As Sonon strode through the evening forest, his black cape parted the sea of frigid air, leaving ice crystals swirling behind him. Every twig on the maples and giant sycamores was sheathed in white. Far out in the trees, owls watched him with their feathers fluffed out for warmth, their eyes shining.
Deep cold was a quiet monster. It slithered into clothing, stiffened leather, and afflicted bones with agony. Its unnaturally silent voice made ears crave even the slightest sound. The sheer vastness of the frozen land pressed down upon him tonight.What is my offering? What can I give him to help him?
When he crested the hill and gazed out across the valley where hundreds of campfires glittered, he took a few moments to contemplate the next few days. He suspected they would be some of the most difficult of his existence.
He inhaled a deep breath, and started down the hill toward the warriors who had waged the battle. Frozen flowers hid amid the shriveled leaves on the sides of the trail, dead, folded in upon themselves.
As he neared Yellowtail Village, smoke flowed upward from the charred longhouses and obliterated the glittering Path of Souls that painted a white swath across the night sky. His People, the People of the Hills, believed that each person had two souls. One remained with the bones forever. The other, the afterlife soul, stayed on earth for ten days. Then, if it were lucky enough to be properly prepared, it followed the Path of Souls to a long bridge that spanned a dark abyss. On this side of the bridge were all the animals a person had ever known in his life. The animals who had loved him helped him across. Those that he had mistreated chased him, trying to force him to fall off the bridge into eternal darkness. If his animal helpers were strong enough and he made it to the other side, he would be greeted by his ancestors in the Land of the Dead.
Some people, however, had trouble finding the Path of Souls. Especially those who died violently.
His eyes narrowed. On the battlefield below, dead bodies lay contorting as they froze. There must be thousands of glistening soul lights, lost souls, out there bobbing and swaying in confusion, searching for loved ones to take care of them. If Sonon closed his eyes, he could hear their spectral cries rising.
He folded his arms beneath his cape, trying to stay warm while he continued thinking.Yes, maybe …
Perhaps the single greatest truth of life was that the dead were not dead. Their shadows lived. They wandered the forests, slept in crackling fires and ancient sycamores, they huddled in grass that wept and stones that whimpered. They were the painted prayersticks that Great Grandmother Earth used to dance life in and out of this world. If humans could only learn to watch shadows pass like a mountain did, they would understand that death was just a whisper.
“Is that my offering?”
War songs lilted through the sparkling air, mixing eerily with the sobs and moans coming from the destroyed villages.
“Yes,” he said softly, deciding. “A glimpse from inside the mountain.”
Copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear
KATHLEEN O’NEAL GEAR is a former state historian and archaeologist for Wyoming, Kansas, and Nebraska for the U.S. Department of the Interior. She has twice received the federal government’s Special Achievement Award for “outstanding management” of our nation’s cultural heritage.
W. MICHAEL GEAR, who holds a master’s degree in archaeology, has worked as a professional archaeologist since 1978. He is currently principal investigator for Wind River Archaeological Consultants.
The Gears, whose First North American series hit the international as well as USA Today and New York Times bestseller lists, live in Thermopolis, Wyoming.