Knowledge of a Woman
After the evening meal, Chilcoat once again spread the sacred herbs on the cloth and ordered them by type. He compared today’s trophy with the likely samples spread before him and quickly concluded that it wasn’t among them. Disappointedly he rubbed the gray powder from one of the leaves hoping that it would then resemble one of the samples. It didn’t, and the powder left a film clinging to his fingers. He considered throwing the sprig into the fire but decided it was too green and would smoke the place up, so he tossed it across the room toward the door.
Tarra watched with some interest and retrieved the branch lying next to her. She inspected it carefully and remarked pensively, “Stanis.”
Chilcoat rummaged through his pouch and retrieved his pipe and smoking herb. “What?”
“Stanis... This plant is called stanis.”
“You know what it is? Well of course, you would know. You’re his daughter. I should have guessed. Well, what’s stenis? And what’s it good for?”
“It’s stanis, and it isn’t good for much of anything. Dad used it to keep flies off by dusting himself with the powder sometimes, but it makes me itch.”
“Well, thanks. It’s good to know that I spent all day stomping around in the bushes getting sunburned and came home with itching powder.”
“You asked.” She smirked at his attempt at levity.
“Do you know what these other things are?” Chilcoat gestured to the bundles spread before him.
“Of course, I’m his daughter.” She mocked his comment as she moved closer to the fire and began sorting through the various piles of bundles and pouches. “This is tennisin bark. You make a tea with it for headaches. These are coshin leaves. They’re good for upset stomachs.” She proceeded to hand each bundle, pouch, and root to Chilcoat as she gave it a name and explained its use.
“I’ll be damned. Here I am worried that this would go to waste, and you know all about it. Do you know where he found them?”
She looked scornfully at him and tossed a bundle of twigs toward him. “They’ll tell you. It’s the knowledge of the Seer.”
Lannon and Charona had been sitting across the fire watching the exchange and whispered to each other in meaningful titters. “Maybe we should resize the robes to fit Tarra.” Lannon offered, nudging his mate.
“Maybe we should.” Chilcoat handed the bundle of twigs back to her. “Maybe we should.”
She blushed as she packed the bundles and pouches into the bag. Chilcoat picked up the twig he had carried so vigilantly all day. “And what’s this for? Can you grind it up and make sunburn lotion? I could use some of that.”
Tarra looked up from her task in surprise and grabbed the stick from him placing it among the others like it. “It is a guide stick. Didn’t you ever listen to him?”
He sat questioningly across the fire as Tarra spread the medicine cloth on the floor in front of him. She carefully placed each of the sticks from the bundle on the cloth. “This one is for coshin, and this one is for bandas. I think this one is cena, and I’m not sure about this one.”
“Whoa. What do you mean ‘guide sticks’, and what do they have to do with all this stuff?” He gestured at the cloth.
She sorted the bundle of twigs into two distinct piles. “These are for summer, and these are for winter. See, these are manzanta. You can only find it here in the high country of summer and see they’re naked, like summer. These are syncmore. They are from the coast of winter and have bark to keep them warm.
Chilcoat noticed for the first time that indeed the twigs were of two distinct types. “I’ll be damned.” He took first one, then another, for closer inspection.
Tarra cleared the center of the cloth and carefully placed two twigs at the edge of the decorative sunburst. The broad end of each twig fit into a notch in the design. “See, this is the summer village and this is the path leading out along the lake shore, and this is the path leading out toward the woods.”
“Yeah, I guess I can see that, but what about all of these others?”
“See, some of the sticks have flat ends that fit here in the design.” She fingered the cloth. “This is the path toward the woods, and all of these sticks with a pointed end fit in this slot, and these with the blunt end lead out past the lake.”
“Yeah, so? I mean, that’s very clever and all, but why so many? They all go to one path or the other. Why do you need so many?”
“Look, each one has sections that are different lengths and have different branches. See this one, the first section is long, then it jogs to the right a bit and then it jogs again with a short section, that’s where coshin is found.”
“How do you know this stick is for coshin? It looks like all the others to me.”
“See, the tip has these four notches cut in it. That is the symbol for coshin. Look, this one has two notches and a bar. That’s the symbol for tersen, and it has two long sections, then two shorter jogs to the left along the southern path from the winter village.”
He sat for several minutes carefully examining each stick and asking Tarra to give it a name. There were a couple that she couldn’t make out and one, in particular, that was different from all the others. It had many small knobs and joints along its length. Chilcoat recognized it as the old man’s talking-stick. Tangar had a tale of adventure for every gnarled little section along its length. He would pull that old stick out and run his fingers over its bumpy profile for several minutes and then he would settle on one particular segment and regale his audience with a story that somehow related to the stick and usually ended up with a moral to fit the political issues before his audience.
Tears filled her eyes as she placed the stick with reverence in the center of the sunburst. Chilcoat rose to his knees and held the young girl in a brotherly hug. She reluctantly allowed him to comfort her, but she resented his intrusion in her grief.
Caran stirred intolerantly at the vision and began putting the children to bed while the pair broke their embrace and began picking up the sticks and bundling them with care. Finally, the talking-stick was the last thing on the cloth. Tarra sat transfixed as he slowly picked it up and turned it thoughtfully from end-to-end. He focused on the young girl and held it out for her. “You should keep this and guard the wisdom it holds.”
She looked for several moments at the stick but didn’t move to take it. She searched his eyes for understanding then slowly reached with quivering fingers to take the wand.
He rolled the twig bundles into the cloth and packed it into the medicine bag then, as he was about to stuff it behind the mannequin, he stood and considered the meaning of the robes. They belonged to the Seer—the one who had wisdom about right and wrong. He turned to Tarra still kneeling near the fire holding the twisted little stick. He held the pouch out to her. “You should probably take this for safe keeping too. You’re the only one that knows what to do with any of it. Maybe you can teach me so that I won’t seem such a fool wearing these robes.”
Tarra turned to face him and submissively took the satchel bowing her head in respect. He blushed in astonishment. He had never had anyone treat him with such reverence. It made him very uneasy. “Please, take this as a gift from your brother. I want you to have it.”
“You’ve taken me at the bonding as if I was your disobedient sister, but I’m not your sister… I find it hard to treat you as my brother. I would rather take it as a free tribeswoman not as a sister.” She looked quickly at Caran then, lowering her eyes, she turned to gather her things in preparation for bed.
He stood transfixed for a moment next to the robe then grabbed it by the lapels and stepped out the door pulling the flap closed behind him. The stars jumped from the early evening sky as he picked his way carefully down the path and stood alone in a small clearing. Holding the robe at arm’s length, he began slapping it and shaking it to break loose any creatures that may have taken up residence. The dust irritated his eyes, and the commotion woke the dogs. “If you’re to be mine, you’ll have to fit into my life, not I into yours...” One last shake and he stuffed the bundle under one arm and began to pick his way across the clearing toward home.
A glint of white caught his attention as he surveyed the path ahead. A small object lay just off the trail. Carefully reaching in the darkness, he flipped it over on the ground and, judging it benign, delicately retrieved it. With only a blanket of stars to provide light, he recognized the shape to be that of an herb pipe. It must have fallen out of the robe when he shook it. “The old fool must have left it in the pocket. He was always losing things.”
After a quick glance to the north to see if the sky-fire had returned, he ducked back into his tent. Lannon and Charona had pulled their door flap closed and Tarra lay quietly in her bed next the children. Caran was by the fire looking questioningly at him as he stood next to the naked display horse. “I think I’ll sleep better without the old man watching over me.” He placed the bundle on a stack of house wares behind the display.
Turning his attention to the stick-man standing before him, he pulled the shoulder brace out of its bindings, folded the legs and trunk together, and then tossed the whole thing out the door in a clattering crash that landed them just off the main path and disturbed the dogs again.
Caran sat quietly waiting to see if he had anything else to say. “I’m glad you’ve decided to own this thing for now. It’ll settle the people.”
“I’m not happy about it, and I’m not a seer. I have a hard enough time just dealing with my own problems. I don’t need a bunch of drugs and potions complicating my life.” He sat absentmindedly rolling the old man’s herb pipe in his fingers.
“You have Tarra to help.”
“I don’t want Tarra to help.” He grumbled in a low voice, glancing in her direction. “I don’t want to be involved in any of this herb stuff. It’s all too… unnatural. It seems like if I was supposed to take over as the Seer, he would’ve told me, or given me some training, or something.”
“He trained you as his son. You know his wisdom better than anyone.” Caran looked sadly at Tarra and moved to her bed pulling her covers into place. “Tangar also visits my thoughts and I see his wisdom in the sharing of duties he has given you. He knew the burden of conjuring potions, the duty of using them, and the temptation of misusing them. He has taught you to respect this duty and to treat the herbs with the highest regard. He taught Tarra the burden of the herbs and you should respect his wisdom in doing so... I think he separated these duties to keep you from falling to their seduction as he did.”
Tarra pretended to sleep, not wanting to intrude on their warm exchange. She was jealous that Caran could have such an intimate bond, even if it was with an oaf like Chilcoat. A tear escaped as she realized that her jealousy was rooted in the pain she felt for her father. She was jealous that Chilcoat could so easily talk with him, and now even Caran says she has spoken with him. Yet I can’t speak with him without so much pain. I can’t accept his death and the thought that he wants me to serve as the herbalist for Chilcoat haunts me. I can’t see Papa in this way. He wouldn’t abandon me like this.
Chilcoat sat quietly for several more minutes and noticed the pipe as if for the first time. It was clean and unused. He sniffed it to be sure and was just about to make a comment when he realized that no one else knew of the pipe and probably didn’t want to wake up to talk about it. Why did you keep a new pipe in your ceremonial robes? Is there some spiritual meaning to it, or is it a gift for the one who will inherit the robes? More likely, you just forgot that it was there.
He placed the pipe on the hearthstone and turned painfully to remove his cloak before sliding into bed next to Caran. The sunburn made things unpleasant, and the prospect of a long night dreaming of twig-sorting didn’t comfort him. He tossed and turned trying to find a position that didn’t hurt, but ended on his back watching the stars through the smoke vent. After an hour, Caran caressed his arm but he winced and withdrew hoping not to offend her. It had been a long day and the sunburn was too annoying.