Time and the seasons had left the old woman's face a ruin.
Much like my own. The man called Old White reached up, running the tip of his finger along the wrinkles that ate into his brown skin. He traced them where they deepened around his mouth, followed their patterns as they mimicked the uncounted ghosts of smiles and frowns long past. His forehead was a mass of ripples, his cheeks loose like flaps. A lifetime of blazing suns and scorching heat alternating with periods of frost-dimmed and aching cold had left its mark on his skin.
"What are you doing?" The old woman was watching him as he fingered his wattled chin. They sat in her thatch-roofed dwelling, high atop a long-abandoned earthen mound. Beyond the cane walls, he could hear the south wind in the trees as it blew up from the gulf. A fox squirrel chattered in one of the oaks.
He shot the old woman a sidelong glance. "Comparing my face to yours."
"You always were a silly goose." She sat across the fire from him, her bony butt on a tightly woven cattail mat. A worn fabric dress hung from her sunken shoulders. From a leather thong a pale shell gorget dangled below her withered neck. Long white hair was drawn into a bun behind her skull. Expressionless, she watched him with pensive eyes like polished pebbles; they seemed to read his souls. "There are no answers there, you know. A face is nothing more than a flawed mask. Ungovernable, it often hideswhat you wish given away, and betrays that which you most wish to conceal."
"I was thinking of how beautiful you were the first time I ever saw you." As clearly as if it were yesterday, he remembered the moment he'd laid eyes on her. She had been naked, bathing in a small pool in the creek that lay a short distance north of her house. He'd been fleeing down a forest trail, his pack on his back. At first glimpse of her, he had stopped in surprise, his form masked by a tangle of honeysuckle. He could still smell the flowers, hear the whizzing chirr of the insects, and sense the faint rustle of wind in the gum and hickory leaves.
She had looked up, meeting his stare. To his surprise there had been no fear, no startled widening of the eyes. Instead she'd raised an eyebrow, demanding, "Are you going to stand there and gape, or will you come down and scrub my back?"
Awkwardly he had stumbled down the leaf-matted slope, thick black soil clinging to his moccasins. Somehow he'd managed to help her bathe, wondering at the perfect form of her lithe body, painfully aware of the full swell of her pointed breasts and moonlike buttocks. It was later he'd finally remarked, "It was as if you knew I was coming."
She'd narrowed her eyes, voice softening. "Oh, yes. I'd heard your souls whimpering from quite some distance."
He had stayed, and she had partially healed him. Hand in hand they had explored the old earthworks, line after line of curving ridges. Forest had reclaimed what had once been a great city, but in the backdirt of squirrel caches, and in places where the leaf mat was disturbed, old cooking clays, bits of pottery, and chipped stone tools caught the light.
"What was this place?" he had asked in awe.
"The ghosts," she said softly, "they tell me this place was called Sun Town. They say it was the center of the world. All manner of men and Spirits came here to marvel. That is, if you can believe the ghosts."
She had shrugged. "Even ghosts lie."
He had studied the layout of the place, so different from that of the peoples he knew. He had sketched it out in the black loam, and thought it in the shape of a bird. It was while digging for greenbriar root that he noticed the little red jasper owl lying among the old cooking clays.
Her eyes had shone, pensive and intrigued when he'd given it to her.
"Masked Owl," she'd told him. "He comes to my Dreams sometimes and tells me stories about the past. Tales of murder, intrigue, and poison."
"Then your Dreams are as haunted as my own." And he had looked sidelong at his heavy pack where it lay beside her door.
Several hands' journey to the south, the Serpent Bird band of the Natchez had built a town around several temples atop tall mounds. Despite being so close, they shunned the quiet ruins of Sun Town, left it to the ghosts and the solitary woman who lived atop the tree-studded mound. But on occasion some individual, driven to desperation, would brave his or her fear and follow the trails north, seeking the Forest Witch for some cure or other.
That long-ago summer had been blissful for him. He'd been alone, with only her knowing eyes and her soft touch for company. She had heard his story, and salved his souls in the house she'd built atop the ancient tree-studded mound.
"You are lost in the past," the old woman said, breaking into his thoughts. "What brought you back to me after all of these years?"
He took a deep breath and looked around the walls of her little house. Cane posts had been planted upright in a square trench, soil piled around the bases, and the uprights tied together like an oversize mat to make the walls. Overhead, batches of moldy thatch had turned gray, most covered with soot. Her few possessions consisted of cooking pots and net bags that held her herbs,dried corn, and Spirit Plants. Two plucked ducks he'd brought with him slowly roasted in the ash of the firepit. Tantalizing odors rose to his nostrils as fat sizzled and spit. The skin had begun to brown just right.
"The Katsinas, out west at Oraibi Town, told me to go home," he told her. "Then, when I reached the western Caddo, I had a Dream. It has plagued me. Over and over, I see her."
He nodded. "A young woman. Maybe a girl. I don't know. She watches me. Sees through me. When I really look at her, I see fire reflected in her eyes. Not just a cooking fire, but a conflagration. A huge roaring fire. It spins out from her fingers, and where it touches me, my skin freezes. Then she laughs and turns off to the south, pointing. But when I turn to look, I can't see any way but north. Upriver."
The old woman watched him thoughtfully. "Still the Seeker, aren't you?" A bitter pout lined her mouth. "What I would have given to have kept you all those summers long ago."
"I had to go. The Dreams ..."
"I know." A wistfulness lay behind her faded eyes. "Only a fool loves the Seeker."
"Or a witch."
She nodded. "You were the only fool in my life, Seeker."
He cocked his head. "But I heard you had a son."
She gave him a flat stare. "He was born six moons after you left."
A cold understanding flowed through his gut. "Why didn't you say something?"
"It wasn't the time ... or place." The ghost of a smile on her lips conveyed no humor. "Power had other plans for you."
"And my son?"
"What boy wants to live in a forest with a witch? My sister took him after several years. He likes living in thesociety of men. He comes through every couple of summers. Lives down on the coast. He's married. His wife has children. For all I know, the children have children."
"I would like to know him."
"He doesn't know about you."
He stiffened in response to her serene expression.
"Stop it," she said softly. "Would you have given up your quest? Hmm? Ceased to punish yourself, or--pray the gods--actually have forgiven yourself?" A pause. "That's what it takes to be a father. And, perhaps, even a husband. No, old lover, don't look at me like that. You made your choices. All of them, knowing full well the consequences. It's too late now to change them."
"I would know what he--"
"You didn't come here to find a son you didn't know existed. You came to find a girl."
He opened his hand, staring down at the callused palm. Old scars had faded into the lines. Her words echoed between his souls. "I have lost so much, in so many places."
In a gentle voice, she asked, "Did you find the ends of the world?"
He shook his head. "It's not like the stories the Priests tell. The gods alone know how big the world really is. I can't tell you the things I've seen. You wouldn't believe the different peoples, the forests, the deserts, the lands of ice and snow, the endless seas. I've seen an eternity of grass that ripples like waves in the wind, buffalo herds ... like black cloud patterns as far as the eye can see. Mountains, thrusting spires of naked rock into the heavens so high that you would believe the very sky was pierced. Rivers of ice that flow down valleys like ..." But he could see that he'd lost her. He lowered his head. Even she, who knew everything, couldn't conceive the reality behind his pitiful words.
"That was the Trade you made," she told him. "The manner in which you insisted on punishing yourself."
"Why did I come back here?"
She laid a hand on his shoulder. "So that I could tell you it was time. The circles of Power are closing."
As she spoke he could see the Dream girl's face. She was young, barely a woman. Her long black hair gleamed in the light, waving as if teased by wind or waves. Reflections filled her large dark eyes. The images seemed to shift and beckon, mocking in their mannerisms. Smooth brown skin, unmarred by wrinkles or scars, molded to her bones; and her smile was a darting and tempting thing.
"Go to her," the old woman said. "I can see her in your eyes. Powerful, this one. So very Powerful."
"She has called me from across half a world. Will she kill me?" he wondered. "Is that why I Dream the fire in her eyes? Will she burn me to restore the balance?"
The old woman lifted her shoulder in a careless shrug.
How characteristic of her. The Forest Witch had never hidden the truth or played games with him, never smoothed the rough edges of life. Not even back then, when he'd been frightened, lonely, and horrified. Now, as he looked at her age-ravaged face, sadness filled his breast.
"What are you thinking?" she asked.
"That I would make you beautiful again. That I would go back to that morning I found you by the stream, and we would live it all over again."
"And that you would never leave?"
"I thought you had ceased to delude yourself with foolishness. Wasn't it doing 'what had to be done' that got you into this in the first place?"
He stared at her over the roasting ducks.
"Of course it was," she answered for him. "We're both beings of Power, you and I, so let's stop wishing for what never could have been and eat these ducks. Then, tomorrow, fool-who-loved-me, you can be on your way north."
"North? Upriver? But she points south in the Dream."
"You say that she touches you with fire, but it freezes your flesh?"
"She points south, but you can only see north? Upriver?"
"Confusing, isn't it?"
"Contraries generally are."
He shot a quizzical glance her way, then felt the certainty of it. "I should have known."
"Oh, I think you did. Coming here was a way of admitting what you already knew. You're bringing the circle full. What was begun must be ended." She paused. "Wait, I have something for you." She pulled at the grease-black leather thong around her neck. From inside her dress came a small hide bag closed with a drawstring. This she opened, fishing out a little red stone object.
He looked down after she placed it in his hand. The small potbellied owl with its cocked head and masked eyes rested warmly against his skin. The circle come fully closed. Beginning and ending.
"Perhaps, when this is done ..." He couldn't finish.
She extended her withered arm across the hearth to place a finger on his lips. "A lie is as venomous when told to yourself as it is when told to others. Tomorrow, go. And never come back here, my vanished love."
"Is that all that is left to us?"
"The only reason you ever came to me was to leave." She smiled wearily as she used a stick to turn the ducks where they roasted among the embers. "Go, find this woman of fire who freezes in your Dreams. I have given you all that I can. With the return of that little owl, we owe nothing more to each other."
The Copper Lands lay along the rocky western shores of the great lakes. Some called them the FreshwaterSeas. For generations local peoples had mined sacred copper from the green-crusted rocks. Copper was Traded the length and breadth of the great rivers. Beaten flat, sculpted into images of gods, heroes, and sacred shapes, it was prized by the great lords of the south for its polished beauty. Shaped into ax heads, maces, and jewelry, the mere possession of it demonstrated a man's authority, wealth, and status. Ownership of copper was the province of chiefs and chieftesses, of Priests, Dreamers, and great warriors. The mighty and influential adorned their bodies and buildings with it, and the lucky few carried it with them to their graves.
A small nugget of copper was worth a man's life. Empires had risen and fallen over its control. While occasional small nuggets had been found in the southeastern mountains, the finest copper came from around the great freshwater lakes. Mostly the locals mined it, hammered it into shape, and Traded it downriver. But on occasion, a willing individual with more than his fair share of ambition dickered with the local tribes for the right to mine his own.
The man known as Trader wiped a gritty sleeve across his sweat-streaked face and looked up at the gray scudding clouds. They came in low over the choppy waters of the great lake, driven by a wet and pregnant north wind. Trader could smell the moisture, cool, promising rain and dreary skies.
For three days he had worked in this hole. Spoil dirt from generations of previous excavators had trickled down the steep slope. From the lip of the hole, Trader had a good view of the river valley below, where Snow Otter's village--a cluster of bark-sided lodges--stood on a knoll above the sandy beach. Canoes, looking like dark sticks from this distance, were pulled up on the bank. Smoke puffed from the lodges in blue wreaths.
The surrounding hills were covered with thick growths of pine, hemlock, silver fir, birch, maple, and cedars. To the north, he could see the endless horizon of the greatlake. He had never felt comfortable in these far northern lands. Born in the warm hickory woodlands of the south, he'd never adjusted to the chill that stalked the blue shadows beneath the conifers and birch. He could sense it, waiting, knowing that the days need but shorten before it would creep out and smother the trees, soil, and stone.
Trader swiped at the cloud of mosquitoes humming around his head. He was handsome, with a finely formed face, strong jaw, and high forehead. Not particularly tall, he was wide shouldered and well muscled from years of plying a paddle against the current. His face bore only outlines of tattoos, as if they had been interrupted before being finished. His eyes were surrounded by forked-eye designs; and a bar ran from ear to ear high across his cheeks and over his broad nose. When he laughed, his teeth were white and straight, his lips mobile and full. Women smiled when they met his gaze, a quickening sparkle in their eyes.
He turned his attention to the depths of the hole. An oversize wolf might have worried such a lair out of the earth's bones. The walls were irregular where stones and soil had been pried away. Trader shuffled his feet on the broken rock and squatted, a stone maul in one hand, a hardwood stake in the other. Bending, he picked a crack in the greenish stone and began driving the ash-wood stake into it.
"You work like a beaver," an accented voice called from above. The man spoke in the pidgin common to the rivers, a mixture of Mos'kogee, Siouan, and Algonquin tongues that had adapted itself to the Trade over the generations. Like Trade itself, "Trade Tongue" was sacred. Those who spoke it did so with a sense of respect and awe. It was said that the gods listened in. Rumor had it that nowadays even some chieftains spoke in Trade Tongue when finalizing the most solemn of agreements, wanting the imprimatur of its Power.
Others insisted it was yet another trick that rulers hadtaken to, one they used when intent on fully duping their subjects.
Trader didn't look up from his labor as he hammered the splintering stake into a widening gap in the rock. "I paid you a great deal to come and sweat myself to death in your hole. Don't distract me. I want to enjoy every moment of my suffering."
Trader didn't look up as Snow Otter laughed, then said, "In a very short time you're going to be wet to the bone. Rain's coming. I can smell it."
"So can I, but you don't have to stay here. Go keep dry and warm. I'll be down to the village by nightfall." Trader glanced up, seeing Snow Otter where he crouched at the edge of the excavation. The man was fingering a white shell gorget that hung from a string around his neck. Yes, paid well, indeed. The southern chiefs would have killed him on the spot if they'd known he'd Trade a sacred artifact like that to a northern barbarian. The concave surface of the gorget bore an image of the three-tiered cosmos with a spiraled pole rising from the sacred fire cross in the center. The Four Winds were depicted by woodpecker heads on each side. The Mos'kogee believed the image to have Power. Not the sort of thing to be bartered off to a nonbeliever like Snow Otter.
Trader smiled at the depths to which he had fallen. Who would have thought?
"I have copper," Snow Otter insisted. "Lots of it. Enough that you don't have to labor like some southern war slave. Come away from here. Let's go down to the village. My wife's roasted whitefish wrapped in goosefoot leaves. She'll lay it on a steaming bed of wild rice. I've got some of that raspberry drink left."
"I thought you said we drank the last of it last night."
A pause. "I might have miscounted the pots in my cache."
"Just like you'd miscount those pieces of copper you want to Trade me."
"You wrong me!"
"A man who knows you as well as I do would never wrong you by making a simple statement of the truth." Trader reached for another wooden stake and glanced up at Snow Otter. The man looked as if he'd just suffered a terrible affront. "Oh, stop that. How many years have I been making the trip up here?"
"Five, perhaps six."
"Yes, my friend, and in that time I have come to know you inside and out. You'll do anything to come out ahead. I think you'd sell your souls if it meant gaining an advantage."
"And you wouldn't?"
If you only knew how foolish I've been. Trader chuckled, hearing the satisfying smack as he used the stone-headed maul to drive the stake into the crack, widening it further. "I just Trade to Trade."
Silence was broken only by the snapping impact of the stone hammer on the hardwood stake.
Finally Snow Otter asked, "So what do you want? I'd really like to know. Season after season, you travel the length of the rivers, make the portages, and carry your goods from one end of the land to the other. In all that time, never have I heard you talk of home. You speak fondly of no people. I don't even know your nation. Not one single woman seems to linger in your thoughts, yet you watch any attractive female with a wistful longing in your eyes. It's as if you are cast loose, like the wild birds ... a thing that migrates and has no will to stop."
Trader looked up, rubbing a grimy hand across his forehead. "Maybe that's what I am, nothing more than a bird."
"What's your name? Seriously. You just go by Trader. It's as if you're not even a full person. You have to have a name."
"Trader is enough." He lowered his eyes to the stake where it wedged into the rock. "A name is nothing. A word. Once it passes from the lips it might never haveexisted. Like the breath behind it, it's gone. And so shall I be. And soon, Snow Otter. Very soon."
"That's all you want from living? Just to pass like a word?"
Trader managed a bitter smile. "Maybe all I want is wealth. Something that will take a high chief's breath away. Something so precious I can Trade it for a whole fleet of canoes. Yes, that's it. I want something so precious that the very sight of it will make people swoon and gasp with awe. I want to see their eyes fill with envy!"
"For what purpose? Just to have it? To hoard this great wealth like a packrat over a gleaming white shell? Bah! You'd rot on the inside trying to keep it."
"Maybe I'd Trade it for something."
"Ah, now that makes sense. Would you buy yourself a farm, slaves to work your fields, and compliant women? Is that it? You'd lie around, get fat, and sire children?"
Trader shook his head. "What? And send my harvest off to the high minko of whatever land I ended up in? No, I've seen that and want no part of it."
"So I'm back to my original question. What do you want?"
Trader hammered absently at the stake. "Great wealth."
"Just to have it?"
"That's why I'm down here digging," Trader muttered. "I can feel it."
"What did you say?"
"I said, I can feel the copper. It's here."
"Of course it's there," Snow Otter agreed. "I've pulled a lot of copper out of that pit, but it's all been small nuggets. Small nuggets aren't that bad. You can take a lot of little pieces of copper and beat them into one sheet."
"The color's not consistent."
The first drop of rain spattered on Trader's neck. He grunted at the cold trickle that ran down into his collar.As the rain increased he resumed his hammering, letting the cold impacts on his back goad him to further effort. Sand caked his damp hands, grating on the wooden handle of the maul. Snow Otter's questions left him irritated and touched at the old wound deep between his souls. He had been stripped of all the essentials that made a man: family, status, place, and possessions. A man with nothing wanted everything. One day, he would obtain some item so valuable and rare it would be the envy of all: chief, Priest, warrior, farmer, and slave. Then, by blood and pus, he'd show them.
"You're a fool!" Snow Otter called from the rim of the hole. He was holding a section of tanned deer hide over his head. Rain battered at them.
"So are you ... for staying here."
"My conscience won't allow me to leave an idiot to his fate."
"And you're curious," Trader muttered under his breath as he straightened his back against the strain and selected another of the hardwood stakes. Through the pelting rain he could see another crack opening to the side of the rock he worked on. Bending at the hips, he began hammering another of the pointed stakes into the faint gap.
"You're a lunatic!" Snow Otter called from above.
The rain fell in relentless sheets, turning the hole into a mucky mess. Trader slopped about on soaked moccasins. He could feel sand between his toes. His long black hair had matted to his head, and cold droplets were tracing paths down his cheeks. The stone mallet head now slipped when he pounded it against the mushrooming wood.
"That hammer's going to fall apart," Snow Otter observed from above. "The head is only held on by shrunken rawhide. Once it's wet ..."
"I know." Trader whacked the stake with growing frustration.
Cold fingers of water trickled down his ribs. Was itworth it? Snow Otter's wife would have a smoky but warm fire going down in the village. He could imagine that baked whitefish melting on his tongue. This was crazy. What had prompted him to think he could dig his own copper anyway?
"I'm leaving," Snow Otter said pointedly.
"Smart man," Trader muttered, whacking the stake one last time.
The rock shifted enough to allow him to slip his fingers into the crack. Trader lifted, feeling stone slide on stone. He rolled the angular fragment to one side, staring at the backside of the rock as rain spattered it. The stone looked as if it were veined with fungus. Lines of green seemed to dive into the rock's heart. Green. But not metallic.
You're nothing. Just some bird. You lost it all, and you'll never have anything again. Not a friend. Not a wife. Only a canoe, and whatever trinkets you can barter.
A memory flashed from deep down between Trader's souls. He saw his brother Rattle's eyes, the cunning and deceit turning to fear as Trader's club whistled. He felt the anger surge within, a hot red Power, as he put his weight behind the blow. He remembered Rattle throwing himself backward in the vain attempt to save himself. Trader relived the instant that sharp stone ax had smashed into his brother's head. He could still feel the blow that crushed Rattle's skull, as if the memory was embedded in the bones and muscles of his arm.
I killed him. Became the man I swore I never would.
Trader blinked it away. He was once again standing head-deep in a mucky hole, wet, cold, and hopeless. Frustration made him lift the hammer high. The blow struck the center of the mottled green stone, the crack like thunder as the hammer head disintegrated into shards that spattered around the inside of the hole.
"Hey!" Snow Otter cried. "That's my best mallet!"
Trader stared at the ruined maul, then at the crackedstone. With one hand he pulled a spalled section away and blinked. The color was unmistakable.
"You're going to have to replace that!" Snow Owl insisted from above. "Good hammers like that are hard to come by. I spent days making sure that one was just right. It cradled in my hand like a fine woman. It had a special balance."
Trader used a fragment of broken rock to crack off more waste stone.
"Why don't I ever learn?" Snow Otter was saying to the falling rain. "Other people never treat your tools with the respect they should. What is it about these foreign Traders? Why do they flock to me with their destructive lunacy?"
Trader cradled his find as he looked up into the rain. "I get to keep it, right?"
"The broken hammer? It's yours ... as long as you find me one as good to replace it."
"No, the copper," Trader said. "The deal was that I got to keep all the copper that I dug up."
"That was the deal before you ruined my hammer," Snow Otter growled. "That's why I brought you up here to this old hole. We've never dug anything but small ..." He was squinting through the downpour. "What have you got there?" The metallic sheen from beneath couldn't be anything but metal.
"Copper," Trader said reverently. "And from the weight of this rock, a lot of it."
Snow Owl forgot his deerhide cover and scrambled down into the narrow pit. He cocked his head, fingers running across the rain-spattered copper. His eyes widened with disbelief, words catching in his throat. "That's worth a fortune!"
Trader stared at the gleaming metal, the cold rain forgotten. "Yes, I know."
Copyright © 2008 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear