Misha Nogha (also published as Misha Chocholak or simply Misha) is an accomplished writer of science fiction and fantasy, often noted for her contributions to the subgenre of cyberpunk, her use of shamanic traditions in her fiction, and her vivid, poetic style. Born in 1955 in St. Paul, Misha is of mixed Nordic and Metis ancestry and has studied Cree medicine path and Seidr, an ancient form of Nordic Shamanism. Misha’s first novel, Red Spider White Web, often considered a classic of cyberpunk, won the 1990 ReaderCon Award and was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her short story “Chippoka Na Gomi” was recently included in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Other work of hers has been reprinted in anthologies such as Storming the Reality Studio and Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. Her most recent release is the short prose and poetry collection Magpies and Tigers. The following story, “The Stone Badger,” was originally published in the anthology Air Fish, edited by Richard Singer and Joy Oestreicher. Among other things, it displays Misha’s interest in nature as a source of weird imagination and in shamanism. We’re delighted to share this story with our readers. — The Editors
She keeps hearing badgers. She hears their shadows creeping across the frozen ground mumbling faint sounds of subterranean rage. She wakes to the noises of licking fur, claws sharpening, purrs and growls. In the woods sounds layer on each other. The ruffling of the Steller’s jays, the chickadees stabbing pinion seeds into the bark of the black spruce and the Douglas squirrel prying them out again.
In this place the sounds fall one by one, like clamps in a steel pail. There is a white splintered man in the bed next to hers. He is only living carrion and she worries he will attract the crows.
She can no longer hear the coyotes pant, the blacktail bucks dropping foamy saliva from winter apples, but she still hears the padding of badger paws, the black claws clicking on the smooth white linoleum.
The thistle people come in. Bristling, dry, white persons. They prick her and poke her and take up her silent places.
Vaguely, the bitter chill blows and she is back on the black colt, they are both steaming under the gold sky, in the blue mountains, blanketed in white. The colt arcs like a young panther, leaping a crest of snow. The flurry of his legs, spotted white rump crashing down beside her. She understands that they have lost concentration and found the Windigo’s trail.
The man’s chest has been carved for burial. His breathing is a ragged flapping of frozen cloth on a line. Only his face offers hope, a shining visage of petroleum and sugar.
She hears bells ringing, the colt scrambling to his feet, icicles of sweat tinkling as he flies into the forest, his mane and tail like charcoal wings. A cancelled flight on the way to market.
She should have known that trader was Windigo. It was the way he kept scraping his soup bowl, as if it were always nearly empty. His feminine hands and wide lipless mouth, leaking thin gray words like, “money,” “Indian Artist” and “Native Arts.” He’d put the word “art” between them, like a terrible temptation. He was a grease stain with glass-colored eyes and diminutive eyelids. “You pink tribes are irresponsible. Gotta have this stuff long before Christmas. You understand that, don’t you? And I won’t take the rest of the fetishes without that badger. I can sell that whole lot with the badger in the middle of it.”
In sharp focus is the sound of the cutting tool. Her moccasin on a skeleton of a leaf. A bright light in the sky like a sunburst of arrows. The turquoise eyes of the stone badger, and the fragrance of pine as her dream horse, Shota, dives into the chasm of snow.
She has once again fallen asleep with the sculpting chisel in her left hand and the stone badger in her right. Chips of serpentine stud her cheek, where she has slept with her face on the black desk. A flimsy sheet of moonlight carves obsidian shapes into the room. A room smelling of stone dust, leather, and sage.
The cabin is so cold and dry her eyes feel like ash on snow. She blinks hard. The walls disappear into the red earth, green lichen glows in the light of the yellow oil lamp, and thick roots of blue spruce twist up the wall like petrified snakes. She sneezes, this world bleeding into the next. Once again, traveling without leaving. She lights sage for the earth renewal moon.
The thistle people prick her again. Transparent tubing yokes her to this white barrier. Just a few feet across the room the man with the toads on his eyes drifts between worlds. She can feel the tendrils of his indecision twisting obscenely in the air between them. It was snow blindness that cocooned her here, a total whiteout with icicles of alcohol dripping in her veins.
She glances at the window, but can’t see out of it. Its milky opacity is thick with ice flowers. No matter, the variegated landscape is a mantel of snow striped with tree trunks. There is no sky or earth now, only a whirling cloak of snow.
Her lungs are coated with tiny flakes of ice. She coughs and takes the red stone calumet, puts in the tobacco and tips a brand of cedar into it and blows smoke in four directions. Her heart, which was heavy, begins to lighten.
She closes her inner eyes slowly. The sounds of the room tempt and torture her. The dripping IV is a dangerous symphony of minimalist brilliance. The shoes of the thistle people tick like clock dials in the empty waiting room between worlds.
Her Granddaughter brings in a smell of woodsmoke, and fire. “Gramma. You can’t walk the dead here. They think you are in a coma. You have to come down our road, Gramma. I know you hear me.”
The man beside her is dripping an ever-darkening pool of sludge beneath his bed. It is inching toward her and she is powerless to stop it. The gray sludge is melting a strange abyss into the floor. His phosphorescent ignorance of afterlife cries to the carrion eaters who circle his bed more and more frequently, in oily smoke in the wake of a creosote fire.
A Windigo has led her up this trail and only a weasel could take her out. Would a weasel walk past the man beside her—a festering surfeit of flesh and bones under those white coverlets like the drift of snow the colt floundered in.
She keeps carving the stone badger. The chipping of her stone tool works in her brain, her dust-coated hands cutting rhythmically, echoed by the pulsing of the stars and phases of the moon. The more she slices away the larger he grows. She places her lips on his frosty muzzle, looks into his chrysocolla eyes and feels the spiky fur prickling in her mouth, the dusty smell of the pelt. She can see their sharp toothed smiles laughing as they roll themselves into balls and somersault down the hillside to escape the constant badgering.
The thistle people are sticking her Granddaughter about the Appaloosa colt. “Your Grandmother is too old to ride a horse, much less a young stallion.” She wants to shake her head, it was walking that hurt her back and hip.
“Gramma, I found this in your clothes!” The Granddaughter hangs the medicine bag above her head. She can see its spiral of red, yellow, black and white spinning above her. The four winds are twirling it and the crow feathers in it slice open the bottom of the bag and fly out, cawing. A terrible thunder is starting up and she can’t keep her ears off of it. The blue corn falls out of the bag and germinates on the bedsheets. She is surrounded by sage and sweet grasses. The soil is warm and secretive. A small spray of dirt hits her face. She panics that she is being buried alive. A grizzled and black muzzle pokes through the mattress. The stone badger crawls out onto the table beside her bed.
A black wind freezes the blue corn and a gray rain washes the rich soil. Beside her, the badger is only a tiny fetish, and beyond that, the man smelling of old fish floats in dead water.
The black crows are calling to her to follow the red road. She sees them and begins to run. If only the colt hadn’t bolted. She is old now, with arthritic hip and a stiff spine.
The sick man has visitors. They are a young man in a tux and a woman in a milky veil. She is wearing a hat of white feathers and her heels strike the floor like talons.
The visitors have chased away the putrid smell and bring the smell of vinegar and metal. The woman is birdlike, thin and downy in soft white clothes that give her substance.
The visitors look in her direction once and she feels the ancient cold seep into her bones. The stone badger growls and they look away. The snowy woman sinks onto the bed beside the splintered man.
The tux-man walks quickly to the door and locks it.
Terror plunders her. She has no strength to resist, nor to look away.
The snow woman pushes back her veil and reveals a puckered naked face like a bald owlet. She has glass-colored eyes with diminutive lids. In the center of her face is a hooked black beak. She opens it wide and leans over the face of the sick man. She tears into his face and begins to swallow the flesh in convulsive jerky movements. Bits of blood and fat spatter the walls and floor. The beaked woman turns her terrible gaze toward the old woman’s bed, but she does not see her now. She bites again and a huge trough of flesh opens into the man’s waxen face. As she chews her own complexion fills out to a shining silver confection. Like a perfect model, her crimson lips are dripping with oil and saliva. Her beak disappears into an ivory nose of delicate proportions.
Her pearly veil is smeared with bits of skin and muscle sheath. The young man unwinds her wrap and begins to bind the sick man in it. The blood suppurates immediately, grows crusty and old. The young man in the tux helps the white woman into an alabaster robe. She is alive and eager. She turns her unblinking stare toward the Grandmother’s bed.
Beside her the sick, pustulant man rasps his last lunatic tale. He has never thought of dying, nor of multiple worlds where winters are heavy with acoustic shadows.
Like a gunshot through glass, the polar woman’s unblinking eyes shatter in the airspace above the two beds. Pony ice-beads of money and art swing from around her stringy neck.
The glassy eyes focus on the Grandmother, and the cavernous mouth roars like arctic wind. A triumphant howl resonates through the steel tubing of the hospital bed and settles in the marrow of her bones. The skin of the white woman shatters and reveals a skeleton of icicles. Ice needles cover her arms and legs, and she towers above Grandmother, who understands at last, that she has arrived at the Windigo’s nest. The white Windigo leans over her face and reveals its black hooked beak hung with shreds of hide, putrid skin, and pools of cold tallow in its curve.
Like a light across a blade, the badger leaps down the Windigo’s throat. He claws his way to the icy heart and chews it out. His shining white teeth glitter like diamonds in the transparent body of the Windigo.
The stone badger climbs out of the Windigo’s throat. She lights the bed with roses of fire to thaw the badger’s chattering smile. The sheets of fire melt the Windigo trader’s heart.
The stone badger’s fur pokes through the serpentine like crocus in spring. He stands over her, the old lover, bristling with fading rage and blossoming obsession. He is still shivering from chewing ice, and she is shivering from fear. His flat black paw reaches toward her, bringing a fresh earth smell with it. They quiver together like two knife points singing to the same mark.
Together they dive into the floor, their arms and legs a flurry of badgers. Claws ripping away linoleum, concrete, and rock, they snarl a song of caverns and hair and stony subterranean secrets.