Sticks and Stones
Morning came with a pleasant warm breeze from the east. The sky was clear and the sun glowed with a spirit of healing warmth. Chilcoat had had a good hunt two days earlier, so the need to venture far from the village was less. The tall trees whispered with voices of the ancestors and the air smelled clean and fresh on the spring morning. He grabbed a couple of bird arrows and was just about ready to take his morning walkabout, when he once again thought of the old man, the robes, and the medicine pouch. Returning to his hut, he pulled the satchel out, and quickly sorted through the twig collection pulling one free. It was one of several of the same type, so he figured it must be important. He wedged the twig behind his ear and returned the pouch to its storage place. He would see if he could find a source for such a highly valued stick while he was hunting.
Rancon came from his hut and called out, “Where away, brother?”
“I figured I’d follow the shore around by the falls. Maybe I can scare up a pheasant.”
“Sounds like a long walk for a skinny bird. I think I’ll stay around camp today. Those Larkon boys have the kids all stirred up about a cat. Besides, I need to replace the arrow I lost last week.”
“Sounds like fun, sitting around the fire scraping shaft-wood and telling stories to the kids.”
“Yeah, well, somebody has to do it. You going to be back by evening?”
“That’s the plan. I’ll light a fire if I have any trouble.” A group of children scatted as he approached. It seemed odd to have them flee his path and stand timidly watching him pass. It’s those damn robes again, he reasoned. They know I’m the Seer now and don’t want to risk drawing my ire.
As he reached the lake, he considered the men fishing from the rocks. He could join them instead of taking the walk but he wanted some time alone. Besides, I’m on a mission looking for a stick. He reached up and pressed the twig against his ear to be sure it was still there. Wouldn’t do to lose it already, he thought, as he rounded the last bend along the shoreline.
He headed out across the marshland that made up the western end of the lake and, once across the bogs, he climbed the cliff that formed the northern shore. Far around the ridge was a small waterfall that tumbled down the rock face in three faltering steps and eventually into the lake. He knew the old man had spent a lot of time at the falls in his younger days. Perhaps he’ll be there today and show me the right bush.
Chilcoat leaned on his walking staff, giving his knee a rest, and reflected on the pleasant warmth of the sun after so much rain. He longed for the days when Tangar would take him on a walkabout as a young man. Both of them were young enough to make light work of a simple walk to the falls. Even then, his knee would stiffen by the end of the day, but it was a good pain that helped him remember his parents.
He was only four when the incident happened. He and his folks were out picking berries along a cliff face. He didn’t really remember much about it other than it seemed like a party to him. There were people dancing and playing in the upper meadow. He remembered that his dad argued with some man and then later, when they were busy picking fruit, the cliff suddenly began raining down on them. His mother grabbed him and threw him aside but, by the time he landed, his parents were dead. Both of them were gone in an instant. His leg was broken at the knee and would forever remind him of that day.
He found his way around the slough, scaled the ridgeline, and was glad to rest under a tree. The dry grasses spreading up the ridge wafted a heady scent of buckwheat and hummed with life. He quickly ate a strip of dried meat and a fold of flatbread. He would be glad to reach the falls. A cool drink will really taste good.
His hunting instinct took over as he sat quietly and listened for signs of life. A hawk boasted of its catch far up along the ridgeline, but the whisper of the pines was keeping him from hearing any of the faint stirrings in the underbrush. The invigorating warmth of the morning had escalated to downright hot. The sun seemed unusually harsh in the clear mountain air. His skin had reddened noticeably and radiated with growing discomfort. As he sat in the shelter of the trees, he estimated the effort remaining on his journey and began to question the wisdom of his mission.
If I’m to return by evening, I had better get moving. Dusting the litter from his backside, he stepped from the shelter of the trees and raised his arm to block the glare. Quickly returning to the shade, he pulled his over-shirt from his pack and fashioned a head wrap that trailed loosely down his back covering his arms under its shelter.
Within the hour, he reached the falls and the amount of water pouring down the cliff astounded him. A cloud of mist rose from the rocks at the base of the cliff where it spilled into the lake. He stood open mouthed, enveloped in the spray. His skin screamed with delight at the cool nourishment as he took his shirt off and let the water pour down his back. He pulled the rest of his clothes off and spread them out on the stones so that the water could rinse the day’s journey from them. He settled on the rocks and let the gentle mist bathe the dirt from his tender hide.
Refreshed, he gathered his things and wrung them out a couple of times before he moved them to a dry spot on the rock face. He grabbed his weapons and moved into the shade of a large boulder where he did what grooming he could. His clothes would soon be dry and he could seek a more comfortable location, but for now, he was just glad to be cool. The hot breeze gusting off the surrounding boulders dried his skin leaving a tight dusty film. As he pulled his fingers through his hair, he realized that the twig was gone. He had lost the stick somewhere.
“Damn,” he muttered and quickly searched the ground where he stood. After a quick inventory of his pack and weapons, he set out to retrace his steps back to his clothes. They were still a little damp, but they felt good against the redness. He carefully searched each garment as he pulled it on, but still had no luck finding the twig.
He turned his search to where he had taken his shower. Standing just at the edge of the wet rocks, he peered into the spray trying to see the sprig. There were three prospects but each was only a dark outline behind the wall of mist. The first was about three feet into the spray, but looked least likely to be fruitful. He considered the consequences of getting wet again and decided that it may not be a bad idea for the return trip anyway. He quickly stowed his dry goods, removed his pants, and carefully walked down the face of the gently sloping boulder. The mist soon dripped from the visor he had fashioned from his over-shirt as he shuffled in the general direction of the first twig.
Indeed, it was a twig, but not his twig. He bent and retrieved the soggy sprig, squeezing it absentmindedly in his left hand as he tried to locate the second objective. The rocks grew slippery as he edged closer to the falls. The second prospect turned out to be a root stitching along a crack in the rock face. He tried to envision where he was on the little plateau, and more importantly, where he needed to go to find the third alternative. He nearly pulled a muscle when his feet slipped and he had to go down on all fours, but he found the third twig by crawling down the rock face and inching out to grab it. It looked vaguely as he remembered, but it was dark and swollen from the water, and frankly, he hadn’t spent much time memorizing its form, so he couldn’t be sure.
As he emerged from the cloud of mist, he realized that he was still carrying the first stick as well. He stood dripping in the sun gazing first at one then the other. He thought about tossing out the first one but decided instead to put one behind each ear and move on with his hunt. He drip-dried for another few minutes before donning his pants and weapons and heading out in search of a good hunting blind.
A small scrub oak gave partial shelter from the sun but was of little help in preventing the birds from seeing him. He lay among the gnarled branches and tried to form as tightly as he could to their whimsy. Positioning his bow, he drew an arrow to its string. Standing motionless against the trunk, he watched as bird after bird explored the field beyond. Finally, a small covey immerged from the edge of the field. The mother and four small squabs ventured toward a pool fed by the stream just before it poured over the edge. He remained motionless as the band wove its way single file toward its goal.
A large male took flight from the bushes just across the clearing. It shot up about thirty feet then banked and circled the pool in a large descending arc. He set the arrow and drew the bow slowly as it landed amongst the brood. He waited motionless as the bird settled into the business of drinking. The arrow found its mark and he relaxed watching the rest of the flock scatter and seek shelter back in the tall grass across the clearing.
“Thank you for the life you give.” It was a good kill, he thought, pulling the arrow out carefully. He cleaned the shaft and inspected the tip as he washed it. Replacing it in his quiver, he prepared the bird for transport by draining its blood into a cool drink of water then bundled it amongst his dry goods. Well, now if I can find a bush that matches the twig, I can go home happy. He gathered his things and headed down the path toward the village.
Pulling the stick from behind his ear, he looked carefully at its form. It still seemed very unremarkable and, now that it was wet, it bore little resemblance to anything he could remember seeing amongst the parched bushes of the highland. He walked for several minutes along the trail tugging occasionally on nearby plants. None seemed to bear the slightest similarity to the now familiar form. Maybe the old man only came up here to be alone. Maybe he never found herbs up here at all.
He rolled the twig gently in his fingers. Lifting it to his nose, he closed his eyes and tried to identify the slightly nutty smell. It wasn’t strong, but there was a hint of earth from the damp sprig. A small gray bush caught his eye about twenty feet further up the ridge. It was unlike any others in the area. “Maybe it’s the prize I’m searching for.”Picking his way carefully up the embankment, he eventually reached his goal. The bush turned out to be an old clump of crank-weed that was covered with a layer of dust that tinted it a pale gray. It was more puzzling than disappointing. He had never seen a bush so oddly afflicted. Maybe that was what the old man would come up here for. He assessed the branches hoping one would bear some resemblance to his sample. He tore a likely specimen from the trunk then backed slowly down the dusty hillside. The sun bore down relentlessly as he retrieved his pack, stuffed his trophy in amongst the arrows, and headed off along the path home.