped the path yesterday. Looking around a bit he managed to find a tree with his X on it, and soon got on the path.
He heard people calling for him. He did not reply but walked towards the cries.
“Boss! There you are!” said one of his guards running to him. He was followed by his wife and the Berizai shaman Jowthen.
“Honey? Are you alright?” asked Rajen. “Why are you naked?”
He looked down, and realized he was covered in pink paste and blood, and nothing else.
Jowthen gave him a long scarf, and he tied it around himself as a loincloth. She looked at him knowingly, and signed, “You found your nalam.” Did she know what he had been through?
“So, boss?” asked one of the sawyers and made a claw sign asking for instructions and then another indicating the Fever Forest. As in, do they start cutting these trees today.
“I think I need to take a day off”, he told his crew. “In fact, everyone take a day off!”
Rajen drove him and the nalam home in the Kambu’Kek carriage, and drew a bath for him. After thoroughly washing himself, Matajam got dressed in a robe made of fine quothian silk, and joined Rajen downstairs.
“Are the kids in school?”
Rajen made a claw sign meaning yes. And then offered Matajam some cold porridge made of nuts and pollen. She patiently watched him finish his breakfast.
They sat in silent for a while, after which she said, “Tell me everything. I need to know what is going on with you. Is this some sort of crisis where you need a bigger carriage or a bigger house or a younger wife?”
“No, nothing like that,” Matajam replied.
“Then tell me. And don’t say it’s complicated. Tell me everything.”
Matajam looked at her and realized she deserved the truth. He drew a slow breath, and spoke. “I ran from demons into a giant tree where I did drugs because I followed the advice of this nalam, and proceeded to hallucinate a ball which told me to quit my job.”
“I see”, Rajen said, looking at the nalam. “So… It’s complicated.”
“What are you going to do?”
“What can I do? I have obligations here. The job, and I have to take care of you and the kids.”
She took him by all his hands. “Honey. You are miserable.”
“But if I left, how can you pay the bills?”
“I’ll get work. The older kids can help at home.”
“Are you sure?”
“If this helps you be a better husband and a better father, do it. Just don’t forget us while you’re gone.”
“Where will you go?”
“To Ambergate to cleanse the forest.”
“From the Amethyst Order?”
“No, the demons!”
Matajam kissed his wife and started packing his bags.