Remy carried Jolie to the fenced boundary of the lodge grounds. Hugo and Bodhi followed like shadows, silent and cowed at finding themselves thrust into this unfamiliar world where their honored teacher took the role of a humble fireman. They knew that whatever happened, things had changed for them. Very few of the school’s students had ever been to a lodge with Sifu. Being there had moved them into a coveted circle of his most trusted students, and they were determined not to fail their teacher’s expectations.
Jolie’s eyes opened and she took in her new surroundings, feeling disconnected from her body.
A large oval ball of energy lingered by the fire, its colors swirling, mixing, and changing. When they came together with enough density, a hand appeared, part of a body...a face; it was Rose’s face. She stood by the fire, wrapped in a blanket.
Jolie’s eyes wandered over the lodge grounds. There was life everywhere; all of it connected. The spirit of the fire was connected to the stones, those spirits were connected to the fireman, and he was connected to the universe as well as to some of the people in the lodge area; each of them connected to the others. Even the stick stuck in the middle of the humped hill outside the lodge door, with its feathers spinning in the breeze, and the buffalo skull below it was connected. All of it glowed with life--not human life, but life, nevertheless, palpable and real.
Jolie looked over her shoulder at the Fus. Bodhi’s essence was dark with demons of his own, while Hugo’s carried the clarity of his genius and innocence.
“Hang on, Jolie.” Hugo smiled, reassuringly, though he did not know that she could hear him. ”You can get through this.”
Jolie tried to smile back, but she wasn’t sure she’d been successful. She didn’t seem to have full control of her body.
When Jolie had been to the lodge before, she hadn’t noticed the tall sticks guarding the edge of the ceremonial area, marking the four cardinal directions. She saw them now; bright balls of energy clothed in colored pieces of cotton.
Wards, she recognized them for what they were. They’ve put wards around the lodge area. In these, too, there was spirit. The energy of intent had given them life.
A complex spirit, vibrantly visual, with large sweeps of colorful energy surging and whirling around it, approached the gate in front of her.
“You boys are free to go back in the house,” Hoke spoke from it. “Or sit here outside the lodge by the fire and wait. But if you stay, you must be quiet. You cannot interfere in any way. No matter what you see or hear. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” The boys nodded.
Another light being appeared as if it had come out of the fire. This one was a complicated combination of light and dark, brightness and shadow.
“This isn’t a game, boys,” Sifu’s voice came from it. “This is the real thing, maybe more real than you’re ready for right now, and that’s okay.” The man’s physical self became more solid. He was medium height with a solid build, the posture of a stone fortress and shoulders like battlements. Backlit by the fire, Jolie couldn’t see his face, only the long dark hair that spilled over his shoulders. “There’s no dishonor in waiting in the house.” He turned his body so that the firelight caught his strong, Native features. Dark intense eyes pinned the boys to a silent promise.
“I’ll stay, Sifu.” Bodhi’s voice was steady.
“Me, too,” Hugo agreed.
Sifu nodded. “Okay. I’ll make sure they don’t get in the way, Hoke.”
“Wait here,” Hoke told the boys. “We’ll bring you inside the gate once we’ve smudged Jolie down and gotten her inside the circle.” He turned to Remy. “You know what to do, nephew.”
Remy carefully stood Jolie up, steadying her while his uncle retrieved a coffee can from his teacher. The can belched fragrant smoke. Jolie felt the demon stir as if he were waking. As the smoke began to envelope her he leapt to full attention.
“What are you doing?” it shrieked, inside Jolie.
Muttering under his breath in Lakota, Hoke used a large bird wing fan, sweeping Jolie off from head to toe, as if removing something invisible that clung to her.
“Turn her.” Hoke continued brushing her off with the feather fan, moving the smoke over her as Remy slowly turned Jolie clockwise.
The demon quieted, its presence fading, weakening.
“The smudge is burning really strong,” Remy’s voice was so low that only the three of them could hear.
“You should expect that in a case like this,” his uncle replied, finishing. “Okay, now let’s see what happens when we bring her in.”
Remy took Jolie’s arm and began to lead her through the gate into the protected ceremonial grounds.
“Hell no,” the demon growled using Jolie’s vocal chords. “I’m not going in there.”
Rose came quickly to Jolie’s side and took her arm.
“It’s okay, Jolie. You’ve been here before. There’s nothing to hurt you here.”
When Jolie looked at Rose, she saw the amazing Technicolor of her spirit. When the demon looked, he saw a strength and power that he wanted no part of.
“I said, I’m not going in there.” He eyed the glowing wards protecting the sacred circle. His kind was not welcome.
“Then stay out here,” Hoke replied, calmly. “Remy.” He nodded to Remy to bring Jolie in.
“No.” Jolie’s eyes, darted back and forth, her body writhing and twisting to free itself from Remy’s grasp. Remy did not let go.
“You said I didn’t have to go in. You said I could stay out here,” the demon protested.
“And ‘you’ can,” Hoke said. “But Jolie is going in.”
Jolie felt the demon’s fear, but she was not afraid and because she was not, she could separate his feelings from hers.
“Bring me in,” she said, struggling to find her own voice.
Hoke grinned. “There’s that plucky girl, I met out in the desert.”
Remy looked surprised. “You know each other?”
“Not in this world, but we have seen each other before. You stood against a thousand dark creatures that night,” Hoke reminded her. “All you need to do now is stand up to one.”
“Noooo.” Sweat glistened like diamonds on Jolie’s brow. Her eyes bugged from their sockets, her body moving like a snake trying to shed its old skin.
“Gently now,” Rose murmured. “Walk with me, Jolie.” Jolie’s spirit stepped forward and out of her body.
Remy scooped up her physical form as it collapsed.
“I have you,” Rose’s spirit assured Jolie, folding the girl’s spirit into her embrace. ”You’re safe here with me.”
“Bring her in, Remy,” Hoke commanded.
“Can this thing get past the flags?” Remy asked, glancing at the wards.
Hoke shrugged. “We invited Jolie in. I think it will depend on how deeply their energies are woven together. How long did you say it had been?”
“I’m not sure. Three weeks maybe. But you definitely think there’s something there, right, Uncle Hoke?” Hoke raised an eyebrow. “Sorry. Dumb question.”
As Remy carried Jolie’s body past the wards into the lodge area her body shook like he had just fished her out of the Arctic Ocean.
Hoke got down on his hands and knees and crawled inside the lodge.
“You’ll have to go back inside your body now, Jo, so that you can crawl in,” Rose told Jolie. “Do you think you can do that?”
“Yes,” Jolie answered.
“I’ll be right here. Put her down, Remy. She’ll be okay,” Rose instructed. “I’m going to crawl in, Jo, then you follow.”
Remy leaned into Jolie. “I’ll be right behind you,” he whispered.
“Put her in the east gate,” Hoke commanded. “Once the stones are in, Remy, I want one of you on either side of her.”
Jolie crawled in on her hands and knees, feeling the bare ground scrape the skin over her kneecaps. Small stones bit into her palms as she crawled around the edge of a shallow pit that was at the center of the space.
“Follow my voice,” Rose beckoned her forward. Jolie crawled to a point halfway around the circle before Rose stopped her. “That’s good. Now just sit there and try to relax.”
Jolie expected it to be dark inside, but sitting in the east, she could see right past the mound of dirt outside the door, all the way to the fire. Sifu stood beside the fire like a strong tree, holding a pitchfork, waiting, as she had seen Remy wait when he was the fireman.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Jolie examined the inside of the lodge. It was small and cozy with a low ceiling, brightened by different colored blankets, their patterns, and colors warmed by the glow of the firelight coming in through the door. The framework itself was a loosely woven basket made of long flexible branches, turned upside down, then covered. It reminded Jolie of forts she’d made from tables and chairs and sheets when she was little. Long strands of tiny red bundles had been looped into the branches above her head, where they came together in a star pattern. Each of the bundles glowed faintly like a firefly was held inside.
Remy crawled in. His spirit was made up of two lights, like flames. All of the others; Rose, Hoke, Sifu, Hugo, each had only one. Bodhi had two as well, Jolie realized, wondering at the significance.
“Remy has two spirit lights,” she commented.
“Yes,” Rose agreed, softly. “It is part of what makes him special.”
Hoke leaned forward and began to draw a design in the dirt at the bottom of the pit.
Sifu crouched by the side of the doorway.
“Chanchega.” Sifu handed in a drum that was passed to Rose. “Do your students know how to handle stones, Sifu?” Hoke asked him.
The man chuckled. “They know how to follow directions and how to be respectful.”
“Then they can help you if you want. It’s a lot of stones for an old man.” The humor reflected the long friendship between them. “Okay, bring in the Grandfathers,” Hoke said, quietly.
“How many?” Sifu asked.
“All of them.”
The first seven stones were brought in one at a time and placed with care in the pit. Rose whispered to them as if greeting old friends or honored guests, placing fragrant herbs on each as they were placed in the pit. The herbs sizzled and burned, filling the lodge with strange smells that seemed to speak to something very ancient and basic within her. Jolie could see the faces of spirits in the stones, glowing at her from the darkness, as if putting them in the fire had revealed their true nature.
Her attention was drawn upward. Tiny flickering spirits, like fairy lights, flitted through the stick-woven star at the center of the ceiling.
“Are you doing okay, Jo?” Rose asked, softly.
Rose followed her gaze. “You see the uwipi?”
“Is that what they are?”
“That’s what we call them. Who knows what they ‘are’? They are part of the mystery.”
Hugo and Bodhi began helping Sifu, bringing pitchforks heavy with glowing hot stones to the doorway, then sliding them inside where Remy took charge of settling them in the pit. As the smoke in the lodge grew thicker, the demon’s fear once again rose, the tension building. The air became thick and stifling and Jolie felt as if she would either wilt or bolt outside.
“Sit up as long as you can,” Rose advised. “But if you can’t sit anymore lay down on the Grandmother.” She patted the ground. “Lay right against her breast. Give her your burdens and ask her for strength.”
Jolie nodded. Hugo’s face appeared at the doorway, lit by the glowing hot stones he carried on the pitchfork. Caution, care, and worry made him look much older than his years. His eyes searched the smoke for his friends. Hugo disappeared and Bodhi replaced him at the door, subdued and uncertain.
“That’s all of them,” Sifu announced when the pile of stones had overfilled the pit. The heat was stifling.
“M’ni.” Hoke addressed Sifu who then handed in a bucket of water. “Close the door.”
Sifu drew a door flap over the opening, tucking down the edges until no light leaked in anywhere. Inside the lodge it was completely dark, except for the uwipi, flickering above their heads.
The world seemed to hold its breath, waiting for what would come next.
Jolie looked up at the ceiling again and there was no ceiling. The blankets that had covered the top of the lodge had melted away to reveal the sky with layer upon layer of stars winking down at her.
It’s just like Iris said, Jolie felt her heart lift. It’s amazing. Uwipi played and tumbled around her head.
The demon panicked.
“I think I’m going to be sick.” Jolie gagged.
“That’s okay,” Rose handed her a small bucket.
“Just imagine you’ve swallowed something really nasty and let it all out,” Hoke told her.
Rose began a slow heartbeat rhythm on her drum, raising her clear contralto, calling the spirits to come and help them.
A gentle rain of juniper-scented water began to sprinkle over Jolie’s head and shoulders. She raised her face to the cleansing water and wept, adding her own silent voice to the prayer.
“Help us because we are only poor pitiful people but we want to live. Help us. We want to be better and walk this Red Road in a good way.”