Gathering of the Animal Totems and The Human Spirit by John R. Canter

Wong walked under the impossible starry sky, the Human Spirit trailing behind him, towering like a giant, following his footsteps. Wong understood that this was the Spirit World, which explained the purple starlight, enormous blue moon, and colossal tall monoliths that lined his path to the circle up the hill. He could see the faint glow of green, and walked towards it slowly; it was concentrated and thick, nearly a solid halo in the distance. It led him in sight of a gathering of trees and plants, thick and larger-than-life, as if magnified.

He felt small.

He turned to the spirit behind him. “You’re a totem – what should I expect at this meeting?”

The giant smirked. “Technically we’re crashing the party,” he said, with a voice of reverberation that was the way spirits spoke, having a natural extra presence.

“But I thought the call went out to all totems and Champions?”

The human spirit looked ahead into the gathering circle they approached. His own glow was also green, but a different shade of green; it was not like the raw verdant energy of the primal force of nature, but was mixed with inorganic energies, like the yellow flicker of mastered fire, and the reflective gold and grays of worked metals.

“I do not expect a warm welcome,” the Human Spirit said, as another figure moved into view; it was a familiar face stepping out of the shadows, a man with a large green-glowing wolf walking beside him.

“Champion Wolf?” Wong asked. The man saw Wong, and they exchanged salutations; only three weeks ago they had briefly partnered, as two superheroes do sometimes, against a common supervillain threat. While they caught up however, the Wolf Spirit and Human Spirit only stared icily at each other.

“Let us go, Champion,” the glowing spectral wolf bade, “we must not consort with outcasts”.

Wong looked at the Human Spirit, who offered him no explanation. “He’s an outcast spirit? Why?” he asked the wolf.

The wolf only briefly snarled, leading his Champion forward. “Typical – ask him, if you trust him not lie to you; and know that I will send your spirit’s natural enemy to keep you out,” the wolf replied angrily, before they moved off at speed.

Wong looked sidelong at the Human Spirit, who seemed unsurprised. “Well?” Wong prompted.

“Think about it, you’re smart,” the spirit said. “I’ve endangered or killed off practically half of the totems’ species, and several of them are now domesticated, barely recognizable by their peers while under my heel. Humanity, and thus myself, doesn’t have a great relationship with the other animals.”

“And what about this ‘natural enemy’ of yours he mentioned?” Wong asked while continuing to climb up the hill. “Are we going to have to fight … lions? Or sharks or something?”

“Please, I’ve killed lions for sport, and sharks should be more afraid of me.”

“What, then?”

The Human Spirit suddenly didn’t seem so confident. Wong often thought of him as a bit smug at times; other Champions got superpowers keyed to their spirit animal (such as Champion Wolf’s speed and cooperative nature, or how Champion Hawk could fly and had excellent eyesight), so as the “Champion Human,” Wong enjoyed a boost in inventiveness, empathy, and general intelligence (among a few other things), and knew that the Human Spirit often considered itself superior. He couldn’t remember a time when the spirit that gave him his powers didn’t see himself as the master of whatever situation they were in.

“My natural enemy,” the spirit revealed, as a faith buzzing could now be heard, “is mosquitoes”.

Wong understood – humans regularly wiped out whole species without even trying, and often by accident, but the mosquito (and the diseases it carried) killed more people each year than even other people killed people, despite all war and strife. The glowing green cloud of them hovered in the air between them and the busy circle of the gathering.

Wong strained to hear the discussion taking place among the gathered animal spirits, plant spirits, and various men and women who acted as Champions. Wong recognized several superheros: a half-dozen Champion Spiders; a few Champion Bats; a family of Champions Eagle, Falcon, and Hawk. He also recognized several supervillains: a half-dozen Champion Snakes of different kinds, as well as Champion Lizard; and he also saw Champion Beetle and Champion Cat, whose place on that continuum he couldn’t exactly place. He could see superheroes and supervillains, and those somewhere in-between, who were all talking among themselves, but all he could hear was the close-by buzz of mosquitoes. They were a cloud millions-strong, each perhaps harmless by itself, but as a swarm they together made for a powerful repulsive barricade. The Human Spirit pulled Wong back, and addressed the swarm.

“I have no quarrel with you, Mosquito, so please float aside and let us join the discussion. We wish to contribute to the conversation.”

In answer one mosquito emerged from the swarm. “No quarrel today, perhaps!” she retorted in the most annoying high-pitched voice imaginable, complete with spirit-voice reverberation. “I know your kind are always developing some new poison or another. I am content to wait out the meeting entirely, and harry you all night. However this discussion goes, I’ll probably be fine.”

“You goddamn parasite – why isn’t there a specialized disease or wasp to consume you, or something?”

“What is being discussed, anyway?” Wong asked.

“Extinction!” a roar came from out of the crowd. All other chatter died down, even those of the monkeys among the towering trees, and the mosquito cloud move away. Wong saw a tiger – clearly a spirit, not only from the aura of green light and the world-famous Champion Tiger standing beside him, strong and commanding, but from the fact that the tiger was maybe two meters tall at the shoulder. The Tiger Spirit held court as the King of Beasts.

“How dare you, outcast Totem of the Human Animal, show your face around here, especially with a topic such as this,” the Tiger Spirit proclaimed. It was a voice with both loudness and presence; Wong swore the sound activated something ancient in his brain, something that commanded him to take notice. It told him clearly, “predator near: beware!” in the primal panic palpable to all primates once preyed on by big cats.

“Yes, about that,” the Human Spirit began, before being interrupted by Wolf.

“If you’ve come to gloat, you can take your Champion and do it elsewhere, in your terrible stinking cities of metal and plastic. It’s your fault we are all in this mess!” A multi-voiced roar of agreement came up from the crowd – angry howls, squawks and hisses. They issued threats of unified attacks against mankind (some sort of man vs. wildlife war, Wong guessed, which he knew would end badly for both sides, and worse for the animals). Beside their spirit companions, the human Champions, both heroes and villains, stood sheepishly silent, watching the litany unfold.

The Human Spirit said nothing, standing there stoically with arms crossed, and Wong watched. Feeling guilty by association, he took to heart all the complaints of the natural world: the extinction of brother and sister species, the ruin of the seas, the burning of forests and strip-mining of the earth, the changing of the climate, and the spread of deadly chemicals and plastics. Humans were cancer, he heard from the angry throng, a virus, a devourer and breeder without restraint, and the sole cause of all imbalance and malady in the world.

Wong met the gaze of one of the human Champions, but didn’t recognize them; disheveled and unattractive, he seemed perhaps like a C- or D-List supervillain. He saw his look of pity for him, and shame for them all, who had to listen on humanity’s behalf. Around his feet was a large gnarly rat, who was also withdrawn and quiet, as the other more wild animals cursed him.

It occurred to him that rats were doing rather well since human civilization started.

And it also occurred to him that totems chose human Champions for themselves.

“You’re all full of it …” Wong realized aloud, by chance during a lull in the outcry, which became full-blown silence from the surprise of such as an unexpected rebuttal.

“Excuse me?” a bull spirit bellowed.

Wong realized the proverbial spotlight had fallen on himself. Even the Human Spirit, naturally curious, was waiting to see what happened next. He began, “You’re all full of it … because many of you already know … many of you spirits have chosen human Champions to herald and field your interests: survival!”

Several of the spirits looked around at each other, and at the human superheroes and villains in their midst. A few of the heroes stood proud at the conservation work they had championed; from some others he was shot expressions of “don’t drag me into this,” and similar worried faces.

Wong continued, “It may be that humans are the cause of these extinctions … oh, who am I kidding, WE ARE! However! That doesn’t mean we cannot fix the problem we started. Otherwise none of you would have selected Champions like those that stand alongside you now.”

“He’s right,” Champion Tiger added. “Our species may have caused such damage, but we recognize our faults and want to make things better. Those who don’t because of convenience or greed … we don’t want people in our societies that don’t care about the world that they themselves live in, and with both national policy and personal shame we act accordingly.”

“That’s why we teach each other,” Wong said, “and share our concerns. To do something before it’s too late.”

“It is too late,” the Tiger Spirit said. “Too much damage has been done to the Earth. We are to understand your scientists have declared that we are in a Great Mass Extinction event, which we animals have subtly, but definitely, felt since ten thousand years ago: when the human species came to be as it is now. That you are guilty of this thoughtless massacre, this senseless consumption, is not in question; nor, it is revealed, that there are many of you doing something to prevent the destruction. But it is too little too late. The effects are too extreme now – it would take miracles beyond nature to restore nature.”

“We have a word for that,” the Human Spirit offered suddenly, “we call that, ‘Technology’”. He stepped forward, pulling a small plastic device from his pocket, which displayed a volumetric image into the air. As the holographic video played, he explained, “Human scientists, both superhero and mundane, are working to create de-extinction technology – I don’t expect you animals to understand how it works, but know that it can take the reproductive seed of a given creature and create young for them, even if every last living member is already gone”. The display cut then to a picture of three full-grown woolly mammoths in Siberian grasslands, which caused a stir among the elephant spirits. “Now, the technology is far from perfect, and needs a lot of improvement … but this is currently the best shot we have for a kind of lifeboat situation.”

Previous murmurs of human eradication eventually ceased; the more clever spirits and Champions explained to the less intelligent animals the situation. Even if humans, the supposed enemy of all nature, vanished tomorrow, the effects of their impacts would continue to be felt and cause extinctions and disruptions; but if they remained, the human race could both try to steer things back on course and use their technology, likely improved in the future, to bring back any animals and plants lost (and thus those spirits in the audience most at-risk). As the discussion drew down, the formerly pondering Tiger Spirit raised a growl, and the court of totems fell silent.

He proclaimed, “If this option can yield these results, we will follow this course for now, since it may lead to the most of us surviving, compared instead to strife. While we will continue from our side, as spirits, to guide our Champions to ensure our individual and collective survival, we will leave you, Champion Human and Human Spirit, and all the human race, to develop this science to do what you say it will – what it must. Understand that we will be watching closely.”

As with all adjourned meetings the discussion straggled on, while others left to continue on with their lives. After much questioning by the humans and spirits either curious or slow, Wong and the Human Spirit eventually left and walked back down the hill. They would walk some time under the enchanted sky of the Spirit World until distance of mind brought them back to material reality.

“I guess we dodged a bullet there, so to speak,” Wong said to his patron totem, back home. “All of us, human, animal, and spirit.”

The Human Spirit, present (but not physically so), said nothing.

“I didn’t realize the technology was already so advanced; it’s not exactly my field, after all, as an anthropologist.”

“It’s not.”

“… What do you mean, ‘it’s not’?”

“The technology’s not there. What I showed on the display ball1 was a mock-up, an artist’s rendition of what it might look like, that I had seen before. Human screen technology advances all the time, because you all love TV, but biomedicial stuff is a lot slower.”

“So you lied?”

“Yes and no. Yes, I lied: the technology can’t, today, do what I promised, and human ethics could easily stop everything about it. But also, no: we certainly could, and likely will, resurrect extinct species someday, as the science advances.”

“Then why would you say otherwise at the meeting?”

Wong could feel the spirit’s present confidence again, and hear the smirk in his voice. “I do what all life-forms do, and play by the singular rule of life: whatever it takes to survive, even lying. And I also do what I do best: manipulating the natural world to my goals. Never forget that, Wong.”

Wong enjoyed the powers he gained from the spirit that allowed him to masquerade as a superhero. In that moment he finally worked up the courage to ask a question that had been gnawing at him for some time.

“Are you evil?” Wong asked the Human Spirit.

Again, the smirk. “I’m more human that human, Wong. And humans are, at their core, complicated.”

1Technically a spiritual facsimile of one.

(Featured image by Jan Curtis.)

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