Matajam Meets Himself


An Agemonia story by Mike Pohjola

The crew of laborers dutifully sawed down tree after tree with their big eight-handed crosscut saws. One sawyer would hold one end of the saw 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 the tree to prevent it from closing.
Once the tree was felled, other workers would cut off the branches and saw the tree into lumber. A third group would then 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 nihteegri boss sometimes called him The Four-armed Forestry Foreman, a racist term, which he was obliged to chuckle at.
Truth was he was nothing like most Pattangans, and certainly not like those totem-breaking child-eaters 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 who lived in Fever Forest, which the tree fellers were working their way towards. Matajam’s own Bitajin Clan had lived in the former Wet Pine Wood, which was now civilized and was replaced with schools, markets, homes, roads, farms, gardens, and ample pasture. And they were fine!
A few Bitajin Clan soldiers were protecting the fence, each 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 cotton tree seeds or the shells of various nuts. Small ones are tied to fingers, big ones are held, one in each hand. Consequently, each Berizai protestor was equipped with between two and twenty clackers, which they played with a complex rhythm at a deafening volume. Matajam had bought some clackers for his children to play with, but saw himself above these 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 wreaths or feather jewelry. In short, the very image of the past, as if from some offensive Copperton show.
There certainly were people of a similar style among the Bitajin Clan as well, but Matajam himself always tried to lead by example. He was dressed in the Amethyst Order’s long gray robes with purple trimmings and inlaid amethysts. His dorsal fins were clean and tied back, which was no easy feat for a pattangan.
He did not wear a necklace of the 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 nihteegri 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, shaman of the Berizai clan. The clacking stopped abruptly. A wrinkly old woman stepped forward, 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 is already in pain. Demons, 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.
At the end of his 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 then 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 still 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 arms and legs, their sticky petals covered him, he could no longer see anything, and only felt 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 child-eaters.
The next day he lost his temper with the workers once or twice. They had learned to avoid him when he was in a mood like this.
He crossed the fence into Fever Forest to mark the trees with his little nihteegri knife. 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 a cross 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 could 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 his 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 cross 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 napkins 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 children 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 then 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 their descent 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.
Matajam 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 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?”
“We’re civilized.”
“Then why are you rolling in mud like those child-eaters?”
“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 rage.
Why was he so aggressive towards the kids? Was it really because they were 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 night’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.
“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-nine kids, but not everyone has outbursts 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 working every day, 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 that 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!”
“Then why?”
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 gray 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 to a carriage. He drove it to the edge of the clearing where there was a gate in the fence. He got off the carriage, walked through the gate 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 bluish luminescence of some lake plants. 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 together 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 through the vines, bushes, and plants which he knew by heart. He had always loved plants and had learned herbalism in school. He had used these skills as a forestry foreman, but they were useful now, too.
The jungle was full of the sounds of nocturnal birds, beasts, and insects. Most of the flowers had closed for the night while some others only opened in the dark. While walking, he picked some edible flowers and fruits for a midnight snack.
After an hour or two he saw a fallen tree with purple fungi all over it, like a cancerous growth that was taking over. He was getting closer. As he continued, he saw more and more fungi. The jungle grew quieter as if all the animals were avoiding this place. “No doubt because of the Aox demons,” Matajam thought. 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 drifting everywhere.
The feeling was not at all like in his dream. The ubiquitous 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 nihteegri knife and picked the voidbloom with one of his other hands. He was about to leave when he heard a strange distant noise, with the same beat as the clack of a castanet, but a splashing sound, and threatening. He turned around to see a chalemak, a large jungle bird running for its life towards him, and away from some hidden danger. Then a long whip-like tentacle coiled around it and pulled it back. In the shrubbery he saw a nightmarish creature: A biped as tall as him, but with the face of a fish and the spiked forelegs of a giant bug. The tentacle was its long tail, which curled around the chalemak up to its eyes. The demon wrapped its forelegs around the bird’s head and gave a sudden pull, severing the bird’s neck. The headless chalemak ran around chaotically in the fungi, blood spattering everywhere.
The demon threw away the bird’s head and looked at Matajam. The pattangan 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, just failing to grab 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 of various shapes and sizes approached from every direction. 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 he could not outrun them. There were too many and they were too fast. His only chance was to climb one of the few trees that still stood in the polluted area. Hopefully he still knew how.
He found the thickest, tallest cotton tree. Some of its enormous fin-like roots were slightly covered by fungi, but most of the tree was intact. He ran to the crevice between two roots, sunk the claws of his hands and feet into the bark, and started climbing.
His claws were not used to this kind of strain, 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 fail. Some of them tried to send infested birds to catch him, but they had been driven too mad 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 escape.
What else could he do?
He ate the voidbloom.
Nothing happened. The moonlit mutated wasteland was just as purple and alien as before. The jungle beyond it, just as vibrant. The Aox demons at the base of the tree, as horrible and disgusting, the tree branch, 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 really would 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 with a faint blue-green light, the same as his lantern and the voidbloom. A hatch opened in the side of the white shack. A large Aox demon started to climb out, antlers first, turned its back, then stretched 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 bluish glow from the White House of the Ancients had grown brighter, looking almost disturbing in the dark. Did that glow 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. Its 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 his voice. In fact, the light 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 onto 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 and away from the light.
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 above. In front of him he saw the jungle again. But they were going up. How was that possible?
The treetop touched a mushroom the size of a palm tree, and the nalam jumped expertly onto it. Did the mushroom radiate some sort of inner glow or warmth? Or was he imagining it? On the ground he saw three tentacled Aox demons sniffing around the mushroom, looking up. Had they got his scent?
“You must hide your smell,” the nalam advised.
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 knife, exposing its shining, moist, pink flesh. He grabbed the soft flesh with three hands and mushed it into a paste. With his knife hand he opened his gray 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 closeby, 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 when 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 curled 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 that it was wrong. He tried to think that 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, hollowed out their innards with his fancy knife, 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 walking with him.
They walked past the vines, by the large mushrooms, climbed the looping tree, and then walked through the sea of fungi. They walked and walked and walked.
At some point he realized the sun was rising and birds were 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 cut a path the day before. He searched around and managed to find a tree with his cross on it, and soon found 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.
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, making a claw sign asking for instructions and then another indicating the Fever Forest. Should 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 silence 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.”
“Sort of.”
“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.”
“I won’t.”
“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.

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