Spirit Flight

Kathleen Sands
Featured Image: Abstract 5 © reports from Luke 2017

The Shaman Queen had last been seen three thousand years ago. Now Yulia looked at the corpse—the mossy eye sockets, the shaved scalp, the fantastic tattoos still inky against the leathery skin—and was surprised at the words that came into her head: Egherde, aga. Greetings, sister. Had she said these words or heard them?

The permafrost-preserved mummy had been buried in the glacial mountains of eastern Siberia when the population of Earth was only fifty million, less than half the population of Tokyo in 2054. Now it lay on a makeshift bier of wooden planks inside the unheated work tent. Assigned to the mountains to field-process the burial that had been uncovered during oil drilling, Dr. Anatoly Tishkov’s team represented universities from all over the world. The team members spoke Japanese, Spanish, English, and Kituba, their speech simultranslated to sound into each other’s earbugs in the language preferred by the receiver. Now they crowded around the corpse, laughing and talking excitedly: “The Shaman Queen! The Shaman Queen!”

But Yulia, oblivious to her noisy team members, felt only the presence of the ancestor. Yulia, a graduate student in virology, and Dr. Tishkov, a bioarcheologist and professor, represented North Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in Yakutsk. They spoke to each other through the air, not through their earbugs, in Sakha, their shared indigenous language. The Shaman Queen was their kinswoman. Yulia remembered a childhood story about a beautiful lady whose sixty golden locks of hair were the rays of the sun, whose sable coat was always open to receive a cold child, and whose cap was always knocked askew by her lover’s passion. Was that your life, sister? Yulia looked into the mossy sockets.

Apart from the primary corpse, the work tent also contained the recovered grave attendants and goods: a servant, two mounted guards, a dog team and sled, a pair of falcons, clothing and jewelry, food and drink, and fly agaric—hallucinogenic mushrooms that enabled the shaman to “fly.” The team needed to clean, stabilize, and package all these specimens and artifacts before they could be transported to NEFU for further study and eventual display.

While her teammates worked on the other specimens and artifacts, Yulia attended to the Shaman Queen. She lay belly down on the wooden bier, carefully wiping individual crystals of permafrost out of the queen’s eyes and mouth with a small brush. Her respirator prevented her breath from damaging the ancient face. When her ungloved left hand got too cold to work, she switched to her right. Her ambidexterity was Dr. Tishkov’s jokey reason for assigning her this painstaking job. She worked for hours without taking a break, far into the night.

Preliminary field tests showed that the Shaman Queen had been about thirty years old when she died. The tests also showed that the cause of her death was smallpox. Each night when Dr. Tishkov made Yulia quit work and go to the sleeping tent, she learned about smallpox by pulling data from the project cloud to her earbug. Her education and training had only skimmed the subject because that disease had been eradicated long before she was born. Now she needed to understand more.

The Variola virus. Smallpox. Killer of Chinese emperors and Egyptian pharaohs long before the Shaman Queen had lived and died. Plague of Athens, Mogadishu, Beijing, and other cities ancient and modern. Assassin of monarchs and mothers, imams and infants, Cherokees and children. Smallpox had infected entire populations, killed a third, transformed the rest into murderers of their own species. Destroyed three hundred million people in the twentieth century before its eradication in 1980.

Yulia shivered and closed her eyes. Sometimes she slept. When she couldn’t sleep, she quietly returned to the work tent where she stood tall, fingers interlaced high over her head, and leaned side to side to stretch the stiffness out of her back. The corpse’s impenetrable stillness prompted her to move.

As she stretched, she tried to remember the last time she’d heard from her mother. After the death of her father, Yulia and her mother had faced off across the empty space where he should have been, striking out at each other in angry grief. They had not known it while he was alive, but he had been the buffer between the two women’s sharp corners. After he was gone, Yulia began to hear her mother’s judgments of her—shy, plain, insufficiently heterosexual, overly studiousas a lack of love, not (as her mother insisted) as expressions of concern for her welfare. Yulia held her ground and her breath until she could escape to the university. Although she and her mother were on civil terms now, they didn’t communicate very often. They were both busy.

Three months later, the Shaman Queen and her entourage were ready to travel to NEFU’s Research and Diagnostic Laboratory in Yakutsk. The other team members had a final drink together before leaving for their universities in Kyoto, Santiago, Brisbane, and Kinshasa. At the party, Dr. Tishkov announced his retirement.

Much work remained to be done: complete removal of the permafrost matrix, creation of the polymer matrix, data entry, 3-D mapping of the excavation, biopsies and lab analyses, cataloguing and labeling, and more. But Yulia finally had the Shaman Queen to herself.


Two years later a conservator, rebinding a 1761 edition of Morgagni’s De sedibus, the foundation text for the science of pathological anatomy, failed to notice a paper scrap adhering to his shirt cuff. He was in Washington, D.C., in the Library of Congress’s cold storage wing, an environment designed to protect precious nondigital books from thermal and seismic threat. After he left the conservation lab to go eat lunch in the library’s crowded café, he shared a table, a stack of paper napkins, and a pepper grinder with a researcher from Nairobi and two tourists from Dallas. Before and after lunch, he washed his hands in the men’s room standing next to travelers from Taos, Riyadh, and Seoul. During the afternoon, he attended a training session in the library’s auditorium with five hundred other conservation specialists from around the world. His jacket hung in the cloakroom alongside theirs. As usual, he went home on the subway, catching his first train at Capitol South and his second at Metro Center. As usual, the stations, platforms, and trains pulsed with people.

Two weeks later, a Delhi woman died. Many possible causes of death were proposed and eliminated. By the time a diagnosis of smallpox was confirmed, an infant in Chicago had died of the same. Then two people in Jakarta. More in Manila, Karachi, and Mumbai. More and more and more in Kabul, Beirut, São Paulo, Lagos, Mexico City, Managua, Paris, Dresden . . .

The paper scrap stuck to the conservator’s sleeve had enclosed a smallpox scab that had fallen out of the book’s old binding. Neither the scrap nor the scab was ever suspected or discovered. The conservator—the former conservator—survived, scarred and blinded.

Forty of the world’s major urban areas were quarantined as smallpox pandemic zones; hundreds more reported cases. Enraged citizens shot public health officers. Adolescents with severe acne were mistaken for smallpox carriers and beaten to death. Public buildings, mass transit systems, and schools closed. Garbage and corpses piled up. Citizens looted stores; doom-mongers intentionally infected others to hasten the coming of the apocalypse. Riots, mob rule, internment camps, mass destruction of infrastructure, and coups d’états were daily fare.

The world’s governments had been reasonably well prepared for global pandemics of HIV, Ebola, Marburg, dengue, and other viral killers. But smallpox had dropped out of public consciousness during the previous half-century. The World Health Organization’s list of the twenty viruses most lethal to humankind didn’t include smallpox. The infectious disease protocols adopted by national, regional, and local governments didn’t address smallpox. No one had been vaccinated against smallpox for three generations. No known smallpox vaccine was effective against the three-hundred-year-old strain. No manufacturer was prepared to create sufficient quantities of any vaccine to protect nine and a half billion people.

The world was mired in helplessness.


Yulia’s team submitted the Shaman Queen to photomicrography, CT scanning, nuclear and mitrochrondrial DNA profiling, isotopic analysis, nutritional profiling, hair and fingernail analyses, serological and osteological testing, and X-ray crystallography. They extracted and analyzed smallpox data from the world’s scientific literature and supervised international data exchanges with other research laboratories. They eliminated hypothesis after hypothesis, as good scientists do, and kept on working.

Yulia didn’t go home for months. She slept on a couch in the common room so she could be first into the lab each morning and last out each night. She bathed and laundered her clothes in the lab’s basement. She and her mother, who was five time zones away in Moscow, earbugged each other more frequently now than formerly. When she couldn’t sleep and was too wired or too tired to be useful in the lab, she went to the Shaman Queen’s little room and paced around the acrylic case, propping a foot on the rail to stretch her hamstrings, shrugging her shoulders backward and forward. She bent to rest her forehead and fingertips against the case, closed her eyes, and whispered, “Aga, bahalusta komolos.” Sister, please help me.


The solution Yulia’s team finally developed involved no vaccines, no needles, no patches, no sprays, no air guns, no health workers, no pharmaceutical manufacturers, no need for person-to-person contact. And no cost.

It was a low ultrasound frequency that disrupted the reproductive signal of the Variola virus, transforming the viral offspring from pathogenic to antigenic. The infected human body inoculated itself, automatically delivering immunity in exact proportion to the original infection. No chance of under- or overdose. The original high level of contagion remained the same, so virus carriers would continue to infect nearly everyone with whom they shared air or water. And since each virus would now spawn millions of mutated viruses, herd immunity would develop rapidly and completely. As far as the team could predict, the ultrasound signal would have no effect on any organism other than the Variola virus, although of course they had no time to conduct any longitudinal studies. It was now or never.

The original signal would be transmitted automatically through the worldnet. Launched from Yulia’s lab to its own network, and from that network to other networks, and so on. The networked population of the world would be immunized within a few days, the unnetworked population whenever they came into shared airspace with someone from the networked. Unnetworked people living in sparsely populated rural areas might never be immunized, but neither would they need to be.

Yulia was up all night before the implementation meeting. She hadn’t heard from her mother for more than a week. Locking herself in the room with the Shaman Queen, she paced and stretched, sat in lotus, crouched in fetal. Tree pose, downward dog, warrior pose. Earbugged her mother. No answer. Held onto the rail around the mummy’s acrylic case and used it as a barre, stretching her left leg out and back. Her right. Earbugged her mother; no answer. Stood sideways to the rail; first position, second, third, fourth, fifth, fourth, third, second, first. Bent into demi-plié, then grand plié. Earbugged her mother; no answer. Held the barre; left front kick, left side kick, left back kick. Right. Earbugged her mother; no answer. Abandoned the barre; ready stance, front stance, back stance, horse stance. Earbugged her mother; no answer. High punch, middle punch, low punch, knife hand. Earbugged her mother; no answer. Stood facing the Shaman Queen; collapsed forward, face buried in her forearms crossed against the acrylic case. Whispered, “Iyé, bahalusta horuda.” Mother, please answer.

Yulia’s team came to the implementation meeting next morning prepared for a long, complicated discussion. They’d read up on government protocols, international laws concerning “trespass to the person,” public education programs, and various religious grounds for refusal. They’d drafted press releases, educational literature, and consent forms for individuals and governments. They waited for Yulia with voices, earbugs, and screens buzzing.

Yulia came in and sat at the head of the table, body thin as her sleep, skin sallow, hair dry, eyes ancient. When the others quieted and looked at her, she said, “It’s done. I sent the signal this morning. I’ll ask forgiveness later. They can fire me, fine me, imprison me, execute me. I don’t care. Done.”

Her team silently watched her stand up and leave the room.


Yulia was praised, congratulated, and fêted. She received prize money, plaques, letters from school children, honorary doctorates, invitations to appear on talk shows and magazine covers, offers of home and personal makeovers, and demands for photo ops with grinning world leaders. She deflected what she could onto her department chair, university president, and team members. The rest she ignored, earning the trite public sobriquet of “reclusive genius.” Never enthusiastically sociable, she felt less willing than ever to pose, smile, and parrot sixty-second sound bites. The ultrasound vaccine, though preventing the deaths of millions of strangers, hadn’t prevented the death of her mother, one of the last to die in the Moscow epidemic.

Yulia began to spend less time in the lab and more time with the Shaman Queen. Locked inside the mummy’s room, she stilled her mind by shaking out her arms and legs, bending and twisting her torso. She did chainé turns, ganchos, moonwalks. Windmills, headspins, hand hops. “Kenul!” she whispered. Freedom! The corpse watched from inside the acrylic case; Yulia’s mother watched from who knew where.

Her department head watched from inside her office and worried about the tasks that weren’t getting done. The world was focused on Siberian medical research as never before, and now was when the university had to respond. New research programs had to be proposed, staff hired, facilities expanded, media platforms developed, legislation drafted, budgets written, policies updated. One of the most urgent tasks on the department head’s to-do list was the creation of a world-class exhibit for the Shaman Queen. Now that the corpse had become an international celebrity, it could not continue to reside in an unpainted, low-ceilinged, badly-lit room adjacent to Yulia’s basement lab. It needed an exhibit worthy of the Shaman Queen’s reputation and of the millions of faithful around the world who clamored to make the pilgrimage to Yakutsk to view the medical holy of holies. But Yulia was not getting around to that task.

The department head called Dr. Tishkov. After he’d retired from NEFU, he’d gone on to become president of the Siberian Shamans’ Society and then of the International Association of Indigenous Spiritual Practitioners. As an anthropologist, he looked at the world from the inside out. (He had sometimes sparred with Yulia on this point. As a scientist, she looked at the world from the outside in.)

He unlocked the Shaman Queen’s door with the department head’s key and walked in. He hadn’t seen Yulia in three years and barely contained his distress at her appearance. She sat on the floor, eyes closed, head back against the acrylic case. He spoke to her in Sakha: “Dr. Karamzin, I presume?” The old Yulia would have laughed, stood up, and hugged him.

The new Yulia kept her eyes closed and said, “Tolya. What are you doing here?”

“I’d like a tour. Haven’t seen this exhibit yet, you know.”

“You haven’t?” She opened her eyes and slowly stood, bracing herself against the acrylic case. “Sure—although there’s nothing here that really requires a tour.” She looked around the room, seeing it as he saw it: muddy photographs of the excavation tacked to the walls, small black-and-white line drawings of the layout of the corpses and artifacts in the ground, text panels with dry, scholarly definitions of archeology, mummy, shaman, and other vocabulary in a conservative twelve-point font. In the middle of the plain white room, illuminated by a harsh overhead light, the small, bare corpse lay in its transparent coffin. Dead. The whole room was dead.

Tolya sighed and looked at Yulia.

Yulia winced and looked at the corpse.

Tolya watched Yulia watching the corpse. “I was sorry to hear about your mother.”

Yulia, head down, nodded. “Thank you. But I know you’re here to kick my butt about the new exhibit.”

He put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m here because I wanted to see you. I think you already know what shamans think about death. It’s not the end. There is no end. Death is transformation. Spirit flight.”

Yulia grimaced and said in a low voice, “Well, she certainly has transformed. No one who knew her in life would recognize her now.”

Tolya smiled. “Maybe not. But when a bird leaves its egg, it’s still a bird. The broken shell isn’t the bird.”

“Maybe the broken shell is all that’s left.”

“How could that be? The bird doesn’t evaporate. It’s invisible to you because it flew out of your sight. But it’s not invisible to itself.” He paused, then said, “You know she’s all right, don’t you?”

Yulia compressed her lips. “The question is not whether she is all right.”

Tolya looked away, toward the wall on which were tacked the black-and-white line drawings of the Shaman Queen’s tattoos. He moved closer to them, hands clasped behind his back. Small and static, the drawings looked inane, like bad cartoons. No beauty, no wonder, no point.

He turned back toward Yulia, who stood, head and arms hanging.

She sighed. “I don’t even know what we’re talking about. I’m tired all the time, but I can’t sleep. I’m awake all the time, but I can’t think.” She pressed the heels of her hands to her closed eyelids.

He turned his back to the drawings on the wall. “Naturally, all of us in the Siberian Shamans’ Society are interested in this project. Why not let us help? We’ve got a solid treasury for worthy causes. We could be the sole sponsor. If you didn’t have to do fundraising, you’d save a lot of time.”

Yulia dropped her hands and looked at him, silent.

“And our membership includes all kinds of professionals whose skills could be useful for this project.”

Yulia raised one eyebrow. “What do you mean? Museum curators and exhibit designers? I’ve got those lined up already.”

“Well, of course you need people like that, but I was thinking of different professionals.”

She shook her head dubiously. “I don’t know, Tolya. Your thinking isn’t exactly scholarly these days. That’s why you left academia, remember?”

He smiled, hands up, palms open.

She stretched her neck left, then right. “Well, what’s your idea? What would I need to do?”

He shrugged. “You? Take a break. I’ll run interference between the shamans’ society and your department head. She was also a student of mine once upon a time. She won’t give me any trouble.” He smiled.

Yulia’s eyebrows dropped. “Absolutely not. Me? Take a break? What’s wrong with you?”

Tolya laughed. “You’re right. No break for you. How about . . . let’s see . . . an assignment? Something new and different? I’ll give you some contacts.” She waited as his earbug pulled photos, names, and numbers from his personal cloud and transmitted them through her earbug to her personal cloud. She briefly scanned the odd assortment of professions: dioramist, raptor specialist, choreographer, costumer, holographer, and . . . tattooist?

Eyebrow raised again, she looked at him and opened her mouth to challenge, but his forefinger against his smile said the conversation was over for now, and she was too tired to argue. Sighing, she glanced out the window at the pale summer sun. They were in the midst of the two months of the year when the ice bridges were melted and impossible to drive on. “Tolya, how did you cross the river to get here?”

“I flew.” He waved his hand in the direction of the helipad. “Spirit flight.” He laughed.


When the ice bridges were solid again and the spangled nights longer than the days and the air smelled of balsam and pine, when the people awoke from their summer torpor and bustled about furclad in the white city, the new exhibition opened. At the preview dinner, the guests drank vodka in seven flavors and ate pancakes with sour cream, mushroom stew with potatoes and dill, lamb dumplings, peppered salmon soup with fennel, and layered meringue cake with raspberries. Some partook discreetly of the fly agaric—dissolved in tea and dried into chewy chips—passed around by the shamans.

Fortified against the winter night, everyone leaned back and half-listened to speeches by Tolya, Yulia’s department head, and others. Even Yulia said a few quiet words. She wore her usual black trouser suit and black turtleneck but, unusually, also wore iron and gold earrings that dangled nearly to her shoulders, copies of those buried with the Shaman Queen. When she moved her head, the earrings chimed like far-off sleigh bells. After the speeches, the door to the new exhibit room opened, and everyone crowded through. They stood under a high dome in front of a revolving stage and waited for something to happen while the room darkened to infinite black.

A halo of light softly opened onto the mummy of the Shaman Queen. She floated in the blackness, slept in midair, undisturbed and peaceful. The watchers quieted their breathing, listening through their earbugs as Yulia’s voice gave a brief history of the excavation.

The mummy disappeared into darkness and the stage revolved, moving the watchers back in time to a panodiorama of the ancient burial. Blue and silver lights glinted. On a bier of logs lay a hollowed tree trunk, its sides painted with winged reindeer. Two armed and mounted warriors flanked the coffin, their shaggy horses masked by high-antlered leather headdresses, their saddle blankets lined with fur. Each warrior carried a fierce peregrine falcon on his shoulder. Ten long-haired white dogs with eyes the color of milky sky lounged around their sled in postures of watchfulness, play, and sleep. A kneeling woman in a quilted white silk jacket and long red-and-white striped wool skirt held a platter of mushrooms with white-spotted red caps. Surrounding her on the ground were plates of roasted meat and bowls of fermented milk.

The Shaman Queen, fully fleshed and clothed, reclined inside the tree-trunk coffin, eyes closed, eyelids shadowed with blue-green. Her flared fur caftan was ornamented with curvilinear leather shapes embroidered in red and blue. She wore a spired headdress of horse hair, braided and held in place by a gold clamp in the figure of an eight-legged reindeer. Iron hoops fringed by gold danglers pierced her ears. (Yulia touched her own earrings.) Those in the audience who had consumed the shamans’ fly agaric saw the cave’s occupants outlined in vibrating neon; they heard the buzzing of breath and blood.

The burial scene dimmed, and the watchers waited in the quiet dark. Then! They were engulfed in a movement so huge and fast and light that some involuntarily threw their arms up toward the larger-than-life holographic image of a flying peregrine falcon, its black and white stripes blurring with speed, its shrill ascending screech echoing from one side of the domed ceiling to the other. Earth’s fastest creature—soaring, spreading, swooping, its brilliant black eyes beholding the world eight times better than human eyes—this was the spirit flight of the Shaman Queen!

Suddenly, the bird’s wings collapsed against its body, and its teardrop shape plummeted toward the watchers at two hundred miles an hour, wind howling. The watchers gasped, crouched, protected their heads with their arms; everything was happening too fast for their frontal lobes to register that this experience was virtual rather than physical. Just before the crash, darkness enveloped them again, and they stood, trembling, pulses racing—safe again, but also earthbound again. The spirit of the Shaman Queen had passed, but where was she now?

Scenters released a sharp odor of resin and evergreen. Speakers released hypnotic music, first far away, then closer: iron mouth-harps twanging, iron knives striking iron drumheads, the eerie throat-singing of male voices, the hissing mouth percussion of female voices. A figure arose, a hologram of the living Shaman Queen. She began small, the size of a cat, then expanded until she towered over the watchers. A reindeer-antlered mask covered her face; her iron and gold earrings chimed; a fur loincloth and pectoral covered her groin, buttocks, and breasts, implying the androgyny that rendered her a complete spirit, both male and female.

From a posture straight and still, hands and head upraised, arms draped with feathers, she began to move. One arm turned inward, the hand upward. Then the other arm. Her eyes looked at the horizon, right to left, left to right, seeing that liminal place where land becomes sky. To a steadily accelerating tempo, she began to move feet, legs, hips, back, shoulders, and neck, turning each in concert with, then against, the others. The arms whirled, the feathers sang, the spinning of the image became as small as the stirring of milk in a pot, then as large as a spiral-armed galaxy.

And the tattoos—oh! Sinuous branches entwined both arms, birds’ faces peeking through the leaves. A tree of life grew up the back, its branches interlaced with beasts: a curly-horned ram, an open-mouthed tiger, a horned serpent, a goggle-eyed wolf. The shoulders wore hybrids: the body of a horse with three long necks and heads of geese, the body of a spotted cat with a heavy-antlered reindeer’s head. Up and down the legs, coiled beasts and birds and fish held each other by feet and tails and mouths, cavorting, dancing, leaping, fighting, mating, engaging in every activity of life. Such movement! No death here. No death anywhere.

At the first sight of the gigantic dancer, most of the watchers hung back, awed and unsure. But when Tolya and the other shamans pressed forward, swaying and clapping and yipping, the others joined in. The audience functioned as a single living heart, beating and breathing and pulsing with elation.

At the back of the crowd, Yulia absorbed the dancing image—her own and that of the Shaman Queen—that would survive both their deaths. She watched and listened, her bones quiet, her skin rippling over her muscles like a horse’s. “Egherde, aga,” she whispered, unconsciously tugging her turtleneck up and her sleeves down to cover the new tattoos.

Kathleen Sands – Amazed by the historical medical specimens in the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, I wrote a collection of short fiction inspired by them: Boy of Bone, which earned an honorable mention in the 2012 New York Book Festival. The title story was inspired by the skeleton-within-a-skeleton of a man who suffered from a progressive bone disease. Other stories were inspired by exhibits on lead poisoning, leprosy, Marie Curie, conjoined twins, and more. Two years ago, the staff of the same museum discovered some nineteenth-century inoculation kits containing dried smallpox scabs, so more stories seem necessary.

reports from Luke is a photographer and adventurer from Edgewater, New Jersey.