The Killing Ritual, Chapter 1

Two Stones | One Black, One White

Murin’s body revolted as if the Augur had just placed poison into her open and waiting mouth. Her gaze snapped to her siblings. Zaz, her only brother, stared at her. Shock turned his skin as pale as she had ever seen it. Even her little sisters, Ratri and Vana, were alarmed.   Ratri’s mouth trembled, and Vana clenched her fists as the muscles of her slender jaw twitched.

Murin turned back to the Augur, and looked at his feet. Heat flushed through her. The rest of the children were watching them, peering at her and the Augur with their bright gazes. This was a mistake. The Augur didn’t mean what he was saying. He couldn’t.

Murin said, “I’m sorry, what—”

“My… child, if you were to no longer attend, we could hardly blame you.”

She peered around the Augur, through the darkened doorway of the House of the Initiates. Even out here, she could smell the fresh cut timber of its beams, and feel the bare warm glow of the sun floating in through the agate windows. She stepped around him, and again the Augur blocked her with his body.

“Please,” she said.

“I respect your choice to renounce the Initiation.”

“But I’m not. I am here.”

He hesitated before he said, “You are. But you don’t have to be.”

An older boy pushed past her, hissed “Parakya” in her ear and spat as he went by. Little flecks of white flew down and dotted the dirt at her feet. One landed on her dress and stayed there, a tiny white orb, before it disappeared into the fabric and left a wet shadow. The Augur turned to let the boy enter the House, and said nothing.

She forced the tremor out of her hand as she tested the edges of the cloth wrapped around her head. Not one strand of blond hair had escaped. “I don’t understand. I have at least another year of lessons. I’m already—” The word ‘different’ caught in her throat. “I need to be here.”

“Yes, Murin. But we cannot force you to be where you do not want to be.”

“You aren’t listening.” Murin’s voice was tight, came out soft. “My father. He wants me to be here.”

The Augur sighed. “Very well. Come with me. The rest of you, inside and wait there.” His robes flashed as he went by her.

Murin glanced at Zaz, but fat tears were hanging from his eyelids. No. She needed to be strong. Whatever this moment was about was not good. She rushed after the Augur and followed behind him, staring at the ground as all women were supposed to do. Never look into a mans eyes. Do not speak out of turn. Honor the ways of woman. Those were the essential parts of the Praxis. They didn’t make any sense to her. Murin could do man-things ten times better than most full grown men, but those were the codes of Tarska, her homeland.

The Augur stopped in front of the Regent’s house.

Murin checked the stonework again. Yes, it was his house. A decorative piece of hard granite interrupted a wall otherwise comprised of soft sandstone, which looked like it was melting in the sun. The Regent’s symbol, a scepter and scythe, had been carved into the granite decades ago, if not longer.

Sweat oozed from her skin. For a moment, she swayed. The alley darkened at the edges, and the tips of her fingers grew numb. She focused on the ground, on the texture of the fine silt beneath her feet. Somewhere someone was singing. She hummed along, let the music soothe her.

“Don’t linger in doorways, child. It’s poor manners.” The Augur had crossed over the threshold, and had been waiting for her to follow.

“I’m sorry.” One foot and then the next, she drifted up the stairs. She sifted through every single encounter she’d had with anyone in the last week. Nothing. She had honored the Praxis to the letter.

The two men stood in the narrow hallway. There was a small room just to the right. She knew of it because she had gone there with her father once, when the Regent had asked for his advice. Of course neither the leader of the region nor her father acknowledged that was what was happening. There was the Praxis to follow. Nonetheless, that was exactly what had happened. Father had the answer, and the Regent didn’t.

That door was closed. So was the one revealing a set of stairs going up. The only door remaining open was the one she had just come through.

“Mur—in.” The Regent said her name as if he was stumbling over a new word. He did the same thing each time he said it.

She bowed. “Regent. It is a great privilege to be in your presence.” Suddenly, she was grateful for all the times the twins had roped her into their games of pretend.

“We cannot force an Initiate to be an Initiate.”

Words backed up in her throat, made her queasy. “May I?”

“Yes?”

“I love my family. I love my town. I love being Tarskan. And being an Initiate is part of all that. I am sorry if I did something wrong, and I’ll,” she drew a deep breath, “be better. I just need to know what I did.”

The Regent sighed. Murin could feel it. A heaviness that seemed to be part of everything around her, woven into the mere and unlikely fact she existed. “Look at me,” he said.

She looked at her hand instead. As pale as Zaz had been, no one could ever come close to her. Or her mother. Their skin was cauliflower. The flesh of an average apple. Snow. Although, it was hard to tell what people saw first when they looked at her mother and her. Skin seemed to be the most obvious thing, but the ailment extended to their eyes. And their hair. Yellow. As yellow as corn. Mother disagreed, she said their hair was golden. She even gave it a special color-name. Blond.

The Regent stepped closer to her, put his finger under her chin, and lifted it up. “Look at me.”

She swallowed, her gaze darted around the floor.

“Now.”

She looked up. At his face. Into his eyes. They were cold, his expression stern. His skin was the luxurious color of a fawn, and his eyes held a darker tone, like fertile ground. Night flooded his hair. He looked normal, natural.

He looked like the rest of them.

The image of a rabbit flashed through her mind. Her eyes widened. Had that led to this mess?

Instead of saying anything about hunting, the Regent asked, “Do you clean your house?”

“Pardon?”

“In the Spring, after being closed up all Winter. Do you clean your house?”

Her brows twitched. They wanted to frown, but she wouldn’t let them. “Of course. There’s a lot of soot built up from the Winter. We clean—I mean Father and Zaz clean out the chimney. They make sure everything is okay so—well you know. So the house doesn’t burn down.”

“That’s very smart. It’s seems there is no famine of wisdom in your family.”

“But many people do that.”

“They didn’t. Before your mother arrived.”

Arrived? “I didn’t know that.”

“Claire, your mother, dabbles in herbs.”

Murin watched the Augur from the edge of her vision, without taking her gaze from the Regent. Zaz might have been able to read the Augur. He was able to read almost everyone. To her, the Augur was blank. Concealed as tracks over stone.

“Your mother pretends to have knowledge.” The Regent shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe she does. But it is not our knowledge. It is not our way.” He studied Murin, then asked, “She comes to town with this knowledge and these herbs of hers, doesn’t she?”

“I don’t understand.”

“She comes here to try to heal people, does she not?”

Her mother came to town almost every week, carrying her cures in those little leather pouches dangling from her waist. She didn’t even bother to hide them anymore. “People have asked for her before.” After the Augur’s remedies failed.

The Regent smiled. “You are not like us. You and your mother.”

“But we’re Tarskans.”

He looked her over, at the rag on her head. “We,” he nodded at the Augur, “have decided to give you a choice. You may choose to no longer attend the Initiation. Or you may choose to force us to bring you before the people at the next ceremony, and call on everyone to vote.”

“A vote?” she asked. Each person had two stones, one black stone and one white. Whenever a baby was born, the town voted to accept it (black), or shun it (white). She had never witnessed a baby being shunned. “What would happen?”

The Regent’s lips flattened into a thin line. “I would not put your hope in any miracles.”

Murin stared into his eyes. She even looked at the Augur. “What does this mean?”

The men looked at each other. The Augur nodded. The Regent sighed. He said, “Your choice is private disgrace or… public dishonor.”

“Oh,” she said. Numbness invaded her legs, up to her thighs. She was wading in it. “Is this? This is real, isn’t it?”

The Regent nodded.

Her throat tightened, like it was being squeezed by an invisible hand. She choked out the words “I understand”, even though she didn’t.

The Regent smiled. “Good.”

~~~

Author’s note: I’ve been working on this book project for years.  It used to be called “Fire and Blood”, but that seemed a little pretentious and esoteric, so I’ve moved to a new working title of “The Killing Ritual”.   I’m not sure how many chapters I’ll be sharing on the blog; in the meantime, here’s at least one more.

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The Killing Ritual, Book 1 Prologue

Sixteen years ago …

The Dragon’s Eye shimmered overhead. Anagata the Augur shifted uneasily. It was unnatural for a child to be born under the red star. Had it been any other person’s child, he would have refused to perform the ceremony; but Vapan had insisted. And when Vapan wanted something it was difficult, nigh impossible, to refuse him.

The townspeople and some of the farmers gathered in the small square of Tolslovel. Grey stone houses with soft edges and broken backs ringed the square.

Dragon bones rattled in the beaded bag hanging from Anagata’s waist. He walked to a platform, one of the two that occupied the square. The other was merely a well, but this platform was a mystery beyond memory. Intricately cut, glossy black rock made up most of its surface. Inlaid jewels glittered against the darkness and mapped out the night sky in four different panels, one panel for each of the seasons.

Anagata walked to the Portal of Zarada, also known as the Window of Autumn, and, after a glance at the clusters of stars in the sky, knelt before the constellation under which the child would be born.

It was the stellar arrangement of Nagah. The Dragon Formation.

“Please Vizvatma, let this child be a boy,” he muttered before settling into the ritual. He deepened his breath and chanted. “May the Gods show me the light of the Vizvatma. May the Vizvatma illuminate the darkness.” He repeated the mantra, trying to touch the universal spirit, to channel its wisdom and energy for the child’s divination.

People bowed their heads and pressed their middle fingers to the center of their brows.

A scream shattered the night.

Anagata looked uneasily towards the house of Acala and Adri.

Tinny bells rang. It was coming.

Anagata peered into the sky and watched the events unfold there. His eyes burned with the dryness of intense concentration. His neck pinched.

The mid-toned bells rang and shortly after the deeper ones intoned.

It was here.

As the bells shook the air, streams of light hacked at the darkness in the sky. It was the ill omen he somehow knew would show itself. This child promised to be trouble. And the town couldn’t afford trouble. Anagata fingered his bag of bones as Vapan approached the ceremonial platform.

“It’s a girl-child.”

“Are you sure it’s a girl?”

“That’s what I just said.”

“The mother comes?”

“Yes, Acala is preparing her.”

“We start then.” Anagata turned to the others. “Let us be the light and the water. The seed is Vapan, son of Tarska, and the earth is Claire the Stranger. Together they form the child. I will read its future. You will judge her as one of us, as water to our water and light to our light, or as Other.”

“We are the sun and the rain. We make plants grow tall and vibrant. We cull the weeds,” the regent of the town said; his one voice signified the voices of all in these matters.

Claire, dressed in the crimson robes of birth, hobbled to the platform. She was barefoot and unadorned, as tradition would have it.

Anagata suppressed a shiver at the sight of the baby’s alabaster skin. It was a pale as the mother.

“You will lay it here.” Anagata pointed to the constellation of Nagah.

Claire clutched the child closer and searched the crowd.

Everyone waited.

Wincing, she laid the fragile bundle on the bare stone. The infant cried.

Anagata performed the ceremony with practiced ease. He shook the bones and cried out, “Vizvatma,” as he upended the bag, sprinkling the child.

“The Blades of the Vizva cut the sky at the child’s birth. And now the bones foretell that this child is of fire.”

Shocked gasps sprinkled through the ground.

Then Anagata felt something strange take hold of him, as though strings fastened to his joints and the Gods, by tugging on these strings, animated his flesh. New words bubbled to his mouth to replace the ones ready on his tongue. “However. The sun is fire. It nourishes. Your crops just. As water does. If the next child of Vapan and Claire is water, fire and water will balance each other.”

He struggled to release his own words, but they stayed locked in his throat. Hadn’t anyone noticed it wasn’t him speaking? Then something asked in his voice, “You accept the child?” But it didn’t sound like a question at all.

Claire was kneeling by the child and appeared, if it was possible, even more pale. Almost translucent.

Anagata frowned as the crowd vibrated with discussion. His lips were sealed shut, barring him from saying anything else. The child mewled incessantly. Her shrieks had nearly pierced his skull when he showered her with the dragon bones. He looked on with disapproval at the mother. Claire quivered where she knelt next to the infant. Sweat emerged on her forehead and her muscles quaked as if from some tremendous effort. Her people obviously had no constitution, Anagata thought. Probably had to do with her light skin.

Silence settled and one person after another approached the pot, placing one of two stones in the vessel. Black was yes, white was no.

“Yes, yes, yes. Black, black, black,” Claire chanted.

Anagata glanced at Vapan. He had sense enough to not beg for acceptance. Vapan would understand if they chose to shun her. He would even take the infant to the secret place in the woods so that she could join the other unwelcome strangers in the life after life. Vapan was a proper Tarskan, not at all like Claire the Stranger. Anagata tried to remember why they had accepted Claire among them in the first place. And what had possessed Vapan to bind himself to such a woman?

“It is done,” the regent said, breaking through Anagata’s thoughts. Together, they grabbed the pot, heavy with stones, and dumped the contents.

The stones were black. Each one.

The dark swarm was a miracle. There was no other way to explain it.

“Finally.” Claire moved to gather up the child.

The woman had no respect for tradition.

“Wait,” Anagata commanded. He took the black blanket of acceptance and swaddled the child. He fumbled in his pocket for the amulet of protection, given to all accepted children, and slid the leather thong over the babe’s head before passing her to Claire.

Placing his hand on the infant’s head, he asked the Universal Spirit for the child’s true name. “This child shall go forth as Murin.”

The crowd paused. He could feel everyone struggling to not look up at him at the odd ring of the name, the alien tone of it, the way he trilled his tongue with the R and the altogether strange cadence of the word, unknown to them, unspoken before now. Anagata looked in confusion at the child. “It is the will of Vizvatma,” he murmured.

***

Sixteen years ago, in another place…

Young Torek moaned and tried to push the images out of his head, but the other mind was so much stronger.  It pulled at Torek, and drew him deeper into the dreamfast until he was flooded with memories that didn’t belong to him.

 

People exit the boats en masse. A veritable army.

But now that I’ve seen her, they don’t matter. Her slight stature, rigid with confidence. Her brilliant aura, which surrounds her like an inferno. I can smell her magic, even from this distance. She waits on the deck of the ship.  She holds herself and tries to see into the shadows of the island.

“You have nothing to fear,” I whisper in the space of her mind.

“It is you who should fear.”

Oh, how she snarls!

“Show yourself, Dragon,” says the Princess.  “I’m here to rid the world of you and your murderous kind.”

After days of dancing around each other, she entices me into a small clearing, and I cannot resist.

When she sees me, color flushes her pale skin. “Why are you in human form?”  

I glide forward to be closer to her. Sighing, the heat of her magic comforts me. “I want to please you.”

Our eyes link, we connect and we both feel the surge of energy.

“What’s happening?” she asks. Her skin glows.

“We are syncing. You see my life, my pain and joy in your mind. And I see yours.”

“I don’t want to see,” my enchantress whispers through clenched teeth.

“But I want you to.” I close the distance between us. Wipe the tears from her cheeks. And then it happens.

Her change of heart.

 

“Stop,” Torek muttered aloud. The blanket twisted around him and bound his limbs. “What do you want from me?”

Watch and learn, a voice in his mind said. This is your destiny.

Torek whimpered as another wave of images pounded into him.

 

She shows me the words and we chant them together. We laugh as the party tries to wander into the woods on their killing errand, again and again, only to find themselves back on the beach.

One curses. “Where’s Niamh?” He is a younger boy. Her uncle. The curse silences my beloved. Her eyes sink to storm-cloud grey. She looks at me, chills me with sadness.

 

“Why are you showing me this?”

I told you already.

“I have no destiny. I’m going to die in this prison camp.”

You will not, the voice said. Freedom is coming. Quiet now, you need to see the rest. The rest of what I know. And then you need to find her.

“The princess?”

No. The child.

 

My insides tremble. “Must you go?”

“I have to do this the right way. No more hiding.”

“Your father will not forgive you.”

“I have to be sure,” she said.

I touch my forehead to hers. “Did you ever think you could love a dragon?”

“It doesn’t matter what I thought.”

She leaves me there, on the island, staring after her until she disappears, until I can’t even see the wake of her magic. Fishermen intercept her small boat. They talk of slaying her, of rewards.

She escapes to the land bridge and the island that looks like a ball of flame.

We sync one last time, and this is when I hear a second heartbeat. This is when I feel our daughter growing.

 

Torek jerked upright. The thin wool blanket scratched at his skin. He paused and drew a deep breath. Calm down, he tried to coax himself. It couldn’t have been real. No voice had really invaded his dreamfast. But he couldn’t shake the sharp clarity of it from his head.

His father’s snores sifting through the dank morning, and Torek watched breathe just to find comfort in the up and down motion of each breath.

His father’s eyes wobbled beneath their lids.

Torek frowned. It must be nice to dream. Real dreams, not fact-finding, mind-bending dreamfasts. He shook away the disappointment and joined his mother at the doorless opening of the hovel they lived in.

Looking out into the grey morning at the other hovels, his nose twitched at the familiar stench of urine and feces. His jaw clenched at the slow shuffle of the early risers dragging their feet to the bathing tents and the feeding tent.

Cool wind rushed about the camp and cut into everything. The roof had gaping holes, which invited the rain inside too easily. No matter. They didn’t spend much time in the shack. The guards preferred to keep their captives working. After all these years, they still managed to fill his days with hand-hardening, heart-hardening tasks.

“Mother.”

“Good morning, Torek,” Astasiana said softly, keeping her eyes on the detention camp.

“Nothing good about it.” Clouds sat heavily over them and grey perched on every surface. “I haven’t seen the sun in five years.”

“You’re rather hyperbolic for being 10,” she said.  “In any case, you know why.”

He snorted. Yeah, he knew why. Now.

Two Seduman guards walked by the distant fence, which was made out of bits of rock stacked hip-high.  This meager fence marked freedom from captivity. Torek had balked when he first saw it. “That’s supposed to keep us in?”

But just beyond the fence, nothing seemed to exist, even though he could hear chatter, carriages and other sounds of life. The sounds of normalcy amid the dank atmosphere were enough to make some people insane.

There was also the intensified stench, the false sounds of torture mixed in with real, and the people who left for an oddly timed meal and never returned.

“I hate this place.” Torek paused. “I hate myself for being here,” he said in a lower tone.

Astasiana spun around and dragged him into her arms. “Don’t ever say that.”

The heavy cold of his mother’s bracelet-shackles touched his cheek.

“It’s impossible to be happy here.”

“It seems that way, I know. But you have to fight it. By giving in, you’re giving them what they want.”

“What am I supposed to do, Mother? I don’t even remember what colors look like.” He pulled away from her.

“Be patient.”

“Patient?  If I’m lucky enough, maybe someday someone can erase this place from my memories.”

“Torek,” she said in a warning tone.

“Well, you couldn’t have been a normal parent?  If you and Dad had been average people, not Guardians of the Pearl, not Darkness Hunters, but just average people, we wouldn’t be here. In hell.”

“This is hardly hell, Torek.”

“You like the home these dragon-haters have set up for us?” Torek shifted his glare away from his mother’s face to the fence. “If you had just taken the bribe, we wouldn’t even be here.”

She slapped him across the face. Torek gaped at his mother, who had never, in all his life, struck him before.

Her lavender eyes narrowed with anger. “I am a Darkness Hunter, Torek. James and I are Guardians. As are you. We do what is right. Regardless.”

Once again, he felt like the child who had his home and his future torn from him. “Sorry.”

She leaned against the doorframe, and he metal around her wrists clinked as she folded her arms across her chest.

Torek glanced at the bracelets. Magic shimmered and collected at the places where the metal connected with her skin. He swallowed the bitterness rising in his throat.

After a time, she said, “They denied Extradition again.”

“How do you know?”

She shrugged.

“A dreamfast?”

She nodded and said, “With my father and brother. The exchange was rather exhausting.”

“I’m pretty worn out, too.”

“Oh?”  She wasn’t listening. Her voice had that distant, vague tone to it. He took a deep breath and said, “Who in all the hells of Raia would dream of dragons in a place like this?” That got her.

“You can’t dream.” Astasiana grasped his arm. “Tell me.” Her cheeks flushed and her voice rose. Torek hadn’t seen her this frantic since the Sedumans branded him.

Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything about it.  After all, it was just some pushy dragon who thought he could dole out destinies the way cows doled out shit.

“Torek.”

“Fine. I was in my trance. And sometimes–” He paused.  He was about to confess to his mother that he was doing exactly what she had told him not to do. “Sometimes I try to touch other minds.”

“You need to know the other person’s name.  At the very least.”

“I’m just telling you what happened.”

She scrutinized him. “Go on, then.”

“I reached out and before I felt the abyss, someone snatched up my mind.”

“And?”

“He talked to me. Showed images,” Torek said in a flat voice. “Even knew my name.”

“But how?”

“He said—” Torek began, but his lips soured on the next words. “He said it was my destiny.”

“Tell me everything,” Astasiana said.

He did, and when he was finished, she drew him into her arms again and stroked his hair.

“What does it mean?”

“It means you are a Guardian.”

“No.”

“Torek, why do you resist this so?” She pulled back to see his face, but he refused to look at her.

All being a Guardian had ever brought his parents was trouble and pain. Why would he want to be a part of that? If he ever did get out of the prison camp, he’d run as fast and far away from destiny as he could. And he’d make sure to never cross paths with anyone named Murin.

~~~

Author’s note: I’ve been working on this book project for years.  It used to be called “Fire and Blood”, but that seemed a little pretentious and esoteric, so I’ve moved to a new working title of “The Killing Ritual”.   A long time ago, The Killing Ritual used to have a prologue.  Everyone told me this was like drinking a dram of poison (i.e. no agent love), so I took it out of the manuscript. But I’m still partial to it, and want it to exist somewhere in the Universe.  Why not here? 

the night of imbolc

We are in war.  We sweat it.  We dream it.  It is in every step we take.  War.  Violence.  It sits heavy on the horizon, like the smoke of a forest fire.  It’s in my heart, my mind.  It’s everything.  All things.

Each morning we get up and climb the ramparts.  We look out over the kingdom, a quiltwork of fields stitched together by the pattern of their grains, and the delineations of their borders.  We look for them.  The evidence of them.  The marks they leave.

There they are, amassed down the hill.  Their skin is sallow, as ours.  Fatigue glazes their eyes, as ours.  The cold creeps into their metal, as ours.

We are bonded in this way.  This shared experience we drive each other into because it has been, and because it has been, it will have to always be.

I can’t recall how war even started.  The beginnings of it are so far buried they may as well be myth.  Some people say it doesn’t matter, their hate is so strong it overrides everything else. But there are vats of blood spilled out of bodies.  There are heads crushed.  There are limbs lobbed off and left on the battlefield like discarded garments.  There are hollowmen left.  They are specters lingering in the alleys, sitting slumped against walls and not-quite-staring at passersby.  They have forgotten themsleves while the rest of us see them in their before and after, and know the truth of them, which sets an ache in our hearts something like a rot spreading through our organs.  For all of these reasons, we should remember the why of it.

***

I am sent from the village, from my family.  I am to war.  I am my armor, my weapons.  We are us, and they are them.

Middle winter brought their retreat, but retreat is not enough for they are still a threat, because still they breathe.  Still they make weapons and plans.  Still they try to know our weaknesses. So we follow, and I learn how to strike, how to play dead, how to cut down horse and man.  I learn how to clean blood off my sword, and my armor.  My family is distant from my mind, but the hollowmen are constant companions.

***

I wade through the still waters of the house.  The greyness outside makes it dusk inside, and transforms the familiar into mystery.  I have looked for my wife, for my children and my mother, but they are hidden, and this place reminds me of pre-dawn on the field of battle.  It is like this.  Still and waiting. All the beds are made.

I finally find someone.  “Nan, I am home,” I say to Grandmother.

She says nothing, instead squats at the hearth with her knees up around her ears like a crude peasant. I stem the tide of words battering the shores of my tongue at this image.  It disgusts me, but she carries on as if it’s natural, as if her body doesn’t contain all these other meanings — whispering or screaming — in the shape it takes.

“Must you crouch like that?” The question leaks out.

Her answer is the thin clinking of wood as she arranges sticks atop each other on the charred stone.  It’s a servant’s job she does, even as I stand in her presence for the first time in weeks.  She can’t be bothered to look at me, though. Her grandson returned from the war.

Once the arrangement meets her satisfaction, she sets about tucking in the shavings of bark she’s saved off to the side.

“Are you building a fowl’s nest?” I ask, hand resting in the pummel of my sword.

“There is only one foul thing in here,” she says. Next, she takes a small pile of wool, and wedges it in near the edge of the construction.

“What mean you?”

She grunts, takes the flint and knife out of her pocket, and begins to shave off pieces of the metal into the wool.

My hand tightens on its own.  Sword and hand are well acquainted now.

With her back turned, somehow she sees it, and cackles like an old crow.  “Strike me, will you?  Strike me for truth-telling?”

“You insult me.”

Sparks dance over the wool, which smokes.  When its starts to catch, she breathes on it. After it’s lit, she unfolds herself to standing and turns to me. Lines streak her husk-like skin, more than I remember.  The flickering fire does magic with her face.

“Do you remember how to be any other way?” she asks me.

Her face transforms, takes shapes.  She is my mother, my wife and daughter.  Worse, she is the women of them.  The ones we killed and left on the battlefield, faces pale, and eyes open to the sky, and I see my women like that.  Deprived of warmth, of smiles and futures.

“Where is everyone else?”

She smiles.  “The beds are made, the fire is lit.  It’s time to join them at the well.”

“What are you saying?” I ask as she shuffles past me.  “Have you lost your mind?”

“It is Imbolc. We will all celebrate Imbolc together.” Grandmother claws her cloak from its peg, and drapes it about herself before stepping through the door.

“Stop this madness; I’ve come home.”

“Not yet.  But hopefully you will soon.”  She joins the trickle of old women doddering down the street.  As they find each other, they clasp hands and walk together out of the gate.

I run after her.  “What is happening?”

“We have remembered,” another woman says.

***

The thawing roads are thick with women. “Come,” they all say. “Come help us celebrate.”

I see the first man on the road. “What is this?” I ask him. “We keep to the town for Imbolc.”

He smiles. “This is leap of faith.”

“What does that mean?”

“The old ones have come out of slumber to remember something. And they hope, we all hope this will stop the war.”

Senseless. What do women know of war? Of making it, or stopping it?

“You doubt,” he says. “It’s good; there’s much to doubt.”

At the crossroads ahead, more women join the procession from the east and the west. “They are them,” I say. They are the enemy women, coming from villages, which are not our own.

They smile at us, and take the hands of our women as if they are sisters.

Ahead, the road winds to the top of the mountain where the Old Hall sits. Its builders and use have passed out of memory, and yet smoke curls out of its chimney and torches light the pathway.

A woman no higher than my elbow keeps pace with me. “You think I am different from you,” she says.

“You are them.” It is a simple thing. Us and them.

She laughs. “It seems like that, doesn’t it? Yet we have the same habits, we honor the same traditions. We even come from the same source.”

“We are enemies,” I say because it comes to my mouth involuntarily, like a reflex.

She doesn’t respond to the comment. Instead, she says, “We will celebrate this Imbolc with our Fathers and Brothers. Our husbands and sons.” And then she is gone

***

I can smell the colcannon, the bannock and barm brak. These are the smells of Imbolc.  Tables, which are full of women, fill the hall.  Women rush around with platters of food and pitchers of sowens.  Their chatter rattles the rafters, and it is so strange to see them all here.  Enemies and family, except now that they are commingled, it is more difficult to tell one from the other.

All of the women and children are here.  In the middle of the room I finally see my own, and seeing them makes my heart stomp like a charge horse. I make my way to them. “We must go,” I say.

“We must stay,” says my wife.  “Everyone is invited, so everyone is coming.”

“We are in danger.”

She nods, and tears make her eyes sparkle.  “That is the risk.  But this war has gone on too long.  And the truth of it is, we all come from the same place.  We are all of the same tribe.”  She begins to laugh.  “All this time, we’ve been killing our own.”

Archers march in. The music, the laughter, the clinking of cups and the serving of food continues as they line the walls, and draw their bows.

“This is supposed to be peaceful,” some men shout.

Arrows flood into the assembly. Blood erupts in clouds from the bodies of the women who are struck.

There is screaming.  There is crying and fear, but the women sit closer together instead of running from the Great Hall.  The archers waver as they see their own wives and mothers and sisters clumped together.

“Fire,” the commanders of the opposing sides each call out to their men.

The women hold hands, and each other.  They begin to sing.  It’s an old song, but each previous word elicits the next from memory.  The melody weaves together as another volley follows, this one more sparse then the first.

Some of the men have started to sing, too.

“Fire,” the cry comes again.  This time, instead of firing into the hall, the archers whose bows are still taut fire at the commanders.

 

***

This story was inspired by a dream I had after watching a PBS documentary about the first humans and Mitochondrial Eve.  The dream was just the last scene in the Hall, but the feeling of it was so strong I wanted to build a narrative around it.

ain’t nothing but a canyon mile

You never know what you’re capable of until you take yourself to the edge.  You don’t really know who you are until you break a little (or a lot).

After months of inactivity, thanks to the need to recover from a chronic running injury, naturally we decided to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon for our Christmas holiday in 2016.  No big deal.  Piece of cake.  Easy as pie, and all the other cliched platitudes about the relative lack of effort such an undertaking might entail if one doesn’t think too hard about the actual task at hand.

Neither of us had been to this National Park, which is supposed to be (and is) one of America’s treasures, a place of wonder and beauty and mystery.  Luckily we got a permit for our first preference itinerary, and the planning ensued.  Meal planning, getting there planning, clothing planning, gear management and acquisition (such as crampons and gaiters, thanks to winter conditions).

Along with regular purchases of gear came constant monitoring of weather patterns. When I say constant, I mean looking at the forecast each morning, reviewing historical performance and searching for other myriad predictions. Snow was the main problem. Lots of snow.  And chain restrictions and icy trails. Over the few weeks leading up to the trip, we thought we were going to get snowed out, or stranded.  Two days before we were supposed to head out the weather was still changing, still unpredictable.

When we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon for our first night of camping in the cold, under the stars, a shroud of fog had veiled the landscape.  The adventure on which we were about to embark remained hidden from us. There was no canyon, no plunge of land going down for one vertical mile.  There were no layers of geologic time, no cliff faces.  There were only the dense particles drifting before us as we walked along the path at the edge of the South Rim.  They stuck to our clothes, our eyelashes, my glasses. The air coated us in its heavy breath.  It was only after we ducked into one of the lodges for a beer, only after we reemerged that the fog had retreated a little to give us our first hint of the scale of the canyon, and its vibrant banding color.

Veiled Canyon

Veiled Canyon

Giddy.  Smiling and not even minding the other people who were rushing to the railing’s edge to take their photos with selfie sticks.  We looked at each other, and grinned at what we were about to descend into.

That night, snow flurries flirted at the South Rim as clouds raced across the sky. We caught glimpses of the stars through the wounds in the clouds, and tried to light a fire with wood that refused to burn, even though it was dry and the kindling was good.  As we drank port wine amid the pine trees, fresh snow dusted the ground and cold infused the air with biting teeth.  We fretted about putting up the tent, not wanting to start off with wet gear.  We fretted about the cold.

Our second day at the Grand Canyon was the real beginning of our adventure.  We parked at the backcountry office, checked our gear one last time and took the shuttle, with heavy packs on laps, to the Bright Angel trailhead.

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Gear management

Though it was early, a regrettable number of people in designer boots or simple sneakers already populated the trail.  And what they were there for was not what we were there for.  Photo ops.  Daring pictures. Claiming the space and polishing their brand through two-dimensional captures. Being there for some people was less about the experience itself and more about documenting you were having the experience, all with an eye toward curation of who you want people to believe you are rather than who you are.

But these travel companions were temporary, as elevation is the ultimate filter.  Past the Three Mile Resthouse, we encountered few people.  They tended to be thoughtful and quiet, and had impeccable trail etiquette.

After lunch near Indian Garden, the weather shifted once again.  A drizzle began, which would plague us for the rest of the day.  It was at this point when I realized the Canyon had invaded my muscles and my bones. Already.  On day one before we were even halfway to the Bright Angel Campground.

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Jessica’s last happy moment for the day

The Canyon’s extreme nature also emerged.  The elevation, the terrain of varied rockscapes, the water, which was everywhere.  I was hot one second, and freezing in the time it took to take off my beanie and gloves.  Rain, rain, and rain.  My mood steadily declined until I plodded on in silent rancor.  I was acutely aware of the muscles in my legs by the time we reached the vista for what’s called (we would later discover) the Devil’s Corkscrew. The Corkscrew is a long rambling switchback descending further into the Canyon floor.  Before even reaching it, I wondered how in the hell I was going to get back up to the rim.

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The Devil’s Corkscrew (photo was taken on the climb back up)

A. started talking about heading back, but in my mind the only way was forward. So we did the Devil’s Corkscrew, and we came to the next Resthouse, and we finally saw the Colorado River, angry with mud and swollen by the rain, and there was no sign (none, not a single evidence) of the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge.

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Bright Angel Suspension Bridge (photo taken heading back out on day 2 in the Canyon)

I wanted to cry.  By the time we reached the bridge (which took an excessively long time and what felt like another mile of traversing), I was in the gutter.  Legs: agony. Pack: a burden. Body: barely propelling itself forward. Emotional and psychological states: despondent.  Crossing that bridge with no indication of how far the campground was, I did start crying.  I had nothing left.  I hurt, I wasn’t having fun, and for the first time in my life, I had encountered my true edge.  I had reached the limit of my ability, and I wasn’t sure I could get myself out of the Canyon.

This was my threshold.  Every time we step through a door, we cross over a threshold. Most of the time it isn’t the physical crossings that impact us, but the mental ones. Afterall, thresholds mark a transition from one state to another.   We can feel when we encounter a boundary, just the same as we can feel when we’ve overcome that boundary. I wasn’t very grateful at the time, but now I cherish meeting that significant threshold.

Why is hitting my breaking point a gift?  I got to experience how I genuinely react in an extreme situation. Those reactions were not dressed up or contrived; they were 100% me. I got to see what my body could do, and understand better what I wanted it to be able to do.  It helped realign my expectations, and devise a plan to improve my overall conditioning.  And it revealed that my mind was powerful, because in the end determination was the only thing that got me back on my feet.

The next day, we awoke to clear skies, and the sun dancing on the edge of the mesa far above us. The aspens were chattering, and the world was quiet, and peaceful.

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It was at this point we made a conscious decision to enjoy the hike up to Indian Garden. We would take photos of the beauty surrounding us, take our time getting up to the next campground, take the time to solidify our memories of this amazing adventure. Indian Garden was a beautiful oasis to hobble around, and the next day we got up and ascended back to where we had come from, but not from where we started.  Later we would call how tricky it is to judge and cross distance in the Grand Canyon “a canyon mile”.

ii. you are here

We did not come to gaze upon farm animals in a disheveled landscape, beautiful and calming though it is. We came for the food.

Finally we drift into the into the building, and I don’t feel like I’m in Mexico anymore. The inside resembles (to me at least) a Swiss-style dining hall. It’s huge and open. One side is bifurcated from the other by a supporting wall. I have the sense that the room on the right, filled with an uninterrupted stream of highly-lacquered tables and chairs, is a newer addition, whereas the space on the left seems to be more quaint and cozy. You are far less likely to get swallowed up on the left side.

We gravitate towards the only unfinished table in the room. It sits beneath a window, just beyond the glass is the grey morning. Inside is a delicious promise. A large earthenware oven occupies part of our little corner, but of greater interest are the two ladies with bowls the size of car tires filled with one or the other of two types of dough. Corn or flour.

La Cocina de Dona Esthela

at the table

Like professional athletes, they warm up, and then they are lightening. They are a series of movements, like the gears of a watch flowing inevitably from the consequence of its perfect design. Grab, roll, pat and press. Slap, watch, tap and flip. Rescue. Serve.

Just as we’re about to succumb to the pools of saliva collecting in our mouths and rudely intrude on their assembly, magic happens. Chips and salsa and this delicate moist queso fresco appears before us. Cheese? For free? Really? We look up at our server, a young man-boy who was probably still in high school hands the menus to us.

Gracias.
Cafe, por favore.
Regular or mexicana?
Um… Regular? (wrong answer, by the way, unless you’re a diner-coffee purist. A. got the mexicana coffee our 2nd time there and was rewarded with spicy goodness.)

A. knows what he wants to order. He’s been pontificating on the machaca since we heard about the place. A thorough inspection of the menu confirms his desire. I have not thought about it. A cluster of choices worryball through my mind, but finally I choose. Huevos con nopales—which is eggs and cactus leaves and is as authentic as a vegetarian can get.

We graze through the chips, queso fresco and salsa the way the cows graze through their cud a few hundred feet away. The cheese is moist and so fresh it’s as though the cows gave up their milk for it mere days ago. Bite, after bite. Experiments with cheese and chip and salsa assembly. By the time our food arrives, we’ve excavated much of the elevation from our mound of cheese, and dug a hole into the chips.

After the first forkful of our actual breakfast, however, all doubt that we can pile in more food evaporates. It’s delicious, down to the weird, goopy, starchy refried beans. I alternate between the corn tortillas and the flour, both so hot out of the basket they sear my hands. Simplicity renders the tortillas delicious. They are the essence of themselves, pure without preservatives.

Desayuno

Desayuno, note the goopy refried beans

Maybe it’s the setting, maybe it’s their seasonings or ingredients. Whatever it is results in sharp flavor on my tongue. The eggs and nopales are mixed with onion and peppers. I can’t tell what else they’ve put into the dish. Salt and pepper, likely. Homemade chili powder, maybe. Attention and intention, definitely. I eat it all.

I understand the reverence people have for this place. There is something special La Cocina de Doña Esthela. It’s a mecca for the palate, but in such a humble and unpretentious way. It is simple, focused on the ingredients, but I think more than that, it is focused on the community. Those two elements combine into a genuine affection, an open conviviality, which isn’t on the menu, but lives in every plate.

i. road to nowhere

Doña Esthela.  You utter the name of this place or mention it in a hushed conversation and people respond as if you had referenced some kind of religious guru. How to find her?  Like with any guru, you look for the signs.  Nondescript little emblems pointing out the way to you.

Here you tend to follow dirt roads into what feels like nowhere.  Sometimes there are signs.  Sometimes there is a long stretch of rough dirt gouged into the semblance of a road and acres of desert chaparral, interrupted now and then by a rancho or a lot under construction. These country roads are bereft of traffic lights and asphalt.  No fire hydrants stand vigilant on corners.  Dirt, scrub brush, and the occasional vineyard inhabit the land.  Maybe a horse, some dogs (more than occasional) and goats interrupt the feeling of isolation. It is in this void, when the doubt is setting in and you really start to feel the heat of the sun and the hunger churning your belly, just then another sign comes.

La Cocina de Doña Esthela, sprawled at the intersection of two unnamed roads, looks nothing like a restaurant.  Three house-like structures occupy the rutted land, and the hand-painted letters on the side of the west-most building gives the only indication a business may exist here.  It is early on a Friday morning and the fire in the outdoor oven it still hurling smoke out of its top vent as fire spirals out of its mouth.

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Priming the oven at La Cocina de Doña Esthela

Aside from the delivery trucks (pickup trucks mind you, and one modest little flatbed) and the workers, we are the first one’s here.  Instead of going into the restaurant (perhaps, one may postulate, as a normal person would do), we walk towards the fire like two bewitched people.  La Doña is rushing past us, urging us to do as we please as she disappears.  Then we are alone in this place of fire under a giant awning decorated with the skulls of sheep, among other things.

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Smoke and bone

We spend time listening to the insistent whispers of the fire, but soon the animals call louder to us.  Horses flick their tails. Pigs squeal, both angrily and happily.  A lone goose waddles around, its neck stretched long and it glares at everything.  Then there are the chickens and goats and sheep and inattentive cows absently chewing.  We watch them all from the fence, feeling our bellies and a sense of calm from the simplicity before us.

The horses come to the fence to inspect us. One stays watchful behind the other, whose nose finds its way to our hands.  We stroke the rough dusty hair, the strength of the creature vibrant under our touch. This as cow bells jangle and the rooster sings.  He belts out for no other reason than he is programmed to, the need built into his DNA, as relentless as the need to eat.

….which we’ll get to later.

reasons to travel: discomfort, fear and failure

Crossing the border at Tecate is like finding a magical door at the back of a wardrobe.  When you step through, you are suddenly and instantly in another world.  A strip of corrugated metal with an opening wide enough to accommodate a single car separates one country from the other.  You slip from rural desolation into a little city of densely packed homes and businesses crowded together with a giant expanding brewery, which stands at the edge of things like some red giant.

I clutched the steering wheel and commanded Adam to navigate, because I had no idea where I was or how to get where I was going, and this not knowing terrified me.  It was my second ever time driving in Mexico.  The first time is occluded behind the gauze of memory, which is itself speckled with holes,  incomplete and porous like a sponge.

That time was two friends in my mom’s truck, federales with machine guns on a flatbed laughing at our monolingual-ness, and finding a surf spot based on referential directions, which may have been something along the lines of “take the third right after the rock painted white”.  This time was google maps, a detour, and a long line of stop signs and stoplights stuttering us out of the city.  And then Interstate 3, winding through sable-coated hills toasted warm with the coming summer and singed with the desert slinking in from the distance. The emptiness of the long ribbon of pavement, going somewhere correlated with a position on the map, comforted my angst.

I think this might be one of my hidden reasons for traveling.  Yes, I will confess it is to see something new, to understand life outside of all of my norms, my expectations and biases.  It is to peer through the curtain, and like a little voyeur revel in the shapes and textures of another life. But that is only part of it.

Slipping into another place, especially a different country where you don’t speak the language, where everything feels disjointed and like shadow or imitation of what you know—familiar enough, but still so different with its hand-painted business signs, the awkward shape of its streets and the composition of the road beneath the tires, even the chemical smell of the cleaning products—a hundred subtle things say, “this is not your home.  You don’t know this place,” and my brain at the same time insists that it must know because, besides the murky similarities, knowing is the best way to survive.  This is the dissonance; the jolt that brings fear and shakes me out of my complacency.

I hate not knowing. I hate being wrong. I hate failing. But THIS is the stuff of growing.  We can never be more than what we are, or different than what we are if we are never challenged. Living in the safe center of our lives is like living in a wax museum.  Artificial.  Constructed.  Perfectly the same.  We have to touch the edges of our capabilities in order to expand beyond our limitations. These experiences, uncomfortable though they are at times, provide the space to be challenged, to cast aside preconceived notions and to see the world through a different filter.  It is a spark to ignite the evolution of being.