(An excerpt from Ancestral Airs: The Seedbearers)
Nine men composed the asterism of my clan. Each of four elders had one apprentice. We had one stand-by and a dreaming woman.
Progeny indemnified survival but not for clans so limited in membership they could perish in an instant. This fragile order compelled the Greihound to scarify, each symbol preserving a piece of its tradition. Our raised flesh was a map of the mist and the image of blessings received from sacrifice.
The Spirit Handlers doctored spirit and flesh. They could set a bone, cure a cough, suture a gash and pack a wound. More profoundly they could set our souls to ceremony and cure the terror of anticipation, knowing that the wounds of the dreamtime were meaningless in light of the ecstasy. They flaked star-studded black glass until the edge was untouchably fine. When pressed against our skin, the flesh of our backs burst open like a boulder split by ice. Some of the blades were straight others shaped like the crescent moon. All were given back to the Mother after sacramental service, their lives spent on the expression of our rapture.
Sprung from a Birch Clan mother, Burnt Knife was the unchallenged Alpha Male of Clan Greihound. He was quite a bit older than I was and closer to my mother's age than to mine. He had given over his life to our clan when only a boy, and had run with many of the Ancient Ones I only knew as dust in our burial cave. Old Dog had been many years in the magic. And although I was considered an elder I had been reluctant to become one and he served as an uncomfortable reminder that I had a long way to go.
Burnt Knife had a chronic limp from some swollen agony in his knees. He had a creaky, slow way of standing up, and although he never made a sound, we held our breath in empathetic pain. One of his hands had become a twisted, immobile club with deformed and utterly useless fingers. But most assuredly we did not pity him. He was the one who cut the signs into our backs and before whom we always stood alone.
A Hawthorn mother called his understudy Blue Ice. He had given his life over to the Greihound early as well. Blue Ice had been a stand-by for many years, waiting out the death of Burnt Knife's forebear, who had fought tenaciously to stay in this realm. He was finally awarded inculcation, now officially apprenticed to Burnt Knife. Blue Ice and I were the same age. The medicine men had stolen him into their way of life long ago, and influenced, perhaps even created, his propensity.
Traditionally, young sentinels were indentured to any old grey whose predecessor had dropped off the top. But the medicine men had a special wisdom about the order of things. They knew precisely when the death of Burnt Knife's forerunner would precede the rebirth of Blue Ice, guaranteeing his apprenticeship as a medicine man years before it was actually recognized. Blue Ice had lacked only the title and had been privilege to decades of training deep in the mystery with two teachers.
Sadly, there remained a separation between us. After only a brief apprenticeship I had become an elder, a position I had already enjoyed for five years. Blue Ice knew that I had been tricked, if not dragged screaming into the clan while he had given himself over with breathless willingness as a boy. Blue Ice suspected, as did I that the coincidence of my birth to a powerful clan, not the bent of the illimitable inherent in me, had provided the realization of my status at an early age. Old Dog had never let him cut the whispering ether into my back.
The Stargazers set our ceremonies according to the secret journeys of the stars. Most returned with ritual precision but five were keenly watched. They were not fixed in the bowl but moved tenuously forward, retreated and finally plunged again into the night sky. Like all Death Clan members, they too stood apart from their tribe restricted to peering into the substance of existence only at celebrated homecomings.
Star Stalker was sprung from my mother's sister and was numerous winters my elder. An outstanding astronomer, he bristled in his expansive enlightenment. He ran with the stars suspended in the air of chasms, and with those that filled the daylight sky. Star Stalker reveled in the warmth of many of our females. I secretly called him Overly-Fond-of-Women. He called me Doesn't-Want-to-be-an-Elder.
His apprentice Shadow Glass had an Ash clan mother. I doubt that he was yet forty. He had been indentured to Star Stalker for years. I was never certain if Shadow Glass loved me because I was just like his teacher or in spite of it. More than once he had been caught in the middle of Oak clan rivalry, Star Stalker and I having been known to rise to intense flexing. In our youth it had been arrogance and virility, later experience and apperception. This left Shadow Glass torn between genuine love and embarrassment for us.
The Consummate Artists summoned the songs of our inexplicable wonder. Every conundrum of the Mother attracted us like a fly to a spider's web. Rocks, sticks, skins, bladders and hollow reeds whispered, ejecting us into the boundless wide-eyed and hungry, trembling in the despair of knowing our effort to understand it was futile. Red and white ochre from the depths of our mountain, and the black soot from the trees which had given themselves over to our comfort were chewed up and spit out by the Consummate Artists onto the walls of our den. Our hearts leapt when our eyes could see the mystery that eluded the voice of our minds. They painted the memories of our struggle to sustain the Infinite Present in all that we did.
They were an incredible example of just how good our system could be. I never knew two men more at peace with the consequences of their lives, not jealous or competitive in any way. They epitomized the requisite essence of ebb and flow, new to old, old to new, like ripples on the surface of a pond. Each man was a visionary, neither man subordinate. The songs flowing from the void through their spirits and into our rituals conveyed the stirring perplexity trapped inside each of us. They left us with the cognition that no matter how feeble, our paths were filled with potent eloquence.
Spirit Chalk, our elder artist, had been sprung from a band of the Willow clan who camped near the salt marshes in the summer. He was born from the very tidal pool to which he would eventually return. He was one of the Old Ones, white-haired and shrinking.
His understudy, called Bird Chant, was about the same age as Shadow Glass. They had petitioned together as boys and were initiated into apprenticeships perhaps seven years ago. Born of an Apple woman, Bird Chant's spirit was as ancient as his mother's clan was. He and his old teacher seemed more like twin brothers born by accident on two different occasions. The Twilight Women, who dearly loved them, saw our Consummate Artists as a paradox of fixed and inextricable motion.
Custom allowed us one stand-by to close the inevitable gap caused by death. He and the apprentices managed our resources under the scrutiny of Burnt Knife. They hunted our meat, hauled our water, and stoked our fires day and night. But more importantly our stand-by guarded the den and the abandoned bodies of those who had disappeared into the vapor or emerged greihounds to join up with the wild pack. He bore silent witness to our continued struggle to remain suspended in the only world that embraced us.
Longbow was a catharsis for the clan. Bird Chant and Shadow Glass had beaten him to apprenticeships by only one year and no one had died since. He had none of the advantages of birth, predisposition or adoption enjoyed by the rest of us. As a stand-by he could only wait out someone's death to become an apprentice. If Burnt Knife knew whom Longbow would eventually replace, he wasn't telling. None of us had a clue. Blue Ice made well-meaning attempts at consolation, reminding Longbow that he had waited decades to become an understudy. Disguised in that truth was a bitter irony made apparent by the common knowledge that Blue Ice was discreetly adopted by the medicine men at an early age. Longbow's sedentary manner, however, did not reflect our speculation. Free from the entrapment of blood or appointment he had the privilege of bearing witness to all that we did. Spared from the dangers of detachment he was a master of diversity. Longbow could sing from the depths of his being and read the stars day or night. He could doctor a wound or discharge propitiation from our flesh. His dreams were startling and profound.
Thorn Arrow was sprung from a Holly clan mother. Greihound elders recognized him as a twin dreamer at birth. He was given over to our clan when he was a boy and had been my apprentice for five years. If Longbow was cathartic I was certainly enigmatic, having given myself over last before Thorn Arrow.
Every Death Clan had a Twilight Woman, one of the rogues of Clan Female. Together these women formed their own clan as well. The Twilight Women were midwives to clan newborn and the twins of Death Clan dreamers. They alone had the inexplicable ability to teach us how to gain entry into the dreamtime.
Dreaming Twins, whose only proclivity was to dream, weren't regarded in the same light as the artists, medicine men and astronomers. The protocol by which we had to live was strict, requiring monastic isolation, concealed under the auspices of sacred imperative. This predisposition could transform itself into a sickness that would eventually destroy the dreamer were he separated from his twin. Mismatches were devastating.
Her Roebuck mother had given Snow Rose to the Twilight Women at her puberty rite. For years they had molded and manipulated her into a dreaming jewel. There she waited out the death of Old Dog Dreaming Woman, my preceptor, and finally took her place as the Greihound Twilight Woman. She had been my partner for five winters as well. Similar in age as Thorn Arrow she was a good teacher for him and after my death, they would have become a well-balanced set of dreaming twins. Unfortunately she was twinned to me. We were a terrible match. I don't know if it was her age or the blood of her people, but her fire didn't burn hot enough to propel me into the dreamtime. My hunger for such a twin was insatiable and my attention to Snow Rose hollow and divided; consequently she was taken from me.