ONE

 

     With its wings spread in full grandeur, a razok circles languidly overhead, gliding in graceful arcs, diligently cutting invisible patterns into a clear, pallid sky.  Above the bird’s flight a high and vigorous sun flames, casting down malignant rays without conscience or compassion.  Far below, a perpetual wind streams torrid breath across wretched, arid lands, whispering its secrets to quivering heat ghosts that rise to perform their ethereal desert dance. 

     It is time.  The green hills, the green plains, the green forests are of the past.  At fifteen, I, Sanyel, stand on the edge of an unfamiliar world; it is a world bleached of color and scoured of mercy.  For the crime of breaking strict tribal and religious law, my clan has banished me to the unforgiving Desert of Bones—in effect a death sentence.  When I departed camp, council chief Barkor allowed me a full skin of water and the meager food pack now draped across my right shoulder.  I have three days to find further sustenance.  If I fail in that quest, only a circling razok and an aloof sun will witness my last stumble and fall.  Then one will remain indifferent to my demise as the other descends to feast on flesh and blood and bone.

 

     The basic framework of a story, no matter its quality, consists of a beginning, an ending, and what lies between those poles.  A compelling tale, compellingly told is the narrator’s aim—at least according to those skilled in the art.  I, Sanyel, do not claim the gifts of a natural storyteller, but I will try to present this account in as engaging a manner as I can. 

     To begin it properly, I must go back in time.  My father, Nanki, spoke often and in detail of the remarkable events surrounding my birth, and even now I can recite what happened as if from personal recollection.  It was on that long ago day that many of the crucial elements of this tale had their origin.  Therefore,  I must go back, back fifteen years to the day it all began. 

     I was born on a dismal spring morning as a hailstorm raged and my mother fought for her life.  Irregular chunks of ice, some the size of an infant’s closed fist, pummeled the ground outside our family tent.  Inside the enclosure, my mother lay upon a thin bed of piled mats, unconscious and bleeding.  Unforeseen complications to an already difficult delivery had pushed my father's medical skills to their limit, but by the dim light provided by the tent’s open entry, his persevering, trembling hands managed to guide me into this world. 

     As I drew my first breath and uttered my first defiant cry, the unprecedented storm departed, the sky retrieved its accustomed blue, and Ra-ta, the sun, appeared.  Persistent beads of sweat dripped from my father’s brow as he cradled me in gentle hands and then placed me aside.  Turning back to my mother, he waged a desperate battle to stem her hemorrhaging.

     He did not succeed.  The futility of his heroic struggle became clear within minutes, but he continued the fruitless effort long after my mother's final breath.  When he at last acknowledged his defeat, my father covered his face with bloody hands and commenced to moan, a despairing wail to rival that of the doomed souls drowning forever in the black waters of Fuld.

     In time, my plaintive cries broke through his grieving.  He turned damp eyes to my squalling form, then smiled as he lifted me from the dirt and cleansed me of birth's residue.  After wrapping me in a thick-woven blanket, he placed me upon a stack of animal furs far removed from my mother’s still body. 

     Turning his head, he glanced back to where she lay.  He wanted to go to her, to look again upon her familiar, reassuring face.  However, he knew the vision sought and the one he'd find would not be the same.  He knew his eyes would betray him and fail to recognize the quiet form lying on the hard ground as the woman he had loved for the past ten years.  Spirit had departed and no longer animated her delicate features, so there would be no response to his smile, no reply to his words, no reaction to his touch.  He cursed his inadequate hands for letting her ardent and unwavering light slip through them, and he later described feeling a shudder in his soul as he contemplated a life forever bereft of that radiance. 

     Fighting his grief, my father bathed, washing away blood and sweat, then shaved and donned his best shaman’s robe.  For despite a compelling desire to suspend all outside duties, he could not ignore their pull.  Important tribal business demanded his attention.  Mourning my mother's tragic loss and celebrating the precious new life she had left in her place would have to wait.  He knew that informing the tribe of the events surrounding my birth took precedence, for in the details of those events my father had seen the portentous.

     Later that morning, in the large ceremonial tent, he held me close as he faced a group of men unsure why my father had summoned them.

     “It is the first sign of the fulfillment of an ancient foretelling,” Nanki told the tribal council.  He reminded the council of a prophecy often told around our campfires.  All present knew the prophecy well, the story of a shaman and warrior who would come in a white fury, born of ice, only to become as the sun to lead the people in a time of great troubles.  The prophecy said this one would be born of a healer’s hand and the mother would die giving birth. 

     “All of these things have happened, my brothers,” my father told the council.  “My good wife, Brisa, has given birth.  She has—” 

     My father did not want to say it, for the finality of it was almost too much to bear, but he willed himself to continue and with a strong voice said, “She has died giving birth to our child.  I believe my daughter, Sanyel, is the one of whom the prophecy speaks.”

     The tribal councilors stirred uncomfortably over my father’s words but offered no response.  Veteran hunters and warriors all, they sat on a bench behind a crude wooden table and upon each face registered undisguised shock.  Brisa had been beloved, but even so, it was not that tragic news that had left them stunned and speechless; it was Nanki’s presumptive statement about me.  An awkward silence lingered for a moment, then the spell lifted when the head huntsman brusquely voiced what the others hesitated to utter.

     “You are without senses, shaman,” scolded Barkor, a foul-smelling, dark-bearded man with a square, brutish face.  His long black hair shone from sweat and accumulated grease, with its filthy strands knotted together in matted clumps that would break the teeth of a metal comb.  Massive shoulders, no perceivable neck, and a voice that threatened like low thunder reinforced the council chief’s intimidating appearance and bearing.  “A female tribal leader?  A female as shaman?  Why are you wasting our time with this foolishness?  We understand that you have just suffered a tragic loss, but has your wife’s death taken your wits?  No female will ever become a leader or shaman of any tribe, certainly not this one.  The sun god, Ra-ta, has pre-determined their role in life—as you well know.  Perhaps years of drinking your own potions has made you loose in the head.”

     Barkor’s last remark engendered a slight riffling of laughter from several of the seated men.  The humorless council chief turned a baleful eye to those responsible for the outburst, and with them duly silenced he shifted his gaze back to my father.  With an air of dismissal, he said, “Your daughter will content herself with being a good wife and producing strong warriors for the hunt, nothing more.  We will celebrate her birth, of course, and we will mourn the loss of your wife—it is our way.  But you will speak no more of this prophecy nonsense.”

     Angry words tugged at my father’s throat, but they were words he lacked the courage to voice.  So, he said nothing, turned away and walked out. 

     My father’s reactions to the events of that critical day were significant in that they determined my path in life, a course that would sharply diverge from that of a typical female of our tribe.  For on this day my father decided to defy the council and our sacred tribal laws and traditions.  The consequences of that defiance for me would not manifest for many years, but the day would come when I would pay the price for my father’s transgressions.

                                                                        **

 

     TWO

 

     We Sakita were a simple clan.  A tribe of unknown origin, we lived out our days among the open plains, low hills, and dense forests our ancestors had roamed.  We were nomads who traveled familiar trails, seeking the wild herds that ensured our survival.  Our lives unfolded within the boundaries of an enclave ringed by high mountains, and behind those rock walls our ranks grew and shrank and grew again, ever changing over the centuries due to the uncertainties of a precarious existence.

     Our climate was a moderate one, with temperatures seldom rising or falling to any extreme, except perhaps in the summer, though the differences in our seasons were barely discernible.  Thus, the land held green throughout the year, and we came to know this green complexion as the constant color of our world, with the plains and hills and forests all eternally cast in its various tints.  It was upon, among, and within these that we stalked our prey and gathered what bounty they could provide.  They were our sustenance through good years and bad, sometimes generous in their offerings and at other times as miserly as a nut-hoarding starfen.

     Our complete reliance on the natural world’s serviceable aspects did not limit its appeal to us in other areas, as we also possessed a keen awareness of the aesthetic fortune of our surroundings.  We appreciated the artistry of nature’s painter, splashing ever-changing patterns and hues across a morning or evening sky.  We thrilled over the rolling splendor of tall grasses bowing in waves before sweeping winds and welcomed the rumblings of a summer storm or the inspiring display of a starlit night.  Above all, we admired and strove to reflect in our temperament the calm and stately solitude of the towering Kodor Mountains, the white-haired sentinels that enclosed and protected our domain.

     Within the ring-shaped boundary of this Kodor range, the lands of the Sakita formed the flat bottom of a vast bowl.  It was a bowl shaped nearly to perfection by the encircling heights.  As viewed from the basin’s center, these snow-capped mountains formed the bowl’s sloping sides, with the only crack in this vessel located to the south.  There, a narrow gap opened out into the Desert of Bones, giving the appearance that its very sands had emptied from the bowl fracture.  Transecting the bowl and connecting the eastern and western mountains was the mighty river Raso, which snaked its way west and southwest in numerous turns and twists on its way to parts unknown.  Exploration showed that it vanished into an underground cavern as it reached the base of the western mountains. 

     Our land lay south of the Raso.  North of the river was Raab territory.  The Raab were a nomadic people like ourselves and the only other tribe known to us.  Naturally, we were enemies.  For a majority of the year, the Raso River protected us from Raab raiding parties, for it was too wild to navigate.  However, when low in summer, Raab incursions were inevitable, as warriors crossed the river seeking slaves and glory.

     To be fair, our tribesmen raided their lands as well.  Over the centuries, bloody skirmishes established these encounters as a proving ground for individual strength and bravery.  I had witnessed the results of these battles—men returning with broken limbs and torn flesh, often carrying the bodies of their less fortunate brethren.  Both sides accepted these losses as the price one pays for glory, and for cementing one’s reputation as a warrior.

     Though both tribes roamed freely across the ample lands within this Kodor bowl, its boundaries also trapped us there.  The mountains that encircled us were too high to cross, so who or what lay beyond them was unknown.  Furthermore—even if not forbidden by law—no one from our tribe would dare journey too great a distance into the endless sands of the aptly named Desert of Bones, a seeming death sentence for all who tried.

     This, then, was our existence.  We followed the Raso River and its branches whenever convenient.  From them, we probed the lush lands south to the desert during a yearlong trek that would take us from the eastern mountain range to the western and then back.  We were hunters, so we followed the game.  We grew no crops and tended no livestock, for we knew nothing of such things.  Our lives depended on the spears and skill of our men in tracking and taking down the wild animals that abundantly graced our domain.  Apart from fish and the animals we stalked and ate, our only other food source was what grew in the natural world, gathered when it was available to us.  Our numbers were not small, but they also did not add up to a sizable community.  Thus, each birth raised voices in praise of Ra-ta, the sun god, and each death was as demoralizing as an empty pot at the end of the hunt.  For as long as our stories go back, this was the way of the Sakita.  I had no idea it would change so dramatically in my lifetime.

 

     My father's humiliation by the tribal council led him to rebel in a direct, but subtle way.  Only a male could be a spiritual leader and healer in our tradition, with all rituals and practices associated with that role forbidden to female members of our tribe.  Those who refused to abide by these strict laws faced harsh punishment.  In the most egregious cases, that involved a visit to the executioner, and along with the rare thief or murderer an opportunity to feel the tickle of a sharp blade. 

     At best, the offender faced banishment to the Desert of Bones.  There, condemned to wander and count hills of sand, he'd survive only until Ra-ta, god of the sun, showed mercy and decided that the malefactor had counted enough.  My father had no desire to count sand hills and yet he did desire to teach me all he knew about being a shaman.  He felt he could minimize the danger by being prudent about where and when the teaching took place.

     My training began not long after taking my first steps, but it was not until I turned seven that my father felt me capable of retaining more than just rudimentary knowledge.  We would sneak out as others slept, seeking a flower with a distinctive indigo tint to make a healing salve, or perhaps to look for an herb that could dampen the effects of a raging fever.  Each time out my father would speak the words, the cautionary words that defined my formative years.

     “You must tell no one, Sanyel, ever.  This is our secret.” 

     The necessity for that secrecy I have already revealed, but the genesis of our stern and strict laws on the matter is nebulous at best.  One chapter from the tales of our tribe’s origin—stories that are of hazy origin themselves—forms the basis for our current beliefs.  Since we had no written language, our history was an oral one, and this is one of the stories handed down for generations through speakers trained to the task.

     In brief, it states that a man, Kator, appeared in the world.  Ra-ta, the sun god and the man’s creator, presented him with the gift of fire, a connecting link to himself.  A woman, Brosel, then appeared and told the man the fire was not enough, that there were pursuits outside its boundaries that could bring equal satisfaction.  The man sought these outside adventures and neglected to tend the fire, which flamed out, condemning them both to endless cold and darkness.  Kator pleaded with Ra-ta to restore the fire that was the sun god’s connection to him in the physical world.  Kator promised Ra-ta he would be diligent in tending the fire, but in return required power over Brosel and her tempting words.  Ra-ta saw the sincerity of Kator’s request and granted Kator the return of fire and control over Brosel.

     It’s an interesting story, but is it accurate?  This one tale sparked the idea that men should control and women obey.  Would Ra-ta grant men such powers at the expense of half the population, in effect forever condemning women to a secondary role?  I find that implausible.  My father told me that these tales contained important symbolic and esoteric elements that offered meanings that went beyond the literal.  However, it seems our leaders preferred the easy comfort of shallow interpretation and had no patience for any deeper, more sophisticated or intellectual analysis.

     In any event, that story resulted in men controlling not only all aspects of Sakitan religious life but most others as well.  I have always had a problem with many of the tribal laws that have evolved from this dominance, in particular, those that restrict women.  It seems over the years that the sacred words have excused some questionable actions and beliefs.  To me, if you use the sacred words to fashion laws that sanction discrimination or oppression, then you are not serving Ra-ta’s true intent. 

     Over time, the sacred spiritual knowledge allegedly given to all men through Ra-ta’s symbolic fire became entrusted to a select group—the shaman and his chosen apprentices.  My father initiated me into this fascinating world of the medicine man by first teaching me how to identify various herbs and flowers for healing.  He showed me how to mix and match to form what was benign and to avoid what was lethal.  My father taught me the proper way to chant and instructed me in the significance of each timed step of our sacred dances, important in garnering support from the spirit world.  I learned to focus my thoughts, and with practice how to go deep within to find answers to questions unanswerable by the conscious mind.

     One day, during a deeper than normal meditation, an animal appeared to me.  My intuition told me it was a young can-rak.  The beast slunk towards me, its green, sinewy body crouching low as if to strike.  It had glossy skin and its fiery mane seemed lit from an inner source.  White, razor-sharp teeth lined its open jaws.  Its flaming yellow eyes bore into me with such a staunch fervor that the intensity of the experience jolted me back into a waking state. 

     “A can-rak?” my father questioned.  “Are you certain?”

     I assured him I was, though I had never seen one in the flesh.

     Nanki was overjoyed.  He informed me the creature was my spirit animal and felt amazed it had come to me so soon.  He knew a shaman’s apprentice usually required years of intense training before its animal helper was willing to show itself; it first wanted to determine if the recipient was worthy.  It astounded my father the animal was a can-rak, for as far as he knew, that fearsome creature had never presented itself as a spirit helper to anyone

     “The can-rak will guide you in all spiritual matters from this moment on,” my father told me.  “Accept its many gifts.  It is certain, Sanyel, that you will have considerable power over animals of all stripes, for your spirit guide, the can-rak, is the master of the animal realm.”  I did not understand what my father meant, but I treated his words with the seriousness with which he gave them.

     My father felt learning the ways of the shaman must also include other skills—deadlier skills.  He wanted me to learn to defend myself, so he instructed me in the ways of the hunter and warrior.  We practiced in secret, day upon day, the physical movements he wished me to master.  I learned the most effective offensive and defensive strategies to utilize when engaging opponents.  I learned how to spot, in short order, the tendencies and skill level of an adversary, how to parry an attacker’s moves, how to use his momentum against him to gain the advantage, and how to end a conflict with success. 

     My father insisted I carry boulders from one location to another to build up my strength, and to utilize distance running to increase my endurance.  In the forest, I learned how to clamber up trees and with confidence steer my way among their heights.  By wearing my favorite garment, a short, sleeveless tunic cinched with a cloth band at my waist, and by tying my long, blond hair into a tight bun to keep it from catching, my unhindered arms and legs allowed me to climb with speed and to maneuver unimpeded.  My strength and agility improved in dramatic form from these activities, and my father was pleased with the impressive results. 

     My weapons training included practice with both the long spear and the keen-bladed short knife known as the rik-ta.  I worked with an incessant dedication until those weapons were as parts of my body.  As I practiced, intuitive insights would come to me.  These were insights into how to execute a move in a better, more efficient, or surprising way than that normally taught.  I was developing techniques never seen before, and my new methods impressed Nanki.

     I was so proud when he said, “Sanyel, you astonish me!  Not even I grasped so quickly the properties of the healing herbs and the difficult notes of the sacred chants.  And praise Ra-ta how you are learning to use these weapons.  In time you will be the envy of any male warrior!”

     One day, when I was perhaps ten, my best friend, Lillatta, saw us departing camp and followed us to our current training area deep within a forest.  My father was numb with fear over Lillatta’s discovery of our clandestine activities, for the council had delicate hearing.  It would seal our doom if even a whisper of our heretical actions should find their ears.  Our indiscretions, however, far from horrified Lillatta. 

     “I want to train, too,” she pleaded with my father.

     Nanki was reluctant, knowing that one slip of Lillatta’s tongue could mean death for us all.  Lillatta was persistent, however, so only after making her swear an oath of secrecy on the bark of the sacred wettle tree did my father allow her to train with us.

     I have to say those times with Lillatta and my father were some of the best I have known.  Every few months we moved our campsite to a new location, moves necessary to maintain contact with the migrating herds.  With each new site, my father would find a sheltered area to use for training.  These were often in the nearest forest, which were plentiful throughout Sakita lands.  Having Lillatta there to share my lessons, my aches and my joys, and having that grave secret to bind us made the grinding work not only bearable, but also almost enjoyable in many ways.  My father would not allow Lillatta to learn the ways and secrets of the shaman, but the two of us were always together in our physical preparation, attempting to master the weapons and tactics only our male tribesmen had known in our history. 

     The weapons most familiar to our tribe were the spear and the rik-ta.  With my spear I would practice piercing the center of round wedges that my father had cut from wettle trees and placed all over the forest.  I soon could hit the marks from almost any reasonable angle or distance.  However, it was the rik-ta, my short, razor-sharp knife, that I took the greatest pleasure in mastering.  I could, after all my practice, remove it from its sheath in the time it took to blink, then slice or stab body parts of a dummy my father had fashioned out of straw to represent a foe.  Lillatta’s freckled face would get that look, almost of awe, as she saw the relish I took and efficiency I demonstrated in stabbing, slicing, and gutting the straw figure. 

     “At least give it a chance to fight back,” Lillatta would joke.  I always laughed, but had to admit to a calm and cold deliberateness that invariably came over me as I attacked the poor dummy’s vulnerable areas.  It was almost as if I knew that I would need these lethal skills somewhere down the road.

     One day, mid journey through our yearly trek, perhaps when I was about eleven, Lillatta and I happened upon a nest of red-footed starfens.  They scattered among the forest ferns as we approached.  One of them attempted to scale a tree fifty paces from our position.  Without thinking, I cleared my rik-ta from its sheath and let it fly.  To my astonishment, the knife sailed as if on a taut string and struck true to its mark, pegging the rodent to the bark through its neck. 

     “Nice throw!" Lillatta said.  A mischievous grin split her face.  “Of course you know you have to eat it now.”

     I was well aware of my father’s strict rules about eating whatever one killed.  I also knew of the starfen’s reputation.  What could be less appealing than a creature so foul tasting that even a starving hunter would pause before attempting to make a meal of one.

     Lillatta—acting a bit too cheerful if you ask me—started a fire while I gutted and skinned the unfortunate rodent.  When well roasted on the spit and dripping its greasy fat into the fire, I ripped off a section of meat (if you could call it that) and tried swallowing it without chewing.  At once, I began to gag.  Lillatta howled with glee as I struggled to keep this gross abomination from exiting from the place it had just entered.  At last, I regained control over my throat muscles and swallowed the repulsive flesh.  Lillatta was on the ground, laughing hysterically.  Her auburn hair flailed about as she rocked back and forth, and as her body convulsed I grabbed what remained of the rodent carcass and heaved it as far from my sight as I could muscle it.

     “How was it?” Lillatta teased when she could at last speak.

     “Just you wait,” I promised, “I’ll make you eat a sarkat someday.”

     “Yes, I’m sure you’ll try.”   

     I raised a water skin to my lips to rinse my mouth of the rancid rodent taste.  I handed Lillatta the water and took note of her puzzled expression. 

     “Tell me San, that throw with the rik-ta.  That was luck, right?  I have never seen a throw like that, not at that distance, not even from the men.”

     “Of course.  It was just a lucky throw.  You know no one can toss a knife that far on purpose, at least not with any accuracy.  It was just luck.” 

     I realized even as I spoke the words that they were untrue.   It was not luck.  Something unusual had happened when I tossed that knife.  A power I should not have possessed had propelled my throw as if it were a lightning bolt from Ra-ta’s hand.  And as sure as I am of the course the river Raso must flow, I knew that luck had played no part in the blade finding its mark.

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© 2020 by Michael Puttonen