The usual sounds of twilight were silenced by a piercing scream. Tents arranged around a central fire-pit were barely visible in the fading light, their sides flickering from the dancing flames of the large fire. In one of the farthermost tents a scream, full of anguish and shame, echoed out again. Scattered around the tent, members of the tribe were trying to ignore the sounds from both the tent and near the fire-pit where several of the tribe’s elders were gathered beside an animated man dressed in the garb of a shaman. The shaman was talking and gesturing toward the tent from where the screams originated, seemingly unhappy.
Inside the tent a young man was lying on an animal skin pallet, clearly in a lot of pain, the gouge marks from his recent misfortunate hunt were raw and inflamed. A young woman probed the wound picking out detritus and dirt, cleaning it as best she could. She wasn’t the tribe’s shaman nor was she part of the shaman’s retinue but people had sought her out because of her natural ability to heal. She too was trying to ignore the increasingly manic voice of the tribe’s new shaman as he ranted at the elders, his voice rising with each sentence. She was concentrating on this young hunter and trying to save his leg. The young woman had never imagined that she would become a healer, normally the remit of a shaman but her innate ability to understand what was needed and her success in curing some of the more serious ailments had thrust her into the role. It seemed as if the answers to what was needed just appeared in her thoughts and the herbs she sought for treatment, previously unknown to her, appeared to glow when she searched for them. She had never questioned how or why this happened and she never lauded her ability. She was a member of the tribe and her duty toward its survival was of more import; her own personal desires were secondary. She lived as long as the tribe survived.
The young woman was so deep in concentration that she never noticed the sudden silence. She didn’t even notice the tent flap being torn aside as men entered and reached for her. Her concentration shattered as strong arms grabbed her and tore her from her patient, dragging her to her feet, the young hunter screaming as his leg was suddenly dropped. Her head snapped from left to right as she sought out those who had interrupted her. She looked at the men who had grabbed her and the vicious grin on the tribe’s shaman, as he stood close, directing them. “Take her outside”, he commanded and the men holding her pulled her outside into the warm night.
Even now, when her mind was a riot of confusion, not knowing or understanding what had happened, she could sense the warmth of the earth and feel the life forces around her. Animal, insects, plants, trees; everything that lived, everything that grew nearby seemed to be reaching out to her.
As she was dragged to a tree near a rocky outcrop on the outskirts of the camp, the shaman yelled from behind the men, “That is far enough. Stop here.”
He approached the small group of men with the woman held between them. “Make sure she can’t get away,” he ordered.
“Where would I go?” the young woman thought to herself and then to the men and the shaman who gathered around her, “What’s happening? Why are you doing this? Let me go, Cha’el, you have no right!”
The shock and disorientation finally leaving her, she glared, defiantly, at Cha’el, the tribe’s new shaman. She shook off the arms holding her and stood before him. The shocked men who had been restraining her were trying to understand how such a waif of a woman had been able to shrug them off so easily. Cha’el stepped backward, away from the angry woman, shock and fear etched over his face. He was the tribe’s shaman and therefore, technically, sacrosanct but he had only recently come into the position when his master had died and was still trying to leave the mantle of pupil behind. His bluster was all show but his inner, less confident self that of a petty, selfish bully. As he tried to back away from the young woman he tripped over a small rock and landed, unceremoniously, on his back. Winded, scared and trying to scrabble upright, Cha’el screeched at the men, “GET HER! GET HER AWAY FROM ME!”
The young woman just stood over the shaman seeing the fear and, for the first time and also seeing how much danger she was in. Cha’el was not a confident man and saw the young woman as a threat to his position. As she let herself be dragged back by the men, the shaman found his footing and stood upright. Cha’el’s fear fuelled his temper and he was now consumed with fury. Even the men who held the young woman could see that the shaman was beyond sanity and stepped back, dragging the young woman with them.
“Tie her arms and legs! Make sure she can’t move!” Cha’el commanded. He had regained some dignity, if not composure and his voice was a harsh, sharp whisper.
The young woman let herself be bound by the young men. She understood that they were only doing what they had to do and not what they wanted to do. Her hands were tied and she realised how reluctant the men really were. Instead of tying her hands behind her head, as they would an enemy, they had tied them so that they were on her lap. They tied her ankles and, not un-gently, pulled her to the ground so that she lay on her back. Cha’el watched with wild eyes flicking over the woman now lying before him. As the other men stepped back, he stepped forward and kicked the woman hard. Her grunt of pain did not appease him and he kicked her again. When the woman moved, trying to protect herself from the blow he screeched, “I said make sure she can’t move!”
Cha’el had not realised that the men had backed further away, trying to distance themselves from what was happening. He didn’t try to hide the contempt on his face as he muttered, “Must I do everything myself?”
Looking around, he smiled when he spied what he was looking for. The young woman’s eyes followed him as he walked over and picked up a thick piece of wood, one of the many felled for firewood recently and one that made a sizable club, as long as a man’s arm. Walking back over to the prone woman he hefted the club in both hands and swung it at her knees. Anticipating the move, the woman lifted her legs and rolled out of the way of the very clumsy attack. This only added more fuel to the fire that was Cha’el’s fury and he howled in frustration, swinging the log club violently toward the woman not caring where it struck her.
One of Cha’el’s wild swings glanced off the young woman’s head and dazed her. Incapacitated, she didn’t see the club as it was directed toward her legs. The ‘thud’ of the club hitting the woman’s thigh was followed by a moan from the still dazed woman as her body jerked from the attack. Cha’el’s next swing was better aimed and the club hit the young woman’s knees with enough force to shatter them. The sickening sound of bone and cartilage splintering even reached the men who had backed off a fair distance from the apoplectic shaman. One of the men rushed in to try to stop the shaman killing the woman outright there and then, but failed to stop another blow glancing off the young woman’s head. As the man grabbed the club from Cha’el he could see that the woman had been rendered unconscious, probably a blessing. Cha’el’s fury was about to be unleashed upon the man who had dared to stop him when a voice said, “Enough”.
It wasn’t loud but the authority it carried was unmistakable. Cha’el’s eyes sought out the peon that dared undermine his authority but met that of one of the tribal elders. The elder’s eyes met those of Cha’el and did not like what he saw.
“Enough” the elder repeated, this time with more force. “The girl is not to be harmed further.”
It was a command that Cha’el could not counter without severe repercussions. Nodding at the elder, he walked back to the tents seething to himself and planning his next move. “Sam’an,” the elder looked at one of the men who had brought the woman to this place, “Stay and look out for her. The rest of you, return.”
Without saying anything else, the elder turned and walked back behind the shaman. All bar one of the other men followed him. Sam’an, one of the tribe’s gatherers, squatted next to the unconscious woman and waited.
“Be calm,” the warm voice told her, “All will be as it should be.”
“Where am I?” asked the woman, confused. All was dark and she could not feel the ground she thought she was lying on.
“You are here, as you should be.”
“Here?” queried the woman.
“As you should be.” Replied the voice.
“Who are you?” asked the woman.
“I am the soil. I am the rock. My kin and I are everything.”
The answer was such a simple statement of fact that didn’t answer the questions the woman had but it somehow felt right. She wasn’t afraid and she couldn’t feel any pain.
“Your form is broken,” the voice told her.
“The form by which you move upon me,” the voice said.
“The form by which you move,” the voice repeated.
“And my body is broken? How?” asked the woman.
“Your form is broken but this is how it should be,” the voice stated as a matter of fact.
“As it should be?” the woman queried.
“Be calm when you return. We are with you.” The voice said.
“When I return? Who is ‘We’? Where are…” the woman did not get to complete her sentence when she felt everything tilt and her head spun.
“Be calm,” the faint voice instructed her, “Calm”.
It was some time later when the woman groaned and Sam’an, squatting silently next to her, turned and looked as she fought her way back to consciousness. She was still bound and lying on the sandy ground but moving slightly. Glancing at her legs, Sam’an could see that one of them had been broken and that it was swollen and the other didn’t look much better. The injury looked very serious and Sam’an recalled the viciousness of Cha’el’s attack. He didn’t know why the shaman had so much hatred toward this woman. If anything, Sam’an had nothing but respect for her. She had, after all, helped his younger brother heal when he had been sick some time ago. Sam’an turned to look toward the camp and the tents silhouetted by the light from the fire-pit, wondering what was happening.
Her eyes opened. It was dark and she was lying on the ground. Her mind tried to recall how she had ended up here and she tried to move her arms and legs in order to stand up but felt something stop her. She glanced toward her hands and saw that they were bound. Why? She struggled to remember what had happened and the memories came rushing back.
The shaman was practically ranting the elder thought. He and the others had been sat, listening to the shaman for some time now and he was getting bored of listening to him. The elder did not entirely trust this new shaman but had kept his peace when Cha’el’s former master had named him as his successor before he died. The elders had little choice in the matter, as it was traditional for the dying shaman to name his successor. That didn’t mean he had to like it. Cha’el had always been a petty boy, prone to moods and outbursts when he thought he had been slighted. It had been fortunate that the boy had been chosen to be the old shaman’s pupil, as he would not have found a place in the tribe. The petty boy had grown to be a conceited and arrogant man. Unfortunately, he was now the tribe’s shaman. The elder’s shoulders sagged slightly as he considered what this would mean to the tribe’s future.
The young woman looked down toward her legs and gasped when she saw the damage. The sound drew a look from the man standing near. He didn’t say anything but she could see the empathy in his eyes. He quickly looked away as if fearful she may ask something from him. “This is how it should be?” she thought as she recalled the voice from her dream. She wasn’t so sure she would have liked the current situation to be as it was but she had very little say in the matter. She looked back toward her injured legs. “Surely it should hurt,” she thought. She felt no pain but was sure that she wouldn’t be able to move the leg if she tried. She paused a moment, took a breath and holding it within her, tried to move her legs. The un-injured one moved slightly, restricted by the bindings on her ankles but the injured one was unresponsive. There still wasn’t any pain and for that, she was thankful.
She heard the figures approach before she saw them. The night was dark and the moon had yet to rise. She had been looking upward, toward the lights in the sky, seeing patterns and shapes. The sound of the men approaching made her look toward the tents to see who was coming. Her temper flared when she saw Cha’el flanked by several men approaching. Not one for anger, she calmed herself allowing the warmth of the ground to flow into her.
“Good…” she started when she heard the voice, unbidden, in her mind.
The woman didn’t have time to ponder as the men were upon her, staring down at her. “Get her up!” Cha’el commanded, “And bring her back to the camp!”
Cha’el turned away as the men reached for the woman and helped her upright. She was surprised that she felt no pain from her injured leg. Two men lifted her between them, their arms linked behind her back and under her buttocks in a makeshift seat. Her ‘guard’ followed behind them silently. Cha’el looked back and he scowled when he saw how the men were carrying her rather than dragging her, as he would have preferred. He didn’t say anything, he had been working hard toward this moment and although he would have liked to succumb to his pettiness, he restrained himself. His prize was near.
They took her to the gathering of the tribe near the fire pit. Torches had been lit so that there was light all around the tented camp. She looked and saw the faces of many of the people she had helped, faces of her friends and her neighbours. All of them showed surprise and shock at her being treated this way. They were confused and eager to understand what was happening. The young woman was eager to know what was happening, too. Cha’el walked toward where the tribe’s elders were sitting, facing the fire, with a large, semi-circular space opened up before them. The shaman stopped in the large space and turned and faced the men bringing the woman toward him. They gently lowered her to the ground where she sat upright, her legs in front of her and her bound arms supporting her.
“Unbind her” one of the elders commanded, “She is not going to run anywhere with a bad leg.”
Cha’el turned to complain but kept his peace. He saw the elder’s eyes on him, judging and Cha’el finished his turn with a slight bow, as if in acquiescence of the elder’s command.
Men cut the woman’s bindings and she propped an arm either side of herself, for better support. She didn’t try to move her legs and remained seated in front of the elders. The elder that had commanded her unbound stood and looked out toward the faces looking inwards toward the young woman. Cha’el felt a surge of pleasure rush up his body as he anticipated what was about to happen. This was one of the few elders that didn’t look at him as if he were something unpleasant and had been the most receptive when he had made his case against her.
“This woman has been accused of un-natural magic”, the elder said with no preamble.
“What?” the woman exclaimed.
“Hush! Be calm! This is how it should be.”
The young woman bit off what she was about to say. Was the voice real?
“Yes. We are here.”
Who was here? What was happening to her? She was wondering if Cha’el’s knock to her head was more serious than she had thought and worried if she was losing her mind when she needed it the most.
“Hush! We are real and we are with you. Do not fight what should be. Accept.”
The woman reflected upon the voice. All her life she had trusted her instincts and feelings and they had always been right. She knew that she should trust her feelings and not fight. She wasn’t sure about what she should accept but she was pretty sure that she was going to find out soon enough.
She realised that Cha’el had been talking while her mind was distracted with the voice and her thoughts. Of all the times to be distracted! She wanted to know what was happening and why but she had been immersed with her own thoughts. She looked up and saw everyone looking at her.
“Do you have anything to say about this?” the elder who was standing before her asked.
She looked toward the elder knowing that even if she wanted to say something she had no idea what was happening or what to say in defence. She hung her head, her eyes looking at her injured leg. Cha’el smiled in triumph. He had never dreamed that it would be this easy to get rid of the woman that had made the tribe, his tribe, look down at him. It was because of her that he had not received the respect he was due. It was because the tribe would rather seek her out than him. She was the cancer eating at the tribe and making them not see him for what he really was.
Voices shouted out from the tribes-people gathered around them. Some of them were supporting the woman, some of them condemning her for what she had allegedly done. The elder let the shouting continue for some moments before he raised his arms. Waiting for the people to quieten down, he looked toward Cha’el and saw the shaman smiling to himself. Other elders saw the smile on the shamans face, some spat into the dirt in front of them.
When there was quiet the standing elder spoke. “What does our shaman require?”
Cha’el’s grin was replaced with an expression of seriousness as he looked toward the elder and said, “Cleansing by fire!”
Shouting started again, some of the tribe surging into the semi-circle before the elders, clearly angry at the proceedings. The elder thrust his arms into the air again, waiting for the order to be followed. Eventually the shouting and arguing stopped and the only sound was that of the fire spitting and crackling.
“She will be cleansed by fire! Bind her now!”
The woman was grabbed and held while her arms were bound, now behind her back. She offered no resistance, feeling numb with shock but trusting her instincts. She knew that she should be terrified; they were going to burn her alive! It was a very rare form ritual, she had no memory of it ever happening during her short life.
“You stay calm, good”. This time the voice was different, like a breeze whispering to her.
Other men were stacking firewood up onto the fire creating a large blaze in the normally subdued fire-pit. The woman looked at the elders and they at her. Her face remained impassive, no emotions showing at all. Some of the elders, however, looked distinctly uncomfortable with the proceedings but remained quiet. The shaman looked as if he wanted to dance from foot to foot.
After a remarkably short time the standing elder looked from the now roaring fire to the young woman. He didn’t say a word, simply nodded and the men holding her half dragged, half carried the limping woman to the edge of the fire. A young woman rushed from the crowd and tried stopping the men. She was screaming at them and hitting them on their arms and chests. The woman looked at the young woman who was trying to stop the men taking her to the fire. It was a young mother who had had a difficult labour. She said nothing but catching the young mother’s eyes, smiled and shook her head. The young mother’s attack faltered as she started to sob and was led back into the crowd by her nervous husband.
“The choice is good,” said a sharp, crackling voice in her head.
As the men prepared to lift the young woman, the ritual involved throwing the accused into the roaring flames, she simply told them, “There is no need.”
The men look at her, confusion apparent on their various faces. Without another word, the young woman simply limped and then fell into the flames, her eyes screwed shut, the smoke from the fire causing them to water and tears to stream down her face.
Everyone went silent, stunned at what the young woman was doing. Nobody had ever heard, let alone witnessed such an act. Who would willingly step into an inferno to their certain death? They each held their breath as they saw the woman apparently throw herself into the centre of the blaze.
Suddenly the flames roared and flew higher into the night sky. As the crowd looked up, following the flames a roar shook most of them from their feet including the elder and the shaman who dropped to the ground like felled trees. The roar was accompanied by the ground shaking.
“I am FIRE and I claim this person!”
The crowd looked toward the fire as the crackling voice sounded out. They stood in awe as the flames around the woman receded, forming a circle of flame and leaving her on a bed of smouldering embers.
“I am AIR and I claim this person!”
As the second voice sounded out, a breeze appeared out of nowhere and blew the smoke from the embers out of the circle of flames. All could see the young woman lying in the circle, burned and covered in soot.
“I am WATER and I claim this person!”
As the third voice sounded out, a light cloud appeared over the young woman, dousing the embers and enveloping her with cool, cleaning mist.
“I am EARTH and I claim this person!”
The earth shook with the sounding of the fourth voice and the crowd gasped as green shoots sprung up from the circle of embers and the wounds on the young woman, caused by the shaman and the fire, healed before their eyes.
A sharp brightness pierced the night causing the crowd to shield their eyes and a fifth voice sounded out, “I am LIGHT and I claim this person!”
For the few that braved the piercing light through their hands covering their eyes, they saw the young woman enveloped in a halo of white. The young woman stood in the circle of fire, her bare feet upon fresh grass, shimmering as she gazed out toward the crowd. A sad smile appeared on her face as the light grew in intensity. Even the bravest amongst the tribe had to screw their eyes tightly shut against the intensity of the light.
Suddenly everything went dark. When the tribes-people looked at the fire-pit again, the young woman was gone.
“What has happened?” the young woman asked.
“You have been chosen by my kin and myself” the fourth voice, that of Earth, said to her.
“Chosen for what?”
“You have been chosen to guide those such as yourself. Those that will come after you from all manner of tribes and peoples.”
“I am to guide people? What am I to teach or show?” the young woman questioned.
“You will learn and you will nurture. No more shall the ignorant destroy our creations. We have seen too many that understand our nature killed by those that do not.” This time it was the fifth voice, that of Light, that spoke to her.
“They will be as if your children to guide and teach in our ways” the voice of Air whispered to her.
“You shall be their Mother” crackled Fire.
“THE Mother!” all five said in unison.