A New Beginning
Chilcoat searched the jagged rock face seeking a small shelf with an overhang to keep the rain off. Displacing a bit of loose gravel, he selected a likely spot and spread his robe on the damp hillside in front of it. Lowering himself slowly to his knees, he dug into his pouch pulling a tightly knotted package from its depths. He held it thoughtfully, first in one hand then the other, weighing its contents. It was all he had left of his father. It was Tangar’s pipe and a small measure of smoking herb wrapped tightly in a patch of rabbit hide. The elders had taken his ceremonial robes and would pass them to an aspiring shaman at next year’s gathering. For now, they rested in a place of honor on the elder’s platform, and Chilcoat sat holding the remains of the man’s worldly possessions in one hand.
He took the dry grass he had used for his butt pad and made a small cushion on a cleft in the stone. Rolling the packet slowly in his opened palm, he tugged firmly on the knot holding it together and placed it carefully on the pillow of grass. Freeing the ember pot from its sling, he stirred the contents to life. When the warmth of the embers grew enough to make holding the pot uncomfortable, he looked to the sky, then to the packet sitting on its little cushion. His hand trembled slightly as he removed the chimney cap and dumped its contents onto the small pyre. Sitting motionless for several moments, he considered grabbing the treasure before the flames could consume it, then the voice of the old man drifted on the wind. “Let it go. It’s not of your concern now. Let me rest.”
He bent slowly over the altar and blew the embers to life. One last chance, he thought as the flame began to devour the packet with the distinctive aroma of burning herbs and rabbit hide. I can still pull it free and return to camp with something to cherish. No one would know, no one would care, and some might even think it noble to honor his memory with a memorial. Maybe a necklace made from his pipe would be fitting.
The smoke stung his eyes and caused tears to flow freely as he drew the clutch of arrows from his quiver. He selected the longest, straightest, most colorful dart from the bunch and rolled it slowly in his fingers feeling the quality of its balance. It had taken him three days to fashion the shaft and he had to change the brightly colored feathers twice to get it to guide true. The result was worth the effort, he thought, as he pressed his thumb gently on the fine stone tip. A drop of blood embraced the translucent edge of obsidian. He drew it slowly down the shaft forming a snake along its length. He considered the serpent for a moment then snapped it quickly across his knee. Placing both halves on the flames, he grabbed another handful of dried grass and sprinkled it on top of the offering. “Here, old man. Here’s your damn bird arrow. May the sting of this viper serve you well in your quest.”
The flames warmed his face and lifted his spirit as the smoke climbed over the top of the hill and joined the clouds. He watched the smoke play in the wind until the embers began to fade, leaving only a small pile of twinkling ash and the charred forms of the clay pipe and arrowhead. He thought again of salvaging these last remnants of a life well spent. “No. If I keep his pipe, he’ll not rest, and I’ll never be able to enjoy his company around the evening fire again.”
He struggled to his feet and, with one last sigh of resignation, swept the ashes from the shelf crushing the delicate stones under his foot. “Now you can rest, old man. You have your pipe and a good strong arrow to serve you. Your spirit is now with God... That’s what you would have me believe... Well I hope you’re right... I pray that you’re right. You deserve it more than anyone I know. You saved my body, but you couldn’t save my soul... I was too stubborn, too proud, too young to listen to your foolish ‘wisdom’ of gods and spirits. Now I wish that I could listen just one more time—just to hear you scold me once again would comfort me so—would complete my grief so that I can move on.” He looked briefly at the ash still clinging to his hand and then pressed it firmly on his chest, leaving a tribute of his mourning for all to see.
Slowly working his way down the path, made slippery by rain and loose gravel, he lamented the opportunities lost with the only father he had ever known. The sun inched slowly beyond the sea and the clay under his feet seemed almost to bleed as the sunlight reflected red off the water that trickle from the fractured surface left by his unsure footsteps.
With the last glint of light, the bonding ceremony would begin. Tonight was the last night of the ceremonies so it was important to be there to make the official offering and to honor the old man’s memory.
He was to act in behalf of Tangar at the ceremonies. Tarra had just come of age and would need to seek a mate. Tangar hadn’t intended to let her pass over this season, but now that he was gone, she would need to seek a new arrangement. Tarann, her mother, could no longer support her and would now stay on at the temple.
Tarra would be one of the youngest offered this season, so she would be in the first group. The girls in the first group normally didn’t wed, but they were included to introduce them to the ritual. They would usually take a mate in their second or more generally third season, but since her father was gone, she could seek attachment in her first offering.
Chilcoat felt sorry for her, since early pairings were not usually successful, especially if the boy was also young. Out of respect for the old man, he resolved that he would intervene if it looked as if she would select someone too young. It would mean that she would have to move in with his family, but it would only be for a season or two, and she could help with the harvesting. I’ll have to talk it over with Caran, of course, but she is usually accepting of my decisions. Maybe Charona will find a mate and move out and everything will remain as it is, one woman too many in my tent. Still, he didn’t hold out much hope that Charona would find someone suitable this season. The gathering was small since some of the distant tribes hadn’t come.
The ceremony began right on schedule. The head priest appeared in the temple window overlooking the gardens, and just as the last rays of light winked out over the edge of the sea, he declared the ceremony open with a wave of his scepter. The youngest group of girls hugged their tearful families and formed into a short queue gathered at the end of the main path. The lane meandered through the ramshackle cluster of huts that sprawled down the hillside below the temple.
The youngsters had swept the path clear and a cable of twisted vines strung along the edges emphasized its importance. Some families decorated sections with garlands of flowers matching those worn by their children in the ceremony. The girls each went through a short supportive celebration with their families and ducked under the cable to enter the path in a symbolic separation from their past. Mothers wept, fathers hugged, and siblings scattered flowers. Some of the rituals were very elaborate, depending on the message their family wished to project.
Charona joined the senior group and displayed little of the trepidation shown by some of the others. She had been through the ceremony before and held small hope of finding a suitable mate. She wanted to show her support for the tradition and didn’t want to look back and know that she hadn’t even tried. There were only four yearlings including Tarra and five seniors with nearly ten midyear girls.
The women of the tribe began a rhythmic chant and hand clapping that soon grew as the young men joined in. The women of the offering joined the chant as they began to move slowly toward the temple entrance. The tempo built as the men began pounding on drums and the chant turned into an upbeat marching tune. The women of the offering danced and flirted as they kept time with the music weaving their way toward the temple. Many of the girls found family and friends to wave to and dance with while others caught the eye of would be suitors along the path with playful, and somewhat suggestive, gyrations. The last woman disappeared behind a cloth drawn over the entrance of the darkened tunnel as the chant gave way to general applause.
The young men now gathered a little less formally into similar groupings with the youngest forming up the lead. There were about ten in each group with the eldest casually swaggering into a clump near the edge of the clearing with much hand clasping and elbowing for the prestigious last positions. The families seemed less emotional about the possibility of losing their sons to the ceremony, but two fathers brusquely dragged their sons from the youngest group. Their families judged them too immature and removed them from consideration.
The matrons of the tribe soon surrounded the youngest group. Much whispering and conferring took place among the women with occasional poking and prodding of individual boys deemed unfit for serious consideration. Two more of the boys were eventually convinced to leave the count.
The more serious consideration of the elder boys began with the men of the tribe gathering at the head of the path. Lannon survived the initial culling process with only a minor assault on his masculinity when one of the matrons probed his robe aside with a stick and laughingly exchanged whispers with the other women gathered for the ceremony.
Much of the conversation revolved around the inclusion of Bartan in the pairing ritual. It seemed he had lost his wife in the winter three years ago and had turned out his mate from last season’s ceremony because she was not happy with his inability to provide for her. The men of the tribe measured, discussed, and considered his attitudes and contributions but decided he was not fit to participate. He argued his case and offered to work for the elders to prove his worth.
Santos, the prime-elder, intervened. “Your lack of resources and past history confirms that you aren’t able to provide for a family, but times are hard... I’m not happy with your inclusion, but the tribe needs to consider all options. Our community will only work if each member is productive and cooperative. If you recognize this commitment, we will consider your request.”
Bartan smirked slightly. “Of course, I’ll be happy to prove my worth to the community.”
The assembly of men strode down the path with purpose, quickly gathering in a cluster at the temple entrance where they were ushered, pushing and shoving, through the tunnel. The passageway opened onto the garden grounds where the gaggle of youth timidly wondered amongst the elders that had already assembled.
The cleared garden mounds revealed their matching stone platforms. The podiums served as worktables during the growing season but now flowers and carpets of many colors disguised their form. Tangar’s ceremonial regalia adorned a stick figure at the rear of the center platform where they would stand in reverence over the proceedings.
The girls settled on their platform to the left of the main path while the boys gravitated to the mound on the right. There was considerable pushing and shoving as the larger, more dominant, boys found the most advantageous seating position around their platform. The elders meandered slowly up the third mound set between, and beyond, the others. The three hills formed a nearly perfect triangular arrangement of independently tended garden knolls.
As the elders climbed the last few steps to their hilltop, a small group of lesser status council members parted to allow them access to their privileged seating. The boys reshuffled their arrangement as they recognized that their positioning in relationship to the elders might be more important than posturing for the girls. The scuffling, pushing, and prodding threatened to deteriorate into earnest conflict but the larger boys quickly resolved the issue. While this display of macho brinksmanship seemed to serve some primal need within the hierarchy of young males, it had no impact on the pairing process itself. In the past, many a young warrior had gone home defeated and unhappy from the pairing ceremony after having done well in the athletic games leading up to the ritual.
The elders talked among themselves with only occasional gestures toward one or the other platforms. While the boys had been forming up outside, the girls had been seated in accordance to their age and given a lecture on process and procedures so they sat quietly only whispering occasionally to their nearest neighbors. The immediate families of the prospective pairs gathered around in an arc at the foot of the elder’s mound. They also jostle each other for locations along the path.
Finally, Talbot, the high-elder, called the ceremony to order and Santos spoke in a tone that echoed slightly in the upper reaches of the temple. “Who is the first daughter offered for pairing?”
A timid little voice came from the slender child standing in front of the girl’s platform. “I am Tarra from the clan, Tangar.”
Her hair was a striking flash of red accented with a wreath of yellow flowers and the dusting of freckles on her face gave her a boyish sparkle that betrayed her feminine charms. Tarra was the youngest girl in this year’s ceremony and so had the dubious privilege of being first to stand for the offering.
“Who gives this child for pairing?” Santos again spoke to the world.
Chilcoat put his arm around Tarann’s shoulder pulling her close and stepping to the front of the families gathered at the base of the hill. “I am Chilcoat, a friend of Tangar, the father of this—woman.” He hesitated for a moment looking at the child. “Her mother, Tarann, and I offer her for pairing, but let it be known that she is here before her time and will not be given in haste.” Tarann broke into tears and hid her face in Chilcoat’s shoulder.
Santos spoke in clear tones un-phased by the emotions of the moment, “Who desires to pair with this woman?”
Two of the youngest boys jumped to stand at the front of their platform. A third stood but reconsidered after looking to his mother. The elder looked to Tarra who nodded that she was willing to consider these contenders. “How many elk have you felled this season?” He calmly asked. The larger of the two boys quickly offered that he had been on three hunts this season but that only one had been successful. “And how did you serve on these hunts?”
“I—I helped my father.”
“What did you do to help?”
“I carried weapons and supplies, and I helped carry the kill. And, and I learned many important lessons.” He struggled to bolster his case.
“Why do you wish to pair with this woman?”
“I am ready to—to be a man with a wife to care for me.”
By this time, several of the older boys had begun to snigger and elbow each other in knowing gestures of having seen, or perhaps participated in, a similar discussion in previous ceremonies. It was inevitable that the youngest boys would make the biggest mistakes. Having them go first, built the errors into the process. Beside the entertainment value, it served to eliminate unqualified challengers early in the proceedings.
Talbot looked to Tarra for a sign of desire and with none coming, conferred for a moment with the high elders. Santos then spoke for all to hear, “You are not considered right for pairing at this time. Does anyone else seek to pair with this woman?”
The second young man standing at the front of the platform looked at his feet then back at his friends still seated at the platform behind him. He considered his options for a moment and, hanging his head, returned to his place near the far end of the platform. His nearest neighbor elbowed him mercilessly as he settled dejectedly amongst the others.
“Does anyone else speak for this woman?” Santos pleaded for others to consider her situation.
After several moments of silence, Bartan spoke from the back of the crowd. “I’ve had many successful hunts this season, and I’ll keep her as she needs.”
Talbot again looked to Tarra for consent. She appeared confused and disappointed at the prospect of this stranger’s interest. A quick huddle between the elders culminated in Santos speaking clearly, “Does anyone object to this pairing?”
The muttering crowd erupted into full-blown arguments amongst the families. Emissaries from the various family groupings drifted in and out amid the uproar. Chilcoat stood with Tarann at the apex of the family arc and Bartan soon joined them. The two men greeted each other formally but remained silent for several moments.
Bartan spoke in measured tones. “I can care for her. I know she’s young, but I’ll not force her to do anything she’s unable to do.”
Chilcoat finally spoke. “Were those kills you had this season elk or rabbits? I’ve not seen you able to care for yourself and two other women. Why should I think that you could now care for one so young? She’s my sister, and is welcome in my house. She can join my family and will grow to full age before she again joins the pairing.”
The crowd erupted into heated discussions as various alliances formed then re-formed into factions. The elders gathered into a tight circle around Talbot, seated on the throne in the center of the platform. Tangar’s robes hung nearby seeming almost to eavesdrop on the judgment. A heated conversation ensued with Santos directing priority order. After repeated cycles around the ring of point-counterpoint comments, Talbot finally spoke with a great deal of agitation. He gestured at Tarra and pointed his finger at individual elders around the circle. He finished his tirade and they cast their lots into baskets at his feet.
The basket on the left soon grew heavy enough to tip the scale on which it sat. Talbot was apparently satisfied with the outcome and sat back on his throne. Santos didn’t seem as happy with the outcome but strode quickly down the steps that jutted from the platform.
He marched with purpose down the face of the mound leading to the central clearing and spoke for all to hear. “Both paths have been considered and argued. The elders have agreed that Bartan seems not well suited to this pairing but recognizes that in these times of poor harvest, we must all draw together to help when we can. Therefore, at this time, we don’t condone this pairing, but if Bartan wishes to pursue her, he will need to prove himself to Chilcoat. Chilcoat, you, yourself, are perhaps not in the best position to provide for another. Has your son yet contributed to your clan?”
“No, he’s yet unproven. But I am sure he will soon join the providers.”
“Yes, I am sure he’s a fine lad, but you have already burdened yourself with your wife’s sister. Are you sure another woman is a good idea in your lodge? Perhaps your wife can speak to this.”
“Caran, will you speak?” Chilcoat stretched his arm toward his mate.
“It’s true my sister lives with us, but she provides many benefits to my young family. She is an experienced gardener and very good with my children. Besides, she’ll soon wed, when a worthy man comes forward, and then she’ll leave my tent. Perhaps this season will grant her desire. She’s there on the platform. Ask her to speak, if you wish.” Caran gestured toward the mound on her left.
Santos considered the offer for a moment and spoke, “She’ll be heard in her time. My concern isn’t with your sister. Your sister is fully of age and I am sure offers many comforts a woman can provide. I am concerned that this young girl will not fit well into this family with two women already tending to their needs. How will she fit if, as you said, Charona finds a worthy mate this season, or what if she doesn’t find a mate for many seasons? Will you still welcome this young woman?”
Caran pulled close to Chilcoat and pondered the questions. “I think that my husband wants to help the clan of Tangar and has taken his daughter to show his loyalty. If this girl comes as a sister to my tent, I welcome her.”
Santos considered all the arguments and spoke to Bartan. “Do you still wish to pair with this girl?”
“Yes” was the only acceptable answer.
“And do you still claim responsibility for her?” He asked Chilcoat.
Again, “yes” was the reply.
“Tarra, the decision of the council is that you shall join your brother, Chilcoat, and that Bartan, you shall join the clan of Tangar to prove yourself worthy of this woman. If you prove yourself to Chilcoat by this time next season, we’ll again hear your offer. The people don’t consider you paired, but you may correspond with her as a member of her clan during the year. Chilcoat, you are to help Bartan as you would a brother. Help him fit into the clan’s needs. You’re not to judge him or his actions. You’re only to guide his efforts through counsel. If you find Bartan wanting, you will need to defend your assessment at next year’s gathering. Each of you will be given an opportunity to support your position.” Santos turned and began to trudge up the embankment toward the platform steps.
Bartan called up the hill after him. “This will leave my clan with only four skilled hunters.”
The prime stopped and turned to him. “Your clan has always had only four skilled hunters. You haven’t proven you’re worth for the past three seasons.” He turned and planted his walking staff calling over his shoulder as he resumed the first of many trips back up the mound. “You would do well to watch Chilcoat closely. You’ll learn much from him... if you don’t meet with an ‘accident’.”
A small chuckle emanated from some of the veteran hunters standing nearby.
The group that had gathered at the end of the path dispersed as Tarra made her way down the slope leading from the platform. She confronted Chilcoat and, pulling the wreath from her hair, she looked scornfully at the handprint on his chest and threw the garland, striking him squarely on the dusty tribute. “How dare you? You’ve ruined my life! Why do you shame me like this?” She then fled out the tunnel in tears.
“I’m just trying to keep you from making a mistake…” His voice trailed off as she disappeared down the tunnel. He looked at Caran for understanding and found only wounded resolve.
Similar family interactions consumed much of the next few hours as the pairing ceremony continued. None of the conflicts were as confrontational as the first had been but, on more than one occasion, the elders provided an opinion on the worthiness or advisability of alternative pairings. Most of it was standard agreements between tentative families with an occasional outburst of bravado or tears as family members discussed dowries.
As the ceremony drew to a close, Charona’s time finally came. She offered herself for consideration with a small acknowledgment that, yes, she was indentured to her sister and would consider all for pairing, but that she was not desperate, or in need of a burdensome relationship.
The remaining male candidates nudged and prodded each other daring the older members to try it. Finally, two candidates approached the front of the platform. They were both younger than Charona and a bit small for their age. She looked disdainfully at the prospects and shook her head, rejecting their lustful assessment of her charms. Santos was dismayed at her response but knew it was of no avail to pursue the bond further. The ceremony began to break up with the conclusion of this last offering but then Lannon stepped to the head of the path. “Father, I wish to pair with this woman.” He spoke in clear tones for all to hear. The general din fell mute as people nudged each other pointing at the youth.
Santos turned to see who was speaking and readjusted the hood of his ceremonial robe as he approached Talbot. They spoke quietly for several moments with occasional gestures to various family groups and consultations with lesser elders. Finally, Santos walked slowly down the face of the platform mound toward the boy at the head of the path.
Standing face-to-face, he placed his hand on Lannon’s shoulder and leaned in close to speak quietly to him. “Are you sure that you wish to pair with this woman? She is your senior and will not bend easily to your ways. There’ll be talk of you being afraid to leave your mother.”
“Yes, Father. I have a bond of many weeks with her and I wish to have her join my house.”
“You have this bond because she’s from your clan. It’s not advisable for such a pairing. It may lead to much hardship and children that are unfit.”
“I’m aware of the burden we’ll suffer. We’ve talked about it and we wish to go forward with this pairing.”
Santos spoke in clear terms. “The council has considered your request and cannot sanction such a pairing. If you wish to continue, you’ll be scorned by your clan and unable to take your place at their table.”
With the faintest of smiles, Lannon clasped the arm of the prime and turned his face away with eyes cast down.
Santos gave Lannon’s shoulder a gentle squeeze causing him to look up. He gave an imperceptible nod hidden under his hood and turned to take the final trip back up the platform mound. Charona came running down the women’s hill and fell quickly into Lannon’s arms. They couldn’t partake in the pairing ceremony, but they could stand at the edge of the clearing while the others approached the elders’ platform.
The losing candidates returned to their families and soon left the temple grounds, leaving only those that had a stake in the remaining rituals. The elders descended from their platform and the sanctioned pairs replaced them.
Each elder, in order of rank, grabbed a small handful of flowers from the platform’s edge and scattered them on the steps. The matrons placed gifts of remembrance on the steps of the platform for those that had been lost. A large cluster of flowers and a cherished doll belonging to Teri, the lost child, were set in the center of the topmost step and the stick-man dressed in Tangar’s cloak stood guard blocking the passage.The elders proceeded down the face of the hill as a small group of council women gathered at the foot of the steps and chanted a blessing of consent and concern. The joined pairs began talking and gesturing to each other. Finally, they established some order, and one-by-one, the couples took up the central position with the others gathered around in a loose circle to witness the consummation of their vows.