TOUCHES THE STARS
Lynn Armistead McKee
TOUCHES THE STARS
All Rights Reserved © 1992 by Lynn Armistead McKee
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.
Published by Stone Creek Books
Originally published by Diamond Books
Cover art by Joe Moore
This book is dedicated to “Charlie” and all of her people— the People who came before.
Note: “Charlie” is a skeleton of a young Tequesta Indian maiden who lived about 2,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that she was approximately 17 years old when she died. It is not hard to look at her and see her as she must have been—petite and lovely. “Charlie” was born with spina bifida, a defective closure of the vertebral column, but she had been tenderly cared for. She was well nourished, and there is no evidence of any disease. She was not left to die at birth, nor was she later sent out into the wilderness as a freak and outcast. And when the spirits called her, she was buried with her people, not isolated from the others.
When the Europeans arrived in southern Florida, the Tequestas were described as savages, but “Charlie” shows us that they were a people with a sense of caring and devotion. Their hearts could ache, and their eyes could smile.
I would like to acknowledge and thank some of those who helped make this book possible.
First I would like to express my gratitude to Gypsy Graves for all her expertise and patience.
Juan Leyva, who is perhaps a Tequesta descendant, was gracious enough to relay the lore of his heritage, including herbal remedies practiced by his family and ancestors.
There are many in my other life, my non-writing life, who have given their support in so many ways, and I am grateful to all of them.
The prophetic old woman winced as she eased herself down onto the soft, rich, black soil. The ancient-looking gray eyes, set deep within the furrows and folds of her ashen skin, beheld her world. Sweeping the land, as far as she could see, was the brown and green blanket of saw grass, billowing, bending, dancing to the rhythm of the nearly constant southeasterly breeze. The ancient sedge, its edges set with fine saw teeth, so thick and fierce, grew out of the sweet water. It thrust its folded spikes up toward the light and its ropy mat of roots down into the water. Season after season it sprang up in the wetland, living and dying in it, laying down its decaying tissue, actually creating the muck on which it thrived.
Charcoal clouds smeared the sky, bruising the gold and purple blaze of the horizon. If she had had the energy of her youth, she would have let go, floated out of her body, and brushed the grain of the tips of the flowing sedge. She would have let it bristle beneath her thumb, rubbing across it like the stiff hair on the hide of a deer. But she was old and tired. Besides, she was here for another reason.
“Sit, and I will tell you how it came to be,” she said, moving a windblown wisp of silver hair from her face.
The child reached out for her hand, feeling the cold, dry, bony fingers of her grandmother.
Shafts of pewter light, rain in the distance, channeled down from the bloated clouds. A dull rumble echoed far to the west.
“It is time for you to know it all.” The old woman’s voice coasted on the wind, seeming to be one with it, and the child wasn’t even sure she had seen her lips move. Speckles of darting, dark forms flew above them. The black birds, dark shadows, sailed on the same wind. Their shoulders were hunched and their wings spread, coming in to roost for the night, disappearing into the mass of saw-grass prairie.
The child sat by the old woman, joining her in the panorama. She, too, looked to the horizon. The long whips of the saw grass haggled with the breeze, twisting and tangling with one another. At the plum and crimson line of the horizon the sedge softened with the blur of distance. A few splotches of green, other hammocks like the one on which they lived, dotted the glaze of the saw grass. The only other things that broke the monotony were the canoe trails.
Grandmother swept her hand in front of her, indicating the wondrous view. “We are all a part of the same Great Spirit.”
“Yes,” the young one answered respectfully. “I understand.”
“And do you understand that some of us were given a special gift—a gift that passes through our blood? It comes to you through me—through my father.”
The child was silent.
The old woman took the child’s hand in hers. “I am old, and the time is coming when the spirits will call me to the Other Side.”
The child squeezed Grandmother’s hand and wrinkled her nose as she held back her tears. She was afraid to speak, because her voice would quaver.
“Do not be afraid. First I will tell you how I learned of the Gift. No one knew that I had the Gift. Not even me.”
“But you must have known,” the child countered.
“I thought there was something wrong with me, and so did the rest of the People. At first they thought it was evil—that I was evil. I hated the Gift. I did not want it.”
“Could they not plainly see that you were special?”
The woman smiled at her grandchild. “It was not so simple.”
The two sat quietly for a few moments before the grandmother spoke again.
“Who do you think will take my place when I walk the Other Side? Who will care for the People? Who do you think has been given the Gift by the spirits?”
The child turned quizzically toward her. “Who?”
Grandmother lightly touched the child’s cheek. “Close your eyes, little one. Clear everything from your mind.”
The girl stared at her grandmother, hoping to deny what was unraveling inside her.
The old woman nodded, telling the child to go ahead and close her eyes. “Tell me when you are ready.”
The small one looked straight ahead before closing her eyes. She sat quietly, waiting for the rumbling of the distant thunder, the fluttering of wings, the droning of the insects, and the lashing of the saw grass to fade. Slowly she emptied her thoughts, closing them out, breathing more deeply.
“I am ready, Grandmother,” she finally answered softly, suspecting that after this day her whole life would change.
MIAKKA HAD BEEN WITH THIS MAN. She knew that he had been with many women. That was his prerogative as shaman. She studied his face for a moment.
Atula looked at Miakka, a young, small-boned woman. She knelt in front of him, her black hair spilling across her breasts, forming black satiny rivers that hid so much of her.
If he had been just a man, maybe he would have chosen her, Miakka thought. She looked away. The thought was not worth entertaining. He was more than a man. He was the shaman, and she was no more than a woman—a woman swollen with the fruit of his seed. As it should be.
“I am worried,” she said. “The child I carry …” she began, almost whispering, bowing her head in respect.
Being so close to him flooded her with sensations she barely understood. His clear, dark, gentle eyes reached deep inside her. How was she going to tell him? Though she had rehearsed it so many times, now that she knelt before him her mind tangled and her tongue became uncooperative. She would have to put aside those feelings, ignore the effect he had on her. She needed his help to resolve the horrendous thing that was happening to her and to the child that grew inside her.
“What is it that has you so concerned?” he asked, noticing the small tremors in her hands.
Miakka’s head was bowed in respect and embarrassment. If she allowed herself to look at him, to realize how close she was to this man, she would lose sight of her mission. She would find herself too snared in emotion.
He could take no one woman to live at his hearth, no wife. Another presence could interfere in his communication with the spirits. Unlike the other men, he could have any woman anytime, and if she conceived she would hold an honored place with the People. The other men had to seek their women from other clans, other villages, not from the small circle of women who were members of their own clan. That was forbidden. The shaman sowed his seed in the bellies of the women of his village. It kept his line pure. One male child would be trained by the father, Atula, and that child would become the next shaman. Which male child it might be, only Atula would know for sure. There would be signs.
Miakka knew she would never live at Atula’s hearth. There would never be any more between them than what had already been.
“Do you remember the night that you danced with me at the fire and how you led me to your platform? From that night a child has grown from your seed and has been nourished by my body.”
“That is something good,” he replied, reassuring her that she had not done anything wrong in the eyes of the clan. She need not worry. He would confirm that the child was his.
It should be something good, she thought. She could have lived with the clan’s curiosity, but no one questioned that Atula was the father.
“You do not understand. No one doubts that the child is yours. I am not shunned for conceiving a child without a husband.”
“Tell me, then, what has made you come to me? What makes your brow furrow with worry and your lovely mouth turn down?”
As he spoke, his voice conjured up memories of the tender things he had said to her that night. Miakka felt her face flush.
“Do you remember how long ago I was with you?” she asked, unsure that she was beginning correctly. “The night you danced with me and … and do you see me now?”
Atula did indeed remember. It was after the return of the men from the Big Water. It was a jubilant occasion, and all had had their fill of cassite, an herbal decoction that was a mild intoxicant. From across the central fire he had seen her as she stepped to the music. The reflection of the fire made her hair look like strands of liquid black, charred coals melting down her soft back. Her head was tilted, the moonlight illuminating her delicate face. She swayed to the music like the night air when stirred by a gentle wind.
Atula had slowly walked across the crest of the hardwood hammock that so courageously rose up out of the wetland. He had passed the fire to be closer to her, to watch her as she lost herself in the music. As he had drawn closer, her dance awakened the need in him.
He was also being watched. Amakollee eased herself behind him and then to his side. She smiled as she danced in front of him, tossing her head provocatively and moistening her lips with her tongue. It was a gesture not missed by Atula, but it was Miakka who had his attention.
Atula had smiled kindly at Amakollee, continuing his walk, but she placed herself squarely in front of him and waited for a response. When he gave none, she took it that he had not read her gestures. She would not touch the shaman without invitation, but she did position herself closer.
“Have you enjoyed the evening?” he asked, hoping to distract her intentions. Through the throng and firelight he could still see Miakka moving alone to the music.
The celebration is not over, Atula. The night has just begun.”
Atula did not want to insult Amakollee. He had been with her before—a few times. The events had produced no child, and Amakollee still belonged to no man. It would not be long before her age would discourage a mate. Without a mate she would become a burden to the clan. Clans often sent young men to other villages to find mates, but no man from any other village had shown an interest in her. She had passed her youth, and the humiliation was becoming intolerable. Atula was her only hope. If she could conceive his child, the clan would always take care of her.
“I am hungry for only one thing this evening. Sleep. Too much cassite has made me groggy,” he told her, trying to be polite.
Amakollee flushed with humiliation. Even though he had tried to be congenial, he was not interested. She had made a fool of herself. Her lips paled from their natural deep hue to a pasty gray. The color drained from her face and she was certain he could also see her humiliation. Quietly she moved away from him, realizing that he hardly noticed. She backed away from the fire and the rest of her people and ducked into the brush. When clear of the village and its sounds, she fell to the earth, pounded it with her fists, and screamed into the darkness.
Miakka abandoned herself to the music as Atula approached her. Her movements were fluid and graceful. Earlier, from a distance, she had watched him as she always did, but her shyness made her fear that he might notice. The cassite warmed her insides and unfettered her mind enough that she drifted with the fantasy.
The cassite had not dulled his senses, but it had compromised his inhibitions. He was not usually so forward and blunt. Atula stepped in front of her, began to move his body in unison with hers, and then reached out to wrap his palm and fingers gently around the nape of her neck.
Miakka opened her eyes and slowed her dance, startled by the company.
Though the shadows fell across his face, the sharp lines of his straight nose and strong jaw formed a clean silhouette.
“I like the way you dance. Do not stop,” he said.
Miakka’s small feet barely moved, losing the rhythm. She tensed. Her knees felt weak, and a shudder ran through her as his hand slid down her neck, brushing the hollow of her throat and then moving out to rest on her shoulder.
“Please continue,” he said, pulling her a little closer. He could smell her now, sweet with the light fragrance of flower petals that she had steeped in water and then splashed on her body.
She knew immediately where this encounter would lead. She could not have refused him even if she had wanted to. He was the shaman, and he had the right to any woman of the tribe.
Atula took her to his platform. She was a maiden, never taken by a man before. She trembled at his touch, and her naïveté aroused him. In the protection of his platform, he brushed back her long black hair, exposing her body to his full view, his eyes reflecting his pleasure in what he saw. Slowly he slid her moss skirt to the floor, holding her hand as she stepped out of it. She had responded innocently to him, waiting for each touch, surprised at each new sensation. But she had not let out a sound, nor had she shuddered with the gift of joining. He regretted that. The ceremonial tea must have made him too impatient
Afterward he lay next to her, breathing deeply while she lay curled up next to him in a tiny frightened ball. He had not been proud of himself. Obviously she was a maiden; he had known that, and he had not taken time with her. Then, as he chastised himself, the cassite made him sleep.
Since then she had seen him at a distance a few times, and always she turned timidly away from him. Now she knelt in front of him, her belly enlarged with his child.
Atula’s face showed his confusion. The evening he had spent with her had not been that long ago. Again it was about time for the men to make the journey to the Big Water, as they did on each fourth full moon. It was important that the moon be full. Without the light, they could lose sight of the other canoes and their direction. His memory must be tricking him, he thought. Either it had been longer ago that he had been with her or she had not been a maiden at all. Look at how large she was with the child.
Miakka looked up, registering his perplexed expression. Tenderly she touched her abdomen. “It is so large, and I have so much time left to go.”
Atula continued to stare in amazement. “Does it cause you pain?”
“No, I would not call it pain. But it is so difficult for me to do many things. I fear that the child grows too fast, that I cannot carry it, that I cannot bring it into the world, that the child is deformed.” Miakka looked down, hiding her face so that he could not see that at any moment she might cry.
Atula read her emotions well. He heard the anguish and fear in her voice and saw it in her eyes as she spoke. He got to his knees and rubbed the palms of his sensitive hands across her tight-skinned belly and then put his ear to it. With his head bent across her, Miakka leaned down to breathe in deeply, taking in the scent of his hair and skin. She closed her eyes, imagining his head turning, his lips falling on her stomach and then slowly making their way up to her lips, leaving a damp trail of warmth along the way.
“Miakka, I cannot feel or hear anything. It is too early. This is just a large child and your first. It will be a fine boy,” he said, hoping to relieve her anxiety. “A strong boy that you will be proud of.”
“I hope to honor you,” she said softly, with worry still in her voice.
The honor was his, he thought. “Go then and speak with Wagahi. She has watched over many women during this time and has aided in the births. Certainly she will reassure you.”
Miakka rose slowly to her feet, taking his strong hand for balance. As soon as she stood, she tried to release his hand, but he held it a moment longer.
“May I come again if Wagahi does not satisfy me?” she asked, breaking the heavy silence. “Will you consult the spirits?”
“If Wagahi does not relieve you satisfactorily, come to me again. But I predict only a strong, healthy hunter, a child of whom you will be proud,” he said, letting go of her hand.
Though she was truly large for her time, she still moved with grace. After the child was born, perhaps he would entertain the thoughts she always stirred in him.
As she disappeared, he sucked in a heavy breath. She was right. There was something different about this pregnancy. Maybe Wagahi would provide the answer. He would ask for her opinion after Miakka had seen her.
It troubled him that neither his hands nor his ear had perceived the normal vibrations, sensations. And indeed the child was large. Grotesquely large. He would not wait. In the private shelter of his platform, he would consult the spirits.
In the still darkness he searched his pouches for the stems, leaves, and bits of plant that would purify him so that he might call the spirits to bring him a vision. Alone by his fire, he ground the ingredients in his wooden mortar, poured the mixture into a ceramic bowl with a small amount of water, and then suspended it above the coals. As the tea came to a boil, he sprinkled the yellow flower petals of a spiny herb, the prickly pear, atop it. Gently he stirred the potion with a stick, taking care not to bruise the delicate brew. His father had taught him the motion of the wrist, the measurements of the herbs. He had gone with him on his first flight into the spirit world. Atula missed him.
Soon after sipping the elixir he began to feel its warmth spread through his arteries. His nostrils flared as he concentrated, letting an abundance of clean but warm, humid air into his lungs. There was a tingling at every hair shaft on his body. The fragmented long bones of an extinct beast, handed down from father to gifted son, lay at his side. He began with a barely audible humming noise, and as his voice lifted against the chorus of crickets and night animals, it became fuller. After taking three deep breaths through his nose and letting them out of his mouth, he reached for the bones. They were cool and smooth in his hands. Their history and significance flowed through him, connecting him to all the memories, all the magic, of those who had come before.
Lightly at first he tapped the floor of his platform, increasing the intensity of the percussion and hum of his voice until they rang out in harmony. The magic words, the holy words, rode on the night air, passing the leaves and grass that fluttered at the sound. Soon his voice could not be distinguished from the sudden breeze. A quick burst of wind crossed the mound, stirring debris and then letting it settle. The drumming hammered through the dimensions, opening the doors to the spirit world. The incantations completed, the spirit man’s head rolled back, his eyes twitched, and he dropped the bone instruments. With a slow roll his head slumped forward, and the vision began.
A TULA NO LONGER NEEDED HIS EYES TO SEE. His Spirit eye left his body, hovered above for a moment, and then with incredible speed traveled through the dark tunnel. The brilliant light at the other end pulled him through the air, stretching him into a long, thin wisp of vapor. As he approached the light, it burst with colors, spraying him with warmth. At the exit all movement and sound stopped.
He stood near the edge of a river that teemed with fish. On the bank across from him, three deer came to drink. Turtles were collecting the warmth of the sun that would hold them through the cool night. The sky was clear and azure blue, crisp with the chill of the winter that blanketed the land to the north, the land of the A-po-la-chee, the people from the other side.
Suddenly the black noses of the deer sniffed the air. There was a different scent in the air. Their skin tingled, and they could smell something burning, but it was not fire. At the same instant they were blinded by a brilliant flash of light and deafened by a crack of thunder. They stood stunned, afraid to run. A sudden brisk breeze rustled the leaves, and the deer backed away from the water.
A thin layer of ash-gray smoke slid across the horizon and then into the blue sky, smudging it. Silently the turtles slipped below the surface of the water, and the deer disappeared into the saw grass. The great blue heron took flight, and the water stilled as if it knew something.
Quickly the light faded as rolling black clouds blotted out the sun. A fork of lightning ruptured the air, sending brilliant blue veins across the sky. It lit the landscape, and the earth shook with the roar of the colliding force of the heavens slamming back together, closing the fracture line. The wind thrashed the saw grass, an infinite landscape of slashing, whipping scored blades that sung the song of the wind. The rain fell in sheets, gushing out of the underbelly of the dark clouds, obscuring and smearing the view.
The river frothed, spilling over, cutting a trench through the labyrinths of gray, black, and yellow limestone, widening into a channel, gouging through the shell-fossil beds, carving its own cradle until it reached the ridge of rock that held back the tidal salt of the Big Water. The new river crashed through the rim of the limestone dam, breaking into a flash of small falls and rapids, finally emptying into the Big Water where it found its peace.
Atula witnessed the sudden clearing of the sky, the darkness rolling backward, sliding the cover off the bed of the sky. The wind stilled, and the clamor ceased. As it all cleared, he saw the dramatic change that had taken place. Before him were two rivers, new and old. The old river had become nothing but a dry bed, a cracked mosaic of sediment and clay. But the new river was filled with all those things on which the clan depended.
Fishermen in a canoe paddled to the fork and began to argue over what they should do.
“We must wait for the old river to fill again,” the first man said decidedly.
“Yes,” another agreed. “The old river has always provided for us. It sustained our fathers and their fathers before them. We and the animals we hunt have taken the water to satisfy our thirst. The river spirit has given us fish, turtles, and freshwater mussels. It is the water of life.”
“But are you blind, my friend?” another asked. “Do you not see that this is the end of the old river? The river spirit has not deserted us but has come in another form.”
“It is a trick. We should not take anything from the new river. It was not meant to be. An evil spirit has tricked you. We should dam it, destroy it before it destroys us.”
Another man interjected, “If you walk the dry bed, your thirst will paralyze your throat, and your hunger will pain your belly. You will watch those who have the courage to voyage on the new river, and your hearts will become hardened and jealous. You will watch us fill our stomachs with the treasures of the water and cool our throats with the clear water. When you realize you have made a mistake, your pride will not allow you to take your boat to the water. Instead you will wither like a dead leaf in the shadow of the river.”
“Why have the spirits let us become confused? Why do they demand that such important decisions be made?”
The men sat silent, undecided. The division among them had caused the canoe to remain at rest.
The distant buzzing sound became louder and louder, and the vision became covered with a haze.
“There will be a new river. It will be the same water but of a different channel,” echoed a distant voice. “The new river is filled with food for the People. It is the provider. Do not hide your face in fear.”
Atula took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His spirit eye was rapidly transported back through the tunnel and into his body, making him jump with the jolt of its return.
Such visionary journeys exhausted him. He moved to the mat of soft grasses that was his bed. He wished the vision had been clearer in its meaning. The spirits often spoke in ambiguous ways. Tomorrow he would fast and cleanse himself so that he could enter a holy state to concentrate and interpret the vision. But first he needed to rest so that he would be strong.
He was young to be a shaman and knew he probably withstood the stresses more heartily than many before him had. The bite of the coral snake had sent his father to the Other Side very early in his life.
Atula pictured the colorful snake in his mind. It was deceptive-looking. It was a small snake with small fangs, and only if it bit deep did it kill. But if it pierced some soft, vulnerable part and had time to deposit its venom, it was deadly.
Ochassee, Atula’s father, had gone in search of a special plant, the verbena, which bloomed all year in the pinelands. Its small clusters of pink, yellow, orange, and red blossoms made it easy to spot. To get it, he needed to follow the canoe trails through the nearly endless monotonous mass of saw grass. Following the small shallow channels, he traveled through the saw-toothed spikes. The brown- and green-creased blades stretched as far as he could see, an unchanging panorama interrupted only by the tree-island hammocks that grew atop humps of limestone. There the tightly packed muck, the layers of dead, rotting saw grass, was not so thick and had been eroded away. In the open spaces, where they were not in competition with the fierce saw grass, other plants seized the island with their roots, creating tiny jungles that were home to many of the animals and the men of the region. The tree islands grew thick with oak, cabbage palm, wax myrtle, sweet bay, and gumbo-limbo. The tangled mass of strangler figs grew out of depressions and crooks in the host trees. They sprouted from pouches and pockets where birds dropped their seed. Their leather-leafed heads peeked out and sent down their complicated roots to wrap themselves around their host. Eventually the Sabal palm and the cypress toppled and gave in, leaving the strangler standing alone, healthy, tall, and victorious.
Ochassee moved to the east, to the sandier soil of the pine flatlands. He had gone alone in his canoe, traveling the same trails he had traveled hundreds of times before. Quietly, in deep thought, he poled his small boat.
The land to the east was drier and supported the tall pines and scrub palmettos. When the canoe could take him no closer, he walked, watching for the colorful flowers that would be perched on top of square stems.
Finally he spotted what he sought. It had taken him much too long today, and he mumbled to himself and sighed. There was no path here, only the wire grass and the fans of the palmettos. In a few spaces, a myriad of colors erupted from the sun-ravaged earth.
Ochassee sped up, eager to gather the verbena, carelessly neglecting the cautious footwork that one needed in this land. To live in this environment was to be forever aware and alert, cautious and vigilant. A rotting log lay between him and the verbena. He knew that he should go around it or step broadly over it, watching his step, looking before he stepped. But he was in a hurry.
Hidden and safe, resting comfortably in the nest of loam and rotting wood, the beautiful coral snake heard the approaching steps. His black forked tongue darted at the air. Slowly it withdrew farther under the log.
Ochassee stepped on the top of the decaying log. His weight caused the rotting wood to cave in, falling to pieces beneath his foot. He felt a quick jab, no more painful than a sting or the prick of a sandspur, on the side of his small toe. To his horror, the brightly ringed snake tenaciously clung to him. He could almost see the pumping action of the venom gland as it injected him with liquid death.
Ochassee took his knife and slashed off the head of the snake. The headless body wriggled on the ground while the fangs sewed the head to his toe. In terror, Ochassee ripped the head away, tearing small slits in his skin.
The moment he saw the bite, he knew there was no hope. He slowly lowered himself to the ground and tried to prepare himself for death. But the beheaded snake still kept his attention, odd as it seemed, and he studied it.
Unlike the other poisonous snakes of the region, such as the rattlesnake and the moccasin, it did not have the characteristic pit on the side of the head between the nostril and the eye. The fangs were small and weren’t movable like those of the other snakes. It chewed on its victim, compensating for the small size of its fangs.
Actually it was quite beautiful, with its bands of black and red and yellow, he thought. It wasn’t even an irritable snake. Ochassee surmised that he must have stepped squarely on it, for this snake was usually shy, unlike the aggressive moccasin. As a shaman, he knew about the potions, soaks, and dressings used to save a man from the poison of the rattler and the moccasin. He also knew that there was no cure for the bite of the coral.
He looked at his toe. The holes were tiny, except for the rips where he had pulled the snake’s head loose. The wound didn’t even hurt; the area was numb. Rattler and moccasin bites quickly swelled and caused much pain. The irony in the lack of pain and the final outcome of the coral snake bite intrigued Ochassee.
He decided to go back to the canoe and travel as far as he could. There was no rush; the venom was circulating inside him, and he was going to die no matter what he did. He wanted his son, Atula, to be with him and to guide him across to the Other Side, but he wasn’t sure he would make it back to the village.
The walking accelerated the poisoning process, and he began to notice a weakness in the leg that had been bitten. By the time he reached the canoe, he was stumbling, off balance, and he was extremely tired. He felt as if his body was weighted with stones, and his mouth kept filling with saliva.
Ochassee lifted one leg into the canoe and then let himself fall forward so that he landed inside, the force pushing the canoe off the bank. He rolled to his back and tried to sit up. But his body was suddenly too heavy, and so he lay watching the clouds as the boat drifted.
The canoe came to rest against a clump of reeds. Peripherally he saw flashes of light that he knew were not actually there. His mouth continued to fill with saliva, and some of it drooled from the corner of his mouth. It was hard to swallow, and there was an uncomfortable weight on his chest. In the bottom of his boat, under the blazing sun, he shivered with cold.
Slowly he touched the medicine bag that he wore around his neck. He could feel the symbols of his life inside and hoped that everything was there so that the spirits would know him when he crossed over.
Some members of a hunting party from another clan had found Ochassee and brought him home, and Atula had prepared his father for burial. Alone in the shaman’s platform he sliced open his father’s scalp, removed a small triangular piece of the skull, and washed it clean of blood and flesh. He carefully drilled a hole in it and strung it on a leather thong. It was the spirit man’s amulet, the visual and concrete claim to the Gift, given to him by his father. Slowly he had lowered it over his head as he spoke the secret words. Atula had become shaman.
That night the clan gathered. Atula had wrapped Ochassee’s body with medicine leaves, herbs, and roots. His body was put into the central hearth. The moist plant wrap crackled as it touched the flames. Sometimes it made loud popping noises, spraying out a shower of sparks. The air was filled with the sickly sweet scent of burning flesh. The People listened to the words of Atula, their new shaman. They heard his voice call out the prayers of the ritual. When he had finished, they turned the event into a festivity of chanting and feasting. The man of the spirits had gone home.
The young Atula walked away from the fire, his face strained with pain.
* * *
Atula remembered the death of his father as if it were yesterday. It still tore at his heart, and sometimes he doubted that he had had enough time to learn from him. There were so many things he still questioned and wished that he could ask Ochassee.
How his father must have hated it when the visions were unclear, he thought, thinking of the two rivers he had seen. Why did the visions have to be so difficult to interpret? Was he not supposed to understand the meaning until a later time? He had the same thoughts and questions after each undefined vision, but he had a special interest in this vision. What had the spirits planned for Miakka and the child she carried? Sooner or later the meaning of the two rivers would become clear, and the veil of mystery would lift. It was up to the spirits, not him. With that thought he drifted into sleep.
In the morning the aroma from the cook fires saturated the air. There was the fresh smell of bread made from the thick and starchy root of the coontie plant. Just by sniffing the air one could almost taste the fresh berries and the teas made from them and other tasty herbs as they brewed and steeped over the fire.
Miakka brought a bowl of fresh water from the cenote, the place where the cavernous limestone collapsed in on itself, leaving a sinkhole filled with fresh water. It was probably because of this feature that the spot had been chosen for habitation generations ago.
It felt good to her to kneel by the fire and relieve the stress in her lower back. Across the fire she saw him. Atula was standing off to one side. He seemed to be fasting, she noticed, since he showed no interest in the food that was being prepared. How marvelous he looked standing alone, looking over the people he served. She wondered if he fasted because he had taken her concerns to the spirits.
“Shakia,” she called to her friend. “Come and have your morning meal with me.”
Shakia looked across the fire at Miakka. After the death of Miakka’s parents, Shakia’s mother, Tabisha, and Shakia’s father, Acopa, had taken her in. Miakka had been present at Shakia’s birth, and though they were not real sisters, there was a special bond between the two. When Miakka became a woman, she moved to her own platform, alone.
“I see you still cannot stop watching him,” Shakia said as she sat next to Miakka.
“Does it show that much?”
“Only to me because I know you so well.”
Miakka’s face turned sullen. “I think the spirits punish me. I always think of him.”
“Miakka, you cannot. Turn your head toward some other man. Look to the men who come to visit from other villages. I have seen many pay you attention, and you turn them all away. There is no future for you if you continue to grieve for what you can never have.”
“I know. That is why I say the spirits are angry with me, though I do not understand what I could have done to cause it. Why would they want me to suffer all my life? First my mother and father, and now … I think they mean for my heart always to be empty.”
“The spirits are not angry with you, but you must forget Atula. He is the shaman and cannot take a woman as his bride. Perhaps that is the attraction. Maybe you are infatuated with him because you cannot have him. Put him out of your mind. Forget this fanciful dream you have.”
Miakka touched her abdomen gently, lovingly. “Do you not see that the spirits will never let me forget? Here, inside, I carry a part of him—a part of me.”
“And you are honored,” Shakia said, hugging Miakka. “Let it go, sweet friend.”
“I know you are right. Perhaps after the child is born it will be easier—that is, if …” She was too frightened to speak the words, as if voicing her fears would make them come true. She would put the problem out of her mind and talk to Shakia about something more reasonable than her feelings for the shaman and less frightening than her fear for the child she carried.
“And I see the way you watch Wakulla.”
“Miakka!” Shakia protested and blushed.
Miakka smiled. “He is quite handsome, and I think he keeps his eye on you rather than on the young women he could choose from the other villages.”
“But the cacique may insist that he choose a bride from outside our clan. That is the way most of the time.”
“But not every time,” Miakka corrected. “There are special situations, and there is no common blood between you and Wakulla. If he wants you, I think Jegatua will approve. And I think Wakulla entertains that thought.”
Shakia looked about for him and found Wakulla not too far away. “Do you really think so?” she asked, but Miakka did not answer.
Shakia looked back at her friend and then followed the track of Miakka’s eyes. Shakia shook her head. Miakka was looking across the mound to the man she could never have.
Atula surveyed the clan, taking special note of his offspring. There were three sons. Micco was small-boned like his mother, Shani, but his eyes were definitely Atula’s. So far he had shown no signs of the Gift, but he was very young.
Wakulla was the oldest. He had been conceived by Kita, an older woman whose responsibility was to teach the adolescent Atula the pleasures of joining. It was the joint duty of the shaman and the clan leader, the cacique, to select the woman. They had agreed that Kita would be Atula’s teacher.
A north wind had blown that night, chilling everyone to the bone. Beneath the covers of hides and fur, Kita had guided Atula into manhood. She had not only pleased him, but had also taught him how to please a woman. She stayed with him, fed him, pleased him and slept with him for many frigid days. His memory of that first experience had stayed with him for many winters, and Kita held a special place in his heart.
Wakulla was more than old enough to show the signs. He was a fine young man. The entire clan was proud of Wakulla, and they knew he was destined to be a leader of the People. He had a sense of fairness and a manner that was well appreciated. Even with all his wonderful qualities, he was not going to be the one with the Gift. He was already much too old. This grieved Atula a little. He would have liked for his successor to be Wakulla, especially for the sake of his mother, Kita.
Cacema’s son, Cherok, seemed the most likely. He was at the prime age. He had lived through five summers. He had a full head of blue-black hair and healthy olive skin. His temperament and disposition were pleasant and mellow. Cherok even showed a special affection for Atula.
Atula understood the burden of being the shaman. It was not a destiny a man chose of his own will. The shaman possessed a curious inner quality, a special instinct, a knowledge that was a blood gift. The ordinary man could not understand. Even while he was young the child would know certain things instinctively, and Atula would recognize the signs. He would teach his son.
Some tribes had long ago lost that pure strain of shaman, and they knew only the new knowledge that was handed down through teaching. Atula was pure. He had the memories of the generations that had come before him, though much of it had been diluted through the thousands of years. One of his sons would also have the Gift. The mother would have to be of a pure line, not the descendant of a mixing of tribes. Everyone in this clan was pure. Atula could sire many boy children, but only one would receive the Gift. Because there could never be a permanent relationship, joining was strictly for the purpose of procreating or simply to satisfy a biological need. To which child had the spirits passed the Gift through his seed? Atula wondered.
Cherok sat next to his mother as she filled her bowl and his. Atula approached the boy.
Miakka smiled at him from across the central hearth. She liked Cacema, and everyone liked Cherok. She watched the little fellow as he looked up at his father. He was the image of Atula. Cacema was a fortunate woman. Her son would probably be the next shaman. She was raising a very special child.
“Here,” Atula told the child, handing him a piece of deer meat. “Finish your morning meal and come with me. We have a lot to do this day.”
Cacema listened and then nodded to Cherok, confirming her approval. She tried hard not to smile, but it pleased her that Atula was going to spend time with her son. It was time. Since his birth she had been certain that he was the one. Atula could see something in him, she thought. He was a special child.
THE BOY CHEWED THE PIECE OF TENDER MEAT, taking Atula by the hand. His father led him onto the path to the cenote. The small one eagerly walked next to his father.
Atula stopped where the brush cleared, sat down with his legs crossed, and patted the ground next to him. The little one plopped down.
“Look into the water, Cherok, and tell me what you see.”
The boy crawled to the edge and peered in. “I see water, Father.”
“And what else do you see?”
Cherok looked again. There was not the faintest breeze, so the water was still and smooth, the surface a perfect reflection.
“The clouds. I can see the clouds,” he said, jumping up with delight at his discovery.
Atula took the boy’s hand to settle him. “Look again, Cherok. Tell me, what do they look like? Be my eyes, Cherok. Pretend that I am blind. Help me feel what you see. Paint a picture with your words.”
Cherok looked at the water, fascinated by the reflection.
“Clouds, Father. White clouds.”
“More, my son,” Atula almost whispered so as not to disturb the boy’s concentration. The sky was dappled with great pearly clouds, puffed heaps of vapor towering against the blinding blue. “Touch the clouds with your heart. Feel them. Become part of them. Go to them and soar above the earth. Look down on me and tell me how it feels to touch the sky.”
Cherok wrinkled his nose in puzzlement before he gazed again at the reflection.
Atula continued to guide him, to push him, to make him stretch. “Concentrate. Breathe in. Feel the air and know it. Let yourself out of your body. Feel yourself lighter than the air, rising up above the earth. Reach out to the clouds. Ride the wind, my son.”
The small boy looked hard into the water. “I am trying, Father. The clouds are like giant puffs of smoke floating in the sky.”
“Good, little one. Let go now. Be free. Do not be afraid. See yourself rising up. Feel the warm, fretful wind touch your face. Let it carry you.”
For a few minutes there was silence. The boy stared into the water, concentrating, trying to follow his father’s directions. Then abruptly he turned to the shaman. “I cannot tell you how they feel. I cannot touch them. But, Father, I am trying. I want to touch them.”
Cherok’s small face twisted into an expression of disappointment. Atula fingered his son’s black hair. “Yes, I know you do. In time. You did well this first time.”
Atula realized that the child was still too young. He had gotten very close, but his concentration was limited. He needed to practice, to learn to focus. And even if he had gone to the clouds, his vocabulary was too inadequate to describe the experience. But Atula saw that he had promise. There was something there.
“Come,” he said, “to my hearth.” Cherok reached for his father’s hand. Atula held it firmly so that his son would know the difference between a woman’s hand and a man’s grip.
When they reached the fire Atula closed his eyes and hummed while Cherok drew in the dirt with a stick. When would he know his son? There should be no investment in a relationship with any other child, only the one with the Gift.
Perhaps the Gift would become more difficult to detect, he thought, because with each successive generation it was weakened, spread thinner in the blood. He would need to be patient. The memories and instinct were being constantly compromised through time. It was like a very strong tea to which had been added small amounts of water over and over again. Such strong power wasn’t needed now as it had been in generations past. The tribes depended more on communal decision-making and on the leadership and guidance of those who were wise with age.
The shaman remained a powerful bridge to the world of the spirits. Whenever the darkness of trouble fell over the clan, the shaman was asked to consult the spirits and then guide the clan through the darkness with his light. While other men could dream, only the shaman could have visions. Only the holy man, with his medicines and his songs, could leave his body and join the spirits. Only the man of the spirits could understand the symbols and tongues, speak with the giant animal spirits that had once hunted men. That was the realm of the pure shaman, the real holy man. Those were the places that he went and the things that he did. That domain was his alone.
Atula sipped clear broth, not taking any solid food during his fast. He offered a small bowl of it to Cherok. The two sat quietly watching the movements of the rest of the clan as they finished their morning meals and chores.
Atula’s attention left Cherok, caught by something else. Miakka stood conversing with Wagahi. Her face was serious. The two finally walked to the place of Wagahi, following a path acceptable for all members of the clan.
The space behind the camp, behind the place of the men’s medicine bundles that hung at the head of their sleeping mats, was different from the space in the front of the village. In front of the thatched platforms were trails connecting all parts of the village. The paths led to other platforms, the cenote, the hide-working area, the central hearth, the basket and weaving area, the tool-making place, and the area to relieve oneself. But behind the platforms, on the north side, the trails were for men only, for they led to the hunting ground. The three-sided platforms were aligned from northeast to southwest. No man’s platform came between another’s and the place of the sunrise, the creation of a new day. All of the openings faced the south, out of fear of the winter when a frigid northeasterly wind might blow through and cause great sickness to sweep the clan.
The People believed that the wind from the northeast was the breath of the giant beasts that used to roam the earth and hunt men. It kept man humble to be reminded of his precarious existence and made him give thanks to the Great Spirit for choosing the People over the animals. In return, the People had an obligation to respect the animals.
Carefully Miakka and Wagahi climbed the ladder up to the platform. Atula watched them disappear inside. She was quite lovely with child. He wished to dance with her again.
The rest of the day he spent with Cherok. He walked him through the trails for men and into the brush where the child had never been before.
He showed his son how to stalk quietly, carefully. “There are many reasons to be silent,” he explained. “You may hear a bird call a sudden alarm or perhaps the snapping of a twig or the rustling of brush. You must always be alert.”
As his father demonstrated, Cherok watched, his eyes riveted on the man who knew so much.
“Look around you. Your body should blend with the landscape. If you are in the brush and grass, you will crouch or crawl. In the hammocks, on the river’s edge, or in the pine-lands, you must stand tall and still like the trees. Become part of the landscape. Become a tree. If you feel it from the inside, you will be a tree on the outside.”
Cherok hunched over in the midst of the saw-grass prairie, disappearing from sight. Atula moved next to him.
Keep your balance; that is most important,” Atula told him.
“I want to be a tree,” Cherok said.
Atula laughed. “Then I will show you how to stalk in the woods.”
The two of them boarded a small canoe, and Atula guided it through the canoe trails to the east. A few times they had to portage the canoe through shallow water, but most of the time Atula could use his paddle or a pole. The water finally led to a river tributary that flowed through the palmetto scrub and pine flatland.
Atula bound the canoe to a nearby tree and helped Cherok out. “Touch the earth,” he told his son. It was different here. They walked deeper into the pinewoods. The smell was different—dry and hot, not moist and steamy like the village.
Cherok scraped up a handful of the sandy gray dirt and let it trickle through his small fingers.
“Shh,” Atula whispered. “There, through the trees.”
Cherok froze and looked in the direction that his father was gazing.
“Where?” he whispered.
“A deer. There,” his father told him.
Cherok saw nothing but squinted to look even harder.
“Keep looking at him,” Atula said. “Do not take your eyes off of him and be still. Stand like the trees.”
Cherok braced his spine, afraid even to blink his eyes. He could hear his own breathing and was certain that the deer his father saw could also hear him breathing.
Atula whispered again. “Keep your hands and arms next to your body until we begin to move. Do what I do, exactly.”
Atula slowly moved his hands in front of his body so that they dangled over his knees and then bent his knees slowly and slightly. Cherok copied his father, who was only a step or two in front of him and off to one side a little.
The boy’s eyes quickly returned to the place where he thought he should see the deer, remembering that his father had told him to keep looking at the animal. He still could not see it.
Atula raised one foot alongside his other leg until it was level with his knee. He pointed his toes downward so that he would not snag his foot on anything. He balanced there for a moment. Cherok mimicked him, but found it difficult to keep his balance. Smoothly the man lowered his foot. Just before touching the ground, he turned his toes upward and slightly bent his ankle so that he touched the earth with the outside of his foot. Lightly he rolled across the ball of his foot, testing the ground beneath him. Since it was free of twigs and other obstacles, he slowly lowered his heel to the ground and at last his toes. When his foot was safely planted, he shifted his weight.
Cherok followed Atula’s example, though not quite as smoothly. He watched as his father began to move again. Atula swung his upper body forward, reminding Cherok of the way some of the large wading birds moved. His father lifted his back heel and then finally his whole foot. He was repeating the first step bringing his foot up to knee level.
They walked that way, slowly, carefully, skillfully, until Cherok’s small muscles trembled with the strain. And he still had not seen the deer.
Finally Atula lowered himself to the ground and sat.
“The deer?” Cherok frowned.
Atula smiled as his son sat across from him. “It was practice.”
“You mean there was not a real deer?”
“Not this time. But when there is a deer, you will know what to do.”
“How close can we get?” the child asked.
“You can get as close as you are good. Of course, you must remember the wind.”
Atula spotted a ground oak. He pulled some of the white fruit from the small patch of shrubs and offered one to his son. The pulp was sweet in Cherok’s mouth.
On the way back, Atula took Cherok to some land that had burned during a wildfire set by lightning.
“The deer will soon be here.” Atula bent over and pointed to the new succulent shoots of saw grass, urging his son to take note.
On the rest of the return journey, the shaman told Cherok other things, like how to disguise his smell by standing in front of the smoke from the fire. At twilight they reached the village, and Atula returned Cherok to his mother.
After the evening meal Atula walked back to his platform, which was set apart from the rest and somewhat isolated. As he got close, he felt that he was being followed. He let his feet fall lightly on the ground so that he could hear other noises. A small cracking of a twig and the crushing of the grasses told him that someone was definitely close by. Atula stopped, faced the brush, and called out, “Who follows and hides in the brush?”
He could hear the rustling of the plants and grasses as a figure disengaged itself from cover and stepped onto the trail.
“Amakollee, it is unwise to track a man and not let yourself be known. I might have thought you were an A-po-la-chee.”
“I would have revealed myself in a moment. You are truly a great hunter, for you heard me,” she said, trying to inflate his ego and improve her position with him.
“What is it that you need?”
“Please, Atula,” she began, hearing the aloofness in his question. “I have made myself clear in the past. There was a time when you did not turn me away. Have I become so old and unattractive?”
Atula felt himself soften. How humiliating it must be for her. “Where is your pride, Amakollee?”
“How can I continue to have pride? I am one of the few who have lived this long and still have no mate. It is too late for me to go to another village. I would be laughed at. You know that, Atula, and you know that you are the only one who can save me. I can give you pleasure in exchange. I will do anything you ask of me.”
Atula felt embarrassed for her and tried to quiet her. “Do not say things that you may later regret. Keep your pride and your dignity.”
Amakollee walked a little closer. “Are you still a man, Atula? Do you not still have needs—needs that I can satisfy? I know those things that please you,” she said, running her finger across his lips and then his chest. “I know how you ache inside when I let my hands wander over your body.”
The sun rapidly disappeared in the west, leaving only a spray of orange low in the sky.
Atula felt a tingling current travel through him as she continued her caresses. He parted his lips to speak.
“Do not say anything,” she said before touching her mouth to his nipples: “Answer me with your body.”
Atula bent his head forward and pressed his face into her hair.
“Yes,” she murmured. “Let your body answer. It cries for a woman.”
She kissed his chest and then his neck, letting her hand touch his thigh and trail teasingly upward.
His arms went around her. His body did need to be satisfied, and she was expert in knowing how to do that. He led her up the ladder and onto his mat. He let her undress him, let her be the aggressor, and he enjoyed this reversal of the traditional roles. As she lay upon him, nipping and kissing those intimate parts of him, he closed his eyes. To his surprise he saw Miakka’s face. He found himself lost in his imagination. It was Miakka’s hair that swept across his belly as her mouth took him in. It was Miakka’s hand that held his to her breasts as she lowered her body onto him, leading him into her valley.
Amakollee sighed, almost crying out as he filled her. Atula rolled her onto her back and with his passion made her tremble beneath him. She clutched at his back, pulling him closer, meeting his rhythm until she finally convulsed with the release of pleasure. Atula stiffened and then fell onto her, his breathing deep and rapid, hungry for air to fill his lungs.
“Let me stay a little longer,” she whispered. “Do not make me leave too soon.”
Atula turned onto his side, pulled her head to his shoulder, and stroked her hair, letting her know that she did not have to leave. He was not so cruel.
Joining always complicated things, except with Cacema and of course Kita. In his heart he knew that joining should involve more than the act. That was why he had avoided Amakollee. Afterward he always felt like an animal. He knew how difficult joining could make relationships.
He had had a painful experience with Micco’s mother, Shani. She had been a romantic adventure that had not lasted long. Shani had ended it, though she told Atula she loved him. He had been willing to have Shani as his only woman. But she wanted more than he could give. She wanted a man who could lie next to her all night. She wanted to curl up in his warm arms on cold mornings. She wanted to live at the hearth of the man she loved. She wanted a husband, not the clan, to provide for her.
Atula could not promise her those things that she wanted for a lifetime. He was forbidden to take a wife to live at his hearth. As much as Shani loved him, she knew that her demands would eventually breed ill feelings between them. She chose to let him go. She never wanted him to regret his special place with the People. And she did have the child of his seed, Micco.
If not Cherok, then perhaps Micco, he thought as Amakollee slept at his side. And what of this night? Had his seed begun to grow inside her? Had it found a welcome bed that would nourish it?
He looked at Amakollee’s face, and his heart ached for her. She was not the most beautiful, but she was not unpleasant to look at. She was right: She did know how to please him.
Atula began to wonder about his place in the clan. Did he have two purposes, one of which he had just now realized? Was the man of the spirits less than a man or more than a man? Was he an instrument to spread the seed of the Gift, never being allowed the experience of being just a man? He had come close with Shani, but the spirits had moved her heart. Though Amakollee was at his side, he found himself very much alone. He had one purpose—to perpetuate the line.
He gently shook Amakollee’s shoulder to wake her. She looked up at him, almost gratefully. He watched her as she made her way to the doorway and then disappeared down the ladder. He turned onto his side and closed his eyes. Tonight he would not talk to the spirits before sleeping. He was too tired, and he had nothing to say.
MIAKKA CONTINUED TO SWELL. Always from a distance she watched Atula. She listened and stayed silent as Amakollee boasted to the other women of how the shaman had found favor in her. Miakka felt uneasy, flustered, and though she tried to deny it, a little jealous. She wanted to walk away, but something made her stay and listen.
She watched for signs of Atula’s interest in Amakollee. Whenever she could, she followed him with her eyes. She managed to be near him many times but never allowed herself to get close. As much as she watched, she saw no sign of a relationship between Amakollee and him. Instead she saw the bond growing between the shaman and Cacema’s son, Cherok.
Atula spent many days with Cherok, now and again noticing a flicker of what might indicate the surfacing of the Gift—a flash in the boy’s eyes, a perception, or an observation that seemed beyond his years. There was nothing definite. It seemed that Cherok always stood at the brink, so close, needing the smallest tap to push him over. With time, Atula thought. It was going to take time. Finally Atula seemed satisfied that it was Cherok, and the clan began to look upon the boy with special interest and favor.
Cacema carried on with her usual domestic tasks, also watching from a distance, over time seeing the bond begin to form between Cherok and Atula. Her heart was filled with pride.
Just after Cherok’s birth, Okapi had taken Cacema to be his wife, and she was devoted to him. Cacema had consented to joining with Atula, but no romantic entanglement had ever developed. The shaman was strikingly handsome, and it was an honor to have been chosen, but she knew that she could have no emotional future with him and so she had kept that part of her separate from the joining. Atula had found that particularly attractive in her. She expected no commitments, no restrictions, no promises or profound statements of love. He had chosen her on quite a few occasions before she became Okapi’s wife.
The relationship between Atula, Cacema, and Okapi was comfortable, and Okapi was privileged to help raise the son of the shaman. Okapi’s family would be favored because of Cherok. An additional portion of the clan’s food would always be given to his family. Cacema was pregnant again, this time with Okapi’s child. If Okapi were to die, the clan would always provide for Cacema and all her children.
Miakka touched her abdomen, feeling the strong kicks and rolls of her unborn child. She was sore and felt bruised. Exhaustion often swept over her like some dark and ominous cloud.
She lay down on her back, resting her hands on her large belly, closing her eyes tightly, feeling the pain in her throat as she fought back tears. She was so frightened.
MIAKKA STOOD AT THE BASE of the ladder that led up to Atula’s platform. To call for him might be too informal, she thought, and so she stood silently, hoping that he would soon detect her presence. She had waited a few more moon cycles, and the child inside her had continued to grow at an alarming rate. She found it difficult to do most daily tasks and even to sleep.
Somehow, she believed, an evil spirit had seen Atula’s seed within her and had vengefully turned the child into a gruesome monster. Or maybe it was her fault. Maybe in her cooking she had mixed the flesh of some sea animal with that of a land animal without noticing. That was a definite taboo, and maybe the spirits were punishing her.
She had seen such babies born. She shuddered at the thought of them. Sometimes their spines were not closed or their eyes were not properly spaced. Some even had a split face, their mouths opening into their noses. Usually such recipients of the evil spirits’ vengeance died shortly after birth. Sometimes a deformed baby might live for a whole moon cycle or two. The child was innocent, but if it lived, it humbled its mother. The mother would serve the child all its life, and she would cry in the night, asking the spirits why they had allowed such evil to hurt her child. This was a hideous trick that the evil spirits played just to remind the People of their power.
Miakka was certain that she carried such a child, and her emotions were torn between love and terror. Her heart jumped between fear and anger. She would make Atula answer her today. He was the only one who could see inside her, the only one who could talk to the spirits.
And she had an even worse fear, which she forbade herself to think about. She was afraid that if she dared to think of this fear, it might come true—she might make it happen.
Some children were born neither male nor female, but both. They were strange outcasts of the tribe, but they were strong, and when one of these pitiful creatures did live, it was given heavy, burdensome jobs.
“No,” Miakka. Whatever the deformity, the possibility frightened her. She touched the tightly stretched skin of her belly.
While she was deep in thought, Atula had seen her, sensed her, and had come down the ladder.
“Miakka,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder.
Startled, she turned sharply.
“I did not hear you descend.”
“It is not a noisy task. I thought you awaited me.”
“I do,” she said, turning to face him. “Wagahi can give me no advice. The other women turn away from me. They are afraid. Look at me. I am filled with a child that I love, and yet I know something is wrong. It is time for you to help me. Do something. You are the shaman. You are the father.”
“Yes,” he answered, “It is my seed that blooms within you. Come with me,” he coaxed as he started up the ladder.
Miakka followed, watching him disappear in the shadows of his platform. He reached for her hand as she climbed to the top. Firmly but gently he helped her inside.
“Lie down and put your heels on this mark,” he directed, drawing a line across the floor with a burned stick. Atula rolled up the end of his sleeping mat for use as a cushion. “Rest your head on my mat.”
Miakka lowered herself to the rough cypress floor, extended her legs so that her heels touched the mark, then reclined and rested her head on the mat. Atula crouched and then knelt. From a pouch he removed a dried plant mixture and sprinkled some at each corner of an imaginary square around her body.
“Do not say a word. Be very still and wait for me to tell you that I am finished,” he said.
Miakka tensed as Atula closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and began to chant, repeating the same syllables over and over. Soon the platform seemed filled with the sound, reverberating with the chant. She could feel his voice leaching something primal from her, over which she had no control, that she had never known was there, a piece of her that had been hidden deep inside, only to be brought out by the man of the spirits.
Louder and louder, his voice rang out. The air seemed alive and filled with tension. His voice, his words, sated the air, assimilating all other sounds. And a part of her slipped away, hearing his voice only in sweet whispers. Feeling as though she’d been separated from her body, she looked down and saw them both, wrapped in the grayness that seeped through the cracks in the floor and thatch.
Suddenly Atula stopped chanting. He opened his eyes and held his hands above her exposed abdomen. His strong hands seemed to rest on an invisible force that hovered over her belly. He moved his open hands in circles, as if gradually wearing away the layer of still air between his palms and her flesh.
Miakka closed her eyes. She no longer felt suspended above her body. Her skin tingled beneath his hands even before he touched her. Lightly his palms and fingers slipped across her. Slowly he added more pressure until she felt the weight of his hands.
The child moved inside her at the touch of its father. Atula swayed and began another chant directed to the child, the spirit that grew inside Miakka. She could feel the child tumble and stretch, hearing its father’s words.
Atula rested his hands on her abdomen. Then he plucked two long strands of Miakka’s hair and held them up above him while he spoke the magic tongue. Carefully he twisted the hairs together, weaving them into one strong strand.
From one of the many baskets that lined the side of his platform he withdrew a small piece of fire-polished deer bone. He wrapped the woven strand around the bone and tied it on at one end. Holding it in the palm of his hand and cupping that hand with the other, he held it up toward the sky.
His voice rang out again, but Miakka did not understand his words. Atula lowered his hands and stuffed the woven strands of hair and bone into the medicine bag that she wore around her neck.
He spoke a few quiet words of gratitude and sat quietly. The haze inside the platform cleared. The air thinned, and the power that had filled the platform dissipated. Miakka felt her muscles relax. The energy inside the room faded. There was a smell of something scorching in the air, but it quickly vanished.
“It is over,” he said softly.
The fire was gone from his eyes. He looked tired, as if the energy he had brought to the air had been tapped from his body. His voice was close to a whisper when he spoke.
“There were two,” he told her. “Now they will become one. There is nothing to fear.”
She had seen the shaman work his magic before. She had seen him heal. But she had never been this close to his power, and her body still trembled with the experience. He was extremely powerful, and there was a new depth to her respect for him.
Quietly she stood, realizing that he was too exhausted to escort her down the ladder.
“Thank you, Shaman,” she whispered.
He heard her soft footsteps as she left. The air inside still carried the fragrance of her skin, and it was easy with his eyes closed to think that she was still here.
Strange, he thought. He had not had to deal with twins before. In his lifetime no one in this clan had ever carried them. He had heard that the phenomenon occurred, but he had never witnessed it. In the time of his father, a woman had carried two infants. They had fought inside and been born too early, killing themselves and also the mother with their tempers. Atula had saved Miakka and both of her children. As he twisted the two strands of her hair, he had blended the two tiny spirits inside her, uniting them so that they became one strong spirit.
Atula stood up and wondered where he had learned how to do this magic. Had his father taught him long ago, or had the ability come from inside, from the part of him that was shaman? Gripping the amulet that hung around his neck, he walked to the doorway and watched Miakka walk away. Perhaps he would invite Amakollee to his bed this night.
More cycles of the moon passed, and Miakka’s size gradually became more appropriate. The time of the birth would be soon.
The men of the village prepared for a hunt. It was winter and the proper time for spirit visitation. The shaman would play an important role in the preparations for a successful hunt. There had been an unusual amount of rain throughout the seasons. Even the winter, which was usually dry in the southern end of the peninsula, had been wet.
The edges of the mound had been swallowed by the rising water level. The clan excavated the borrow pit and poured the spoil onto the mound.
The deer, an important animal to the survival of the clan, had sought the limited high ground of the hammocks and ridges. They fed on the tender new shoots of saw grass until it was all gone or covered by the water. They were starving for lack of dry land.
The clan knew that if they overhunted, causing a disharmony in nature, the Great Spirit would punish them. The men sought a delicate balance. If too many were killed in addition to those that died of starvation, the deer could become extinct. But if they did not hunt, all of the deer would die of starvation. If the men had the guidance of the spirits, they would kill the right number of deer so that those who remained could graze and live. They knew how closely woven was the basket of creation. Every animal, including man, depended on the survival of all others.
The fire in the center of the ceremonial platform blazed high into the black night sky. The melodic voices of the People rang out along with the sound of rattles.
Atula, having donned a wooden mask carved in the image of the deer, danced in front of the fire, inviting the animal spirit. His dancing cloak, made from the hide of the deer and colored with vegetable dye, swooped through the air. He carried a rattle of deer hooves, which he shook rhythmically in cadence with his voice. His body was bent over, swinging toward each of the four directions.
The crowd also helped call a spirit. They solicited the rain spirit through their dance of uniform small steps. They hoped the rain spirit would see them and know their dilemma. The clan could not speak with the spirit, but they could please and honor it.
Miakka stood behind a group of women. She looked beyond the crowd, entranced by the handsomeness and power of Atula.
Suddenly Atula groaned, announcing the invasion of his body by the animal spirit. He removed the mask, exposing his painted face. He raised his head, opening his jet eyes. The crowd fell silent. Then he began his prophesies.
“The excessive rain has come to bring us back to the spirits. The spirits feel we have forgotten them, and so we must be humbled. Our hunt will be successful. We will take only what we need. The deer spirit cooperates. The rains will end, and all will return to normal. We will be forgiven when those who have ignored the spirits confess.”
Amakollee stepped from the crowd and wound her way toward Atula. She had kept to herself lately. She carried herself proudly and spoke loud enough for all to hear. “Perhaps it was I,” she cried, coming closer. She waited a moment before continuing, making certain that she had the attention of everyone. She used those moments to wind her way through the people until she was in the light of the fire.
“I have been blessed,” she said, looking at Atula. “The spirits have heard my cry and have answered me. It could be that I have not properly thanked them,” she said.
Atula noticed her curved abdomen as she stood before him. She carried a child. Shani also noticed and flinched. She still had no mate and had lain with no man since Atula. Even though she had ended the relationship two winters ago, it still caused her pain to see that he had joined with another. The same pang had pierced her when she first learned of Miakka’s pregnancy. He still wove himself through her dreams, and every time she looked into the eyes of her son, Micco, she saw Atula. Perhaps Micco would have the Gift. That would give her some consolation. Nevertheless she would live with her decision. Though she did not have a mate, she did have suitors. She would answer one of them and move away to be properly courted. Bearing the son of the shaman was not enough. She would have a husband.
Amakollee glanced at Shani and then at Miakka, curling her lips into the faintest smile. “I have much to be thankful for,” she said, gently touching her belly. “I, too, carry the child of the shaman. And already there have been signs,” she said, turning to the crowd. “I have felt his movement from the earliest time, and he has come to me in my dreams. He will be the one with the Gift.”
Amakollee knelt in front of Atula. He was glad that she had conceived, but she should not have been so bold as to say that she carried the child with the Gift. It was not for her to say, and her declaration was certainly premature. Even as she knelt at his feet, he perceived trouble. He touched the crown of her head, giving his approval.
Amakollee eased away from him, the back of her hand pressed to her forehead in respect for the mighty shaman who had sown his seed inside her. He would not be sorry. She would give him his heir.
Others came to him for many different reasons, offering their thanks to the spirits. But after Amakollee, Miakka’s ears seemed to go deaf, and she felt the sting of tears in her eyes. Quietly she retreated to her platform. From its edge she could see but could not hear. The firelight cast just the right shadows across Atula’s face. Again she caught a glimpse of Amakollee. As she watched, she suddenly realized that her feelings of awe for the shaman were mixed with feelings for the man. As much as she wanted to go inside, into the darkness of her shelter, she could not leave, could not stop watching him.
Atula made other prophesies. He shivered as each new spirit entered his body. He spoke in a strange tongue. He proclaimed a forthcoming death and then used his powers to intercede, sparing that clansman’s life. He healed some of the sick, and he brought the spirits to bless the People, finding special favor with his clan.
At the clan’s request he displayed his power. He reached into the flames of the fire and lifted a coal. He held it before them, charismatically capturing them, pulling their spirits to him. He stood in silhouette against the blaze, looking even taller than usual. Again he reached into the flames and replaced the coal.
“Ayee!” they cried, touching the backs of their hands to their foreheads in awe and reverence. He walked away, disappearing like smoke into the night.
As the fire died in the late hours, the men retired to their sleeping place, a series of slings on the men’s side, the north side, of the village. Their medicine bundles hung on sticks at their heads. The night before a hunt they slept away from the women and children.
The men cleaned and checked their weapons before sleeping. The weapons had been protected from the touch of a woman. If by accident a menstruating woman touched a weapon, it would become ineffective. A menstruant was not even allowed to cook the food for the hunters, for her touch would contaminate it, making both the man and the weapon impotent hunters.
When the first haze of light spread across the eastern horizon, the hunters pushed the canoes into one of the water trails. The early morning mist rose from the water, bathing the village in a cloud.
Amakollee stood alone at the water’s edge, shrouded in the morning haze.
The hunt had been successful. The village was replenished with the meat of small game and deer. The fleshing process would begin as soon as the hides were stripped from the carcasses. One of the men, Omo-ko, bent over a deer that had been killed in the hunt. He turned the animal on its back and began to make an incision from the base of its neck all the way to the vent. Pachu, his sister’s son, watched in amazement as Omo-ko cut with precision, careful not to cut any deeper than it took to free the skin. When he was finished, he took the skin on either side of the incision and began to pull it away from the rest of the body. Carefully he worked it all around to the back of the deer. Occasionally he had to stop and work with his knife, keeping the blade against the underside of the skin, sweeping the knife between the skin and the flesh until it was loose enough so that he could work with his fingers.
He worked from the center backward until he reached the back legs. Omo-ko put down his knife and positioned one of the back legs. At the knee he bent the leg sharply upward. Working with his fingertips, he stripped the skin over the knee joint and down the lower leg, severing it at the ankle. He did the same with the other leg and then began to free the skin from the rear end of the body to the root of the tail. With his knife he split the skin from the underside.
“Watch this,” he told Pachu. Between his thumb and forefinger he grasped the tailbone, popped it out and slipped the skin free.
The hunter stood up, inspecting his work. When satisfied, he bound the back legs with sinew and strung the partly skinned deer over a branch, then asked Pachu to help him hoist it to a comfortable working height. He began to pull the skin downward and peel it off. Again he used his knife dexterously until he was stopped by the front legs. Omo-ko followed the same procedure as he had for the hind legs, and then drew the skin to the skull. Skillfully he cut through the ear cartilage as close to the skull as possible. Pleased that the skin had come away clean, he continued to take no chances. He pressed a fingertip against one of the eyeballs, cutting against it until the eyelid was set free. He finished the head, pulling the skin to the ground. His wife would take care of the hide. He moved it aside, and he and Pachu finished dressing the deer.
Over the open fires wooden grates rested on stakes. Strips of meat from the butchered game were smoking there, so that they could be stored. There would be plenty to eat for many days.
The women of the village waited on the men. They served them food and drink and immediately answered their bidding. Men were the heroes, the providers, and women needed to be thankful and show their gratitude.
Atula took a large swallow of his cassite. He watched the women serving their men, the families enjoying the celebration, and he felt emptiness inside.
Amakollee suddenly bowed as she offered him some more drink. Atula accepted but without giving her the attention she desired from him. Disappointed, she moved away, her head still lowered, the back of her hand respectfully pressed to her forehead.
Miakka moved slowly around the fire, obviously encumbered. But the light of the fire made her skin glow, and her hair came alive with the reflection. Atula was tantalized. She was more beautiful now than ever before.
Miakka also watched Atula. The child inside her turned, and she smiled to herself. The night she had joined with Atula was much like this night. The noises, smells, and mood were the same. She could almost catch the scent of his skin on the air.
The sounds of the festivity grew softer as the night unfolded. Some of the people had begun to go to their platforms, some for sleep and some with other thoughts. The adolescent males retired alone after an evening of trying to impress the girls of the clan.
By the time the moon had spent half of its night life, the village was asleep. The snoring of the old ones occasionally broke the silence. Even the purrs and cries of joining had ceased. The wind was still and the sky clear. Atula was the lone figure against a frozen background. He softly chanted near his fire. Something had shaken him from his short sleep. He felt anxiety tense his body at the impending event. Whatever was about to happen was important, and Atula prayed to the spirits to understand it.
Miakka also was not sleeping. At first sleep had come quickly, but then she, too, had been awakened. She clutched a handful of her moss skirt as she took a deep breath. It was time to get Wagahi. From a distance Atula saw her step carefully down the ladder, then pause at the bottom as another pain coursed through her.
In the darkness she crossed the mound and stood at the base of Wagahi’s platform.
“Wagahi,” she called softly, not wanting to disturb everyone.
Again she called out, but a little louder, and in a moment, Wagahi’s face appeared at the entrance.
“It is your time?” Wagahi asked.
“Yes,” Miakka answered. “I believe so. All through the night I have had the pains.”
Wagahi disappeared inside, gathering the things she might need to help in the delivery.
“Come with me,” Wagahi said, stopping to take a coal from her dying fire and then leading Miakka to the birthing hut, which was isolated across the mound. Miakka hurried until stopped by the peak of a contraction. She rested her head against the trunk of a Sabal palm, closing her eyes, waiting it out until she could move again. At first the pain had come in waves, moments of discomfort that had made Miakka hold her breath and dig her nails into the palms of her hands. They had lasted for only a few seconds and then abated. She had welcomed the pains because they heralded the end of the long wait and the beginning of a new life. But as the time passed, the pains had intensified, blacking out reality while they lasted.
Wagahi motioned for her to enter the small hut. Unlike the other platforms, this shelter was not elevated. A woman about to bring a child into the world would find negotiating a ladder too difficult.
The midwife started a small fire with the coal she had brought. It provided enough light so that they could see. She stood and opened the roof flap, letting the smoke spiral out.
Wagahi brushed the ground with her hands, scattering small insects and debris. “Lie down until it is time. You will know when,” she said, pointing to the pole in the center of the hut.
Miakka lay on her side next to the pole. She drew her knees up and swallowed as she felt the tightening begin in her back.
“Save your strength,” Wagahi told her as she sorted through her things. “Keep your eyes open, or the pain will sweep over you. Do not let it. Stay above it.”
As the pain rolled over her, trying to bury her, drown her, Miakka stared at a small piece of old peeling bark on one of the strips of cypress that supported the thatch of the western wall. She wanted to close her eyes and give in to the pain, but Wagahi kept reminding her not to do so.
The midwife placed one hand on Miakka’s abdomen. She could feel Miakka’s belly begin to tighten even before the pain really started. As soon as she felt the tension, she would start talking Miakka through it.
“Keep your eyes open. Breathe with it. Try to relax. Stay with me. Stay with me. Do not let the pain win. Good. Good,” she would encourage her at the crest of the pain. “It is leaving. It is over. Relax. Let your body relax.”
Miakka listened to Wagahi and did what she said, although she wanted to be left alone, to close her eyes. The pain was getting too hard to fight.
She groaned with the next stab, but as soon as she fell silent, she and Wagahi were startled by a shattering noise in the village. Loud cries rang out, followed by the din of people screaming.
“The A-po-la-chee!” Miakka screamed.
Wagahi clamped her hand over Miakka’s mouth. “Silence—do not make a sound,” she whispered. Miakka began to cry as Wagahi peered through the opening of the hut. She could not see anything, but could only hear the horrible sounds of the A-po-la-chee raiding the village. The war cries and the cries of the injured blended into one piercing shriek. Twice in her lifetime Wagahi had seen such raids. The last one had taken all of Miakka’s family and Wagahi’s family as well. Wagahi remembered the tragedy clearly.
The A-po-la-chee had come without warning, screeching in the dim light of dawn, waving clubs made from busycon shells bound to the ends of heavy sticks. Some had thrown lances of fire-tempered wood, and some had sliced with knives made from the macrocallista shells. They had used fire-tipped arrows to set the platforms on fire.
Blood of the clan had flowed across the mound, soaking the soil. Bodies had slumped to the ground with their heads bashed in. Wagahi had seen her brother in the throes of death after being clubbed. He had fallen to the ground, face down, exposing to her the hole in the side of his head, from which oozed watery blood and thick gray tissue. His body had jerked with convulsions as their mother turned him over and threw herself across his body.
“Why?” Wagahi’s mother had screamed at the A-po-la-chee, lifting her head, which was soaked with her son’s blood. None of the clan had ever understood the A-po-la-chee. They were a fierce and warring people, always trying to seize the land of others. So far the People had been strong enough to resist their attacks.
The way of the tribe from the other side was mysterious. This time they had come in darkness. Never had she heard of any tribe attacking another in darkness. Wagahi’s stomach turned over.
Miakka lay on her side, digging into the dirt floor with her nails as another pain racked her body. She bit her bottom lip, drawing blood. Wagahi knew that she had to forget the horror that was going on in the village and concentrate on Miakka. It was important now that the woman giving birth work with the pain.
“Get up,” she told her. “It is time. The baby comes soon, and you must help it.”
Wagahi showed her how to hold the pole in the center of the hut. Miakka looked at it closely as the new pain began. It was polished and worn smooth from the many hands that had come before hers. Holding it tightly, Miakka bent her knees, squatted, and pushed down.
“Good,” said Wagahi, wiping Miakka’s forehead, which now dripped with perspiration, flinching at the sounds of terror that continued in the distance. She could only hope no one would hear and discover them.
Another searing pain reached around Miakka, bursting into fire in the small of her back, taking away her breath. Again and again it assaulted her, robbing her of strength. It started small and built to a fury, squeezing everything but consciousness from her. She not only felt the pain, but now she could see it. It was a piercing yellow that stabbed through her closed eyelids.
“Push,” ordered Wagahi.
She couldn’t. There was no strength. She knew that she would be swallowed by the next pain, that it would engulf her. She wanted it to, because then she could slip away and not feel anything anymore. Her stomach churned, and nausea overtook her. “I am going to be sick,” she said.
Miakka sank to her knees. She balanced herself with her hands, her head falling between her shoulders, hair dragging in the dirt.
Wagahi reached inside Miakka, feeling for the baby’s head. Her fingers probed, and a sudden gush of birth water splattered the earth. Miakka was ready, but the baby would not come down. It was locked inside.
Wagahi withdrew her hand, washed it in a bowl of water, and then helped Miakka to squat upright again. She watched Miakka’s face contort as a new contraction began.
“Listen to me. Concentrate on my face,” Wagahi said, lifting Miakka’s head with her hand. “Take a deep breath and push hard. Let me see your face turn red.”
Wagahi placed her hands on Miakka’s abdomen, feeling for the height of the contraction. “Now,” she demanded. “Push!”
Instead of pushing, Miakka went limp and slumped forward.
“No,” Wagahi ordered, straightening her. “Who are you to give up and let this child die inside you? All that it asks is to be born. Birthing is never easy. Listen to the horror that is striking the People. Do you still hear it? Can you hear the cries of death? How dare you give in to the pain. You will kill your own child.”
Miakka screamed with the pain and then bore down, grunting at the end of the contraction, releasing the air she had held in her lungs.
“Please, Wagahi, get it out,” she yelled. “Help me! Please, help me!”
Wagahi could feel Miakka’s belly tighten again. “Watch me. Look at me, Miakka. Breathe deeply now while you can. Be ready; it is coming again.”
“No,” she screamed. “Make it end! Help—” She was cut off by the intensity of the pain.
“Deep breath. Deep breath. Like this.” Wagahi opened her mouth and sucked in air.
Miakka drew in her breath, watching and mimicking the midwife. She was sure she would split in two. She wanted the pain to stop, and she hated the man who had planted his seed in her.
Again her knuckles turned white as she clutched the pole. Her knees shook as she bore down, forcing the infant’s head into the birth canal.
Explosively she let out her breath. “Is it coming? Tell me, Wagahi.”
The midwife reached inside. Her fingertips touched the wet mass of the baby’s full head of hair.
“Yes! Yes! I feel the head.” Tears ran down her face.
Wagahi had assisted at many births. She had been trained from childhood by her mother, who was also a midwife. She was now training her daughter, Sima, but tonight she had let her sleep. She wished now that she had made her get up and come with her to the safety of the birthing hut. Quietly she asked the spirits to be with Sima and to protect her. Wagai could do nothing to help her daughter. As lives were being taken, another was coming into the world.
Miakka managed a smile. “Are you sure the baby is coming? You feel the head?” she asked before the smile changed to a grimace. This time at the end of the contraction she screamed. There was no time now for any more questions as the pain rapidly overtook her. Miakka’s eyes bulged with the pressure.
Wagahi’s hands cradled the small head as it emerged from the mother. “Just the shoulders now,” she said in support of the exhausted mother.
One more time Miakka pushed until she thought she was turning inside out. There was a sudden explosion as the child entered the world, followed by a small gush.
Miakka looked down as Wagahi lifted the infant, still covered in the white, pasty covering that had protected it while it was inside its mother. Gently she wiped the baby’s eyes and cleaned its nostrils. The infant drew in its first air and let out a healthy cry.
Miakka’s eyes filled with tears. Carefully she lay down, and Wagahi handed her the infant.
Wagahi measured a hand’s length down the cord and tied it off with a piece of sinew. Three fingers’ length from that she tied it again and then cut it between the ties with her birthing knife.
Miakka curled her arm around the baby, stroking its damp hair. This was no monster. Carefully she inspected the baby. The spine was intact. The eyes were spaced properly, and the mouth and nose were separate. The child had all its limbs, fingers, and toes. Miakka stroked her baby’s cheek, and the newborn struggled to turn to the touch.
The infant was perfect. Atula’s seed and magic were potent. The shape of the face was the father’s, but the nose and the mouth were Miakka’s. The long slender fingers were also those of the mother. The wonderful golden skin was Atula’s more than hers. The child was a remarkable blend of the two.
As the newborn began to suckle at its mother’s breast, Wagahi waited for the afterbirth. At its delivery the birth was complete. She scooped up the earth that had absorbed the other products of birth and wrapped it, with the placenta, in a hide made especially for such a thing. She would bury it in a sacred place away from the village and known only to the women.
That would have to wait. Wagahi sat against the wall of the hut, her shoulders shaking with her tears. The awful noise of battle still filled her ears. Suddenly a brilliant light streaked across the sky, a light so luminous that it lit up the inside of the hut. Miakka looked up, and Wagahi stood.
In the village both the A-po-la-chee and the People were stunned, in awe of the blinding light. All eyes froze on the streaking fireball. The A-po-la-chee dropped their weapons, certain that it was a sign of power from the spirits of the tribe they had assaulted. They had won this battle, but they would not war with spirits.
They tracked the light until it disappeared. By then the momentum of the battle was lost, and the A-po-la-chee began to withdraw. Atula stood in the center of the mound until only the light from the moon fell across the village.
The hammock was littered with the debris of war. Broken lances, bloody knives, and the bodies of members of both tribes speckled the rich black dirt.
From the corner of his eyes Atula saw the last A-po-la-chee retreat. He started to sit down in the middle of all the disorder but quickly straightened. The A-po-la-chee warrior was headed toward the birthing hut—and Atula had seen Miakka get Wagahi and go in that direction earlier. It had to be her time, and the two women were alone and vulnerable in the hut.
Wagahi stiffened as she heard the rustle of the brush outside. Someone was near. It was A-po-la-chee, she was sure. Carefully she crept to the door.
“What is it?” Miakka asked in a quiet voice. “Is someone there?”
Wagahi motioned her to be silent as she eased herself through the doorway. The new mother drew her newborn child closer to her. The touch of the delicate tender skin sent a warm flush through her. The baby had stopped nursing, and Miakka pressed her lips to the top of the baby’s head, listening closely.
The silence of the night ignited her nerves, and at the chirp of a cricket Miakka jumped. That sound was followed by a muffled groan and then a thud.
“Wagahi?” she whispered, but there was no answer. “Wagahi?” she called again and then bit her bottom lip. There was a noise just outside the door, but it wasn’t the footsteps of the midwife.
In the doorway appeared a tall warrior. He was not of the People. He was A-po-la-chee. She was paralyzed with fear as she watched him enter the hut and move among the shadows.
Miakka’s people were small but robust. She had never seen a man so tall before. He looked drawn out, like an animal hide that had been stretched out between two trees to cure. The bizarre-looking man walked close to her and spoke, but she had no idea what he said. She stared at his eyes, looking deep inside him. He was someone she should fear.
Again he spoke nonsense words, then let out a deep chuckle, throwing his head back. The warrior brushed her hair out of the way and looked at the infant. He held his knife to Miakka’s throat, cupped one of her breasts with his free hand, and let his eyes wander over the rest of her body.
Could he not tell that she had just given birth? What did he want from her?
When the intruder reached for the infant, Miakka lurched upward, pushing his arm away and impaling her shoulder on the knife.
In the doorway another A-po-la-chee appeared, but this one had a look of surprise on his face. He spoke sharply. The warrior inside the hut, apparently stunned, turned his head toward the A-po-la-chee in the doorway.
The warrior carefully withdrew his knife from Miakka’s shoulder, and the child began to cry as if it felt its mother’s pain. In defiance, as though saving face, the warrior again held the knife to her throat.
Behind the second A-po-la-chee, Atula arrived, calling out to the stranger in the doorway. Although the invader did not understand the words, he turned and raised his open hand, gesturing for Atula to be still.
The A-po-la-chee lifted his spear and turned toward the intruder inside. Atula watched stiffly as the warrior obeyed his apparent superior. The man released his grip on Miakka, lowered his knife, and left the hut.
Atula still held his lance shoulder high. The stranger who had ordered the warrior away lowered his spear and stared at Atula. The shaman lowered his lance and nodded, then moved to one side to let the A-po-la-chee pass. Atula stood in the doorway until both warriors were out of sight.
Miakka looked up at Atula, feeling an unexpected oneness with him. “Come,” she said. Her shoulder spouted blood, but she was surprised at how little pain she felt.
Atula edged his way into the birthing hut. The air was filled with the aroma of creation, and he was moved by the sight and smell of the miracle of life. He felt a slight choking in his throat and a burning sensation in his eyes. He was glad that Miakka could not clearly see his face.
“Closer,” she urged.
“Wagahi is dead. She has crossed over,” he said, bending down next to her. He pressed the heel of his hand over her wound and concentrated on her injury.
Miakka was not surprised. She had heard Wagahi groan and hit the ground. Although she felt saddened, she was thankful to have been spared.
The bleeding was subsiding. “Be still and quiet. Rest, and I will be right back.”
She was so tired. Yes, she would rest with the precious baby nuzzled against her. In moments she was asleep, weakened by the birth and the knife wound.
Atula went to his platform, searched his baskets and pouches for just the right things, and rushed back to her, zigzagging around the bodies and surviving villagers as they began to clean up and to grieve.
Quietly he entered the hut. The wound had continued to bleed while he was gone, forming a small pool of blood. She lay so still that at first it frightened him.
She opened her eyes sleepily.
“Did you see the sign?” he asked her as he began to pack the wound with medicine that would control infection and bleeding. Then he took a piece of softened hide and some sinew and bound the wound tightly.
When he was finished, he looked into her lovely face. “Your child was given a very special sign.”
“Mmm,” she agreed, closing her eyes again.
Atula clutched the amulet about his neck. “Let it be a good sign, Father,” he whispered aloud.
The spirits always showed some sign at an infant’s birth or within one moon cycle of the birth. This one was clearly meant for this child, and it was a strong sign.
The sun was beginning to rise, and the dim light entered the doorway. The birthing hut faced the east, the creating place of the new day and new life.
Through the shadows of the fading night he marveled at the sight of mother and child just a short time after birth. His giant hand enveloped the child’s, and the tiny fist wrapped itself around his finger.
“His grip is already strong,” he said and smiled, filled with the pride of a new father.
Miakka turned the baby toward him, removing the wrap, offering the infant to its father. Atula’s eyes widened at what he saw.