Aku looked back and forth at his parents. He was bending a sapling to tie into a hoop, and he could feel it about to break. His twin sister looked away from their parents and held her breath. His grandmother, who seldom stopped talking to herself in low tones, kept mum. Aku never knew whether she was talking to her dead husband, to spirits only she saw, or to herself. Because his parents almost never argued, the silence rang like a gong.
"Go to the river and get water," their father snapped at the twins, "both of you."
Aku stopped to grab a gourd, so his sister beat him out the door. Outside, Salya announced, "I have to pee," and strode off.
That meant Aku had to meander to the creek alone, stick his hands in the cold water, and shiver as he walked back to his family’s hut with a full gourd. He looked around the town where he’d been born and raised. Tusca was a circle of over a hundred huts opening in the direction of the rising sun, and dominated on the west side by the usual arbor serving as a council house. Tusca was the leading war village of the Galayi tribe, and his father was the Red Chief, the war leader. The tribe’s two peace villages made the people what they were, those who walked in the wisdom of the Immortals. The five war villages were their acknowledgment of the realities of life.
Salya came prancing back. She was wrapped in her hide robe, and shared it with Aku. After the all- night rain, the morning air was cool and moist. Both of them wanted to creep into their family’s house, near the warm center fire. Still, they obeyed their father. The chief made sure his children listened to him.
Inside, Meli handed her husband a buffalo horn filled with warm sassafras tea. If she was going to gentle him, she needed to gentle herself first. She took her horn of tea and retreated to a corner of her own hut. Big sheaves of tobacco were stacked on deer hides against the walls. Her husband smoked this tobacco to call the spirits and ask for their help. Medicinal herbs hung from the ceiling, each with its distinctive smell. Now she went to them and drew the aroma of several into her chest—Indian pinkroot, wild plantain, spigelia, lobelia, and others.
She was an herbalist, expert in treating snakebite, worms, curing infection, easing bowel troubles, and many other maladies. She loved the hut’s rich aroma from the sacred tobacco and all her herbs. Now she held three separate herbs and inhaled the scent of each deeply, thinking of its healing power. She took a sip of her tea and touched the dulled flowers of the pinkroot. Still she couldn’t settle her mind.
She barely flicked her eyes toward her mother, who was back to murmuring to herself. Meli heard a whisper outside and guessed that the twins were near the door, eavesdropping.
She sat down beside her husband, and he started in again, more gently. "Now is the time to go." By habit Shonan spoke in tones of authority. Because Meli loved him, she would let him trot out his argument again. Early summer was a convenient time to travel. The rainy moon was past, the corn was planted but not yet up, and the time to gather seeds, berries, and nuts against winter’s hunger was several moons away.
Outside, Salya rolled her eyes at hearing her father’s whole thing again. As a child she’d been a natural imp. Now, at twelve, she was turning into a rebel.
Meli swigged her sassafras tea and held her tongue. The truth was, she didn’t have enough reasons to counter her husband’s, and he paid attention only to reasons. She had a bad feeling about this trip, which Shonan wouldn’t accept as a reason. Still, she was glad Shonan was the way he was, big and strapping and sure of himself, all so much the opposite of her. She had to be clever to stand up to him, but she wouldn’t have wanted less of a man. He mentioned two of his comrades who also wanted to take their families. A war chief would always think of security.
Finally, she lowered her voice and ventured her two objections, which even she only half- believed. "Salya’s not strong yet," she said. The girl was getting over a coughing sickness. The trip to Adani’s village, Equani, was a long walk over mountain ridges and through rivers.
Now Meli whispered. Outside the twins leaned closer to the door, but missed their mother’s words.
"Besides, Crani needs us." She kept her back to her mother, though when three generations shared one hut, as the Galayi people usually did, there were no secrets.
"Salya is fine," said Shonan. "And the neighbors will see to your mother." He spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, inside and outside. Crani was as important as anyone to a man of the Galayi tribe, his wife’s mother. When you married, you moved in with her family, not the other way around. Shonan had never been easy with the deference due his mother- in- law.
Meli thought about what to say. Her husband didn’t believe anyone was weak. He could do anything, and thought others didn’t expect enough of themselves, even twelve-year- old girls or aged parents. His confidence was the reason the village warriors elected him their leader. It was also why he’d been able to intimidate the tribe’s enemies thoroughly, so that a trip from one Galayi village to another was safe now, even for a small group. He had changed the lives of the people of all seven villages. After all, he was the grandson of Zeya, the hero who had saved the people by bringing them a new eagle- feather cape.
Meli loved him for all of that and much more. But he listened only to head reasons, and usually only to those in his own head. Sometimes Meli had feelings, or a kind of second sight, and couldn’t express her perceptions in a way her husband would listen to. She got the talent for second sight from her mother’s grandmother, Tsola.
Outside, Salya said, "Enough of this." She took Aku’s hand, pulled him back into the hut, and immediately said, "I want to go see Adani."
"We all need to see him," said Shonan, "and he needs to see us."
Every spring the Galayi people planted corn and then made the journey to the peace village named Cheowa, the principal of all Galayi towns. Here they sang, drummed, and danced for a quarter moon, celebrating the return of the season when all things grow and asking for the blessings of Grandmother Sun on their crops. Some also made pilgrimages up the mountain to cure their bodies in the Healing Pond, outside the entrance to the Emerald Cave. That was where Meli’s great- grandmother lived, Tsola, the Wounded Healer of the tribe and the prophetess empowered to wear the eagle- feather cape and see the future. The Dance of the Planting Moon was one of the tribe’s three big annual ceremonies.
This spring Adani—the word meant the grandfather who was your father’s father—hadn’t made the trip from his own town, well to the southwest. The family said he was too feeble. Shonan, Meli, the twins—all of them knew that meant Adani wouldn’t survive another winter. If they were going to see him again before he went to the Darkening Land, this was the time.
"Shonan, I want to see Adani, too," Aku said. For some reason the boy never called his father "Father."
"You kids be quiet!" said Shonan. "Your mother and I are talking."
"Shonan," said Meli, "you promised Yim some help. Why don’t you and Aku do that, and we can talk later?"
Shonan looked into his wife’s eyes and understood. She was wise. He led his son out of the hut.
"Red Chief," said Yim, "Aku. Just in time." Yim and his son Fuyl were already at work rebuilding a corner of their hut. They were opposites, the father squat and sturdy, the son handsome and slender.
The hut was made of walls of slender limbs plastered and held up by posts, and the roof thatched. One of Yim’s corner posts tilted off- kilter, threatening to open his home to the weather. Yim wanted to go along to Equani to visit his own family, and he wanted his home snug while was gone.
Yim was the quietest man Aku had ever known, so he knew better than to chatter with his friend Fuyl.
Shonan and Aku shoved the post upright, lifting the corner of the roof, while Yim and Fuyl braced it with dirt and stones. Aku pushed, but he was reed- slender and did little good. His father’s thick, powerful legs and strong back did the work. Aku wished he had the kind of strength his father respected men for.
All four stamped the dirt firm.
Yim nodded without a word to the big pile of muck a few feet away. It was a mix of dirt, straw, and animal dung. They would smear the goop onto the thin limbs, and when it dried, the plaster would keep the inside warm and dry.
While we’re gone, thought Aku.
As soon her husband’s legs disappeared out the door flap, Meli felt Crani’s light touch on her shoulder. Her mother gave Meli a toothless smile and handed her an awl and a piece of deer hide. Salya joined them. The three generations of women often sewed together in silence, communicating without words. Now they began to stitch moccasins. "I will be fine," Crani said. "And the children do need to see Adani again."
"Shonan, too," admitted Meli.
The women concentrated on punching the sharp awls through the tough hides and lashing them with thongs. Crani’s fingers were discolored now, and puffed up like sausages, but she had the strength to push the awl needle through the hide.
Meli pondered her husband, always bluff, hearty, and practical. He might have a little regret about marrying into her family, with their gifts as shamans and shape- shifters. Regardless of his vigor and self- confidence, he had his needs, including the blessing of his father.
If ever she wished he was different, she needed no effort to remember why she wanted to spend her days with him. He was passionate about her.
Most Galayi men did not have passion for their wives. They chose a mate as an antlered deer chose a doe, because their bodies felt the need, and then they looked for another doe. For a sits- beside- him woman they chose companionship rather than passion. Sometimes, yes, an adolescent’s heart was taken with a girl. That generally went the way a creek tumbled swiftly through rapids. Youthful feelings soon eddied out.
In their case, though, Shonan was devoted to Meli and her only from the time they met at fourteen winters. He felt to her like a big boulder heated to the core by a thousand suns for a thousand days, warm all the way through, an unending source of comfort. If she lay close beside this man’s love, she knew, it would last a lifetime. She and her children and grandchildren could make a family around it.
When he asked her to marry him, she made a request—that when her younger sisters were offered to him as wives, as they inevitably would be, he would decline. The radiance of his love was a gift to be treasured. She wanted it for herself and their children alone.
He said that those words made him love her more.
Meli looked toward the door flap. Shonan and Aku would be back eventually.
"I’m a lucky wife," she said to her mother.
"That’s true. And you gave up some things."
Crani seldom said even that much. Meli had hidden part of herself for the sake of the marriage. She had only a little of her great- grandmother’s gift of seeing the future, and none of the ability to travel from this ordinary land to the world of the spirits and back. She did have the other gift that ran in her family, but Shonan forbade her to use it.
Before the two were wed, Crani warned Meli gently. The spirits gave human beings abilities, some courage, some fleetness, some quickness of mind, and some a kind of magic. If you scorned your talent, the powers would scorn you.
Meli chose to put her marriage first. But all these years, protected by her sister, her mother, and other women, Meli had practiced her particular gift in secret.
Shonan lectured the children about such magic stuff. Like every Galayi, he knew that spirit powers lived in the Land Beyond the Sky Arch and sometimes roamed this world below. He knew they let some people see them and showed some what the Immortals knew. But he thought such powers were fading into the past. "No Immortal taught us how to dam creeks and flood our crops with water," he told them. "No Immortal taught us how to make a blow gun. No spirit showed us how to throw a spear with a handle." Learning to throw atlatls with levers, in fact, had changed the lives of the Galayi.
"The spirits brought us here to Mother Earth a long time ago," Shonan often said. Everyone knew the story of how crowding forced all the animals, including human beings, to come to Turtle Island. "More and more they are leaving us alone. A man has to make his own way, relying on his own brain and the strength of his own hands and legs."
He said these words especially to Aku. Meli was afraid that, of the twins, Aku was the one who inherited her special ability. Shonan with that kind of son—it was a bad combination.
"Do it for your family," said Crani.
Meli thought a moment—It’s silly to be afraid—and put away her sewing things. When Shonan and Aku came back, they saw her packing the family’s belongings in big rawhide containers.
Adani, Shonan, and Aku, the heart bond of grandfather, father, and son—that was what mattered most.
Excerpted from Shadows in the Cave by Caleb Fox.
Copyright © 2010 by Caleb Fox.
Published in March 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.