September 9

[The talking stick is passed to Burnt Knife]

We are a quiet people. Sound has power, so much so it can be wielded. Our people pray before they speak knowing that their words change the world around them. Speaking implies claiming that to which the word refers. Names are rarely uttered, medicine epithets almost never because behind the sound stands a spirit who would weary if invoked too frequently. When an infant is named the spirit inhabiting the sound comes to reside in him. When a warrior has earned an appellation he returns the old one to the Ancestors until an event leads to resurrecting it again. In this way the spirit of greatness returns to the people again and again.

The ineffable puffs that stir the otherwise impenetrable density of the understory are the whispered secrets of the Shadow people. And if one listens closely he might hear the name Wind Wood Shadow. She was the Immortal that prophesied long ago that the great ice wall was melting and the one that led our people here. Low places had become swamps that would be replaced by deep, impassable channels. She asked our Ancestors if they had the courage to move west knowing the gate would close behind them forever.

The old world was so rich our people lacked for nothing. There is no means to measure the abundance; the ease with which our relatives lived has never been equaled since. Dip nets held catch so heavy men had to lift them with two hands and energy packed grunts. The game wandered right into the village to feed us. Great outcroppings and heaps of scree yielded tons of flint, chert, and obsidian for points and blades.

But the elders were rumbling. They warned that entreaties amidst immeasurable abundance had become hollow. An incredible predacity was moving slowly towards us. The people must strike the village, move west, putting distance between life and inevitability. Only one who lived knew the way, Wind Wood Shadow.

Back in the woods nestled against a huge cliff stood a grove of ancient trees so thick it was entombed in darkness. Within it was a hovel sustained somehow with a deep hodge-podge of branches, hides, and thatch. It was virtually indistinguishable from the surroundings. For more winters than had been remembered the people had left necessities and gifts even though the dwelling itself was never rebuilt. Someone had simply piled the offerings on top.

It was believed that the oldest woman on Earth lived there. She was the last of an ancient Boar and Oak mix that bred with the Shadow people. She hadn’t been seen for at least thirty winters. Some believed she came out only in the dark season of night. Perhaps she moved constantly among the people in the world of shadows. Either way everyone knew she was alive because her unseen medicine was always felt. It was dark and sweet, smudgy like thick mush cooked with berries, honey and smoked fish.

She had a companion perhaps as old as she had gone unseen. He was severely afflicted and unable or unwilling to speak. No one knew with any great certainty but it was speculated that he was her son, perhaps the progeny of the Salt Marsh spirits. Tenderhearted, he was the one who maintained the hovel. He gathered food and herbs, and hunted and fished in the recesses of the world of which he and his mother were a part.

After thirty winters Wind Wood Shadow and her son answered the call of the elders. They emerged from that deep, dark place in the forest and at twilight approached the village. Plunged into silence and paralyzing awe the people watched them approach. The Crone appeared even older than anyone had expected. Thick ochre filled cavernous wrinkles in her face. She had no teeth; her eyes were sunken into black sockets. Was she wearing a mask? Her face was the mantle of the Shadowland.

Strands and necklaces of bones, stones, and hollow tubes of wood hung from her ancient buckskins. They clapped and clattered to the rhythm of her tedious gate. She herself had become the medicine rattle that called the spirits from the deep and she was towing them along with her every step. Her son’s buckskins were equally old and resplendent. As she walked Wind Wood Shadow leaned heavily on a gnarled cane into which had been cut mystical symbols that were rooted in antiquity, their meaning forgotten by everyone but her and her lumbering son. The symbols spoke of an unseen world filled with ancestral dust and those nearly invisible ones. Her staff was dressed out in ritual fineness as well,  with plumes, prayer bundles, and bits and pieces of sacred relics.

Suddenly the look of startled revelation flashed across the face of a warrior who had been standing stunned with the rest of the crowd. He took off and in an instant so did others. Frantically they built up the council fire. In the same moment everyone leapt into action, propelled in all directions, crashing into each other. Some were knocked down by accidental collisions, helped up and pressed back into immediate action.

The big drum started up. The younger ones ran for the lodges hastily dressing the elders in their clan finery and steering them gently but urgently toward the blaze. They had to be situated in their appropriate places before Wind Wood Shadow reached it. Amazingly everyone fell in. Breathless from exertion and adjusting their trinkets and treasures, their hearts pounded with anxious expectation. Everyone stood in silence waiting for Wind Wood Shadow to speak.

She said that our people were to head north, until the edge of the ice sheet was visible. From there we were to press west through the Great Salt Marsh and on to the country that lay beyond. The region was shrouded in fog and yes, it was land, not the world of the dead, but land. And she knew the way. The villages had to be struck on the dark of the moon. The skins that enclosed the bones of the shelters would have to be taken to cover the ribs of vessels that had to be built to forge the deeper water across the northern reaches of the swamp. Nothing else was to be taken.

But what of the Salt Marsh people? Wind Wood Shadow raised her brittle, bony arm and pinched the skin that sagged appallingly from it. No, they were not flesh. They were the spirits of young initiates who had perished, that stood prepared to guard the unprecedented journey. There was nothing to fear yet no predator would ever gather the courage to follow.

Young warrior-hopefuls ventured into the swamp for understanding but few ever returned. When only a girl Wind Wood Shadow stepped forward and declared she could do it and make it back alive. Like all of those before her she left in early spring, with no food, no water and only the prayers of the elders. She went all the way to the world on the other side and returned in midst of autumn harvest.

Prayers runners were rapidly sent out and the elders from all the distant villages returned with them. They carefully examined her and had to admit she was quite corporeal. The core fire was ignited, the drum sounded and a great feast was spread. Everyone, dressed in his or her splendor, gathered to hear her story and she spoke long into the night. But it was her discovery of the place itself that set the tribe in a climactic tailspin: great white cliffs, beaches, rivers, and land. The murmurs grew quickly into a collective, angry roar; the elders called for the drum to be silenced. Could it not have been the edge of the receding ice floe or the bank of clouds that guarded the place of the Ancestors?

They deliberated for days, made prayers, and supplicated for wisdom. They finally concluded that Wind Wood Shadow had most certainly succeeded in returning, but not from a distant land. She had made it back from the Shadowland. Retreating to it was not migration but disemboguement of the spirit of life.

Wind Wood Shadow was immortalized in songs but her discovery was dismissed as a transcendental extravaganza. When the ceremonies wound down she disappeared. Only decades later was she summoned to the elders.

Many of our people refused to go but enough did to be reborn in the new world. Then, they were nothing more than a small band. With abundance of the coast and the blessings of the Earth our ancestors survived.

But life on the beach, sadly, was not to last. As winter drew near, salt water, thickened with ice, moved like slow, undulating mush until it could move no longer. That which had sustained them over their first summer was locked into the freeze. Not a creature or plant was spared. Our people were driven deep into the heart of the land. The ancestral caves were the only edge they had against annihilation.

Generations, too numerous to imagine, struggled and persisted. All the creatures took pity on us and began to impart their secrets. Strengthened by their knowledge our people learned to eat and hunt as the animals did. Eventually the clans were born preserving the prayers and the sacredness of the Ancient Ones. Just as it had been prophesied the great ice wall melted and the channels filled with deep water.

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Responses to “September 9”

  1. Angela Cheetham Wilkinson September 10th, 2013 - 11:33 am

    I was so impressed, and gripped, by Wind Wood Shadow, her clothing, bones, feathers, the worn accoutrements that represented her life .. her abode and the gentle son who cares for it and provides for their needs.
    Then the action, all the intense activity as the pair approach the village and people, astonished by her countenance, wonder if she’s wearing a mask and I find myself thinking that her face is a mask – one created by wild wanderings, courage, the ravages of age and her tooth loss, her skin perhaps pallid from time spent in the hovel within the darkness of the forest – and I hear her advancing too as her steps call all her decorations into play.
    So, Burnt Knife has spoken. The stick was his. No-one can hold the stick for long – not then, not now – but who will hold it next ..
    I shall wait and see ..

    • Actually, whoever is holding the talking stick can talk as long as she or he wants to talk. That can mean hours, even days! The old storytellers I knew would often start back at “the beginning”. Holy jeepers. In the case of this story it would mean tracing the story from that moment when they “stepped out the ice with their dogs” thousands of years before the telling. Needless to say, I didn’t use “the long story” in any of the stories presented here. I too am fond of Wind Wood Shadow, she represents to the people the last living link to a far older way of life. I have known elder women like her. They were always fierce and commanded immediate attention. And they never settled for less than ritual attire worn by those who assembled to hear them. In later years they lamented the loss of such traditional respect. By now you know that Star Stalker has been handed the talking stick.