Charona entered the hut pulling her cape off in exasperation. She had finished her morning duties and the sun was unrelenting. The cloth she had fashioned into a headscarf draped over most of her body and blocked any breeze from getting through so she was glad to rid herself of it.
The rolled up walls of the hut let the air circulate, but the heat was oppressive. Caran watched casually as her sister disrobed and began washing the morning’s grime away. Tarra had also finished her morning chores and entered performing much the same ritual of shedding clothing and starting a sponge bath. “That Bartan is such a jerk. He keeps sneaking up on me while I’m working and jumping out as if he just happened to be there. Then he wants me to go for a walk with him. I keep telling him I’m not interested, but he won’t leave me alone.”
“He’s just a man. He thinks you’re playing hard to get,” Charona rinsed the cloth and handed it to Tarra.
“He’s such a lazy drunkard. He smells of sour wine and why’s he hanging around with women instead of hunting like a man?”
“He just wants a chance to talk with you.” Caran tried to be diplomatic.
“He just wants to get me alone in the woods.” Tarra shuddered at the prospect.
A cloud of bugs swarmed around the upper reaches of the tent and occasionally sent a scout to test the temperament of the residents. Tarra swatted absentmindedly at the intruder and used a fan she had crafted to cool her neck. Her gaze fell on the medicine pouch hanging from the little stick figure she had set up near the door. Her mind wandered back to her father and how he liked the heat of summer. “It makes my joints work better,” he used to say. She wondered if he would like this summer. She had never experienced anything like it and she doubted that he had either. She wondered if he would have anything to say about it. Of course, he would. He always had something to say about everything. She smiled to herself. The fly returned for another bout of swat-and-swipe.
She rose and, with a small bow of reverence, retrieved the pouch from his grasp. Sitting by the meager fire, she unrolled the medicine cloth and placed a few select pouches of herbs in the middle. Rummaging through the bag, she found the mortar stone. It seemed foreign to her touch. She hadn’t used it since before he died. She had done her father’s bidding grinding and mixing herbs under his close supervision for years and then, as the end drew near, all she could do was simply comfort him. He spent nearly all of his waking hours telling her stories and doing little chants he said belonged to the herbs she was grinding. He guided her through some very complex riddles and fine mixing of special herbs that resulted in a concoction of muddy tea that made him sleep quietly for hours. She hoped she would never have to use the recipe again.
Right now, she was looking for something less complex. She put the grinding stone at a slight angle to her knee and picked up one of the pouches. Pinching a small amount of its contents onto the stone, she gently crushed the dried leaves in a motion that quickly became comfortable. After several minutes of alternately grinding and mixing pinches from various pouches, she was satisfied with the puddle of gray dust. She carefully dribbled a few drops of water on it and used a flat stick to make a thick paste that she rolled into a small irregular worm. Being careful not to touch it, she divided it into four equal clumps that she cautiously rolled into large gray pills that clung to the curve of the stone. Using the mixing stick, she selected a pill and edged it out onto the flat surface then pressed it flat into a wafer that stuck to the back of the tool.
She stirred the embers and gently edged a small branch in to keep the flame alive. “Sorry guys, but one of has to go, and I pick you.” Holding the mixing stick over the coals until the wafer fell free; it hissed slightly and burst into a steady stream of pale blue smoke. She stood and closed the chimney flap then sat watching the haze that gathered in the rafters of the hut. The flies quickly recognized the inadvisability of remaining and fled for cleaner pastures.
“At least that’s something,” Caran said, recognizing her effort.
Charona once again washed her arms and chest and retreated to her sleeping chamber. Working the night shift made the heat of the day a miserable sleeping partner. She would rest but probably not sleep.
Tarra was about to do the same and pressed the second pill into a wafer placing it onto the embers for good measure. She sat holding the mixing stick and watching the trail of smoke issuing from the wafer. The stick seemed to grow warm in her hand as she gazed at the ghost rising into the haze that filled the eaves of the hut. She put the stick aside and grabbed a washcloth to clean her neck and chest. She was just about to lay down when she glanced at Caran. She looked hot and tired. Soaking the cloth again, she approached her. “You look like you could use this.”
“Thanks—I get to working and I forget where I am.”
“I wish I could forget this heat. Here, take your shirt off and let me get your back.” Tarra rinsed the cloth and began tugging at Caran’s blouse.
“OK, OK, I’ll get it.” She pulled her blouse off and squealed as the cool cloth slid down her back. “Now let me get you.” Caran turned, taking the cloth, she applied it gently to the slender child sitting before her. She reminded her of who she had once been: small, thin, and strong. Now she was none of those things and felt somehow less than this child.
Tarra turned to face her when she was done and looked deeply into her eyes. “I don’t want your husband.”
“That’s good, but what does he want?”
“He’s like any man. He wants what he sees until he has it, then he wants something else.” Tarra rinsed the cloth and began wiping down Caran’s arms. “He has a good woman and he knows it.”
“I hope he remembers it.” Caran took the cloth and began stroking Tarra’s arms. She rinsed it several more times, as she worked her way up to her face. She paused caressing the child-like features for a moment as she watched her transform into a beautiful woman then into the child she had learned to love. She hugged her close feeling her breasts form against her. “I hope you remember.”
Tarra timidly put the medicine bag away. She took the remaining bug repellent and pressed it into wafers that she placed on the hearthstones then dropped the mixing stick on the ceremonial cloth while she brushed the grist stones off and placed them in the embers to clean any residue from their surfaces. The mixing stick lay across the sunburst pattern on the middle of the cloth. It reminded her of the game her father played with the guide sticks. He would drink a strong concoction of spirit tea, gather the sticks together, and chant for guidance from Thoma, his father. Holding them high above the cloth he would drop the bundle loose in the middle of the symbol and read the signs in the scattered twigs. He would repeat the process several times with fewer and fewer sticks each time. Eventually, he would select a single twig from the scattered pile and place it in the center of the symbol thanking Yod for His wisdom.
She hadn’t thought of Thoma for many years. She really only knew him as a gruff old grandfather who gave her nice gifts for her birthday, but she knew her father respected him and frequently called on him in his prayers.
Digging through the bag, she extracted the bundle of guide sticks and carefully separated them into summer and winter piles. She put Tangar’s stick in the middle of the cloth along with the summer bundle and put the winter bundle aside. She then tossed the one that Chilcoat had brought back from the falls onto the kindling pile with more satisfaction than the gesture deserved.
Gazing at the story-stick for several moments, she picked it up and rolled it over in her hand. Nothing happened. She didn’t really know what she expected, but she knew she needed to feel her father’s presence and warmth again. This stupid stick is the only thing I have left of you.
She thought again of Thoma and the times he had played make-believe with her and her dolls. Maybe if she dressed the stick up in a ceremonial robe, he would talk to her, as her dolls did. She found the damp washcloth and wrapped it around the jagged little wand then placed it back in the center of the sunburst with the head peeking out of the cloth. It didn’t speak. Again, thinking of her grandfather and her dolls, she whispered to it. “Daddy, please help me.”
Caran had been watching with great concern. She had known the loss of a loved one and felt her pain, but she knew that she really had nothing she could offer to help her.
After several moments, Tarra dejectedly dropped her shoulders feeling a little childish. She turned to tidy up the things she had scattered around and considered Chilcoat’s stick as it lay amongst the kindling. Perhaps she could make a doll for Grandpa from it and then Papa would talk to her.
She picked up the stick and inspected its defects. It did rather remind her of Grandpa; it was short and stout and bent in the middle. She held it to her heart for a moment and placed it next to the little robed figure on the cloth. It looks like it belongs, she thought. It warmed her to think that Papa and Grandpa were together again, and that they were watching over her. It wasn’t as good as the real thing, but she knew they’d like to play with her again.
She took the two sticks, set them aside, and picked up the bundle of summer guide sticks. She tried to remember what her father had done. If she could dance with the wands as he had done, maybe he would tell her why Yod has forsaken them. She held the bundle high above her head and let them fall on the center of the cloth. All but three hit and bounced out of the sunburst design. She looked at the three remaining sticks and tried to remember what he would do next. She noted that one stick was lying across the others. Maybe that’s a sign.
She gathered the outliers into a pile and then picked up the three winners. Holding them high above her head again, she spoke softly, “Papa, please help me understand.” The sticks fell and bounced slightly on the ceremonial cloth. Two fell in and one landed just on the edge of the sunburst pointing toward the door. She decided not to consider that a sign and put it aside with the other discards. Again, the tanasin stick lay on the top of the other.
She picked them up and held one in each hand. Should I throw them again or would that be tempting the spirits? She held them up and called quietly, “Papa, Grandpa, show me the way.”
The sticks fell with a quiet thump just as Chilcoat and Lannon returned with the children. They brought the day’s catch and two buckets of fresh water along with several tales of adventure from the shoreline. The short commotion was soon resolved with everyone settling in for a nap. The heat was relentless, and a new batch of flies had come with the latest arrivals. Charona listlessly rebuffed Lannon as he settled in next to her, placing his hand on her naked breast.
The tanasin stick had fallen atop coshin again. Tarra smiled to herself and timidly whispered, “Thank you, Papa. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t helped.”
Setting the tanasin stick aside, she collected the others and tied them tightly into the satchel. She then took Tangar’s story stick and the one she had given to Thoma and rose to drape the bag across the shoulders of the mannequin standing near the door. She started to shove the sticks into the top of the bag and hesitated a moment considering the figure she had fashioned. The tightly packed bundle of poles made a long straight body with the remaining, smaller, sticks forming shoulders and arms tucked tightly against its sides. First defrocking Tangar’s wand of its washcloth, she jammed it amongst the rods of the left hand. The spirit seemed happy to have his talking-stick back.
She remembered how her father would sit for hours talking of adventures and triumphs from his past. Many of the stories were about how his father had done, or known, something that carried some proverb and words of wisdom. He would twist and turn the stick pointing to knobs and joints along its length that he used to remind him of details and nuances about Thoma. It occurred to her at that moment that the twisted little twig didn’t hold the spirit of her father. It held the spirit of Thoma, her grandfather. Her father had treasured it because it carried the wisdom of his father.
“Well, I hope this makes you happy.” She whispered still holding the water worn twig that Chilcoat had brought back from the falls. She considered it for a moment and decided that if Thoma lived in the other stick, then perhaps her father would live in this one. It seemed more fitting than living in the bag-rack, she thought, gently wedging the twisted little form in amongst the body of the mannequin.
She wondered if Chilcoat would notice her little shrine. She hoped he wouldn’t disapprove. He would have to understand, she decided. He would have to let her keep the memorial.
Tarra pushed the feeder stick into the embers and dished the third bug wafer onto the ashes. The smoke trailed up into the rafters and fed the cloud forcing the swarm to vacate the premises once again.Why had Papa picked tanasin for her? She tried to remember the use of tanasin. If she could remember the story he had told her about tanasin, maybe she could figure out what she could do with it. She drifted to sleep listening to the gentle rhythm of the family and thinking of stories of Thoma.