The Forest: Prologue
The fog in my mind lifts slowly, and I find myself in a young boy’s body.
I hear Jaina’s thoughts louder than my own, and feel his emotions.
His senses are now mine, but he does not hear my thoughts, or feel me.
I am a ghost with no power to act.
The old ones call this “traveling as a witness.”
Will it drive me mad to watch him for a lifetime of years, unable to act?
My answer comes in a few days.
I get lost in Jaina’s thoughts, emotions, and dreams, and forget myself.
His thoughts and actions become mine.
Sometimes I remember, and feel that I’m only a stranger, a witness, separate from his thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Then a moment, or a day passes, and I lose myself again.
The years turn, and one day, life is gone.
I drift without senses, and wonder where I am.
I still think that I’m Jaina, and I see this as he would, thinking his thoughts about life and death.
Then, foreign memories, unwelcome visitors, disturb me.
I remember Shazira my bondmate, and Tzina, my daughter.
Finally, I remember Yagrin, the temple and the old ones, and I feel my body far away, resting in the vat.
Jaina’s life becomes a memory, and I weep.
I’ve thought about different ways to tell Jaina’s story, but the only true way is to speak as him, with his words and thoughts.
A Chief’s Heart
My name is Jaina and I am chief of my group.
I have seen many wonders in my life, and many challenges, but the climb is the first of my strong memories.
My people live in a dangerous world.
We fight to live.
Our greatest enemies are the Kalmil, shape shifters that live as great cats.
They hunt in the forest, and steal our kills.
They rarely kill us, but they threaten and harm us for their pleasure.
We drive them away when we can, but killing them is bad luck.
An old saying says,”killing Kalmil is like killing your father.”
A strange saying.
We fight other groups for many reasons, and sometimes we fight each other.
Elder mother says: “Fight to live, not from anger or boredom.”
My father has four wives.
His wives raise their children together, and mother us all.
Elder mother was the oldest wife when father lived, not my blood mother, but she is the one who shaped me.
She taught me how to think and feel.
Elder mother has always been my favorite.
Among my people, there are two councils who advise the chief.
One is a council of elders, mostly women.
The other council is of fire dreamers, men and women.
Elder mother is on both councils.
She is worthy, and who has the courage to deny her?
Some people say it is hard to be chief.
Cowards speak this way.
It’s not hard for the sun to rise in the sky, or for the great cats to run after their prey.
It’s not hard to be chief, once you know that you have a chief’s heart.
This is much more than strength and speed, hunting and fighting, though a chief needs all these.
The “climb” is one way for a child to test his heart.
There are other tests, too.
The fire dreamers saw all of our tests.
The dreamers tell us of a world our eyes cannot see, and help the chief to keep the heart of the people straight.
Many chiefs never walked the tests.
Tests do not make a man chief, or stand in his way.
Still, elder mother says that a chief must know he’s a chief.
Then, only death will stop him.
It was she who decided that I would climb.
There was little question that I would obey her in this.
Sometimes I don’t listen to her, but not for long.
Elder mother is very kind, but when my birth mother begged me not to go, elder mother slapped her.
“He must believe he can do it,” she said, “or he will die.”
The climb is a deep dry hole.
To enter is easy.
Walk through the caves to the bottom of the hole.
The climber sits at the bottom, and the doorway to the caves is sealed with great rocks.
The way to the hole’s bottom is guarded, so no one may help or provide rescue.
The rocks are too large for a man to move.
No child will push them aside.
There are two ways out: up, or die.
The passageway is narrow, and the rocks sharp.
The one who climbs is cut, again and again.
When you bleed, there are flies.
The climber moves slowly, squeezing between the rocks.
There is no water, little food, and just enough air.
Climb when you’re too small, and you won’t have the strength to reach the top.
Do it when you’re too big, and you won’t fit.
The ways are clear.
Eight suns old, until the ninth sun comes, you climb.
Eat too much before you climb, and you won’t fit.
Eat too little, you won’t have the strength.
Once I had an elder brother, four suns past me.
He told me wonderful stories.
Whechu was so strong and kind.
Big, even at eight suns.
He made the climb, but left too much of his blood on the rocks.
He was bleeding fast when he came out of the hole.
A healer came quickly, but my brother died an hour out of the hole.
The whole group mourns for anyone who dies in a test or battle.
Elder mother says “Getting out is great work.”
Once I said to her that getting out is hard to do.
She slapped me hard enough to knock me down.
I cried a little as I stood up, but I did not complain.
“A rock is hard,” she said as she looked sharply into my eyes.
“Work is just work. You face it with all that you are, and more.”
“If you die then, it’s a good death.”
“But don’t die,” she added and smiled, kissing the place she slapped.
Faces of Death
There are many ways to die.
Some climbers lose their courage, and remain at the bottom, waiting for death.
Others climb part way and go mad from the small spaces.
They tear themselves to pieces, trying to rush out of the hole.
Some die from bleeding or weakness, and some just get stuck.
Sometimes a climber dies, and their bones and flesh get stuck along the way.
A barrel is prepared of vistal, and poured down the hole.
It does not burn the rocks, or remain long in the hole, but it dissolves flesh and bone.
What is left at the bottom is cleaned up a few days later.
Some mothers tell their children stories of spirits.
These mothers want to frighten their sons to make them careful.
The most horrible of all stories are of dead children who never made it through the climb.
These spirits haunt the hole, and choose some climbers to stay with them in the hole, forever.
Children who believe these stories will never become chiefs.