Take the Damn Stick
The early morning light was just beginning to push the stars from view when the cat once again announced its dissatisfaction about something. Chilcoat stirred the fire to life and lit his pipe. As the comforting smoke relieved his tired body, the smoldering twig once again reminded him of Tangar and his silly sticks. He tossed the twig into the fire and retrieved the tanasin wand from his bowl. He rolled its twisted form slowly between his fingers. The ends danced wobbling circles in the morning light. The thought of also tossing it into the fire crossed his mind, but he knew he couldn’t do that to Tarra.
“What are you going to do about the stick?” Caran asked.
“I don’t know. Tarra thinks it means something, but I don’t know if the old man has spoken to her or if she’s just a child making up stories.”
Caran finished tucking their children into bed and gently touched his arm. “You know she’s not a child and I hate her for that, but I love you both, and if you love me, you have to listen to her, even if she hasn’t talked with Tangar.”
After an uncomfortable moment of silence, Caran spoke again. “At the gathering Tarann took me aside, she spoke of Tarra as a—’keeper’. I thought she was just being a mother, but now I see she meant more... She cursed her husband and his ’witch’s scrolls’ and told me she was sorry for ’the pain I must endure’. I thought she was just crazy with grief, but now I see she was trying to tell me that I, that we—are destined to bear her burden to its end.”
Chilcoat tried to defuse the tension. “I wouldn’t worry about the ravings of a grieving wife. Next fall we’ll return to the gathering and talk with her about it. By then she’ll be less upset and I’ll bet she’ll change her story.”
He relit his pipe and watched in silence as Tarra returned from her nightly duties and began to prepare for bed. He sat smoking, thinking, and toying with the stick while she once again prepared the insect balm and retired. As she lay nearly naked in the morning heat, her chest moved in the gentle rhythm of sleep that touched him like a cool autumn breeze. It felt good and stirred his heart but left his mind unsettled. What am I to do with this girl? He put the stick aside and rested as best he could in the heat.
By midday, Bartan returned to the village with his sun-cape torn and his shoulders severely burned by the morning sun. He came begging Tarra for burn ointment. She wasn’t happy about the early wake-up call, but hadn’t really been able to sleep. She tended to his wounds and dismissed him with cold disregard when he tried to involve her in his tale of adventure regarding the cat. He said that he and Larkon had separated in the night and that he needed to gather a search party to look for him.
Chilcoat listened with cheerless resolve, not giving any sign of interest. After Bartan left, he sat smoking across the tent from where Tarra was cleaning up her apothecary. She had sunburn lotion in her regular consignment of concoctions, so it was a small favor to dispense an occasional batch to a neighbor, but she didn’t like to have to rub it on Bartan. She knew he would try to make more of it than was intended and she didn’t want to encourage him in any way. She draped the medicine bag over the shoulders of the mannequin near the door, and quietly resettled in her bed.
Chilcoat was about to do the same when he noticed the talking-stick jutting from the hand of the figure. He pulled the tanasin stick from amongst his belongings and lay on his back holding it up against the background of smoke drifting in the rafters. The simple form zigzagged in three distinct segments, each projecting at a different angle from the previous. Each section had notches and knots carved into it. The old man was clever all right, maybe too clever.
“I’ll go with you if you want.” Tarra spoke from across the tent.
He flinched at the unexpected voice. “Maybe you’ll have to.” He twirled the stick between two fingers then tossed it to her. It landed on her naked chest where she let it lay as if she didn’t notice it.
She put her hand flat over the stick and sat up holding it in place. “When do you want to get started?” The bug repellent had thinned to the point that flies were beginning to make their presence known so she drew her legs up and sat cross-legged to address the fire. “I can teach you to read it if you want.”
“Do you think I can learn? Maybe I am too dim to learn such tricks.”
She smiled timidly at his attempt at wit and glanced self-consciously toward where Caran slept. She quickly busied herself tending the bug repellent. “You’re not dim—just stubborn.”
“What are you going to do with Bartan? He’s becoming a problem without a woman to keep him in line.”
She stopped her task and looked out the raised skirt of the tent, out beyond the clearing, toward the lake. “I don’t think he’s a very good man. He doesn’t fit in, I mean, he’s always busy doing something else when work needs to be done.”
“Maybe he just needs your help to stay on the correct path.”
“I don’t want to have to keep him on the path. I want someone who’s strong enough to stay on the right path himself.” She flung the stick back at him striking him on the chest as she rose. She grabbed her cloak and left the tent in a flurry of smoke.
He followed calling after her, “Wait, I—I just want to be sure you’re not making a mistake. I mean, I don’t want you to feel pressured by me. I mean—I didn’t want you to be mated before your time, but—well now that I know you better, well, I guess you’re wise enough to make up your own mind.”
“You guess? You’re a pompous ass to think that you have the right to decide anything for me! I’m not your sister. I’m the daughter of Tangar. You’ve taken me at the joining ceremony, yet you don’t accept me as your wife… What am I? What am I to do? What’s to become of me? The boys my age are afraid of me and the women don’t accept me as one of them… I’m alone. You’ve ruined my life.” She stood trembling with her cape draped over her head partially covering her naked frame.
He pulled his cape on in a similar fashion to shield his shoulders from the sun. “I—we, Caran and I, love you as one of our own. We want you to be happy, to be part of our family, to be—one of us.”
“Don’t you see? I’m not one of you! I’m me... I’m not happy being just half of a person. I’m not a real sister; I’m not a little girl... Maybe the times have made me more than my age, but I feel like I need to do something to make things better... Papa haunts my dreams. He wants me to do something better with my life. He wants you to do something better. He doesn’t want you to be just a hunter. He wants you to be the Seer of the clan of, Tangar. He had faith in you.”
Chilcoat stared into her eyes. “You can’t know that. He haunts my thoughts too, but I don’t know what it means. He doesn’t make himself clear and maybe it’s just a dream. Maybe I’m just looking for someone else to do my thinking for me.”
“I know—I know. I just feel it. I feel like I have to do something. This heat isn’t right.” She gestured at the shriveled brown stubble in the fields. “The crops are dying and we can’t stop it. We water all night and each morning more plants are dead. We have to walk around all day dressed up like ghosts. It’s just not right... I danced with the medicine wands the way he taught me. I want to believe that Yod spoke to me. I want to believe! That’s all.”
He stood staring at the young priestess. The baggy sleeves of her cape covered her arms and formed small wings as she pulled the tanasin stick from his hand. “You wear the robes. I’m only a child.”
“What am I to do with you?” He drew her close and hugged her warmly. “I want to believe too... I just... don’t feel it the way you do. I knew a different father than you. He taught me to doubt... to know... to demand proof... I’ll take the stick, and I’ll study it with you, but I’m not signing up for any spirit-walk or anything.” He gently fought the stick from her grasp and considered it for a moment before sticking it behind his ear.
After a few hours’ rest, Chilcoat stirred to wander restlessly around the camp. He clinched the stick tightly in his fist and tried to remember Tangar. What would you have done? He didn’t think of the frail old man that drank too much spirit-tea and talked to rocks, he thought of the strong young man that taught him to hunt and fish and to know right from wrong. You kept it simple for me. You kept me from your herbs and spirits saying only that I would ’someday know their place’… Dad, would you now teach me of these things?
Tarra soon joined him as he stood watching the parched fields stir listlessly in the heat. “Are you ready for a lesson?”
He looked solemnly at the young woman. “Right now I have to go find out what’s happened to that fool Larkon. Do me a favor, go tell Lan to meet me at the clearing as soon as he can get ready, and tell Caran where we’re going, and that I love her, and here—take this damn stick. I wouldn’t want to lose it.” He rolled the wand thoughtfully between his fingers once before pressing it gently into her hand.
He roused Rancon and met with Bartan, Laot, Lon, and a couple of others in the central clearing. When Lan arrived, Bartan quickly recounted the previous night’s venture and they broke the group into small search parties each heading on different paths up the canyon.
By early evening, they had covered most of the likely lowland sites and were working their way up the canyon in short leapfrog bursts of activity. If the cat was near, they gave it plenty of room by making enough noise to give it warning of their approach.
The shadows deepened into night as the groups moved steadily up the valley looking for any trace of their lost companion. There were no signs of either Larkon or the cat. That meant the cat must have made a kill and had already taken to the high country with its prey. Everyone knew the sign and grew anxious with dread that Larkon was the reason for the cat’s departure.
Laot found fresh blood among the rocks of the western canyon but there was no sign of weapons or clothes, so the hope grew that the cat had taken a deer and would be happy for the time being. The trail of blood was hard to follow in the darkness and soon disappeared into the boulders.
The search continued into the early hours of the morning. Laot argued frantically. “We have to go further up the valley. He must’ve been chasing the cat. He wounded it and had it on the run...”
The others grew tired and frustrated with the lack of signs. They all knew that if the cat had him, it was already too late, and if she didn’t, then it didn’t matter, so they headed back down the mountain.
Lannon tried to comfort his brothers but it was a sullen group that trudged back to camp. Most of the clan was gathered around the central hearth and the information was shared with several future actions suggested but no real plans made.
Chilcoat addressed the group before it broke up, “Lan, you and your brothers are going to have to stand watch on the gardens every night until we figure out what that cat is up to. I know you don’t want to hear this, but we have to face the possibility that your father is gone. If he is, that means the cat has tasted human flesh and will be bold about approaching the fields. If we’re able to find your dad, we can relax a little, but until then we need to be very cautious. And some of you others may have to lend a hand. Work with Lannon to be sure none of the field workers or children wander off without protection. Do you understand?”It had been a long night, and no one was in a festive mood. Chilcoat propped himself on one elbow while arranging his pillow and noticed that Tarra had tucked the stick in amongst his bedding. He had to smile at her tenacity as he looked across the tent where she rested. He lay on his back and slowly rolled the crooked little wand between his fingers. Holding it up against the background haze in the rafters, he marveled at the intricacies of the design that snaked along its length. He, at last, turned to Tarra to ask her what the bumps and notches meant but found only her naked back. Not wanting to disturb anyone who might actually be sleeping, he simply watched her slow rhythmic breathing until he too fell asleep.