By Claire A. Murray
Nanoni was a lonely child with a golden voice. Her family lived in the desert near the One Spring at the edge of the mountain. Many nights she lay awake, listening to the faint sounds of a flute coming from the mountain. In the light of day, no one answered yes when she asked if they, too, heard it.
She became fascinated with the mountain and One Spring. The elders warned all the children to go there only with an elder, and even they did not approach it at night. They feared the wolves living in the mountain. And even the wolves slunk away when a Greoli appeared. This ferocious, long-toothed creature’s head was haloed with wild blond hair. It had a long, lithe body and four enormous paws with sharp claws to stab into stone as it climbed rock, and its whipsaw tail could swat enemies across the water. If a Greoli drank from the water while you were there, you would turn into stone and the Greoli would trample your body until it was one with the dirt. So the elders said.
Nanoni had never seen wolves or a Greoli, nor met anyone who said they had either. She could look any animal in the eye and it would obey, especially if she sang—although in truth, she had only done so with the village animals. She wasn’t afraid of wild beasts, not even a Greoli.
“My child, you would not see the Greoli,” they said, “and thus not be able to look it in the eye. It need only lap water from the other side and you would turn to stone. Do not go near the One Spring alone or at night.”
Young Nanoni, a free spirit, argued with the elders. “How do you know this, if they are ground into stone?”
“They never return. Where else would they be?”
Indeed, where had they gone? Where was her mother’s mother, she who had disappeared when Nanoni was about five and her little sister was not yet born? And so many others before that?
No one other than Nanoni seemed interested in knowing. She would sneak off to the base of the mountain and play by herself among the boulders near the One Spring, hiding when villagers came for water. Perhaps she could spot a Greoli or find her missing greatmother. She would then say, “See, she was not stomped to stone by the Greoli. I have found her.”
One day when her parents were out hunting and her sister was playing with others, Nanoni went alone to the One Spring to draw water. As she knelt, ripples crossed the pond and she looked up into the narrow, green eyes of a Greoli. The two stared at each other from across the water, Nanoni rising slowly with her eyes steady on the beast’s. The Greoli’s fur bristled. It bared its teeth. Drool escaped from its mouth along with a low growl. Nanoni and the beast circled the spring, keeping the distance between them the same. She began to sing, weaving a song of enrapture that floated across the water and calmed the Greoli. It lay down and closed its eyes.
Nanoni continued singing while moving ever closer and ended her song when she finally stood beside it. The beast looked up, but instead of eating her, licked her hand. She giggled. It licked her hand again. And so, little by little, Nanoni learned that the beast wanted to hear her voice. She spoke and it sighed. She sat next to it and sang. It snuggled up to her and placed its bear-sized head in her lap.
The day began to close, the sun moving closer to the ground. Still Nanoni sang. She stroked its fur and it rolled to its side, a sloppy, lopsided grin on its face. Nanoni knew her family would begin to search for her and feared what might happen if they came to the One Spring and saw the Greoli.
She said, “You must leave. My people will come and may hurt you if they find you here.”
“Why would they hurt me, Nanoni?” said the beast.
Nanoni gasped. “You speak!”
“Only in your mind. And in your mind only.” The beast sat up. It towered over her, as she, too, was seated. “Go now. Return to your people. Do not speak of me, for they will not understand. When the night is full and the moon steals away, return to me here. I will tell you more.”
“May I know your name, great beast? And how will I know you from your kind?”
“Do not worry. My kind will know you and that you befriended me. None will harm you, for I, shish-Ka-toomi, have declared you friend.”
Nanoni gave shish-Ka-toomi a hug, picked up her bucket, which was now strangely full, and returned to her desert village. Everyone was angry with her for having given them a fright, but she said nothing about the great beast and took her water bucket into her family hut.
Late that night, Nanoni slipped out of the bed she shared with her younger sister and grabbed the cloak she’d stuffed underneath earlier. She tiptoed past her parents’ sleeping room and out the door that gave no sound, for she’d greased its hinges with animal fat after dinner that evening. Once outside, she put on her shoes, bundled her cloak around her against the night chill, and ran across the desert to the One Spring.
Shish-Ka-toomi was waiting for her. She rushed over in greeting when out from behind him appeared a Greoli pup. She cried out in joy and bent over to hug it when shish-Ka-toomi pushed her back with his giant paw. “He is injured. He needs your help.”
Nanoni examined the pup in the moonlight. One leg dangled without firmness, and the pup could put no weight on it. She sat on the ground and let the pup crawl into her lap. Singing softly, she examined the injured leg, ran her gentle fingers up and down its length, avoiding the most swollen area near the paw. “It is broken, shish-Ka-toomi.”
“Can you fix it?”
“I can only try. I am not a healer, but I have helped the healer splint a little girl’s leg so the bone could heal and she could walk again. It took a long time. And she now walks with a limp.”
“That is better than it not walking at all. Come to my den and make this splint to heal my son.”
Nanoni picked up the pub and set it on shish-Ka-toomi’s back. He led them toward the mountain. Nanoni stopped and said, “I am not permitted there.”
“Your people fear what they do not know. But in you, I see great curiosity, truth, and trust. That is why I chose you. You want to know what is on the other side. And I need you to heal my son. Please. No harm will come to you.”
Nanoni swallowed, clenched and unclenched her hands, and stepped forward. “Yes. I will come. I will help your son.”
And so, they trudged up the hill leading into the mountain and entered a cave so dark Nanoni had to hold onto the pup’s fur for guidance. Tiny, winged insects led their way, throwing off sparkles of light as they flittered ahead. Nanoni began to see the outlines of the walls and ceiling. They entered a large cavern, the ceiling alive with the insects’ light. Her footsteps echoed and she heard water trickling. Shish-Ka-toomi stopped, sat, and crooned. Dozens of pairs of eyes opened in a semicircle around a small stream.
“This is my family, my clan. We are the Nanochkee. They know you are here to help and will not harm you.” They stepped over the trickling stream of water and the air around her rippled. She had a sudden knowing that the stream fed the One Spring. Names and faces of missing villagers—gone over so many years that some were forgotten—rushed through her head, many generations of her mother’s family among them.
Shish-Ka-toomi introduced her to each member of his clan. She could hardly keep the names straight except the one with the white streak down her snout. She was Toomi-oh, his mate. The pup’s name was shish-Ho-ra.
Toomi-oh led them out of the cavern and into a forest so dark the moon did not break through. This was their home, the cavern simply a barrier between the world of the Nanochkee and Nanoni’s tribe. She followed the flittering lights, gathered several sticks, and cut lengths of vine with the knife she, like all villagers, carried.
She said, “I will have to pull on his paw, to make the bones line up properly. It will hurt and he will cry.”
Toomi-oh said she would hold her son down and not let him bite. Nanoni sang a soothing song as she straightened shish-Ho-ra’s leg and wrapped a crude splint around it. “He should not put weight on it until it heals.”
When she finished, light was filtering through the trees and Nanoni saw a lone hut nearby. “Daylight comes. But if I return to my village, who will care for shish-Ho-ra?”
Shish-Ka-toomi said, “Write a note to your people that you are safe. I will leave it by the spring so when they come for the day’s water, they will find it. You know you will not see them again?”
Nanoni nodded, tore a scrap torn from her nightdress, and with the burnt end of a stick drew a scene of her hugging her parents and little sister and another of her walking away from the village.
What a wondrous place her new home was. She stepped into the hut and picked up the flute on the bed, knowing she was here to replace the last missing villager—her mother’s mother—who had died of old age.
One day, I may return and tell them my adventures.
Claire A. Murray writes mystery, fantasy, and science fiction. “Nanoni and shish-Ka-toomi” will be her eleventh published short story, following fall 2021’s “The Backpack” and “After the Rush Fades.” She is also writing two fantasies, one a novella and the other a trilogy.
A member of Sisters in Crime and the Short Mystery Fiction Society, Claire transplanted from New England to Phoenix, where she writes full time, dabbles in painting, and lives on a steady diet of Zoominars for connection, inspiration, and sanity.
Learn more at cam-writes.com, Where Character, Crime, and Mystery Collide.