Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Art of Rainmaking

He walked up the red dirt path to a steady beat, echoing in time to the beat in his chest. His heart had seen better days than this. He'd seen the doctor's charts and knew this better than anyone else in his family ever would. But right now he wasn't thinking about his pounding heart and his pounding feet as he turned to look out over the valley below him. Treelined ridges bristled with millions of pines and spruces filling the air with the sweet smell of their resin, mixing with the dry smell of the dust and the fallen brown needles below. Below him he could hear her breaking branches and talking and talking as she tried to catch up to him, talking and talking all the way.

"...but what I really mean is that its not even so much a stealing as it is a loss." She was breathless as she finally reached him, but that didn't seem to hamper her talking at all, "See, cause not a lot of people my age would be willing to come out here and actually see the old places. I think that's the problem with my generation."

It wasn't that he was ignoring her but she took his silence as room for more talking and so the one sided conversation kept going at a beat all its own. "I mean, look sure the white man stole all this land from us. There's no denying that. But what just makes me so mad is that no one is willing to fight back. I mean, all of 'em like Uncle Ralph just stay on the Rez and don't do anything. I mean, you remember the old days, right Gramps. Back when people still made the traditional foods and sang the old songs, right Gramps. Gramps?"

And finally she too became silent. And she looked and saw the sun peek out between the mountains, shafts of thick sunlight lancing through bladed spruce and hemlock and scattering into sharp pieces, littering shards and shadows on the red dirt. There are so few things left in nature that arrest attention and demand silence. But as the steaming forest woke to the light and bright birdsong erupted in choruses of agnus deis and excelsiors, even that could not silence her for long.

"Wow. What a sight. To think there was a time when our people were the only ones here. Living as one with the land. Painting with all the colors of the wind." She kept talking as he kept climbing up the path, "I can't believe how far we've fallen. We could have been so much more if we had just fought back more. If we had just picked up more of their technological advances."

And so it went until the sun was burning bright and hot above them, leaving dark puddles of shade for them to rest in. It was then, as she was talking more about tribal politics and the need for stronger female representation that he stopped again. She hadn’t even notice and ran right into him.

"We are here." He simply said as she struggled to get back up.

"Where is here? Is this the traditional place you use to initiate young braves into the tribe? Or is this some sacred place where our people would come and smoke sacred tobacco and drink peyote and go on spirit journeys?" She began taking but was silenced as he held his hand up.

"No. This is where I come to make rain." He said simply as he turned and squatted low to the ground, pulling some rocks out of the ground and carrying them towards the center of the small clearing.

"Make... make rain?" She stammered as she looked up instinctively, "I, er, don't see any clouds."

"Not yet. No. That's why we gotta make the rain." He gathered more stones into a pile and then began pulling pieces of broken wood towards the stone heap. "Well, come on then. You said you wanted to see how the family's traditions were done. Get going an’ gather some firewood. We're gonna need plenty. At least three days worth of fire."

And so Emily had a chance to experience the fine and delicate intricacies of ancient traditional firewood gathering–– namely pulling branches out of the loam and hitting logs over and over again with a dull hatchet until her arms ached and her fingers were numb. And yet somehow, through it all, she kept talking and talking.

"What I don't get. It's this." And here she stopped to wipe her forehead with the back of her hand. "How come there weren't any really nasty diseases here that could wipe out the Europeans, the way small pox wiped our people out. I mean, that would have been fair but it seems to me that we just got the short end of the stick in all of this."

Her grandfather was nowhere to be seen. For a moment she wanted to pout. Here she was, trying to impress him with her knowledge of tribal history and he was off somewhere in the woods. The last day and a half of hiking hadn’t been easy for her at all. It was like talking to a brick. How was she supposed to learn anything if he wasn’t going to communicate.

“That’s the other problem with the men on the Rez.” She huffed as she went back to chopping at the log, the hatchet hitting the bark at odd angles and sending chips and splinters flying all over the place. “They don’t communicate! They just eat and drink beer and get drunk and hit their wives and go to jail and do it all over again. I mean, yeah, things might be bad but I mean, come on. I think if they just talked it out everything would be––”

“Alright that should be enough firewood.” Her grandfather had appeared again out of nowhere behind her.

“Finally.” She wheezed before catching herself, “I mean, that was nothing. I can really feel my feminine energies aligning with the vibrations of the earth.”

He simply grunted. Not the satisfactory type of grunt. More like the grunt he would make when she would bring a slug home when she was two and he would try his best to humour her, usually failing to really do it.

“So what do we do next?” She asked, trying to remain positive, but still not getting the silence treatment.

“We make the fire.”

And they did. It wasn’t more than that. There were no sacred or halucinegenic herbs thrown on it. Mostly just lighter fluid and some news paper ads that mostly featured bra catalogs. This wasn’t what Emily had been expecting. She tried to smile though as the black, acrid smoke billowed up and filled her lungs. She coughed but tried to make as if she didn’t really mind the smoke and the stench.

“You know, this would be the perfect time to tell me a story about our family’s role in the larger tribal complex structure. What were we then, shaman?” She closed her eyes as she said it, “Should I be looking for my spirit animal?”

“No.” He said, motionless as he kept staring into the flames.

“Okay.” She intoned, trying to weasel more out of him, “So no spirit animals then?”

“No.” Was all he said again, his eyes a thousand miles away, remembering something.

“But we were shaman though, right?” She said, biting her lip, “Cause that would be really cool. You know. If we were. My friends wouldn’t believe it if I told them I was an actual shaman descendant from the––”

“No one in our family could ever have been shaman.” He said finally turning to her, with a look that made it seem like he saw her for the first time, “Because we were the outcast of the tribe. No one would come to us, would talk to us. It wasn’t until your grandmother was cast out for helping a midwife kill a breech baby that someone found me that was willing to take me. Because we were both outcasts.”

“Oh, Gramps.” She waddled forward and placed a hand on his shoulder, “I’m sorry. I know these memories must be hard for you. Keep talking though, I’m here to listen for you.”

“Ah.” He said, shrugging her off, “We must focus on keeping the fire burning.”

“See, this is what I mean.” She pouted as she folded her arms, “As long as you keep your feelings inside you won’t be able to come to any kind of resolution! You have to talk things out!”

“Sometimes you do not.” He looked away, “Some kinds of sadness are too old and too heavy to be put to words.”

“And I totally understand that.” She said, standing up and walking around the fire, “Our people went through a lot and you saw a lot of that and you feel like you have to be the one to carry it onward otherwise no one will remember what happened and it will all be in vain. I get that. All the old wounds and old sadness stuff. I do.”

“That is not what I was referring to.” He breathed heavily. “Sit down and watch the fire with me.”

And so she sat down, feeling very put off that her grandfather had not taken that very golden opportunity to open up to her. After all, she had extended the olive branch and had been willing to be there for him. All he had to do was let go of his stupid pride and reach out to her extended hand. But he couldn’t even do that. Not that it was his fault. Years and years of growing up in the tribe’s machismo society would probably do that to anyone. Not her of course. But most people would succumb to it. She couldn’t hold it against her grandfather.

Several times she tried to start a conversation with him but he would humm and haw in a way that made it clear that her conversation was not welcomed. And that made her even more angry. Because machismo culture or not, there was no reason he couldn’t open up to her. After all, she hadn’t done anything. And besides, he was supposed to be teaching her. And he was supposed to be guiding her. Up until now all she knew how to do was make fire and look at it and chop wood till her hands hurt.

She hadn’t even realized she had fallen asleep until she felt him shake her roughly. She looked up and for a moment it must have been whatever she was dreaming but her grandfather looked younger. And less native american. More like a spaniard with curly black hair and a rogueish smile. And young. Almost her age. But there was no mistaking his grey-blue eyes. His hiking clothes were gone and instead he was wearing a naval uniform, like the type they would have worn back in the age of sail. She rubbed her eyes and the image refocused according to what she knew he were supposed to look like.

“Gramps, what’s the matter?” She moaned as she rolled over.

“Come on. It’s time for the running of the brand.” He said with a wheezing cough. “Get up. You’ll have to do it. I’m too old and too slow to do it.”

“Alright. Fine, fine. What do I do?” She asked, rubbing her eyes as she sat up.

“You have to take one of the branches from the fire. One with a glowing orange end. And you have to run it down to the lake before the fire goes out.” He spoke with a grin that was slightly concerning.

“Gramps are you feeling okay?” Emily asked standing up.

“Yes, yes. Come on. You wanted to do this. So, do it. Take the brand and run down the path to the little lake we passed on our way here.” He closed his eyes as if he was envisioning it. “When you get to the lake, you throw it in as far as you can.”

“That seems pointless.” She said, pouting and hating herself for pouting like a little kid but not enough to stop herself from doing it. “Can’t this wait till morning?”

“Nope.” Was all he said and when she still wasn’t moving to get up, “Go on. Get goin.”

She stood reluctantly, her legs feeling numb and sore. Half heartedly she grabbed one of the burning sticks and got up. She had gone a little ways down the path before her eyes focused enough and she realized that the green gold woods of earlier had been replaced by sharp shadows and darkness that went from deep to deeper.

“Um, Gramps, which way was the––” but instead of turning to face the campsite with the fire blazing, she saw a path stretching far behind her, lined by massive dark trees and with a faint patch of ink blue star scattered sky above. She had no idea where she was. “–– the lake.”

She wandered down the path, trying to suppress the coil of panic that she was alone and lost in the woods and had no idea where she was going. The firebrand in her hand did nothing but ensure that her eyes did not have enough time to adjust to the darkness around her. She began to run.

It must have been hours. Or maybe just minutes. In the woods she was suddenly losing all grasp of time or space. It was like the woods, a blurr or black and midnight on either side of her, kept going on and on and on and deep down a small voice was beginning to ask if there had ever been anything other than the woods. And then as if to make matters worse, the brand, her only source of light if it could even be called that, finally succumbed to the wind blowing down between the trees. And then there was darkness.

“Better take another one.” She heard a voice behind her and turned to see her grandfather sitting next to the fire, only a few yards behind her. “Come on. We haven’t got all night.”

“Gramps. I–– I thought–– “ She stammered and shook her head, “I could have sworn that I was just running through the forest. It felt like I was running for hours. There wasn’t anything in the firewood we lit, was there. ”

“You’re the one who got the wood. You tell me.” He said still looking into the fire, “Well, you gonna stand there till you take root? Brand aint gonna run itself.”

She grit her teeth and grabbed another brand. This time she knew what to expect. The woods were still dark and the trail they had hiked up was almost indiscernible. But she tried to mentally retrace her steps from earlier when there was daylight. It had been a right and two lefts after the lake right?

“Gramps, was it––” But even though she hadn’t even taken a step she was on the trail in the middle of the woods again. So it hadn’t just been her imagination.

She started running through the woods. She had taken the left and two rights and found herself going down a corridor of trail that went on much too long to be the right way. So she turned around and tried to walk back the way she had come. But where the second left should have been, there was only a twisting right trail. She was lost.

She was running through the woods again, and this time she felt like she was flying. She passed a campsite, a group of people sat around a campfire. They looked a bit odd, all of them dressed in tie dye and playing guitars and things, like some long lost left over from the 60s. But as she rounded the corner where she had seen them, they were no longer there. And there wasn’t even a firepit or any sign of their tents or anything.

She was running again. And an idea was forming in her mind. Whatever was going on, probably some hallucination from some mushroom she had accidentally thrown on the fire, it meant she couldn’t get near to the other fires. She tried several times. Each time she barely got a glimpse of the people before she would come around a tree or a boulder and they would be gone. And the clothes they were wearing was getting stranger and stranger. There were several people dressed up as pioneers and another group completely naked except for some feathers in their hair. This must be coming from her subconscious mind, she tried to reason as she ran.

And then she saw another fire but this one glowed warmer and more orange and as she rounded a tree it didn’t disappear. She was so relieved to see it was still there that she gave a nervous laugh and started to cry as she ran towards it. And then the brand went out and she realized that she knew the figure sitting at the fire. It was her grandfather. She was back again.

“I don’t understand! What’s going on!” She yelled, throwing the brand down.

“The circles can be treacherous.” Was all he said as he looked past her at the darkness she had just appeared from.

“You mean the woods?” She asked, still breathing hard from the running.

“Yes.” He turned his gaze from the woods to her, “And no.”

“Gramps, who were those other people? Is that my childhood guilt taking form from my unconscious mind?” But even as she spoke she saw his face drop. “Or not.”

“Let’s go for a walk.” He said, groaning as he stood up and grabbed a brand from the fire.

The two of them walked along in the darkness. Somehow, with her grandfather’s steady presence next to her, the walk didn’t seem nearly as frightening this time. It helped that he seemed to know exactly where he was going, never wavering from that steady pace of his. They walked by several more fires until they saw one with a blue tent next to a boulder and a massive oak tree. Her grandfather changed his direction then, veering off the path directly into the forest. They were circling the fire in a wide arch and as they passed a tree the fire was gone. But she could still faintly make out the boulder and the oak.

“Gramps where did––” but then they passed another few trees and the boulder was still there, though now the tree was much smaller.

They continued to circle the clearing and the tree was nothing more than a sapling. And then as she and her grandfather stepped out from behind another tree the boulder was all alone in the clearing.

“But that’s impossible.” She whispered.

“Hurry. We do not have much time.” He spoke huskily and they turned around and walked back. It was like watching the tree’s growth in fast forward. Every few feet  they would turn or pass behind another tree and the tree in the clearing would be a bit older. A few times there were people sitting underneath it, or leaning against the boulder. And then it made sense to her. The tree growing. The people she had seen in the forest.

And then her grandfather turned again and there before them was the lake. The moonlight glittered off the rippling waves as the trembling reflections of clouds slid alongside the faint stars visible on the water. She couldn’t believe that the lake had been this close the whole time.

“Go ahead.” He handed her the brand, still glowing orange hot. “Throw it in.”

She hefted the stick above her head and threw it as far as she could, one end flying over the other, making a golden glowing circle as it sped across the water in a glittering arch of embers. And then just as suddenly as it’s appearance had lit the waters there was darkness as it struck the waves with a splash and a sizzle. And that was it.

“So what now?” She asked, looking back at her grandfather.

“Now we go back. The rains will come.” He turned to walk away and she reluctantly went to follow.

As they walked back she was half expecting them to just appear back next to their fire. But there was a winding twisting forest path ahead of them, and it had the winding and twisting feel that the normal forest had. She was suddenly feeling exhausted and could barely keep her eyes open.

“Did I ever tell you how your grandmother and I met?” He talked in a much softer tone now and as she looked up once again he looked much younger, as he had done before when she had thought she was dreaming. But her grandfather looked stronger and younger than she had ever seen him. “I was young, wandering the woods by myself when I came across a girl sitting on a river bank. She fell into the water and before I could rescue her the currents pulled her under. It was here actually. It must have been destiny that brought her here to where I was. Anyway, I ran around the clearing and waited and sure enough there she came, walking along pretty as anything. And she goes and sits down at the riverbank and I go and I sit next to her and I take her into the woods and we lived a long time and we had your mother and your uncle Ralph. And then one day we came up here, to see the place we’d first met and she steps into the clearing and instantly she was the young woman I saw the first time and I watched as she fell in. And I knew what would happen next. I saw myself, much younger, still just a boy, run in to try and save her. And fail.”

“Gramps.” Was all Emily could say, “I’m. I’m so sorry.”

“No, it was destiny that brought us together and it was destiny that separated us. Anyway. Then I saw this girl with pale skin and black makeup all done funny. And she’s just there, next to me.” And here his eyes were watery. “And she told me I could join your grandmother. Except I had to show someone else the secret of these woods first. That’s why I brought you our here Em.”

“Wait, what. You mean you’re gonna die? Gramps, no!” She yelled hugging her grandfather, and realizing at that moment that she couldn’t remember ever hugging him before.

“For you it was years. But for me I stepped out of the woods for a few days to come see you on your birthdays and Christmas, and stepped back in. For me your grandmother has only been dead for one day. The girl in black said I would get one day.” He sighed wistfully then as they came back to their campsite, the fire just as they had left it. “And my day is almost up. Here, I want you to have this.”

And he handed Emily a small hand mirror, the type a woman would have used to powder her nose. Inside she saw a picture of her grandparents, smiling like the day they were married. And she saw her own reflection crying back at her. She wiped her face, not even registering that she was crying.

On the other side of the campsite there stood two people. The one looked exactly like the girl her grandfather had described. She was holding her hands out towards Emily’s grandfather. The other was a man dressed in a long brown robe, his face hidden in his hood. He held a massive book in his hands. He nodded at her grandfather as if he knew him, then turned to the girl.

“Now. This is when you take him.” He whispered to her.

“Hi there Matthias.” She spoke his name with a smile. “It’s been a very long day.”

“Yes, it has.” He agreed and stepped towards her. “But how... you know about... my condition.”
“Oh, you’re not the first crew member I’ve picked up.” She winked as if she knew some big secret. “And you’re not the last. Now, come on.”

And he took her hand and where Emily’s grandfather had been was now just a boulder. She looked at it and felt her tears run down her cheeks. And she knew immediately where she had seen that boulder before. Emily walked forward to the spot where she had seen the sapling grow and pushed the earth aside. And there, deep in the fragrant black soil, was a single acorn.  She placed the photograph from the hand mirror on the acorn and pushed the soil back over it. And then she stood and turned to face the two strangers.

“You’re taking all this extremely well.” The girl said.

“I knew she would.” And the girl rolled her eyes at the man in the robe.

“Who are you?” And even though she instinctively knew that these were not people and she should be afraid she was so numb that she didn’t even care.

“You do not find out much about us today.” The man in the robe spoke then. “But you will be glad that you brought that umbrella in your backpack, even if you will never remember the dream in which you were told to bring it. It is important that you remain healthy and strong. For the next time you come here.”

“Next time!” Emily spat as she yelled, “There will never be a next time! I will never come back here, ever again!”

And she grabbed her bag and turned and ran, crashing through the woods. She didn’t care. She let the tears come out. Branches snapped under her and twigs swatted her in the face. But she didn’t care. She was running and running until she saw the dull grey light of morning begin to smudge the sky in the distance. And she didn’t care. And then her foot smashed through a rotten log and there was a loud snap at the base of her leg and then pain shot white and red across her vision as she began to scream. And she did care about her broken leg.

She lay there for a while and it wasn’t until the faint drizzle started that she fully realized that she was in the middle of nowhere, with no idea how to get back to civilization. With a broken leg. In the rain. And no way of calling for help. She reached for her backpack and her umbrella slid out. And she popped it open over herself and felt completely miserable. At least she wasn’t going to get soaked, she tried to reason with herself, so maybe she was kinda glad that she had brought it.

And it had not even been an hour before a pair of headlights shot beamlike between the rows of trees and lanced over her, swung back around, and settled a pool of light on her. There was grunting and yelling and she was able to make out a man’s voice.

“Hey! Is someone out there?” He was yelling as he crashed towards her.

“Yes! Yes there is! Help! I can’t move! I think my leg is broken!” And as he stopped she realized that not only was it a man, but that he was tall, broadshouldered, tan, and had the cutest smile she had ever seen. She moved her head back, again glad she had the umbrella otherwise her hair would have been frizzy enough to make her look like some kind of sasquatch.

“Are you serious? You’re all alone in the middle of the forest and your leg is broken and you need my help?” She almost got angry at the way he was laughing as he said it, “Sorry. I mean, I thought beautiful damsel and stuff like that only happened in fairy tales. Here, let me help you.”

And then he picked her up as if she didn’t weigh a thing and carried her back to his Landrover idling on the road she must have crossed during her crying trek. As he placed her in the seat, he reached back and folded her umbrella and handed it to her.

“Can’t forget this.” He buckled her up and then hopped in the other side. “It’s a lucky thing you had this otherwise I probably wouldn’t have spotted you out there. What are you doing out here anyway? Are you by yourself?”

Emily shivered as she spoke, “You wouldn’t believe me, even if I told you.”

“Try me.” He beamed his smile and Emily suddenly realized how much she really liked dimples. “The name’s Liam by the way.”

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