Photo prompt: Sue Vincent
“Learn to listen,” He-Who-Runs-With-Crooked-Legs told him as they sat to whittle spears and arrows out of saplings.
The old man’s hands moved the sharp bone deftly over the yielding wood, smoothing any bumps that could confuse an arrow’s spirit and send it listening to things other than the direction intended by the hunter.
He-Whose-Smile-Fades-Fast had hands that didn’t listen. The bone slipped. The sticks broke. The tips burned instead of hardening.
“You are still young,” He-Who-Runs-With-Crooked-Legs nodded at the boy’s frustration, his own fingers flying like starlings in a sky dance. “Your patience needs many more moons to grow.”
“…And you face special challenges,” the older man added, and the unexpected compassion softened the lined face in a way that soothed the boy more than the salve where the fire had wounded him. “It is your path to struggle. It is your path to overcome and become One-Who-Knows.”
“Like you?” the boy asked, eyes gliding over his mentor’s legs — one long and lean and straight, one tight and oddly bent. It had taken him months to build the courage to speak to the Shaman, and months more to dare note what all saw but was taboo to mention. The deformity was part of the man’s magic. It lent him awe. It caught the curiosity of spirits so they crowded closer to examine him, bringing hardship but also allowing him to speak and sing and plead and wrangle with them on others’ behalf.
“Yes, like me,” He-Who-Runs-With-Crooked-Legs replied. “A path of pain becomes a path of wisdom. If you let it teach you. If you open your heart and listen to your mind, your eyes, your hands, your scars.”
The boy lowered his eyes. He’d seen the man unclothed and he knew the many scars that crisscrossed the Shaman’s torso and that they were part made in valor, part born of harm.
He-Whose-Smile-Fades-Fast still remembered the evening when the old man had tapped the flap to the family’s dwelling, and poked his staff in to let his parents know who’d come. It wasn’t his mother who’d let the guest in. It wasn’t even his brother, who’d since become a man. But his father who had gotten up to greet the healer. His father who’d vacated the best seat and who’d served the steaming pine tea in the whorl cup.
The boy had gone to hide behind his mother’s back while the men talked. He curled his webbed fingers under his thumbs. He stuck his tripping, stubby toes under his mother’s furs. The Shaman scared him, and he felt it in his stomach that it was him the words concerned. He felt it in his mother’s muscles, too, tensing as she listened to a future that she must have known was his, and to the losses that she had to know were coming.
Shamans did not hunt. Shamans did not marry. Shamans did not dangle babies on their knee. They fasted. They prayed. They endured. They traveled worlds of mist and danger to bring back people’s souls. They blessed weapons and fought the spirits of famine and war and ill. They were feared and respected but not often loved. It was not a life a mother would will.
That night had been his last in his mother’s arms. He’d been entrusted to the Shaman since. For days he’d ran in tears to his mother only to have her return him solemnly, her own eyes dripping, to the feathered tent.
“You are fortunate,” she whispered to him once when he clung fiercely and her own hands seemed reluctant to release him. “Some Shamans can be cruel in their training, but he is not. He was my uncle once, in the years before he turned a holy man. He had been raised in violence and he promised he would not impart it on you. Go, my son. He will be like a father and mother to you now.”
The moon was born a dozen times since, and his mother had been right. He-Who-Runs-With-Crooked-Legs was firm and exacting, but he did not whip or lash or wound him, not in body, not in mind. Underneath the distancing exterior, the healer was kind.
The boy bent his head to the stick, determined. Still his hands refused to do his bidding and the sharp bone bit deep into his flesh. He blinked and breathed and wept but let no sound escape.
“The sky has a story today,” the old man said quietly. “Use your pain to wipe your inner eye so you could hear what it tells.”
The boy pressed his lips together and looked up through a veil of tears to see the sky ablaze. Darkness hovered near.
“It will be dark soon,” he said, and the echoes of the throbbing in his hand reverberated in his chest with a desolation only matched by the loneliness he’d felt during the first nights without his mother’s tent. “A dark time.”
The Shaman nodded.
“Fires spat by sticks of thunder. Cunning mouths and thieving hands …” the boy’s eyes lingered on his deformed palm and in the small pool of blood that gathered it in he saw the life of his people dissolve like a reflection distorted by a sudden breeze.
“A dark time is coming,” the Shaman agreed, oddly pleased. “Not in my time. Not in yours. But it will come and our people will discover many needs. You have cleared your eye well, and you have listened. You are young but with patience and more moons, you will become a One-Whose-Eyes-See-Time.”