Ten years ago, the axis of the Earth changed its tilt. The air warmed. All the glacial and polar ice melted. Water filled the land and pushed the people farther and farther inland. What were once coastal mountains are now islands. What were once fertile valleys are now ocean bays. Humanity is reduced to scattered self-sufficient villages. Their numbers a tiny fraction of the once teeming masses.
~ ~ ~
Step, turn, stomp, turn. Twist with the celestial wind that only I could feel.
“Croa-ak,” Raven squawked from a shadowy ledge in the corner. His eyes flashed a bright yellow, reminding me of sunflowers—rare and precious plants that grew smaller and more spindly each year from lack of sunshine. “Death, death stalks him. Stalks us,” the old, totemic bird rasped through the fog of sharp mushroom and sweet cedar smoke.
I clacked the beak of my wooden raven mask in reply; That is not the question I asked!
Never before had my vision shifted so drastically. I need to know what blights our oats.
“Death. Beware the death bringer.”
There is death in the oats. Death to grains, death to my people. I know that. What brings the death? This trance brought me no closer to the Truth than examining the stunted grains in my hand. I needed to go deeper.
My breath burned my throat. I stretched and twisted to the limits of my tired body and a bit beyond, glorying in the how my limbs tingled and burned, how they found new shapes and angles, and how my blood sang.
I pounded my bare feet into the beaten earth, filling my lungs with aromatic smoke enhanced with special herbs, fungus, and human sweat. A stitch stabbed my side. I continued dancing, pushing myself deeper and deeper into the smoke, the exhaustion, the trance.
I shook my gourd rattle toward each of the four winds. Ancient glass beads, shells, and strings plaited from cedar bark made the rattle sacred. My blood sang. Sweat rolled off my naked body, painted red and black for the dance. I flapped my arms in imitation of flight, the smoky air catching in the chicken feathers, dyed black, attached to a vine harness strapped to each wrist and shoulder.
Raven reached out to stop my dance, his talons clutching at my wing feathers like sentient blackberry canes twined around an ankle. He needed to say something. The Dance had commanded Raven and Meadowlark to bring Truth to my seeing.
They told me nothing I didn’t already know.
I spun away from Raven’s reach. I wasn’t ready to give up the wondrous way my mind and body melded with the smoke, the drums, the chant, and mystic realm I entered when I danced for the puzzles of a Truth that made no sense.
Step, turn, stomp, turn. Twist with the celestial wind that grew stronger with each movement. Stomp. It twisted me, turned me, guided me and enticed me. It guided me, enticed me, and demanded my attention.
The drums beat on and on. My heart matched their rhythm. Voices chanted, the strong, weak, medium, weak cadence. The rhythm more important than the words. The smoke rose higher and thicker. Darkness crowded in from the cedar plank walls of the Long House. Stomp, turn, sway, turn. Breathe in, breathe out. Match the drums and the singers. Glimmers of understanding sparkled around the edges of my vision.
Death beyond the blight. A death more important than the loss of the crop. One crop. We have others to get us through the long wet winter.
Step, turn, stomp, turn, twist, stomp, stomp. Push the dance one step further, one breath deeper.
My legs ached, each step a supreme effort. I felt as if I’d dug half the oats field by myself. The image took root in my mind: an answer of sorts. A solid mass at the edge of the field tainted the grains.
I stumbled to my knees and pounded the ground with the flats of my hands. Now I could listen to what extra truth Raven and Meadowlark would reveal.
You cannot survive this time. You are too many. The mountain cannot feed and protect both of us, a different voice sneered through the deepening fog. No body lurked there, only the voice in my mind. This one I recognized, the Reverend Mr. Truesdale, the wandering preacher who’d taken over the abandoned church across the road. Kill those who forsake God for trances and vision. Laws and government have no right to survive, they pervert God’s will.
He preached that he was the only person left who was privileged to interpret God’s law.
He and the mountain Hermits who gathered around him frightened me. They threatened the few remnants of Before we clung to. We constantly sought the chance to move beyond mere survival into something more.
We searched for compassion, compromise, and sharing; for beauty.
He demanded power and control over life. And death.
“The lifeline on your palm is broken.” Meadowlark cocked her head and looked at me sideways.
I faltered in my endless dance, my mask beak opening and closing soundlessly. A fall against a spearhead during a trance dance had cut my palm, disrupting the lines with scar tissue.
“You will stumble and fall three times. You will fall in love three times. You will meet death three times,” she continued. “Not today. Not this year. But soon.”
“The lifeline and the love line do not lie,” Raven added, his voice deep with portent. “Three breaks to each. Then an end.”
The drums and the chant kept me rolling on the ground, slapping the earth, ever-moving, ever-listening. A whisper of rain-soaked air cleared the smoke for one brief, breathless moment.
Slap, roll, pound, turn. Twist with the wind.
Masks loomed out of the darkness. The spirits behind them all chanted, they all beat drums, and echo of the ritual performed by my people, but different, uglier and angrier. The masks became large elaborate metaphors of the totems we invoked.
But some of them. . . expanded into a real wolf and the bizarre Bird-Within-The-Bird with serrated beaks like sharp, lethal teeth. Their masks were their true faces, not carved from wood or gourds then painted with herbal colors, or the rare artificial paints scavenged from the old school.
Bright red blood trickled from mask teeth that stretched and sharpened beyond the confines of a mouth.
I needed to lick their mouths clean. Part of me grew hot with longing
My torso shuddered and convulsed in revulsion.
The double bird man stared at me with knowing eyes. He saw through the chicken fat and paint. He wanted me. I circled my hips in newly awakened response to his sensuous mental stripping away of my ritual disguise and my reservations. My nipples tightened beneath his gaze. Sweat trickled between my breasts, down my belly, moistening me in my mating place, dissolving the paint.
My need grew to meld myself with the man behind the Bird-Within-The-Bird.
And yet there was another. . . a sweet man who wore the mask of a hunting dog, or was that merely the opposite side of the wolf mask? He needed me to put him on the right scent.
He was the sweet man who had awakened me, who needed me as much as I needed him. . .
The Hunting Dog waited behind me, ready to grab me when I fell, love me when the others deserted me, protect me from myself.
Tears of frustration, bewilderment, and fatigue spilled over onto my cheeks. I begged Raven and Meadowlark to tell me True, explain what I saw and felt.
“Gabrielle Truthfinder, Keeper of History, Shaman of the past into the future, beware.” The words echoed in the mist, compounding, resonating inside me, outside me, coming from all directions at once. “Beware.”
Raven evaded and laid traps, hiding truth within half-truths. But he never lied outright. Had Coyote the trickster donned feathers?
But I knew Coyote. I saw the true face of those who came to me in the dance. Coyote had not come tonight.
I cringed away from this telling.
Deeper and deeper I fell into darkness and exhaustion. The Long House, the singers, the drummers faded away. The mystical representation of Reverend Truesdale shed a blank and secretive mask, then drifted toward the shadows, blending with them, hiding within them. But if the shadows shielded him from my view, they also shielded me from him.
Raven, now devoid of masks or tricks squawked from the distance. “You cannot escape your fate, Gabrielle Truthfinder.”
Bells from the log church tolled, rolling out their thunderous tones in a growing carillon until the sound became a wall that pushed me back and back toward reality.
An anguished screech penetrated my being, louder and more piercing than the cries of Raven.
“He’s dead! Chief Samuel FarSeer is dead.”