I cut off the braid in Katy’s hair just above the hair tie then held out the braid for her, and Noise-Maker, to see. Katy burst into tears.
“Why is there water on your face?” the alien asked, concerned.
“It’s called tears.” Katy shook her head. “And I don’t know. I didn’t think I’d be sad about cutting it! I mean, it’s the law in the city-state that girls can’t cut their hair and we couldn’t wear it unbraided until we were married.” She wiped her eyes. “I should be happy, right? I mean, I’ve wanted to cut it for forever!”
I put the braid in a bowl on the kitchen table. “I’m not surprised that it’s emotional for you. This hair was part of your identity in the city-state, and while you’ve hated it, it was still a part of you. You’ve had this hair for sixteen years.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” she replied, sniffling. “That makes a lot of sense.”
Noise-Maker titled their head. “You are sad, then?”
Katy shrugged. “I don’t know, Noise-Maker. My feelings are all mixed up.”
Noise-Maker waved in the affirmative, then continued watching quietly as I finished trimming Katy’s hair. They seemed utterly fascinated by the process. I finished making her hair look as good as I was able to, then picked up a second bowl that had a paste of coffee grounds and sage, I plopped some of the mixture onto her head, working it into her hair until her head was covered in the stuff. I wrapped her head in tinfoil and, after washing my hands, I added a towel over it.
“Ugh. That’s stinks!” Katy exclaimed. “Do you think it’ll work?”
I shrugged, putting the bowl in the sink. “It should at least make your hair a shade or two darker. It’s not a proper dye, though, so we’ll have to keep refreshing it.”
“How long do I keep this on?” she said.
“About four hours. Longer if you can stand it.”
Noise-Maker cocked his head. “Why must you change the color of your fur?”
“Hair,” Katy corrected. “Well, you see, my hair color, which people call red or ginger, isn’t very common among humans, so it makes me stand out more. Cutting it and making it darker will help make me less recognizable.”
“It’s also helpful that Katy looks more like a male human now than female,” I added. “The less she looks like her old self, the better.” I gave the girl a look. “I still won’t take you into town, though.”
Katy frowned. She’d tried to argue about it earlier, but I reminded just how much danger she was in herself. I also made it clear just how much danger she would put me and Noise-Maker in. “I know. You’re right, Liz. I suppose part of me wanted to see the town again since it’s been so long. But yeah, I’d rather not get caught.” Katy let out a loud sigh, stood up, and went into the living room. Noise-Maker followed her.
I shook my head and started to do the dishes as I listened to Katy and Noise-Maker talk. Katy seemed to have a real knack of explaining human behavior to Noise-Maker, and it seemed to keep her from thinking too much about the city-state. Noise-Maker asked her a lot of questions and took her answers seriously. They never talked down to her. It made me wonder if that’s how they treated their own children.
“Is it uncomfortable?” they asked.
“No. It just feels weird. Not slimy, or anything. Goopy, I guess.”
There was a long pause. “Well, it’s as if I have mud on my head. It’s kind of heavy, a bit cold, and rough on my skin. Kind of like having a bunch of muddy hands all over my head.”
I raised my eyebrows and grinned as I dumped the coffee and sage mixture into the compost bucket. It wasn’t a horrible explanation of the term.
“Ah. I understand. And this goopy material will protect you from those who would come after you?”
“Not completely,” she replied. “It’s like Liz said. The less I look like my old self, the better. With short, darker hair, I won’t entirely match the pictures they’ll put out of me. It’s why Liz won’t take me to town when she has to go and get supplies. The disguise will only really work from a distance. We’ll have to figure something else out eventually, but for now, this should be ok. I’ll look like a new farmhand if anyone sees me in the yard.”
“Maybe I should come up with a disguise as well,” said Noise-Maker.
“Hmmm… I don’t know what we could do for you, though. You’re too short lengthwise for a horse or a cow. Too thin, too. I suppose if we made a head, we could go with alpaca, but even that would only be good at a distance. I suppose if you crouched down and pulled all your legs in, you could pass as a weirdly shaped rock. We could even dig some moss and dirt to put on you. That wouldn’t let you be mobile, but it’s not a bad idea if someone comes here to poke around.” I tried not to laugh at the idea of Noise-Maker with a sewn-together alpaca head attached to them like a hat. They weren’t horrible ideas, but Katy was right. Disguises for either of them would only work at a distance, and probably not very well. I finished the dishes, dried my hands, grabbed my mug of coffee, and went into the living room to join the other two.
“Yes, that would be rather humorous,” Noise-Maker said. “I could stay still as a rock, however. For many days, if necessary.”
Katy looked surprised. “Really? How? I mean, how can you stay so still? It’s really hard for me to do that!”
“The explanation is complicated. I am not sure if our methods would work for a human,” they replied, then turned their head to me. “Do you have methods of sitting still?”
I nodded. “Yes. We call it meditation. There are many methods and schools of meditation. There are some where you sit still, and some that you can do while walking or even dancing. Some may include saying sacred phrases or scripture in a particular sequence. There are even some that are done through singing and telling stories.”
Noise-Maker thought for a long moment then said, “Yes, meditation is a good descriptor. It is part of our training as a youngling and the basis of how we store information. We use mathematical models to create data storage places in our minds. I am not sure if the translator can interpret the concepts correctly.”
Katy looked disappointed, but I said, “Well, it may not exactly be like what you teach your children, but there are forms of meditation for humans that use numbers and math, and some of the more complex are actually for memory retrieval. The one I’ve found helpful is part of the basics of Zen Buddhism, and it’s not difficult. You count your breaths only using the numbers one through ten, since everyone can count from one to ten without really having to think about it. Or, well, that’s how it was explained to me.”
Noise-Maker tilted their head. “I would like to learn this counting-breaths,” they said.
“Me too!” said Katy, sitting forward on the part of the couch that Noise-Maker wasn’t leaning on.
“All right, I’ll teach you,” I said. “It’ll be useful for later, since we might as well do a ritual with the hair we cut off today.”
“Ritual?” asked Noise-Maker.
I nodded. “A ritual of protection. And since I doubt I could keep either of you away from the Shrine if I go by myself, we’ll do it together. Unless… Noise Maker, do your people have any prohibitions on magic or metaphysical, uh, things?”
The translator finished, and Noise-Maker stared at me for a long moment. “What is magic?”
Both of them stared at me expectantly, but in my head I was freaking out. Shit! Shit! Shit! I thought. I haven’t taught anyone these things since– I took a deep breath and let it out. All right, Liz, you have taught this before. You’re just a little rusty. “Well… uh… magic. Right. I suppose, academically, you could say it’s any act that moves energy or spirit in a particular way for a particular outcome.” I frowned. Katy looked confused and Noise-Maker still just stared. “Damn. Ok. So, when I do a magickal ritual, I am pushing on the energy of the universe, nudging it a little so it will go in a direction that I want it to. It doesn’t always work well, and not everyone thinks that this energy is a real thing, but then again, most of the time, magick is more of a plea to the the Gods, Ancestors, and Spirits that I pray to just to get some help. It’s not like it is in the movies where you can move stuff around with a thought. It’s much simpler things that can happen, like the right person coming with just the right thing when you need it most.”
Katy still looked confused, but Noise-Maker seemed to be thinking hard. They shifted into what I’d started think of as their thinking position, which made them look more like a cat going in loaf position. More so now that I’d taken off the bandage earlier in the day when they assured me that their leg had healed and could move their leg again. I was skeptical until the wrap came off and the leg looked the same green-gray as their head instead of gray-yellow-green.
“What are you doing, Noise-Maker?” asked Katy, bringing me back to the present.
They adjusted themselves a little bit more, then said, “I am accessing my knowledge in order to find the best explanation of my people’s spiritual beliefs. Friend-Elizabeth’s explanation of what magic is lit up a data node, and I will need some time to analyze the mathematics.”
Surprised, I just nodded, yawned, and said, “Um, sure. We can’t do the ritual until later in the evening anyway, since we don’t want the neighbors seeing anything. I think I want a nap, myself, since we’ll be up late.”
“What about the Zen meditation?” Katy asked.
“Oh, right. The technique itself isn’t that difficult. First, you sit in a comfortable positon. There is a special position to sit in, traditionally, but my old knees can’t do it, so I usually sit in a chair.” I sat back and put my hands on my knees. Katy crossed her legs under her and sat up straight. “Good. Now close your eyes, breathe, and count each exhale and inhale. In is one, out is two, and so on until you reach ten, then you start over with one. After you get used to that, you’re supposed to just count one full breath, inhale and exhale, as one. The counting is supposed to focus you on your breathing, although, you’ll have lot of thoughts in your head wander that will in and out. Or you’ll forget and count past ten. If that happens, you just start over. From what I understand, the goal is to eventually not have to count at all. I’ve never gotten to that point, though. But I find counting breaths a good way to calm myself when I’m stressed.”
Katy looked dubious. “That’s it? That’s all you do?”
I shrugged. “That’s it. It’s easy to do, but can be hard to keep it up for a long period of time. Why don’t you try it while I take a nap? If you get bored later, you can always peel some potatoes for dinner. Just make sure you put them in water so they don’t go brown.”
Katy stuck her tongue out at me. “Fine!” she said, but repositioned herself and closed her eyes. Noise-Maker hiss-laughed, then they, too, settled down.
I laughed, went into my bedroom, and closed the door, glad for some quiet time alone. The last three days had been the most hectic I’d had in a very long time. I layed down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Gods, I thought, I don’t know how things are going to go with all of this, but please just let us survive somehow! It wasn’t the best spell in the world, and it wouldn’t be as powerful as the spell we’d do later, but I really hoped the Gods were listening.