August 9


The trek to the coast was hard, even our three youngest are worn out from a fifty mile hike coming on the heels of a four day ritual dance. It was painful watching Burnt knife and Star Stalker walk this far, suffering the ravages of age and perennially haunted by their runner years. The same attrition is seeping into the middle ages of the rest who are otherwise just hitting their stride.

We made the beach about noon on the third day. Some went out in search of food while the rest of us pulled together a camp reasonably impervious to the unpredictable seashore weather. We ate, sat in the low tide quiet surf, and finally collapsed into our sleeping gear. It took us several days to recover, doing little more than collecting enough food to get us by, lying about, and sleeping a great deal.

On the fourth day we felt much better. The worst of the limping had let up, making room for more smiles and happy talk. By the following morning Burnt Knife made the sign that gathering our medicine plants was at hand.

I have already told you in detail about the plants, their secret hiding places, and the stories that go with them. But I never tire of listening to Burnt Knife, or feeling the deep sense of awe for his encyclopedic knowledge of coastal habitats. He leads us from the beach to rocky tidal pools and on to the muddy delta. We hike the dunes, the scree runs, and the swampy back water places. Each is a world unto itself, ancient, perpetual, ever-changing, and filled with secrets, every one of which Burnt Knife understands. He knows the plants, the creatures, the seasons that govern their lives, the tides, and the intimate details of this extraordinary web of life. Burnt Knife recites the prayers and chants the songs for every plant we gather; leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, and roots. But we do not take sheathes. We take only pinches stowed away in medicine bags small enough to go unnoticed and hanging from a leather cord around our necks. It is a treasure hunt. I pick up small stones, pink glistening shells, and bits of driftwood only because I find them wholly enchanting. The men don’t bother much with this beyond spotting some gem and passing it on to me with some sense of delight. When the gathering is done, and it has taken days, I tell the story about the Greihound and its place within the myth of our people. Years ago, I told that story to you. I still tell it during this pilgrimage.

It is the only occasion when my clan can be together just as friends. The six months of winter are spent in seemingly endless ritual, guarding our people throughout the dark and snowy season of dreams. That is our job, our purpose for having been given life. It is a serious season that holds no opportunity for simply sitting around enjoying each other. Come summer, we scatter, disappearing into mother clans and clandestine apprenticeships, preparing for winter ceremonies and living otherwise secret lives. None of us have what one would think of as a family; there were no wives, no children, only service to our community, and whatever joy we might snatch from each other. Consequently, no matter how arduous, our annual trip to the coast is the only occasion that provides us with a sense of familiarity and friendship.

I have been with the Greihound long enough to know each of my clansmen pretty well but I want to know Bird Chant better. Although he is the quietest among us I don’t think of him as shy, secretive, or reserved. He is simply quiet, much in the same way Spirit Chalk had been. Perhaps it is his artistic nature or the fact that he lives his life listening to the uncountable rhythmic threads of continuity that stitch the multiverse together. Those inaudible sounds are felt in his paintings, resonating as strange and yet hauntingly familiar chords in his music. The songs move our feet and stir the recollection of forgotten crossings. Bird Chant has an exquisite tenor voice with an extraordinary range that allows him to replicate the sounds of wind and water. He knows the love songs of the ruminant clans and the melodies of birds, weaving those inexplicable chortles and whistles into ritual intonations. And although his voice is soft and melodic he can make it bounce around our cave walls or travel the full distance across the Great Circle. Even when he sings with the others, it is Bird Chant’s voice that I hear. He has given his entire life to this; it keeps him alive; he has found exquisite joy in opening a conduit to Eternity for each of us.

Although Bird Chant had been born to the Apple Clan women his mother knew the moment of his birth he had been born for the Greihound. She and Burnt Knife recognized his artistic genius before he had turned two and it was then his training began. Thanks to their awareness and devotion, sound moves through Bird Chant from deep within the Earth and carries us on the journeys of Her choice. His paintings trap an experience forever and have the uncanny ability to snare us in a net as though the memory is uniquely our own.

Bird Chant is a strong man, not particularly tall like Longbow, but thick through his arms and chest. That is characteristic of middle aged men who have spent their lives sitting at the drum singing power driven songs. But it is his light red hair and green eyes that stand out among an otherwise dark people. It is said that his fair blood had traveled from some unknown distant place to be one of our Greihound artists. Bird Chant’s smile is disarming; women, young and old, are inclined to be swoony in his presence. I have often wondered if he holed up in the summer with one particular woman or if he went from lodge to lodge as the Greihound are reputed to do.

I know that Bird Chant is deeply invested in his sisters’ children as all brother-uncles are.  It isn’t always easy for me to grasp that children belonged only to their mothers’ clans and paternity isn’t recognized, the awareness of which is considered taboo. Uncles and brothers are the role models for boys. So in keeping with all of those things Bird Chant’s summers are spent doting on his sisters’ children and I suspect lighting on a flower or two. I like him a great deal; certainly everyone does. There has never been as much as a whisper about Bird Chant having ever displayed a moment of contention or a break with tradition. He is an extraordinary man, a trait remarkably common throughout the handful of small clans that live in isolation in behalf of their people.

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Responses to “August 9”

  1. Angela Cheetham Wilkinson August 10th, 2013 - 9:27 pm

    Thank you for this remarkable chapter which pulled me into its web from the start through the exhaustion of the determined trekkers.
    Their need and desire to scour the coast and reap its harvest must have been so powerful that three days of necessary recovery is not too high a price to pay.

  2. Angela Cheetham Wilkinson August 10th, 2013 - 9:33 pm

    I was taken to places that I love – both physically and in my mind and heart.
    Despite the distances of both time and place I could share in the activities led by Burnt Knife as if I were one of those trekkers, scouring the rock pools on this treasure hunt, stowing away the morsels of plants, never taking too much, just a respectful portion and hearing the chants and prayers as I Open my leather pouch.

  3. Angela Cheetham Wilkinson August 10th, 2013 - 9:54 pm

    My initial introduction to Bird Chant had sparked a special interest which, through Chapter 35, was rewarded by more understanding of this exceptional and undemanding man.
    I don’t hear him ask for anything but all around him have opportunities to experience his gifts – his painting, the extraordinary way he uses his voice.
    I now know that Bird Chant is no ordinary man – yes he is strong, yes he is a green-eyed pale-haired handsome man who has a charm which women long to be close to, to bathe in.
    Yet his power doesn’t really lie in his physical appearance at all – I believe that Bird Chant’s power comes from his ability to hear and see in the deepest way. His ears speak to his heart and his eyes converse with that same heart and it is just this intimate connection between sight, sound and soul that give Bird Chant his charismatic power.
    Whether he is painting or chanting, chortling and recreating the sounds of nature we sense and feel his rare skills – rare because not many people ever devote time to the simple vocal reproduction of a birdsong and it is this devotion that amazes us.
    I would like to say “Bird Chant – I also dub you HeartEyes Open.”

  4. Angela Cheetham Wilkinson August 10th, 2013 - 9:56 pm

    I think I would love Bird Chant!

    • Thank you, Angela. Bird Chant is an amazing man who brings to light the significance of art and the recognition of his talent and devotion. He lives in a time when such attributes were revered and thought of as medicine for his people, for the Earth. Letters to the Unborn can take us anywhere we want to go. Soon this long awaited ceremony will commence and I am anxious to plunge into that ritual world again, after which the cycle of life will go on its way. I wonder where it will take us.