June 29


Hundreds have arrived, men and women, young and old, loaded under with materials to build their camps. The enclaves of eighteen societies have converged on the Greihound camp. It is a happy afternoon; a chance to reacquaint with friends and meet many I have never before met. Conversations move like a swirling cloud. Joyful reunions spire to the serious talk of spinning eighteen camps out of the Earth before dancing around to the spirit of delight again.

The scope of this extraordinary ritual is beginning to sink in. That it happens only once every eighteen and half years is astounding enough. But that it alternates from spring to fall exceeds my comprehension. The full cycle has taken thirty-seven years and the individual who has lived long enough to embrace two is a rare one. The realization strikes me; I understand the excess of such joy and the depth of loss felt by the Old Ones. Many who stood here thirty-seven snows ago have gone on to our ancestors.  I know why so many elders present will stay the summer. They won’t live long enough to be a part of another; chances are we won’t either.

The societies, and later the clans, will bring enough hands to build their own camps. The responsibility of ours will be looking after the elders who want spend the summer here. And although those Old Ones will lend their supervision if not outright criticism as the camps go up, they will spend most of their days visiting with each other in our camp, eating fish and sweet treats, admiring the girls, finding fault with the young warriors, and telling stories of their fabled, flabbergasting lives.


Long before sunrise fires have been lit in the empty camps. The Old Ones are standing in the firelight, talking to the flames and conversing with the spirits of those who stood that ground before them.  Others stand off to the side, heads down, hands folded; listening to the prayers that will continue until the sun finally quiets the fire with its own light. We are busy over here, under the old trees, putting together breakfast as quietly as we can for those already doing the hard work of awakening the soul of this ceremony.

The boys have breakfast well in hand. Moondog takes my arm and we move across the circle to join the morning blessings. We stand in the Spirit Fletcher’s camp listening to the Ancient One who taught Moondog and Darkling Light how to fish when they were children. Then, they were simply two young boys who spent their summers together exploring the world around them, looking ahead, and fantasizing about the lives of the great hunters and warriors that they would one day become. The Earth had not yet revealed Her secrets to them about the extraordinary lives they would actually lead, a Sacred Clown wed to the embodiment of Sacred Twins.

I watch Old Man’s prayers being carried aloft in the fire’s smoky essence, and I can see tears streaming unimpeded from Moondog’s eyes. I slip my hand under his elk robe and trace the scars that cover his back. He shivers beneath the soft glide of my fingertips. I can read them like braille, I know why he weeps. Old Man knows why he weeps. The Earth knows why he weeps; Moondog listens to Her and knows Her secrets.

The sun is up and Old Man’s prayers conclude. He comes over to us and embraces Moondog.  I have to turn away, walk away. Together, in that excruciating moment, Moondog and Old Man exchange the picture show of their lives. I wasn’t there; the moment isn’t mine. We make our way back to camp in the sublime coolness of early morning. Camp is quiet; the ritual has begun.


After two days eighteen camps appear as though they have been standing there for centuries. Lodges and shade houses are up, festooned in the feathers and fancy things emblematic to the resident society. People have settled in, fires are going, and the women are cooking. The smell of good food wafts throughout the village and across the Great Circle. Many will leave again tomorrow and return for the Show Off Dance. But the elders and their apprentices and helpers will stay. I am so excited about spending the summer with them, sitting in their camps watching them fashion their good luck things, and having them come to our camp every evening to tell their stories.

I move slowly from camp to camp admiring the subtle beauty of the lodges, rubbing my hands over the bark or skins or thatch or wicker that encloses them. When the bouquet of some secret smoldering captures my senses I turn and see someone standing at the fire making prayers for whom or what I don’t know. But I feel the blessing, I see it rise in the smoke, and touch the ceiling of our world.

The sound of voices has crept across the circle and draws my attention to it. I turn and look toward my camp. Everyone is standing, greeting new arrivals. A gentle hand touches the small of my back and I turn again. An old woman of the Mountain Forest Society has linked her arm in mine and she gestures with an herb bundle clutched in her withered, brown hand to be taken across the circle to my camp. She says one thing, “Burnt Knife”. There is no one on Earth comparable to Burnt Knife.

Burnt Knife. If there is something he doesn’t know no one alive knows what it is. That he is familiar with every individual in the tribe is merely a trifle. Burnt Knife is a listener and a lifelong apprentice. He will sit with someone for a day or a decade if that person has something to pass on, to teach, to tell. Burnt Knife has made prayers for more than half a century in every ritual that has been offered up. He knows the songs, the voices of the whistles, and the heartbeats of the drums. He has stepped beyond the Veil that conceals the existence of the societies unknown to exist, societies that hide in plain sight, privy to their secret medicine; medicine that he handles like an adept. Burnt Knife has not merely done it all but he has become it all. No one would dare despise him. Old Mountain Woman is an adept in her own right; she wouldn’t miss a chance to sit with Burnt Knife. The vignette of their mythical  lives will run between them like a soft, silent tendril, caught in every glance and gentle gesture, inexplicable bits and bastions of secrets. I long to travel the length of those vines, tracing their exquisite lives, and see the beauty of the mystery as they do.

Thorn Arrow came in with Burnt Knife. He is such a delight; one of Burnt Knife’s many child protégées. Thorn Arrow caught his calling eighteen and half years ago in the midst of a snowy, frost-flocked spring when he was no older than eight years. It is said that he walked right up to Burnt Knife and gave his heart to the Greihound. And now, only twenty-seven years old Thorn Arrow is well on his way to being Alpha of our clan. Burnt Knife pulled cosmic strings to make that happen. Thorn Arrow had been apprenticed to Moondog in the day when he was our clan’s elder dreamer. And yet, as much as Burnt Knife loved Moondog, he threw Moondog to the Clowns. He then picked a lifelong handyman, Longbow, to fill Moondog’s moccasins, placed Moondog’s obvious while unspoken of son, Sundog, to apprentice with Longbow, and caught Thorn Arrow in his own web. To anyone’s knowledge there had never been an inherently predisposed dreamer made Alpha by any Death Clan, and no one could fathom the complexity of Burnt Knife’s vision. He was the sort of man who could win a chess game in a single move. I, on the other hand, was simply overjoyed to be with them both and not the least curious about the workings of an old Alpha’s mind. Burnt Knife and Thorn Arrow would stay in camp through the Show Off Dance. Then I would travel with them and the rest of Clan Greihound to the coast for our annual pilgrimage to gather medicine plants.

And then there were the strangers that came into camp with them. I couldn’t decide if they were clowns or spirits. They were unnerving to look at and even more so when they looked at me with penetrating, predatory eyes. Presuming that they were men at all, they wore old faded buckskins that might have once been dyed or painted green. These creatures, for lack of a better word, were fully fledged tree spirits now no matter what they might have been in the past. They sat apart from us and I couldn’t decide if the branches overhead cast shadows across their faces or if they were painted up with soot and white clay to appear that way. Each of them had foliage tied into the old fringe of their buckskins and leaves tangled in their outlandish hair. Strings of acorns, beechnuts, and dried berries hung around their necks. They used leaves to shovel food into their mouths while never once ceasing to stare at their surroundings and at moments, stare at me. They wiped their fingers on their clothes, belched loudly, exchanged whispers, and laughed among themselves. I didn’t like them; they scared me.

Moondog was watching too, and smiling. He grabbed my hand and led me toward the tree spirits. Good grief; they were friends. I was embarrassed knowing that they had read my mind and undoubtedly smelled the anxiety I was putting out. No kidding, these tree spirits were hardcore predators and I felt as though I were their unwitting prey. If I knew anything at all, I knew that they were going to spend the summer and stalk my every move. I knew the stories about how the Clowns had for years tormented Moondog. I was shaken thinking that these…. these… whatever they were, would make a satire of my life, every move, every thought I had would become a public farce. Suddenly, I was sick with dread, facing them, meeting them, while graciously inviting them into the camp that was to be my home for months, because I was required to do so. I flushed as I smiled; I wanted to throw up and they knew it. Their consuming power made me feel faint. I didn’t want to be there, I wanted to go home. But I had begged the spirit world to lead me back to my people and here I was, facing the unknowable world of which some individuals had become an intrinsic part. I was shook to the core.

Burnt Knife must have sensed my horror because at that moment I felt him standing at my side. My courage returned and the tree spirits stood. Their spokesman, an elm, was actually eloquent and his words were soft. He said they had hiked many days over the mountains to meet me. I couldn’t imagine why. Elm said that they wanted to know what would become of them; they wanted to know the world of the Unborn as only I could know it. Their request threw me. How could I bring myself to tell them about a world I had spent my life longing to leave, and having done so had refused the return trip? I told them I would think about it but I wouldn’t dream on it. What I didn’t need were dreams crawling with tree spirits. Then I turned and spotted Burnt Knife on the other side of camp, where I had left him. As Moondog and I walked away I told him I had to speak to Burnt Knife of these things.

Later that day Burnt Knife and I negotiated with the tree spirits. It was agreed that tonight a ceremony would be put up where I would convey images of the world they wanted to see based on simple words spoken by them. I refused to speak my responses or volunteer information about that which they were incapable of asking. In exchange for my willingness to do so they would leave me alone. I would remain flanked by Burnt Knife and Thorn Arrow throughout the ceremony, and Moondog would have my back. Burnt Knife would be the roadman. The deal was struck and a ritual space was opened back in the woods under Burnt Knife’s scrutiny.


I am sure the sun set hours ago but we won’t leave until Burnt Knife makes the sign. As much as I relish rituals I am not at all happy about having my brain picked by a grove of trees. They know how to steal us into their world, a world from which there is no escape. This is not an occasion to allow myself to be cut adrift in the ethereality of the ritual world as I conjured images of another.

Burnt Knife gives the signal and we make our way through the forest. I am stumbling and fumbling around; I can’t see a thing. The ritual space is dark. Burnt Knife and Thorn Arrow light the fire, offer prayers and herbs from their medicine bags. I know those herbs, Greihound herbs from the coast. The fire explodes, illuminating the dense tree canopy that tightly encloses the circle.

Eight terrifying spirits sit in opposition to where we are standing. I wonder if they are naked, painted entirely black except for the jagged daggers of white slashed through their faces and running down their chests before disappearing into the impenetrable nightdark. They appear to be hiding behind a screen of branches and peering out at us. The bones in my body feel as though they have become a gelatinous quivering mass. Burnt Knife and Thorn Arrow are standing left and right of me singing medicine songs. Moondog is standing behind me. We sit; I am wedged between Moondog’s knees. The words begin, sounding like one word stanzas of an inexplicable melody, triggering pictures in my head as though they are the descant of a ritual song. The trees want to know of ice and animals, starvation and abundance, forests, meadows, and fens; strife, great hunts, and greater rituals. Do we still travel in our dreams to the stars, and bury our lives in the Earth’s secrets? Are we still the stewards of deep wisdom? Do we honor our elders, remember our ancestors, and safeguard the mountains? Has the circle been broken? Are our lives scattered? Their words come into me as questions children might ask before drifting away, lost and unreachable. The fire falls to ashes and they are gone. I watch puffs of smoke rise from the coals and disappear. Moondog runs his hands up and down my arms. Burnt Knife and Thorn Arrow sing their morning songs.

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