Death, Feelings, and Fire
The climb lasts five to ten hours, for those who come out of the hole.
We wear strong, thin leather on our hands and feet.
We rub our skin with the bark of the felik bush.
It toughens the skin for a few days, but we still bleed.
Felik also has a good scent which hides the smell of blood.
It is forbidden to practice the climb in the hole, but there are other places with sharp rocks to cut us.
We climb and crawl through narrow spaces without water or food, and learn to climb, bleeding, and in pain.
I will wear the leather when I climb, soaked in japhla, to make it glow a little, and give me extra light in the dark hole.
A little brother asks me why I don’t wear the leather all over.
“I would sweat fire and be roasted like a Pilkra (a small bird),” I answer smiling.
All make the climb alone, but we practice with others.
There is no choice.
I practice with my sister Shanir.
Shanir will be my partner in this.
Who else would I choose but her?
We have always been like twins, different blood mothers, but born two days apart, at the same moon.
She climbs better than me, but she will not climb the hole.
Women lead both councils, but they are not chiefs.
“You are as serious as a stone, Jaina,” she says, as we rest during the training.
“Do you think a chief is serious all the time?”
“Death is serious, Shanir.”
“Laughter will not get me out of the hole.”
“Emotion is not your enemy, Jaina,” she says.
“Some emotions get in your way, and steal your power.”
“Other feelings give you the strength to challenge stone, and stay focused.”
“When we practice,” she says, “I use emotions to shrink the pain.”
“I hear myself greeting you at the top of the hole, yelling your praises with the rest of the women.”
“You sound like Elder mother,” I say and smile.
Our cuts will not leave scars on our faces or bodies.
The wounds vanish before the power of our healers.
Shanir teaches me to center on powerful thoughts and feelings.
I see beautiful mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets.
I feel the awe and excitement, the first time I see the fire dreamers dance.
I feel the light pass into me from the love and smiles of my little brothers and sisters.
I hear the roar of men as they come home from a great victory.
Shanir and Elder Mother circle within me, and give me strength.
They are the ones I love most in the world.
Another memory comes, of terror and wonder at four suns old.
Death steps aside for me that day.
I stand lost, next to a cliff.
Twenty feet away, on another cliff, a Kalmil kills an animal and eats it.
A faint orange light drifts around the Kalmil the entire time.
We call it the orange fire.
The strength of the Kalmil is so glorious, the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen.
I watch him and wonder what he thinks of men.
Then I remember how dangerous he is.
The Kalmil have a strange scent, not like an animal.
They smell like fresh rich dirt, and the air after a storm — a good smell.
If it fills you too long, though, you sleep, and you may be meat.
The Kalmil kill as easy as they breathe, and they are not afraid of men.
The cats kill our hunters who enter their territory.
And give a swift end to old people who wait for death in the forest, and those with wounds that will not heal.
Sometimes they attack the young, but the fire dreamers say that Kalmil only attack young who are cursed.
All children fear them.
This one feels my presence from across the cliff
He turns and stares at me for a long time.
He can not jump the twenty feet, but he can shift and reach me as a hunter, a great bird with claws like knives.
His orange fire grows bright, and he changes into the hunter.
I’m so frightened that I wet myself, and pass out.
I don’t remember the flight, but Shanir saw it.
She is with Elder Mother when the bird approaches our camp.
“The guards wonder why the hunter comes,” Shanir tells me later.
The birds do not attack men, but they will attack small children, if there is nothing else to eat.
The guards raise their spears, ready to drive away the hunter.
Then they see that it carries a child.
It puts me down, and shifts back into the Kalmil, and elder mother shakes me awake.
Bits of orange fire drift around my hands.
When the guards see that I am all right, they bow to the Kalmil, as we bow to a worthy enemy.
It looks me in the eyes, before it turns to growl at the others.
Then it shifts into the hunter and flies away.
Elder mother tells the guards that this child will be chief.
They look at the little one who wets himself, and doubt her, but they don’t laugh.
The Kalmil has marked me with its fire, and brought me home.
Caves and Climbing
I make the climb in spring, when it is not cold or hot, on the day of remembering for my brother’s climb.
It is a dry time.
If it rains when you are in the hole, you die.
Some climbers wear shirts and pants, but I do not.
The clothes guard your skin for part of the climb, but they make you hot, and waste precious water.
Also, your torn clothing catches the rocks, and slows you down.
The caves that lead to the hole are painted with sacred symbols.
Only the fire dreamers know their meaning.
The dreamers say these symbols give us strength for the climb, to reach the top, or journey to the next world.
Two of your family walk in the caves with you, along with the guards.
Shanir and Elder mother walk with me.
Shanir is like a little Elder Mother.
She will lead a council someday.
I hope that I will be chief so I can still argue with her.
We are deep in the ground, in the dark.
The only light comes from the torches that we carry.
At the bottom of the hole, Elder mother and Shanir smear gudra all over the rocks.
It has a powerful smell which fills the hole.
Some say it strengthens the climber.
The five guards greet me in the way of warriors.
We call it trading fire.
One at a time, they stand nose to nose with me, and stare with strength into my eyes.
I pour out my strength into my eyes, like stone.
They smile and wish me well.
Two of them will guard the entrance to the cave.
Two will wait at the top of the hole.
I watch as the guards move the rocks to close me in.
It is before sunrise, but a little light is already in the sky.
Still, not much comes down here.
Near the top of the hole they have set up torches and a metal mirror to concentrate light down the hole.
The light will be strong when I come near the end of the climb.
Before that only the glow from my leather will feed my eyes.
What do I say about the climb?
It is, as Elder Mother says, “great work.”
No practice can make this easy.
We fight the earth to rise out of the hole and return to life.
The long hours of pain are most difficult to bare, but Shanir’s words save me that day.
My feelings keep me focused, and give me strength to melt the pain and blood.
I climb out of the hole, about 8 hours later, my hands shaking from effort, my legs weak.
This climb was slower than many, but I don’t care.
I am happy to be alive.
At the top of the hole, the fire dreamers make designs in the dirt to give the climber extra strength.
They paint the marks with bright colors.
I see their signs, though my eyes are weak from the climb.
Then I see the guards.
They stand near the top of the hole.
There are two fire dreamers who wait there, always a man and a woman.
The woman is Elder Mother, and the other an old dreamer who will live the world soon.
Both of them are full of dreams right now, and the green fire dances around their heads and feet.
My unmated brothers and sisters including Shanir are here to greet me.
Except for the dreamer and the guards, no other men may wait.
I don’t know why.
It is our way.
Shanir holds water for me while I drink, and she cries.
I cry too, and hug her, staining her clothes with my blood.
We are a powerful and brave people.
We cry freely when battles are done, and release our joy.
She rubs blood on her forehead and yells the calls of warrior victory.
The other girls and women rub my blood on their heads and yell with her.
Then Shanir puts a cream on my cuts to stop the bleeding.
Soon a healer comes.
The climb does not make me a chief, but for the first time, that future is more than a dream.