Newsgroups: talk.bizarre
Subject: Distance and heritage
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Date: 1 Dec 1999 13:49:19 -0800

Distance and heritage

I spent Monday at work doing code inspection.  I ride to work every morning
wondering why I put up with it, or at least mornings when I've got a
backlog, but there are enough good things about my job that being a
programmer is a win, overall.  Code inspection bugs me because it seems so
elementary: of course, when you finish building something, you look at it to
see if you built it right.  That's just common sense.  Why do we need a
formalized procedure with an expensive name just to do it?  I guess code
inspection is what comes from trying to pour art into bottles and sell it
like shampoo.  Lather, rinse, inspect.  When you get people doing
programming just as a job, people who don't have the heritage of real
programmers, code inspection is what you have to have, because they don't go
the distance to make their work actually work properly.

But if the company is willing to pay me to do code inspection, I guess I'm
willing to take the money.  I can just tell my computer to play me some
music, sit down with the printout and a highlighter, and concentrate on not
thinking about what I'm doing.  It works pretty well.  It may have been
working too well that day, because just before lunch I got a knock on my
door and it was the young co-op student from next door, with a breathless
manner and her hair all messed up.

She started out complimentary, telling me all about how she admired my
dedication to teamwork and I'd saved her ass on a number of occasions and so
on, and just as I was figuring she had some sort of horrible sexual
harassment related personal problem she was about to confide in me and
expect me to solve, she finally got to the point: "So I can really respect
that you have your own way of working and so on and that's fine; but if you
play that song about the burning castles one more time, then it will be
necessary for me to kill you!"  I checked the machine and realized it had
been repeating the same MP3 for an hour and nine minutes, so I laughed and
shut it off and apologized.  She went away, and I tried to put as much
distance between myself and the code inspection as possible by thinking a lot
about my heritage.

My family, on my mother's side at least, comes from Bohemia, which is now a
province of the Czech Republic.  They have mountains and forests there, much
like the ones we have here.  Maybe that's why I always liked listening to
the stories my grandmother used to tell me; exploring the woods behind my
house, I could imagine I was in one of those stories, despite the distance. 
True, the winters are a little milder here, and we don't have wolves, but we
do have cougars, and I had imagination.

There was a boy named John who lived with his old uncle in a hut on a
Mountain.  The old man was blind.  When John was old enough, his uncle told
him the story of how he had lost his eyes.  John's uncle, as a young man,
had been gathering mushrooms in the forest when he met a beautiful blonde
young woman.  They talked and laughed and she shared her food with him. 
They drank from a wine-skin.

He awoke with his clothes drenched in dew, and thinking it was the middle of
the night, he waited, shivering, for many hours, before he realised that the
reason he couldn't see anything was that his eyes had been stolen.  Somehow
he found his way back to his family's dwelling, with his basket of
mushrooms.  The mushrooms were shriveled and mouldy as if left out for
several weeks, but his family told him he had only been gone a day. 
Everyone knew that he had run afoul of the witch-maidens who lived in that
forest.  Why John's uncle hadn't been appropriately warned about this hazard
beforehand, was never quite explained.

Of course, witches cannot abide running water.  So when John went into the
forest looking for the beautiful witch-maidens - which of course he did do -
he went with a careful plan.  He had to go because he was a fairy-tale hero. 
He told his uncle that he'd retrieve the stolen eyes, but as I grew older,
thinking about this story, I thought of other reasons for John to enter the
witches' forest.

When the first maiden showed herself, she was just as young, fresh, and
blonde as she had been in John's uncle's day.  Why does the story assume
that this was the same woman, and not her daughter or something?  John
grabbed her and threatened to throw her in the river, and after a bit of a
struggle, she swore by earth and sky to return the old man's eyes in
exchange for not being thrown in the river.  She vanished into the forest,
soon returning with the eyes, and he took them home.  But on putting the
eyes into his empty sockets, the uncle cried out in horror, for all he could
see was white sand stretching into the distance beneath a burning sun. 
These were not his eyes!

John went back with a chip on his shoulder, and soon met the second
beautiful maiden, who had red hair.  He tackled her and they wrestled and he
threatened to throw her in the river, and much like her sister before her,
she swore by fire and iron to return the old man's eyes.  This time John
insisted on following her when she went to retrieve them, and he saw her
fish the eyes out of a hole in a certain hollow tree.  John took them back
to his uncle, but these were the wrong eyes, too.  With them, the uncle
could see only a flooded city, with dark shapes flitting among the windows of
the deserted buildings.

So John returned to the forest, determined to have his way.  He waited by
the hollow tree for the third of the lovely witch-maidens, the dark-haired
one.  When she appeared, he tried to grab her as he had her sisters, but
this girl was fast and fleet.  She squirmed from his arms and ran off.  John
chased her for more than a mile through the dense forest.  When he caught up
he pinned her against a tree, pressing her so hard to its rough bark that
she could barely breathe.  Eventually, she swore by blood and cream to
return the old man's eyes, for real this time.  John took them home, and
they seemed to be the right ones, and the story ended.

I guess it's not really the greatest story in the world, but it got me
through the morning.  When lunchtime came, I had my usual process cheese
food sandwich, and picked up the phone and dragged out my bank card, to pay
the month's bills by touch-tone.  I paid the phone bill, the electric bill,
and I was just about to pay the Visa bill when I stopped.

In cartoons there are always pictures of missing people on milk cartons,
with "Have you seen me?" written underneath.  Maybe that's an American
thing, because I've never seen it in real life.  Around here, they print
that stuff on the envelope that your Visa bill comes in.  Each month you get
a new edition of some little kid's grinning face, plus on the other side
either the same face with a few years of aging Photoshopped onto it, or a
photo of the kid's father with "Evil abductor scum." written under it.

I always get a weird feeling when I look at the Visa envelope and see a
picture of some young woman who was older, when she disappeared, than I am
now.  If I disappeared today it would almost certainly be because I chose to
do so, and I'm even old enough to do that without qualifying as a "runaway". 
I can't imagine that it's any different for the envelope people.  If someone
wants to put a little distance between herself and her heritage, the people
who knew her, is it really a good thing to be printing her face on
envelopes?  But I guess the do-gooders are only trying to do some good, as

Anyway, it wasn't the age that made me pause over this month's envelope.  It
was the photo, of a woman with long dark hair and a sharp, intent
expression.  I'd seen those eyes - piercing the gloom in the basement of one
of a dozen prefab houses, on one of a dozen identical streets, in a godly
subdivision that could not exist, somewhere on a forested Mountain.  Two
sleeps ago, when we gave thanks to the Goddess.  The text said that Mary
Ellen Armstrong had disappeared from her loving family in Victoria on a
Sunday in August some twelve years ago.  She was sixteen.  Mella hadn't
looked 28, but I can never tell with people.  That's one reason I work with

The bank computer's recorded voice repeated its menu twice and then hung up
as I sat staring at the envelope, thinking about witch-maidens and stolen
eyes.  I punched 9 for an outside line, then 1-800, then I thought a bit
more and hung up the receiver.  I got out my Visa bill, called back the bank
and paid it, put the envelope in my coat pocket, and went back to work.

Or back to looking busy, anyway.  Maybe I shouldn't admit this here, but
since I'd done all the code inspection work in the morning, and the meeting
was to be the next day, and all my development stuff was waiting for the
process police to allow that module to be checked in, there wasn't really
much for me to do.  I spent much of the afternoon on the Web, like too many
of my other afternoons.

My friend Jeff gave me an address for a place where you could click on a map
and read the local legends.  I explored it a little, tried to find out if my
house was haunted or anything like that, but most of it was pretty dull. 
Some of my friends once went to Hornby Island and came back with stories of
how, "Like, it was hippie central, and everyone was growing pot in their
backyards!  And there was garbage, like trash, all over the place, like in
people's yards and stuff, and we met this guy, and he told us about this
other guy who had been a famous community figure for having a lot of garbage
or something, and he died and there was a memorial.  And we went to see the
memorial and it was like just a bunch of garbage."  So I found the Island on
the map and clicked to read the local legends, and sure enough, that's more
or less what they were.

The map had little red curly symbols to show where all the hyperlinks were. 
When I got to Sooke, it had the usual bunch of markers scattered around the
populated areas, with a few going up along the streams and roads into the
forest.  There was a circle of emptiness around the Mountain, just big
enough to make me think it wasn't an accident, and one little red marker
right in the middle at the summit.  I clicked on it, of course, and found I
was reading one of the First Nations stories Jeff had been so impressed
with when he spent Saturday camped out in the Sooke library.

Many years ago there was a boy who wasn't much good at anything.  He
couldn't hunt, couldn't fish, couldn't even do women's work, and they made
fun of him when he tried.  So of course he grew up to be a shaman.  That was
what happened in those days: those who can't do, do magic.  He was pretty
good at making noises through kelp tubes to frighten unbelievers, but he had
a big enough imagination to be dissatisfied with that.  People would bring
him their problems, and he'd solve them.  That was his job, but he felt
unsatisfied with it.  He wanted to do real magic, with real magical tools,
and he had something specific in mind: he wanted a feather from Raven's
magic cloak.  What he planned to do with that, is not recorded.

When the fish trap stopped bringing in fish, he was asked to do something
about it.  He kept a vigil at the mouth of the river, huddled in a blanket. 
As the moon rose, he heard splashing from out in the middle of the trap, and
saw the ripples spreading as if some big fish was out there gulping bugs. 
But there was nothing in the trap.  He watched carefully for hours, and when
the moon sank behind the trees his patience was rewarded with a glimmer of
barely-perceptible spectral light.

The shaman threw a magic stone into the water, and called out in the
language of the spirits, which he had learned in the forest as a child, when
he was supposed to be helping collect bark.  Because he was powerful enough,
the ghost salmon deigned to talk to him, and he saw a way to use the
situation to his own advantage.

Some spirit people, in fish form, had been caught in the trap; that
explained why it hadn't been catching any other fish, because fish are smart
enough to stay away from spirits.  Would that we all were so wise!  Because
they were constrained by the abilities of their ghost salmon forms, the
spirit people could not escape the trap - nor could they change forms nor
transmigrate into new bodies, until released.  The situation was desperate,
for although their salmon bodies would naturally seek food, being spirits
they could not derive any real nourishment from it, and were slowly
starving.  Other spirits passed up and down the river all the time, but did
nothing for fear of being similarly confined.  The prisoners asked, with
surprising humility, for the human to release them.

But he was not willing to just let them out of the trap out of the goodness
of his heart.  He demanded a feather from Raven's magic cloak in return.  At
first the spirits demurred.  The idea was ridiculous; even if they wanted to
help him they had no power to grant such a request.  They argued and argued
with him as the stars arced across the heavens.  Although spirits can mimic
almost any behaviour of living folk, there is one characteristic that is
uniquely human: that of sheer bloody-minded stubbornness!  And these spirits
were desperate.  So eventually, with much grumbling and a warning that the
shaman would be cursed, they said they'd do what they could.

The shaman broke open part of the trap to release the ghost salmon, but that
was not enough.  Being spirits, they needed a spiritual, not a physical
release.  So he rushed back to the village, and awakened his neighbours at
random, saying he needed fishhooks to restore the trap to operation. 
Eventually, mostly to get rid of him so they could go back to bed, they gave
him all the fishhooks he said he needed.  He carried the hooks to a secret
place in the forest and burnt them.

As the sparks curled up into the sky, the ghosts turned into points of light
and flew up to become stars.  The next day the shaman told the village that
he had exorcised the fish trap; but in his heart he was uneasy, because he
was afraid the spirits would not honour their promise, and he was afraid of
being cursed.  However, as Raven flew over the village at sundown that
evening, he dropped a feather from his cloak of transformation.  The shaman
caught it with glee.  He turned into a whale, and swam away from there,
never to return.

[This is the second in a series.  The first one is at along with some notes and
apologies.  This posting will end up in that general region of URL space,
with further notes, soon.]
Matthew Skala                        "Why should the fates of the groovy              and the creepy be intertwined?"                      - Valerie Solanas