People of the Fire
The Harrowing of the Child
"To Power, time means nothing. Everything belongs to the Spiralbe it the path of the universe, the rotation of the Starweb. itself, or the path of Father Sun across the sky.
"And where does Power come from? Like the storms, it comes from earth, and sky, and water, and the Power of Father Sun, and the Wise One Abovethe Creator. Of all the sources of Power we know, the Wolf Bundle is most Powerful on earth. Once, back when First Manthe Wolf Dreamerled the People from the First World to this one, the Wolf Bundle was made. Born of a Dream, it suckled itself from the minds of the People. Because the People believed in it, it grew in strength ... warmed by as many hands as held it so reverently ... powered by the spirit breathed into it from a thousand lungs; it is our soul, our Power as humans.
"The People carried it protected in the sacred wolf hide. They guarded it from rain and snow and dust. Men and women were born under its Power ... or died with it in their arms. Sometimes it soaked up the blood of those who died to protect it from desecration or sacrilege. Part of their souls joined with the Wolf Bundle, as did the spirit of the rocks and trees and animals and the People themselves. Nothing on earth is more sacred than the Wolf Bundle. It's the Power ... the Dream that gives the People life.
"That's what brought me to you. The Power of the Wolf Bundle. I don't know why. I don't know how. But the Circles are turning and the earth is changing. Something is trying to unravel the Starweb. woven by the Wise One Above. The Circles ... always the Circles, and time doesn't mean much to Power. Who knows how long we have left?
"I learned this in a Dream. There, in the Dream, in thevision, I talked to the Wolf Bundle and heard the voice of First Man. So I followed ... I came here to you ... and the Wolf Bundle."
White Calf to Cut Feather
Pain twisted the old man's bellythe sensation that of a keenly flaked chert knife cutting his soul loose from his backbone. How long now? How long until it severed the tenuous threads of life?
Cut Feather tried to settle his aching back in a comfortable position. Inside the lodge, the heat seemed to intensify, stifling, raising a sweat sheen on his ancient wrinkled skin. He rolled the bottom of the lodge cover up, allowing the hot breeze to blow through, using the cover for a sunshade; it didn't help much.
He blinked against the constant gnawing pain, lifting his hands to look at the knobby bones under the crinkled thin leather of his skin. Old, so old. His hair gleamed white, braids worn ever shorter where they framed his withered face. His eyelids had sunk around the orbits, leaving hollows that gathered the shadows cast upon his soul.
I look like a winterkill carcass in springdried out, shrunk over brittle bone. Not enough of me left for the maggots to chew.
About him, the final remnants of his long life lay ready for inspectionall but the sacred Wolf Bundle, its place suspiciously empty on the little willow tripod. Beyond the door hanging, dogs yipped and growled. The soft voices of the Red Hand band, his people, carried in the dry air. Even here, high in the mountains, continued drought burned the land. How long since rain? Drought led to war.
Buffalo had become scarce in the wide plains to the east, so the Short Buffalo People had come here, seeking the herds that grazed the high meadows where the peaks scoured the clouds for what rain they could glean. The Short Buffalo Peoplewanted to call this land theirs. The two peoples could not coexist. The plains hunters wanted only meat, disdaining the roots and pine nuts beloved by the Red Hand. Plains hunters used special Power to ambush buffalofrom which they obtained robes, hides for shelters, and all their food, even roasting the entrails. Their language made no sense, like the clucking of a grouse. Worse, they spat upon the Red Hand as eaters of plants.
The Red Hand had repeatedly driven the Short Buffalo People back into the basins and river bottoms to the south and east. Only the elk knew the mountains as well as the Red Hand. In the mountains, he who controlled the trails controlled the country. In the process of ambushing Short Buffalo People, the Red Hand had earned a new name: Anit'ah. That's what they were called in the Short Buffalo People's tongue. "Enemy."
Cut Feather stared thoughtfully at the smoke-browned hides overhead, knowing the shapes of each of the slender lodgepoles he'd trimmed by hand, knowing each stitch Clear Water had sewn so carefully. A fly buzzed behind the lodge where he'd relieved himself. Time for the camp to move again, time to allow the Sun Father to cleanse the wastes of the Red Hand. All part of the Circles, even flies and beetles had to eat. Circles like the ones he'd pecked so laboriously into the rock panels in imitation of the constant Dance of the Wise One Above who watched from the Starweb.
Only this time, I won't be going. Here, this is the end. The last camp for Cut Feather. It's a good place ... a place to die high on the mountain where the soul is free to rise to the stars and meet the Wise One.
As if it heard, the knotted pain in his belly tightened, stealing his strength and breath, trying to twist his soul from his body. His body continued to waste, thinner and thinner except for the hard lump he could feel when he pressed under his ribs on the right side. The lump got bigger, and he grew less.
And I am left to the final Dream ... .
Smiling wearily, he remembered Clear Water's face, the glow of youth in her full cheeks. She'd been the true Spirit Woman. She'd been the one who paused, eyes suddenly vacant,to tell him about the Wolf Man who whispered in her ear.
He'd listened ... always listened, and told the People what to do. They'd never suspected the Power had come from his daughter. Never suspected Clear Water's counsel guided him. She'd seen, and now she'd gone, fleeing her man, Blood Bear. She'd left quietly in the night, accompanied by the odd berdache, Two Smokes, who watched the plants, picking the grasses and chewing the stems.
Angry shouts outside gave him the bit of warning he'd hoped to have. The rasping swish of moccasins in the grass allowed him that final instant to compose himself as a strong hand ripped the hanging aside.
"Where is she, old man?"
Cut Feather smiled up into Blood Bear's smoldering features. His son-in-law's strong face had flushed, dark eyes fired. Muscular, hotheaded, Blood Bear had always been trouble. In the short time he'd been married to Clear Water, he'd beaten her more than once. People had turned their heads at sounds of violent coupling in the lodge at night, shamed by her whimpers of pain.
He'd been helplessan old Spirit Man without power. Clear Water had no other relatives to protest her treatment, to seek justice. And Blood Bear had no fear of a Spirit Man's threats.
Blood Bear leaned forward, black eyes burning. "I know that, you simple old fool. Where did she go?"
Cut Feather reached for the gourd, half-full of water, extending it. "Come, sit. You are a guest in my lodge. Drink and"
Blood Bear smashed the gourd away, spattering water about the worn hides, soaking the sacred bundles. "Where, old man?"
Cut Feather winced at the mess, blinking as he looked up. "You know, Blood Bear, you're not doing yourself any good. Shouting at me just undercuts your position. I'm dying and everybody knows it. Rage has stolen even your cunning."
"Hush and hear me out. You're a laughingstock. Your wife ran away with another man. The People"
A hard hand clamped on his throat. The heat of Blood Bear's breath warmed his skin as those burning eyes searched his. "What man, Cut Feather? Speak quickly, or never speak again."
The reflection of death watched from Blood Bear's flushed features.
"Let ... go," Cut Feather croaked over his protruded tongue. Blood Bear relaxed his powerful fingers ever so slightly.
"He's berdache! A man who loves other mean! Why would she run off with ... with him?"
Cut Feather tried to swallow without success. Instead, his saliva escaped the side of his mouth, trickling down his cheek and over Blood Bear's iron fingers.
"Why? Curse you!"
"You still don't understand?" Cut Feather closed his eyes, savoring the feeling of Blood Bear's choking grasp. Could he still enjoy memories when his ghost rose to the Wise One Above? Or did the soul evaporate like the physical body, eaten by this and that, rotted away?
The grip on his throat released entirely. "Tell me."
"She Dreamed it. That's why she went to you in the first place. The very sight of you disgusted her. Did you know that?" He looked up, not surprised at the arrogant disbelief in Blood Bear's eyes. "Yes, she thought you were no more than a surly camp dog."
"For a camp dog, she came willingly, old man. She saw I would lead the Red Hand People, saw I"
"Fool! It was a Spirit Dream. I don't know the half of it. A man doesn't guess about Spirit Power. It has its own reasons for things. She Dreamed ... and the Dream told her you must father the child. As soon as her bleeding missed, she and Two Smokes left. No. Don't threaten. I don't know where she went, or why, or what Two Smokes' part in it is, either. But he's a good person. Maybe she needs him to carefor the baby. Maybe she needs his help for some other reason. He's berdache. There's Spirit Power in that."
"I think you know where she is. You tell me, old man. Tell me!"
"Think all you want. It's a new experience for you, I'm sure."
The blow caught him by surprise, the slap loud in the confines of the lodge. The power of it snapped Cut Feather's head sideways, bright flashes dancing behind his ancient eyes.
"Sure," Cut Feather grunted through the pain. "You can kill lots of Short Buffalo People and strut. You can even kill me. But you're ruined here. Finished. Out there, they're listening, hearing your rage. You would be leader of the Red Hand ... but can people follow a man who can't keep his wife and child from a berdache? Can they follow a man who'll kill a dying old man in rage? No ... Clear Water and I, we've broken you."
The corners of Blood Bear's lips twitched and jumped as he struggled to control himself. For that instant of time, Cut Feather knew true fear.
"Where is the Bundle ... the Wolf Bundle?"
"She took it."
"That belonged to the People!"
"It was Spirit Power ... something in the Dream."
"I'll find her. I'll find my child. You hear me? I swear on the Wolf Bundle she stole. I'll find my child!"
"The child? Or is it the Wolf Bundle? I think you could care less about the child. I'm dying. I have no more to say."
Under Blood Bear's taut cheeks, the muscles jumped violently, the sound of his grating molars audible. "Then die, old may!"
Blood Bear turned, hesitated, and kicked Cut Feather in the stomach. "There, that won't kill you. But you'll know how I feel."
And he was gone, bursting out into the light beyond.
Cut Feather grunted as he doubled over, knotting pain burning in his belly. He felt it pull as he straightened, a rush of warmth deep within. A queer tingling followed as he began to feel bloated and light-headed.
He barely realized when he fell over. Only it seemed thatfaces peered sideways at him. The hides under his cold cheek felt wet, soaked, as if someone had spilled water on them. A dizziness swirled around him as people crowded in, seeking to help, asking questions he could barely hear.
"The Wolf Bundle?" A cry pierced the haze in his mind. "We can't live without the Wolf Bundle!"
But Clear Water had taken it. Spirit Dream ... Clear Water knew what she was doing. His thoughts slipped away like smoke into a night sky. Fading. Fading. Grayness.
"Looks like you were wrong again, Blood Bear. You killed me despite yourself." And he chuckled.
The haze dimmed and floated around him, like tufted clouds on a mountaintop. His soul drifted, sinking into a calming warmth. Then he began to rise, upward, above his crumpled body.
Are you cowing? a soft voice asked.
"Who? Who called?"
They call me Wolf Dreamer ... the Sun Man ... a new way lies before you now. A new way ...
What must come, will. Human souls flow like the currents of a riveroften angry, thrashing white, boiling and madagainst the resistant rock that blocks the way. At other times human souls move peacefully, slow and lazy, barely rippling the surface of the tepid water they wind through. Then, depending on the time of year, they flow encased in blue-white, ice, locked in a secret darkness.
Around the Wolf Bundle, souls gather, unaware of the rapids around this last bend.
"You must be patient," the voice of the Wolf Dreamer whispers through the mists.
"I know," the Wolf Bundle answers.
Copyright © 1991 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear