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People of the Mist
There Is a Shadow
I tell you truly, the source of life's greatest delights and glories is Death. It is our soul.
Bright and shining.
Yes, I know, you have been taught all of your life that the soul is some mysterious, hidden being, like a cloaked child secreted in a corner of your mind, but that is a lie.
Death is soul.
Anyone who is truly alive knows this. He can feel Death staring from his eyes every moment, watching, reminding him, making him cherish each breath.
Sunrises are beautiful because Death knows sunsets. Spring is glorious because Death knows winter.
Why, then, do so few of us see the murderer within?
The terrors of the world are not outside. They are his.
The dark abyss that is always about to swallow us belongs to him.
He is curious, a wanderer, walking in the emptiness, his steps silent. His cries mute. His grief unending.
We all glimpse him at one time or another, his shadow tiptoeing around inside us, and are afraid.
We know that shadows cannot exist without light.
Shadows live on light.
I tell you again, my friend, Death is our bright and shining soul.
And the soul casts a shadow.
He is always there. Dark. And terrifyingly alive.
He stares through our eyes. He moves when we move. He touches those we love.
... We must be vigilant.
Red Knot stopped where the palisade overlapped to form a protective entrance to Flat Pearl Village. Here, defenders could remain sheltered and shoot attacking warriors restricted in the narrow space between the posts. She stared nervously out into the morning, hesitant at stepping from the palisade's security. What she was doing wasn't wrong. She told herself that over and over.
The sky had grayed with the new dawn and mist ghosted over the calm water in the inlet. To her right, the canoes down at the sandy landing were barely visible, their outlines blurred by the clinging haze. Above the canoe landing, the gardens lay fallow now, the corn and beans harvested from withered brown plants. Here and there, grass-thatched houses stood among the fields. Gentle streamers of blue smoke rose from the smoke holes in their roofs. Beyond the gardens, at the foot of the tree-covered ridge, the stubbly cornfields gave way to the thick forest.
Red Knot glanced back at Flat Pearl Village. The longhouses, the House of the Dead, and the storage buildings stood silently in the gloom, their rounded shapes reminding her of hunchbacked monsters.
Grandmother Hunting Hawk's brown-and-white dog watched her with pricked ears. Like her mistress, the animal was worn by the years, her joints swollen and painful. She hobbled a few paces and studied Red Knot with mild curiosity.
Odd, Red Knot thought. Hunting Hawk usually kept the old bitch close to her bed on cool mornings like this. Why was the dog out wandering? With so many people in the village, perhaps the animal was just on edge.
Red Knot studied the path she would have to take. Time was running out. She cocked her ear, listening. Not a sound came from the houses behind her, or from the predawn forest surrounding the village and its fields. Soon, however, the winter birds would begin to sing, and the village to stir. The honored guests would be fed before starting off.
The guests--all had come to Flat Pearl Village in her honor. Red Knot clamped her jaw in determination. Echoes of her grandmother's endless lectures spun through her head. Honor. Duty. Respect. They blurred into meaningless words.
I owe something to myself. I can't be what they want me to be, go where they want me to go. Memories of Copper Thunder's face haunted her. Even in relaxed moments, he looked more like a cunning witch than a man. If the thought of him even touching her brought a twist of revulsion to her stomach, how could she allow him to mount her? She might be Shell Comb's daughter, but the very thought of taking her rightful place and stepping into that tangled web sickened her.
Her village, clan, and family--she was letting them all down. Red Knot closed her eyes, imagining the gray world around her, damp, cold, and misty. Like everything else in my life.
She knotted her fist in the cloak that covered her shoulders, and slipped out of the palisade. Her moccasin-clad feet walked silently and swiftly, cutting across the frosted gardens. As she hurried, she could just see her breath in the half-light.
The winter-bare trees along the riverbank lay no more than two bow shots ahead. Once she reached them, shewould have taken the first step toward freedom, and a brighter future.
I am a woman now. The thought stuck in her mind. And, yes, she felt different--but oddly the same. Four days past, she'd stepped out of the Women's House, the menstrual lodge, for the first time. She had been ritually washed and decked out in resplendent finery. Her face still stung from the new tattoos on her chin and cheeks.
In response to the runners who had been sent out at the onset of her cramps, guests had arrived from the surrounding villages. Speeches had been given, and gifts exchanged. Her clan had prepared a marvelous feast in her honor, the wooden dishes piled high with venison, duck, oysters, roasted corn, steaming tuckahoe, and smoked fish.
To everyone's amazement, Copper Thunder, accompanied by four canoes of warriors, had arrived on the last day of the celebration.
Red Knot had danced before him and the rest of the honored guests. Despite the presence of Copper Thunder, she had danced for young High Fox, her steps driven by desperation as his eyes gleamed for her.
As she thought of him, her heart quickened. Now, or never, she had to take this one chance at happiness. What would happen, how it would all work out, she had no idea; but others had done as she was doing. They had become legendary among her passionate people. Their stories were sung in the Weroansqua's Great House. Perhaps, one day, songs would be sung about Red Knot and High Fox, and the love that had driven them to abandon their clans.
She hurried through the trees, darting between the boles. To her right, water lapped at the sandy shore. To her left, she could see the dim haze of one of Hunting Hawk's cornfields. Once past that, she would head left,skirting the cleared land, and climb the steep ridge on the old deer trail.
"I'll be waiting at Oyster Shell Landing." High Fox's words echoed. His solemn eyes haunted her, his handsome face radiating love. "Meet me at first light."
No, this wasn't wrong. Not in the eyes of the gods. They only reacted in rage over lying, murder, or that most horrible of crimes, incest.
She ran, feet pattering on the damp leaf mat. Over the years all the fallen branches had been scavenged for cooking fires, so she need only worry about roots that might trip her.
She almost missed the trail, but, heart beating, she sprinted up the steep winding path, her breath beginning to labor. The white-tailed deer had originally forged this route down to the cornfields, but they ran it no longer. Her people had all but hunted them out on the narrow neck of land surrounding the village. Now, only occasional deer raided the fields, and they did so at risk of an arrow. Was it not better to have the deer in the people's belly than their corn in the deer's?
She panted up the ridge, and thanked the Spirits that they had granted this warm spell and held off the snow that would have betrayed her tracks. Her toes drove into the soft, mulched soil.
When she reached the great beech tree, its smooth bark marred by the years, she stopped to catch her breath. Six men would have to stretch fingertip to fingertip to reach around the tree's circumference. She stepped past the beech, out onto the rounded ridgetop, into the shade of the other forest giants. A robin chirped in the high canopy of bare branches, and a squirrel skittered across the fallen leaves.
Morning was coming. She had to hurry.
Red Knot took a deep breath, and started forward. Shehad only to cross the ridgetop, then descend the steep path on the other side to the--
"Just as I thought," a familiar voice called from behind her. "It's all in the blood."
Red Knot spun, gasping, the worst of her fears suddenly realized, as a blanket-wrapped figure stepped from the deep morning shadows behind a walnut tree. "What are you doing here? You're supposed to be in your ..."
The blanketed assailant moved with uncanny speed. Red Knot glimpsed the war club, heard it whistle as it sliced the air ... .
The loud crack of breaking bone echoed across the quiet misty hills.
Copyright © 1997 by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear