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Volume 4795
A Barsoomian Folktale in English Text
Geary Gravel

Thark Head by Paul Privitera
Solo Paxis surveyed the dead sea bottom with a sigh.  Ocher moss covered the ground for miles in all directions.

Just that morning he had been traveling in the temporary capacity of cook and groom with a small band of panthans, when his party suddenly encountered a great caravan of green men making their way home from a distant incubator.  A hundred swords were drawn.  Amid the shouts and the clang of metal, Solo Paxis quietly borrowed a small thoat from his comrades and departed to seek his fortune in more civilized surroundings. 

 Though modest in stature, this thoat had proven to be even more ill-tempered than most of its kind.  It had not reacted well to Solo Paxis’ efforts to encourage it to swiftness by means of his heels in its flanks and the flat of his sword between its ears.  It soon threw him from its back and raced off squealing in the direction of the battle.

 Unfortunately, the sack filled with food that he had appropriated along with the thoat had departed with it, leaving Solo Paxis in the middle of nowhere with little more than his harness and a sword.

 “One direction is as good as another when a man has neither mount nor nourishment,” Solo Paxis observed with a shrug.  He took a draft from his waterskin and started walking. 

 After half a day’s walk he felt a slight twinge of hunger.  After a day he was quite hungry, and after two long days he found himself desperate for anything edible.  He sat down to think on an outcropping of quartz.

 “The lower beasts subsist for months on nothing more than moss,” reasoned Solo Paxis.  “Why, to a thoat or zitidar this ocher carpet would be a jeddak’s banquet!”  Kneeling, he proceeded to stuff clumps of the tough moss into his mouth.  Soon after he had finished eating, his stomach began to growl menacingly like a banth on the prowl.  He walked on, his hunger only slightly abated.

 “Meat and leather share the same origins,” reasoned Solo Paxis.  “In point of fact, leather is no more than fresh meat grown wise with experience.”  Starting a small fire with a handful of moss and the flint in his pocket pouch, he carefully roasted his right sandal until it was black on both sides.  Soon after he had devoured it, his belly began to swell alarmingly like a startled optang.

 Solo Paxis reclined on a large flat rock in an effort to calm his raging belly. From the corner of his eye he saw a flash of purple deep in a crack in the rock’s surface. 

“Certainly those are the leaves of the mantalia plant,” he told himself.  “I can derive much nourishment from the milk of a single small sprout.”  He stretched his hand down into the opening, but could not reach far enough no matter how he strained.  Drawing his sword, he pried at the crevice, but the rock was unyielding.  In frustration, Solo Paxis hacked at the edge of the opening, soon breaking his sword in two and sending the more important half down into the crevice.  This action disturbed the darseen that had been asleep there.  The tiny reptile sprang from the crack, changed its color from purple to ocher, and raced away across the moss.  Narrowing his eyes, Solo Paxis muttered a few words to his First Ancestor.  He replaced what was left of his sword in its scabbard, rose to his feet and trudged on. 

 Weariness and hunger slowed his steps to a crawl.  Just when he felt he could walk no farther, he stumbled over a rise and came upon an ancient red man sitting alone in a wooden cart.  For a small man, he sported a very large head, Solo Paxis observed, and he was almost totally bald, with but a single tuft of grey hair rising up from his forehead like a wisp of smoke.  The wagon was filled with many strange devices, all connected to one another by wires and tubes.  These formed a tower that rose far above the old man, while more of the same littered the ground all around the cart.  Nearby stood a plump thoat, grazing placidly on moss.

 “Greetings!” cried the little man, lovingly caressing the lights and levers on the nearest machine.  “I am Varor Otz, the great scientist.”

 “Greetings!” replied Solo Paxis, resting his hand confidently on the remnant of broken sword hiding in its scabbard.  “I am Kwasor Kor, the celebrated panthan.”

 He eyed the cart, which was leaning severely to one side.  “By what mischance did you come to be marooned out here?  Your vehicle appears to have lost its left rear wheel.”

 “Not at all!” Varor Otz retorted.  “The devoted scientist makes use of his materials as a lover employs the parts of his body.  I have merely altered that object’s location and function in the service of an important experiment.”  He gestured to where the missing wheel now protruded midway up the tower of machinery.  “But what of your own unusual situation?  Your right foot appears to have lost its sandal.”

 “Not at all!” Solo Paxis responded.  “The zealous warrior must command his body as a general leads his troops.  Noticing recently that my right foot had grown a trifle less tough than the left, I discarded its cushion and immediately embarked upon a routine of strict discipline designed to correct the imbalance.  When the slacker has redeemed himself, I have but to slay the nearest banth and fashion a new sandal from its hide.  But may I inquire as to what you are doing out here in a wagon that will not roll?”

 “Indeed!”  The little man disembarked from the canted cart by means of a short rope ladder.  “You see before you the first man in half a million years wise enough to comprehend the science of the various planetary and solar rays.  I alone have the knowledge to construct a device for the extraction of the repulsive virtues once well-known to our ancestors.  For two hundred years have I labored at my craft, the last ten out here where I might obtain the solitude I require.”  Varor Otz cocked his head toward a cup-like metal shield that sat atop the tower of machinery and lowered his voice confidentially.  “Soon, when I have overcome a few minor obstacles, and my collector has finally accumulated enough of the Eighth Barsoomian Ray, then shall I fill the tanks of my cart and cause it to soar through the heavens like a gigantic wooden bird!”  The old man cackled with laughter.  “Is it not wonderful?”

 Solo Paxis smiled politely.  As is the custom on Barsoom, he had been counseled by his mother almost from the egg to tell the truth without fail.  As he grew older, however, he had quickly learned that the insane and feeble-minded rarely appreciated being addressed as such. 

 “I can see that your equipment is quite valuable,” declared Solo Paxis.  “For no more than my meals, a few gold coins and the use of your cart as my bed, I shall provide protection against the bold thieves and deadly monsters that roam these desolate sea bottoms by day and by night.” 

 Varor Otz examined the newcomer with open skepticism.  “In fact you are the first creature of any sort that I have encountered in many months.  I need no protection beyond my sword and pistols and I have no funds to give, though I will share my food with you.  I myself sleep in the cart, but you are welcome to lie next to the thoat for warmth.”

 Solo Paxis pondered the old man’s words.  “I accept these minor modifications to my offer,” he said with a stiff bow.  “Doubtless my mere presence will provide ample disincentive to those savages who would molest you.”  At that moment his stomach produced a loud growl of dissatisfaction.  Solo Paxis coughed into his fist.  “I would put forth no protest were our first communal repast to commence at once as a seal to our agreement.”

 The old man shot a calculating glance at the swiftly setting sun.  “You are fortunate in that your arrival coincides with the time appointed for the evening meal,” he observed.  Solo Paxis seated himself on the moss and watched with interest as the little scientist lifted a heavy curtain that hung from the side of the wagon and drew forth one of several wooden casks.  Something glimmered bright as gold under the cart behind him.  Solo Paxis craned his neck to see it, whereupon Varor Otz raised a disapproving eyebrow and pulled the curtain down with a sharp tug.

 The old scientist carried over two platters.   He handed one to Solo Paxis, who was licking his lips in anticipation, and opened the cask.  Taking a metal spoon from a clasp on his harness, he ladled a tiny whitish mound onto each platter.  He closed the cask, set his own platter down on top of it, and began to devour the mound in small, precise spoonfuls.  “Delicious as always!” he exclaimed.  Solo Paxis sat unmoving, eyeing his still largely empty platter without enthusiasm.  “Eat!” said Varor Otz magnanimously.  “Do not stand on ceremony, for we have but the one utensil.  Choose fingers or tongue to empty your plate—only the thoat and I will see!”  He gave his cackling laugh and resumed his fastidious dining.

 Solo Paxis grunted.   “I was merely wondering whether this half-mouthful of mashed fruit constituted the whole of the banquet, or was but the first of many and larger courses.”

 “One generous helping of usa twice each day,” replied the old man.  “We live well but frugally here, disdaining the unnecessary and the extravagant.  You will find no candied sorapus or roast rump of zitidar at the table of Varor Otz.”

 “Nor will I find a table,” muttered Solo Paxis, balancing the platter on his knees.  His mouth watered at the thought of cooked flesh and sweetened nutmeats.  He sighed, popped the slimy ball into his mouth and swallowed. The usa was sticky and tasteless.

  After dinner Varor Otz repaired to his cart.  There he made a series of adjustments to his instrument tower by means of an eight-foot spear that had hooks and pincers of various sizes attached to one end.  Solo Paxis sat massaging his swollen right foot, and staring thoughtfully at the curtain which concealed the underside of the wagon.  At length the old scientist announced that it was time for bed and set about preparing himself a great soft nest of sleeping silks and furs in the middle of the wagon.  He leaned over the edge of the cart, his pistol held loosely in one hand, and addressed his guest.  “Sleep soundly and without troubling dreams! And remember: this evening I have fed you well and threatened your wellbeing with neither poison nor longsword.  Kindly repay me by neither touching nor attempting to examine the various devices in, under or around my cart at any time.  As a tidbit of unrelated information, I might add that I myself am a light sleeper and prone to shooting wildly in all directions if suddenly awakened.”

Solo Paxis dismissed the admonition with a sniff of disdain and turned to prepare his own sleeping quarters.  The old man had vouchsafed him a single ragged fur from his hoard.  This Solo Paxis was obliged to spread out on the springy moss next to the thoat, which had finally lowered its bulk onto the ground after several minutes of restless circling at the edge of the encampment.  He lay next to the snoring beast and gazed thoughtfully at the hanging curtain beneath the cart as the sun slipped below the horizon and darkness spread across the land. 

 Soon weird shadows danced across the landscape as the two moons rose and began their hurtling journeys through the sky.  Flirtatious Thuria raced low above the hills while Cluros, her oblivious husband, plodded drowsily far above.

 Contrary to their probable intention, the old man’s words had only served to fan the spark of curiosity that had been ignited in Solo Paxis’ brain.  Was it something of great value he had glimpsed, golden and glowing beneath the curtain?

 Solo Paxis clamped his eyelids shut and turned to face the broad, glossy side of the sleeping thoat.  Surely it was wiser to follow his original plan to scoop a few handfuls of the tasteless fruit mash into his pocket pouch before making his departure on the thoat in as discreet a manner as possible in the middle of the night?  Not for the first time, prudence and curiosity warred in Solo Paxis’ brain.  The battle raged for some time before reaching its inevitable conclusion, for it was always curiosity that marshaled the fiercer legions.

 Solo Paxis waited until the old scientist was snoring contentedly in his silks and furs.  Creeping to the side of the cart, he slowly pulled back the hanging.

 Beneath the curtain, a weird honeycomb of narrow metal containers had been fastened to the underside of the wagon.  At their center hung a great glass sphere, connected by a tube running up the outside of the cart to the cupped metal shield at the top of the tower.  Solo Paxis’ eyes grew wide.  The orb was almost filled with a glowing, honey-colored substance that moved and swam like a mist of living sunshine.  He stared at it, mesmerized, and tried to recall what the old man had been babbling about.  Flying carts and collectors and planets and the Sun himself?  The golden mist was like nothing he had ever seen before.

 The golden glow evoked fond memories of the delicious honey his mother had fed him when he was a youth.  Solo Paxis licked his lips.  Hadn’t there been tales of bees as big as carts in far-off lands, giant insects soaring through the air?  He believed he understood now why the old man had hidden himself away out here in the middle of a dead sea bottom.  Varor Otz was collecting honey—honey distilled from the Sun’s own nectar transported down to the surface of Barsoom by honeybees the size of thoats!  His mind reeled at the image.  Yet what other answer could there be?  No doubt the creatures mistook the strange metal cup atop the tower for a great silver flower!

 Solo Paxis’ stomach crooned with longing.  The cold mouthful of usa, while adding to the variety of items in his tortured belly, had done little to calm its complaints and nothing at all to assuage his hunger.  The inviting golden mist swirled and swam.  If he could have just one taste!

 Kneeling, he reached out a trembling hand and carefully removed the tube from the side of the great sphere.  Quickly pressing his own lips to the opening in the orb, he drew a tiny quantity of the golden mist into his mouth.

 The flavor was subtle and unlike anything he had ever tasted.  The inside of his mouth tingled as he took another small sip, and then a larger one.  Each swallow made him long for more.

 Solo Paxis consumed draft after draft of the marvelous Sun honey.  Finally sated, he got to his feet and stepped back from the cart, his eyes closed in dreamy satisfaction.  The sweet mist suffused his entire body with a tingling warmth.  He felt reinvigorated and free of life’s cares.  Even his feet felt refreshed, and he was no longer conscious of the annoying rasp of stiff moss against his bare right sole. 

 He heard the thoat snort as if in its sleep, yet sounding strangely far away. Solo Paxis felt a twinge of alarm.  Could the beast have wandered off from the encampment?  He opened his eyes and gasped in utter disbelief.  He was standing on empty air, a good ten feet above the ground.

 “Help!” he screamed in terror.  “Help me!”  He waved his arms and legs, which caused him to spin around in the air like a loose wagon wheel.  His left sandal shot off his foot and struck the side of the cart just as Varor Otz lifted his great head from his mound of silks and furs.

 “Here, now!” Varor Otz blinked sleepily up at him.  “What are you doing swimming around up there?”  The old man snatched up his pistol and hurried down the rope ladder.  His face darkened with rage as he took in the open curtain and the now half-empty sphere beneath it.

 “Thief!  Thief!  Come back!” he shouted as Solo Paxis continued to rotate helplessly above the camp.  “You have stolen the work of two hundred years!”  He cocked his head to one side and peered dumbfounded as Solo Paxis clawed frantically at his throat and rubbed his swollen belly.  “By my First Ancestor!” he cried in disbelief.  “You ingested it?”

 “Dinner proved insufficient to my needs,” Solo Paxis called down with what dignity he could muster, “and I did not wish to intrude upon your slumber.”  He belched loudly.

 Varor Otz tugged at his single tuft of grey hair, deep in thought.  “It would seem impossible,” he mused.  “You have swallowed half my store of the concentrated Eighth Ray, yet still you jabber and exhibit other signs of life.  Your stomach must be lined with iron!”

 “On the contrary,” Solo Paxis replied. “It is in fact filled with quantities of moss and foot leather, as well as a barely perceptible amount of mashed fruit.”  He uttered a sudden strangled yelp as a small updraft bore him several inches higher into the moonlit darkness.  “Have you any plans to return me to my proper place on Barsoom before Thuria decapitates me in her passing?”

 The old man hefted his hooked spear with a grunt and clambered back into his cart.  After several attempts, he managed to snag Solo Paxis’ harness and draw him slowly down out of the sky.  Varor Otz descended the ladder with the other man trailing after him like a wounded bird.  Turning Solo Paxis around, he guided his hands to the railing that ran along the edge of the cart.  “Grasp tightly!” he commanded. 

 Standing close behind him, the old man grabbed Solo Paxis about the ribs and proceeded to squeeze with all his might.  When Solo Paxis opened his mouth to protest, a great golden cloud burst forth from his lips.  The sparkling mist rose before his eyes and dispersed into the night air.  At the same time, he felt the ground begin to press up against the soles of his feet once more.

   “I should decapitate you myself for threatening to destroy the labor of many years.”  The old man’s voice quaked with conflicting emotions.  “Yet as a consequence of your duplicity and greed I have learnt that packing a container with organic materials appears to greatly magnify the buoyant qualities of the Eighth Ray!”

 Solo Paxis paid no attention.  The world was spinning dizzily and his ribs and belly ached.  He lowered himself gently to the ground, alternately clutching his head and his sides while Varor Otz bustled excitedly about the camp.  Strange noises issued from the wagon as the old man gathered up various items and fed them into his many machines.  Eventually the night grew quiet again.

 Solo Paxis roused from his stupor when he heard a cackling cry of triumph and the creak of wood from somewhere close above him.  He peered up in astonishment to see the cart itself rising rapidly skyward from the moss.  The old man had gathered up the litter of machinery from the ground and now an even higher tower of metal and sparkling lights topped the conveyance.  Varor Otz appeared to be fashioning something out of the rope ladder and his sleeping silks and furs, using the hooked spear to attach them to various places as the cart began to drift slowly southward.

 Solo Paxis leapt to his feet, but the cart was already above his outstretched arms.  “Wait! Wait!” he cried.  “You cannot abandon me here!  Is this how I am to be repaid for my recent contributions to science?” He glanced down as his foot brushed against a few scraps of leather in the moss.  “Aha!  Now who is the thief?  Having perverted my own research for your benefit, you have robbed me of my remaining sandal!”

 Varor Otz cupped a wrinkled hand by his mouth.  “You must agree that the motivation behind your experimentation was less than altruistic,” he called down.  “At any rate, you may have the thoat.  Her name is Sunbeam, and she responds well to the hand of a gentle master.”

 Solo Paxis turned a thoughtful eye on the animal, which had continued to snore peacefully through the night’s excitement.  “This indeed begins to even the score for the loss of my excellent left sandal,” he called up.  “But what shall I live on while you speed home to fame and fortune?  Surely such rare circumstances justify a final division of your best victuals!”

 “Your demands are endless!” Varor Otz complained, his voice growing fainter as the light-spangled cart continued to drift away.  He paused in his labors and bent down into the wagon.  “Here, then.  Feast like a prince!”

 Something rolled off the edge of the cart and hurtled down through the darkness.  Striking an outcropping of rock not far from the sleeping thoat, the wooden cask exploded in a white fountain of mashed fruit.  With a squeal of terror, the animal sprang to her feet and took off in a mad dash after the floating cart.

 Solo Paxis pursued her halfheartedly for a few paces.  He bent over to catch his breath by the shattered cask, his feet sliding in sticky mush.  High above, the old man had succeeded in spreading a makeshift sail.  A strong breeze caught the patchwork of silks and furs and the wagon floated away like a flashing ember toward the southeast, Varor Otz waving his hands above his head in a final salute to Solo Paxis.  Soon he and Sunbeam had dwindled to a pair of tiny specks converging on the far horizon, and then they were both gone, lost in the sunrise. 

 Solo Paxis surveyed the dead sea bottom with a sigh.  Ocher moss covered the ground for miles in all directions.

Notes on the untranslated words:
1. panthan: traveling mercenary fighter (literally wandering + fighting)
2. thoat: Barsoomian steed and beast of burden (lit. carry + I)
3. zitidar: mastodonian draft animal with a penchant for  stampeding (lit. charging + unchanging)
4. jeddak: ruler of a nation, king of kings (lit. kings + with)
5. banth: fearsome Barsoomian predator (lit. roaring)
6. optang: small animal known for inflating its body when startled (lit. air + fierce)
7. mantalia: “sustenance tree” (lit. sustenance + milk)
8. darseen: small color-changing reptile (lit. changing + skin)
9. usa: tasteless, highly nutritious fruit staple (lit. filling)
10. sorapus: “answered prayer”—hardwood tree producing tasty nuts (lit. answering + to pray)
Proper Names:
Solo Paxis translates literally to Maddened by Curiosity.
Varor Otz means Large Brain.
Kwasor Kor is most accurately rendered in English as  Mighty Rump.


Recommended Related Works
On Barsoomian Names
By John Grey Calvert and Talo Thoran
Part I: ERBzine 5157
Part II: ERBzine 5158

A New Map of Barsoom by Oberon Zell


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