People of the Fire
By W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O'Neal Gear
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1991 W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear
All rights reserved.
The lodge trapped the heat of the night, warm and muggy despite the rustling dry wind shivering the smoke-browned hide cover. The cover had been drawn down tight, firmly pegged to the hard clay in order to form a seal so that none of the malicious Spirit Powers might wiggle beneath to steal in and find a home. The People did that during a birthing. Newborn children had no soul, and into that warm haven any manner of evil could creep. To further ward off harmful powers, sagebrush—the lifegiver—had been piled around, the purposely bruised leaves adding a rich pungency to the desiccating air.
From where the boy crouched outside in the darkness, a frayed seam had come unraveled enough to allow a peephole view of the interior.
A single fire of punky cottonwood smoldered and smoked, adding to the stifling heat in the lodge and giving light in the midst of so dark and windy a night. The warm, steamy air issuing from inside puffed on the boy's eye. It brought the odors of tanned hide, smoke, and sage to his nose. Mixed with it were other smells of sweat, wood, and fear. The delicately bitter taint of herbs wafted out as he watched.
Dancing Doe cried out where she lay naked on sweat-soaked robes. The smooth planes of her young face twisted and contorted as her belly contracted, seeking to force the child within from the safe confines of her womb. Between her breasts lay a natal bundle, a figure in the shape of Turtle—the magical animal that never sickened. Turtle brought health and luck. He disappeared with the coming of the winter gales, crawling down into the Earth Mother, returning when Father Sun brought spring and life to the world. The fetish on Dancing Doe's breast had been constructed of finely sewn antelope hide and stuffed with sage, bits of twigs, feathers, and other sorts of Power.
On her belly, a series of designs had been drawn to center the Spirit Power of birth. The most important, a bright yellow stripe, had been painted down from the natal bundle between her full breasts to end in a point in the mat of her black pubic hair. The Path of Light, it would lead the child on its way to the world.
The boy stared, feeling the Power of the women's chant within. Though he feared discovery, he couldn't force himself away from the fascinating events. He knew his mother would punish him—and Two Smokes would no doubt even now be looking for him, beginning to worry about his absence from his sleeping robes.
A night of heat, a night of pain. Across the mound of Dancing Doe's swollen belly, two women—one young, one old—looked at each other, worry etching their tension-worn faces.
The old woman's gray hair glinted in the light. Patterns of wrinkles were cast into a tracery of shadows across her withered face. The set of her mouth had gone grim as she continued her vigil over the struggling woman. Back curved from age, she hunched, upper body bared and sweaty in the heat. Long-dry breasts hung low and flat over the folds of her stomach. Lines of scars puckered the wrinkled skin of her shoulders, mute evidence of the number of times she'd offered bits of herself to the Spirit World. The people called her Chokecherry, after the bittersweet plant that grew in the high lands.
The boy watched as his mother, Sage Root, crouched to help, her anxious eyes on Dancing Doe's fevered body. He knew that strained look. Worry marked the faces of all the People. Lines, like arroyos on the land, etched deep into their faces. But the helpless concern his mother betrayed frightened him. When Dancing Doe cried again, his gut tightened like sun-dried sinew.
Poor Dancing Doe. Her husband, Long Runner, had gone to hunt the foothills of the Buffalo Mountains. He'd never returned.
Chokecherry took a breath, reaching into a neatly sewn sack to withdraw damp sage and sprinkle it on the red eyes of coals. The perfume of life roiled up on a mist of steam.
She chanted softly in a singsong, "Come, little one. Come to walk in life and bless the land and sun and plants and animals. Come to join us on the path to the Starweb which leads to all good things. Hear our song. Hear our joy. Come, little one. Come into this world and make us smile."
Dancing Doe grunted again, tensing the muscles of her powerful brown legs. She sucked a frantic breath, exhaling sharply, eyes clamped tight, teeth bared in a rictus of effort. Beads of sweat traced irregular paths down her trembling flesh.
Sage Root gripped Dancing Doe's fingers in her own. "Easy. Breathe easy. It won't be long now."
Dancing Doe relaxed as the spasms passed. She gasped and looked up at the old woman, who continued chanting. "It doesn't always take so long. Chokecherry, is it all right? Am I dying?"
The old woman finished the litany and lifted a shoulder, smiling. "I've borne children more difficult than this. It's your first time. Those muscles have to be stretched and they don't know how yet. Nothing's torn. All that's come out is water—washing you, you see, making the way clean. That's all." She looked across, laughing reassuringly. "Just like Sage Root. She kept me and Horn Core up for almost a whole day."
Sage Root smiled wistfully. "I remember. But my son was born strong."
Only when Dancing Doe closed her eyes and nodded did Sage Root's expression tighten. Tension hung in the air like winter mist, reflected in the set of her features and in Chokecherry's burning eyes. It drifted from the rent in the lodge to settle like a water-heavy green hide on the boy's shoulders.
Chokecherry resumed singing under her breath, taking another handful of sage leaves from the pouch and sprinkling it over the fire to fill the lodge with a clinging steamy odor.
Dancing Doe cried out, anguish palpable as her belly tightened.
"Should we call Heavy Beaver?" Sage Root's hard eyes leveled on Chokecherry's.
From where he sat outside, the boy winced. Heavy Beaver, the Spirit Dreamer of the People, brought that kind of reaction. In his head, a voice whispered, "No."
Like a shadow in the night, he eased back, parting the piled sagebrush with careful fingers and creeping from his peephole. Free of the brush, he sprinted across the camp on light feet, heedless of the barking dogs. Before him, on the packed clay, the lodges huddled, squat, the bottoms rolled up over the peeled poles to allow the night breeze to blow through and cool the occupants where they slept on grass-padded bedding. Here and there, the sanguine eye of a dying fire cast a sunrise sheen on boiling pouches hanging from tripods, black orbs of hearthstones dotting the glowing coals.
Cottonwoods rose against the night sky, silhouetted black; the ghostly image of clouds could be vaguely discerned against the exposed patches of stars. In the trees, an owl hooted cautiously.
"Wolf Bundle," the voice in his head whispered.
Before he reached the lodge, he recognized Two Smokes' figure hobbling across the camp. No one walked like Two Smokes. "Two Smokes?" He changed course, trotting up.
"There you are! I've been half-sick worrying about you. Here your father is gone to hunt, your mother is—"
"I need you. I think we need the Wolf Bundle."
"The Wolf Bundle?" Two Smokes cocked his head, the familiar curious expression hidden by the shades of night. Tone softening and reserved, he asked in his Anit'ah-accented voice, "Why do we need the Wolf Bundle, Little Dancer?"
He hesitated. "I just ... well, a voice told me."
"A voice? The one that speaks in your head?"
"Yes. Please, bring the Bundle," he pleaded. "Dancing Doe's baby isn't coming. Mother and Chokecherry are worried. Dancing Doe is afraid she'll die. And Chokecherry didn't say it, but I could feel. You know, what she didn't say. The look in her eyes. I thought the Wolf Bundle ..."
"You thought right. Come. Let's see what we can do."
Two Smokes pivoted on his good leg, heading off in his wobbling stride for their lodge, the fringed skirts of his dress swaying in time to his off-balanced pace.
The berdache had always been an enigma to Little Dancer's mind. No other man among the People wore a dress. In response to his childish questions, Two Smokes had smiled wistfully and replied that he was berdache—between the worlds. A woman in a man's body.
The berdache had lived with the People for as long as Little Dancer could remember, always staying in their lodge—a strange silent man who'd come to them from the Anit'ah. Patiently he endured, despite the jokes and gibes and the open ridicule of the People. Alone and aloof, Two Smokes helped Little Dancer's mother with chores, scraping hides, cooing stew, accepting the duties a second wife would.
Little Dancer's father, Hungry Bull, the greatest hunter among the People, remained civil to Two Smokes, his innate disapproval tempered by some other veiled concern the boy had never been able to penetrate. Mystery surrounded the berdache like the swirl of smoke from a rain-wet fire.
Not that Little Dancer cared. For all his eight summers, Two Smokes remained his best friend, listening intently when Little Dancer told him of the voices he often heard. When his mother or father scolded him, he ran to Two Smokes like other children ran to their grandparents.
"So you were hiding around the birthing lodge?"
Little Dancer stiffened. "I ..."
"You know, men should never get close to a birthing lodge. That's a place for women. What if you change the Power?"
Shamed, Little Dancer dropped his gaze to the ghostly clay they trod, heart sinking in his chest. "I'm not a man. I'm just a boy. I'm not a man until I'm named and have proven myself."
"And you didn't think that even a boy might make a difference?"
"The voice didn't tell me I would. When I'm around Power, I usually know."
Into the stretching silence, Little Dancer added, "It's a feeling. Like ... well, the silence before thunder. Only longer. Just a feeling, that's all. And sometimes the voice."
He stopped before his family's lodge, waiting as Two Smokes ducked inside, hearing the shuffling as the berdache carefully unwrapped the Wolf Bundle from the heavy parfleche that kept it safe.
Ducking through the low doorway, Two Smokes cradled the Bundle so carefully wrapped in a beautifully tanned wolf hide. The pelt gleamed gray in the faint starlight.
"If you don't believe me, why did you come for the Bundle?" He pointed at the furry gray mass Two Smokes pressed to his heart. But the berdache simply brushed past, heading for the birthing lodge.
"Well? Why did you?"
The sigh from Two Smokes' breath lingered. "One day, Little Dancer, I'll tell you."
"But I want to know now. I can't see why—"
"You've seen the eagles nesting on the high cliffs. You've climbed up to look down on the newly hatched chicks."
"Uh-huh, and Eagle's a Power bird. I could feel that. I know what newly hatched chicks look like, all fuzzy and—"
"Would you push one of those fuzzy chicks out of the nest? Simply because he's an eagle, would you expect him to fly because of it? Because of the Power in him?"
"I ... No."
"Then don't push yourself out of the nest until your feathers are ready to support you."
Perplexed and confused, Little Dancer tried to make sense of it. Does that mean I, too, have Power? The question dazzled him, a warm glow forming under his heart. For the briefest moment, a tingling thread seemed to wind between him and the Bundle tucked so tightly against Two Smokes' heart. The pattern snapped as neatly as a sage twig underfoot as Dancing Doe's miserable cry penetrated the walls of the birthing lodge.
"Wait out here—and out of sight, if you please." Then in a louder voice: "Sage Root? It's Two Smokes. I have something to help."
But Little Dancer had already raced for his peephole, ducking through the sage, hunching over the little opening.
He could see his mother's anxious look at Chokecherry. In a subdued voice she said, "He's berdache. He knows a great deal. Among his own people—"
"I know." Chokecherry stroked her chin. "The Anit'ah say the berdache have Spirit Power. Myself, yes, I believe it." She raised her voice. "Come, Two Smokes." Then quietly, "By the Blessing Power, we could use any help we could get ... besides Heavy Beaver."
Two Smokes ducked into the dimly lit lodge, the Bundle still pressed to his heart. "If you would, let me use the Wolf Bundle." He extended it reverently, a plea in his gentle eyes.
"The Wolf Bundle?" Chokecherry cocked her head, still fingering her sagging chin. "Yes ... perhaps."
Dancing Doe looked up, a new fright in her eyes as she saw Two Smokes. "No! Not a man. Not here where—"
"Shhh!" Sage Root soothed. "He knows Power."
"I want Heavy Beaver!" The fear in her eyes deepened.
"I'm berdache," Two Smokes appealed. "I've done this before."
"Trust him," Chokecherry urged.
Dancing Doe didn't have time to respond; another contraction racked her. Chokecherry nodded curtly to the berdache and backed to allow him room.
Two Smokes settled next to the whimpering woman, careful fingers undoing the wolf hide. He laid the hide out as a protective mat to keep the sacred bundle from contact with the earth. As he began to chant in the melodious tones of the Anit'ah, Little Dancer leaned forward, eye pressed to the peephole to see.
From the outside, the Wolf Bundle didn't look like much, only a skin bag tightly bound and painted a deep red along the pointed end. The top had been left white, traced by lines that resembled veins. A heart! That's what it was, a heart fetish!
Two Smokes took sage from the pouch he carried, dipped it in water where it hung from a tripod, and sprinkled it into the fire. Behind him, Chokecherry and Sage Root exchanged nervous glances.
"Here, this needs to be made into tea." He extended a hand containing cleaned phlox. "She must drink some, the rest will be rubbed on her. Sage Root, wash her down there where the baby will come."
Then he lifted the Wolf Bundle up to the smoke hole, singing in the language of the Anit'ah, eyes closed, face serene.
From where he sat, Little Dancer watched, and a sudden giddiness swelled within, raising his soul to the haunting tones. The familiar feeling of Power wrapped around him.
Reeling, he barely noticed when Two Smokes touched the Bundle to Dancing Doe's perspiring forehead. The woman quieted, breathing easier. Two Smokes then touched the Bundle to her heart, just above the turtle effigy, then to her protruding navel and again to the swell of her pubis above the point of the yellow stripe.
Dancing Doe gasped, this time in relief.
The tea finished, Sage Root filled a buffalo-horn spoon, placing it to the woman's lips. Dancing Doe drank, and grimaced.
Resting the Wolf Bundle on the protective hide, Two Smokes dipped his hands in the steaming water pouch, now full of tea. "This is the way my people have taught me. The phlox tea soothes the flesh."
Hands dripping, he began to massage her heavy belly. At Two Smokes' nod, Sage Root copied his motions, working down. Dancing Doe bit off a cry as another contraction pressed through her.
"Easy now," Two Smokes cautioned, his fingers probing the woman's shuddering body. "The pressure must be just so. Too much and the insides can tear. Bleeding can't always be stopped."
"We tried massage," Chokecherry added. "It didn't seem to work."
Two Smokes nodded, eyes going to the Wolf Bundle. "Perhaps this will." With that, he reached for the Bundle and touched it to Dancing Doe's navel where it protruded like a knob.
Dancing Doe cried out, another contraction wrenching her.
"There." Chokecherry nodded, crawling to get between Dancing Doe's legs. She positioned herself. "We've got fluid. A little bit of blood."
Two Smokes held the Bundle in place, eyes closed, still singing in his lilting tone.
"Child's coming," Chokecherry added.
Craning his head to see, Little Dancer didn't hear the soft steps. He jerked as the flap lifted and Heavy Beaver ducked in, caught sight of Two Smokes and the Wolf Bundle, and stopped dead.
Shock registered for only a moment before a dull rage filled his black eyes and rearranged the planes of his flat face.
"So, this is what's happening?"
Sage Root shot a look over her shoulder, a flickering of fright in her eyes. "The baby is coming."
Two Smokes didn't break stride in his chant.
"A little more," Chokecherry coaxed, hands placed.
Where he crouched outside, the blackness twirled with the Power. Heavy Beaver! He could feel it, a subtle whiff of anger and hatred. The effect stung him like a sulfur breeze on a green meadow, grasses and flowers wilting and smothering. The Wolf Bundle remained a powerful brilliance in the miasma.
"Ah-ha! Bear down!" Chokecherry cried, reaching where Little Dancer couldn't see. "That's it."
Dancing Doe shuddered as her belly flattened and Chokecherry lifted the infant, streaked and wet in her hands. The squalling cry of new life filled the lodge.
Two Smokes inhaled deeply and dropped his head, pulling the Wolf Bundle back to his breast, stroking it reverently as he whispered a prayer of thanks under his breath.
"It's a girl," Sage Root whispered, looking furtively toward Heavy Beaver.
"Why am I not surprised?" Heavy Beaver loomed, crouched under the low spread of the shelter. The look in his eyes tickled a cold shiver down Little Dancer's spine.
"Another girl? And born under the influence of malignant Spirit Power?" Heavy Beaver crossed his arms. "A wondrous gift to the People."
Dancing Doe worked her mouth dryly, too spent to do anything but stare with fright-wide eyes at the Spirit Dreamer. (Continues...)
Excerpted from People of the Fire by W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O'Neal Gear. Copyright © 1991 W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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