On their way home, Chilcoat spent extra time exploring and marking alternative paths over difficult patches of terrain. Everyone’s spirits were high, and one of the disgruntled challengers from the group had elected to move to his mate’s tribe, so the tension was less.
Something had changed in Tarra; she no longer talked to him as she had. She was more formal and distant. She was cooperative but not the spirited sister he had known. In the evenings, she sat by the fire drawing figures in the sand and chanting prayers to the stars.
“Are you OK? You seem kind of distant.” Chilcoat approached.
“I’m fine. I just have a lot on my mind.”
“Anything I can help with? I mean, if there’s anything I can do, let me know.”
“No—thanks, I’ll let you know if I can think of anything.”
“You thinking about home?” He gestured at the circles she had drawn.
“Sort of, the scrolls speak of the symbols we’ve found at the temple. They explain a game using the symbol, and it has me scared.”
“Why are you scared of a game? You made a game for the kids with the symbol. How is that any different? Just because some old scroll has some mumbo-jumbo in it, you shouldn’t get all worried about it.”
“Maybe scared isn’t the right word… I’m concerned about what it means to the ways of our people. I feel changed by it, but I don’t know how.”
“You’ve met someone who’s touched you. That’s good. You should treasure it.”
“It’s not Shadoc. We have an understanding. No, I’m talking about the teachings I—we’ve been given,” she corrected herself. “I’ve learned new things and I am trying to understand it all.”
“Would it help to explain it to me? Maybe talking about it would help.”
“I have to think first. I’m upset by it, that’s all.”
“Did those old geezers give you drugs? I’ll go back there and kick their asses!”
“No. The only herbs offered were known to me, and I didn’t take any.” She suddenly felt like a sister again explaining a mistake to her big brother. “No, they’ve given me a great burden. They told me of fables, and witches of the past. That’s what they called me, a ’witch’. They said there’ve been witches in the past, and they were special, a sign of good fortune. Can you believe that? I’m a good luck charm.”
“I’m not surprised. I’m surprised they didn’t anoint you queen of the festival or something.”
“Well, they sort of did. They said I’m the ’Keeper of the Word’ and a ’Warrior of Truth’ that is to bring a message from Yod.”
“Those old bastards, I’m going to kill them. They shouldn’t be filling a kid’s head with such nonsense.”
“I’m not a kid, and it isn’t nonsense. I’ve read the lost scrolls. Shadoc and I studied them when we went in search of the kasis herb. Most of it makes sense; it’s just very disturbing...” She looked down at the symbol she had traced in the sand. “I’ll be OK. I just need time to think.”
“What lost scrolls? There’s the wedding scroll and the funeral scroll. They’re not lost.”
“No, there are others that Talbot showed me. He said I’m to keep them.”
“Talbot? You’re on first name basis with the high-elder? Did he give you the scrolls?”
“No. He said, ’the council must give them in acceptance of my station’. I don’t know what that means and I’m scared.”
“Well, the offer still stands; you can talk to me anytime. Besides, we’ll be home by tomorrow night, and you can sleep in your own bed. That’ll help.” He suffered a kink in his back as he rose to leave.
She traced the symbol one last time then slowly erased it, one segment at a time. As she did, she chanted hauntingly to the stars and shed tears of grief for those who had passed. Chilcoat watched from a distance and grieved from his own sense of loss. She had grown into a big part of his life, but now she had shut him out, and she was gone just as completely as Caran.
The tribe welcomed the returning heroes. Everyone participated in a ceremony of grief for the boy lost to the snake and they held a small feast to praise the rejoining of the tribe. Chilcoat gave a quick overview of his political dealings and each of the newly wedded pairs introduced themselves and pledged their intentions for all to hear. It wasn’t as good as the gathering, but it served the purpose.
By the time the third couple was introduced Tarra had already managed to get to the top of the stairs and wandered slowly around the garden paths. She had never experienced them in this way before. They had always just been convenient trails through the gardens. Now they were tied to the stars and to life itself. Everything she had learned swam through her head as she scanned the skyline and found the chimney stone. That meant that she was on the path of Vau. She wondered if that was a sign, she was on the path of ‘life’. Passing the intersection that belonged to Hea, she followed it as it slowly arched through the gardens. The vegetables changed to beans and peppers and eventually she came to the intersection with the path that belonged to Yod.
She stopped and stood at the juncture for several moments thinking and watching the stars. Her patch of medicinal herbs was out at the far end where it joined with the outer path of God. She had never realized she had such a prime piece of real estate. It was just the place assigned by the gardening committee where nothing else would grow.
She wandered along the path and checked on her plants. She knew the committee had taken care of them while she was gone, but she wanted to feel the presence of the herbs she had nurtured so carefully. They spoke to her in a warm fragrance as they rustled in the evening breeze. She would soon harvest the remaining crop and start the cycle again, but for now, she stood quietly feeling the warmth of the soil on her bare feet and watching the stars pour the light of Hea upon her.
Charona approached from the other direction. “How’s it going?”
“Fine, I was just checking on my plants.”
“You’re a big girl. You can be up here alone if you want. I just wondered if you wanted to talk. I know you and Caran had sort of a thing going and I wondered if I could do anything for you. She was my sister, we shared a lot.”
“Did Chilcoat send you?”
“Him? No. He’s clueless. He’s cute, but a little thick most of the time. Maybe that’s why I like him.”
“The high-elder told me that I’m the ’Keeper’. He said it’s written that it’s my destiny and I have to do it or the tribe will vanish forever.”
“Oh he did, did he? Well, that slippery old bastard... It sounds to me like he doesn’t want to get blamed for all the crap that’s going on and found a girl to blame it on.”
“I don’t think it’s like that. He showed me the ancient scrolls, and said that ’a witch will speak with Yod and bring forth the people of heaven on the true path’.”
“Oh is that all. Well, don’t you go letting those old frauds talk you into anything. I know you’re kind of—special... Your dad was one of them and all, but wouldn’t you rather just be one of us? You can let God take care of himself. I mean, you’re great with the herbs and things, and everybody appreciates what you do, but I’m not sure anybody is ready to accept you as the shaman.”
“No, it’s different than that. It’s not being a shaman the way Papa was, it’s being the keeper of the knowledge—the one who will speak with Yod and who will bring the true faith to the people.”
“Well, it sounds like a line of crap to me. Say, I hear you found a guy at the gathering. Why didn’t you bring him home to meet the family?”
“Shadoc is the shaman for the western clan. He can’t be away from his people. Besides, he’s not my guy.”
“That’s not what I heard. I heard you ran off with him for weeks at a time.”
“I went with him to gather herbs—oh, never mind. It’s none of your business anyway.”
“Ha... That’s my girl! You tell ’em.” Charona laughed and continued her walk along the path back toward her apartment.
Tarra stood thinking about what she had learned. The moon rose in waning reverence to the season and cast a cold gray light on the paths. She wandered from intersection to intersection along the route the scrolls spoke of and tried to remember the writings. It would help if Shadoc were here to talk to. He remembers things effortlessly. He’d know exactly what the writings say.”
Their brief relationship had fulfilled her. She no longer felt that she was a little girl. She knew now what it was to be a woman and felt confident in it. She knew they would always be close but that they would seldom see each other. That’s OK, I carry his baby and admire his knowledge, and that’s enough.
Tarra returned to her apartment as the field workers began to arrive to do holiday schedule maintenance. She cleared the table, spread a cloth over it, and aligned the edges with the table. She smoothed it and stretched it several times to align the weave so that the pattern etched in the table showed lightly through the cloth. She then prepared a thick ochre paste and carefully inscribed a stylized sunburst following the outer circle of the symbol. As she worked her way around to the top, she pressed the crooked little tip of the tanasin guide stick into the design. On the northern edge, she took a small twig she had brought from the garden and made a notch for it in the pattern. She completed the ring in uniform little flames that she could easily modify when they found a new path. In the center of the sunburst, she traced the circles that showed through the material. By the time she had finished, the cloth was a thing of beauty with blazing yellows and reds smoothed into interlocking rings of perfect symmetry and proportion.
Her fingers looked like bloody stumps and she had apparently rubbed her face giving her an exaggerated rosy complexion and a bright red mustache. She moved the table to stand in the first rays of the sun as dawn crept over the far edge of the courtyard and onto her living room floor. She had worked all night, as if possessed, and now stood exhausted in the morning light. She cleaned up as best she could but was obviously going to have to suffer sniggers and whispers for the next few days while her bloody mittens faded. I’ll have to come up with a good story, she thought.
Chilcoat stood in her doorway in the morning glare. “You’ve been busy I see. I missed you at the party last night.”
“I had some thinking to do.”
“So I see. Anything you can tell me about?”
“Sure. Everything you thought you knew about God is wrong, and I’m going to set it right.”
“So you said. Does that mean you’ve spoken with Him and you’re ready to amaze us with your wisdom?”
“No—yes—maybe, I don’t know. It means I’m scared, and I want your help.”
“Sure. What’ll it be? You want me to dress up and wave my stick around?”
“Don’t be crude. No, I want you to listen to me.” She seated him across the table from her and proceeded to explain what the scrolls said about her, the symbol, and the legends of the Shanare. She explained how the scrolls revealed the use of the symbol to invoke the wisdom of God. “I watched Papa do it when I was young, but it’s banned by the new-order. It takes a very strong mind to use the symbol and not fall to its seduction,” she traced her blood red fingers gently over the patterns on the table. “Daddy grew too dependent on herbs to help him see its wisdom.” She looked wistfully at the spirit sticks she had placed on the table. “None of the new-order use the symbol. Daddy, Talbot, and Stafon were the last holdouts, and even they don’t use it except for dire situations.”
“What are you talking about? It’s just a bunch of circles on a table.”
“They’re the paths in the garden of the Sky Temple.”
“Yeah, so it’s a bunch of paths. Personally, I think it would have been better to use straight lines. It wouldn’t be such a long walk to the cisterns.”
“They’re the paths of understanding. They take the long route because that’s the way of life. Here, see this is the circle of Yod and this is Hea and this is Vau.” She traced each circle in turn. “Each is a part of the whole of God, and each has a critical part that it must play.”
She took a half-finished game piece and handed it to him. “Here, this is you. Put it in the circles of life where you belong and explain to me why it’s there.”
“What are you talking about? You said these were circles of God. I don’t fit into any of them.”
“Don’t be dense. You’re a part of God. Where do you fit in His plan? Are you more Yod or more Vau?”
“What’s this all got to do with me? It’s a silly game and a waste of time.” He placed the figure down in the center of the diagram. “There. Are you happy?”
“Why did you put it there?”
“Because it’s right in the middle. How can that be wrong? Not one way or the other.”
“Is that you? Right in the middle, not one-way or the other? Is that where the leader of our people should be?”
“Are you questioning my authority?” He rose to leave.“It’s not I who must answer the question.” She grabbed the little figurine and pressed it into his hand.