Shaman of the Canyons
Every hair on Deer Cloud’s head pulled tight with fear. He pressed his back to the stone as the night swirled in front of him. His eyes no longer focused on the steep, narrow trail. He couldn’t see the path from the shallow cave up to the canyon rim. Instead, when he looked down, tiny bonfires of the clan below swarmed like ants and made his head spin. Drumming and singing filled his ears. This final part of the ceremony, the most important ritual for the clan, was filled with noise. The heightened sound of the ritual only increased his fear of falling. It was a long way down.
He pressed his back against the cold stone wall to steady himself on the dangerous ledge high above the black river. He stretched his arms out on either side, feeling with the fingertips of his left hand. In his right hand he held a sputtering torch above the dark abyss.
His muscles tensed beneath his cold skin. His bare chest, painted red, braced in the wind. His black hair whipped around his face, even though he’d tied it back with a strip of rawhide. The black tattoo of a hunter ran down the middle of his forehead to the end of his straight nose. A grimace pulled his full lips tight. His eyes were black, pupils dilated from wolf flower intoxication like a madman. A young man of less than twenty cold seasons, he wasn’t ready for this.
He edged forward on the narrow trail. He had to get down from this place, there was no other choice. But the spirit herb that dilated his eyes would make him walk the path blind. His heart was beating fast as panic gripped him. This was the first time he had walked the path from the cave high above the river with the other shamans. Deer Cloud was an apprentice, the youngest of the group. He was the last to leave the cave. Sounds of drumming and high pitched voices floated around him from the clan down below. One misstep and he would fall down, down to the river below.
Three experienced shamans groped the dangerous trail in front of him, holding torches and mumbling songs as they returned from the cave to the canyon’s upper edge. Stone Face, the second most important shaman of the clan, led the group. The young female shaman went next, while the Wolf-Changer shaman shuffled behind her. The head shaman, Panther Claw, remained below to lead the ritual on the ground for the rest of the clan.
Deer Cloud stretched his fingers along the rough stone wall searching for a hold. He held his torch over the dark void above the river, and kept his other fingers pressed against the cliff wall. He gripped the tiny strip of pathway with his bare toes until it felt like walking on a grapevine. He reached for another finger-hold and slid one foot sideways along the disappearing edge, then the other.
He was navigating the narrowest lip of the trail when he heard the Wolf-Changer stumble. Deer Cloud’s heart almost stopped as the old man cried out, feeble and surprised. The old man fell to one knee, then tumbled into darkness. Sparks sputtered as they flew through the air from the old man’s torch. A few small rocks clacked down the side of the cliff. Deer Cloud heard three distinct thuds as the body bounced.
Deer Cloud’s heart pounded as he pressed his left shoulder into the rock face and groped the stone. There was shouting and confusion down below. Water splashed as someone dove into the river. The clan had seen the old man fall, sparks flying through the darkness from his torch, and heard the awful breaking of his bones. Deer Cloud felt dizzy as he choked back a wave of nausea. Splashing and shouting intensified the whirling of his head. Just let go, he thought. Fly. Easy. Fast.
Deer Cloud stood still, paralyzed with fear. Panic stuffed his heart right up into his throat. His legs twitched as the demons of delirium pecked at them. With his arms outstretched like wings, he could feel the air rushing around his body, the river below beckoning. Fly like a Wolf-Changer. Soar, fly, at one with the elements. Rock. Air. Fire. Water. Wolf flower made it seem so easy, and so desirable. He pushed his back into the rough stone and gasped for air, his choppy breaths rattling like dry leaves. He fought to feel the stone as he stood there trying not to move, not to give in to the wolf flower that was luring him to jump.
“Deer Cloud! Deer Cloud, come!” A voice floated to him on the wind. He resisted the call with all his strength. “Feel the path with your feet! Come, walk the path!” cried the voice. Slowly he realized he should do it, so he edged one step forward. Then another.
“Keep coming,” said the voice. “Come to me.” He saw a yellow-orange blur leaping and dancing through the blackness. A torch. Someone with a torch was calling him. He staggered forward, his breath ragged and raw. Another step, and then another.
Strong arms caught him as he crumpled to the ground and someone pulled him to safety behind the boulders at the head of the trail.
“Get up.” Deer Cloud felt a foot in his ribs. The morning light was grey and cold.
“Wha…what’s going on?” Deer Cloud sat up slowly, and ran his hand through his hair. He pulled a deerskin around his shoulders and tried to focus his eyes.
“Where am I?”
“He didn’t say.” The messenger tried to hoist him up, but Deer Cloud shoved the hand away and stood up by himself.
“No need for that,” Deer Cloud said curtly. “What’s going on? What happened?”
“Wolf-Changer is dead. Some say thanks to you. Now let’s go.” “…He’s dead?” Deer Cloud said, uncomprehending. Spirit herb had left him with a pounding headache and no memory of the night before.
“Yes, the Wolf-Changer is gone, and people are afraid. Some people are saying you did it.”
“What do you mean ‘thanks to me’? What did I do?” asked Deer Cloud.
“Cold wind can carry witches breath,” said the man. “Now shut up and move. Stone Face has things to do.” Deer Cloud followed in a stupor.
They walked to a small brush shelter where Stone Face, next in power only to Panther Claw, sat behind a brisk fire. He looked at the bewildered Deer Cloud, but didn’t invite the young man to sit down. Deer Cloud stood in front of him with his arms folded across his smeared red chest.
“Wolf-Changer is dead,” spat the shaman. “Some say he flew to the wolves. In the past, he always came back from such adventures. But not this time.”
An old, angry scar cut across Stone Face’s left cheek through the stiff, unruly grey hair of his eyebrow. A witch had not caused this. Clearly it had been a man. When the witches did attack him sometime later, however, they damaged that side of his face again, so that now it barely moved, giving him a strange look. This deformity also made it difficult for listeners to understand his words, especially when he was floating with wolf flower. More than once, he had to sing twice for the gods to understand him. Yet he claimed this showed his power to defeat all who struck against him. After all, he was still alive.
He stood up. “I’ve been watching you. Even now you are delaying my presence at the funeral rites. Just because you’re Panther Claw’s grandson, don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing. Painting symbols. Telling stories of your own. Playing with power. Witches look for such a one. Someone arrogant about his own abilities. Someone others would not suspect. You were behind the Wolf-Changer on the path. Did you blow your stinking breath on him? I could smell it.”
He took a step towards Deer Cloud and raised his hand as though to strike him. Suddenly he shook his rattle, and Deer Cloud ducked to keep from being struck on the head.
“Did you?” Stone Face shrieked.
Deer Cloud blinked and stumbled backward. It took him a heartbeat to understand Stone Face’s mangled words, but the tone was terrifying.
“No! No! I’m no sorcerer!” Deer Cloud blurted. “Wolf- Changer flew with the wolves himself! I have no such power!” Deer Cloud was wide awake now, and he began to tremble.
“Confess now! Have you been beguiled by witches? Have you sung to them?” shouted Stone Face.
“No! No! You know I don’t sing with witches!” Deer Cloud shrank back as the old wizard brandished his rattle again. Deer Cloud understood the gesture perfectly, and was afraid.
“Do I?” Stone Face snarled. “You are new to spirit herbs, and vulnerable to their seduction. They can enchant you with the promise of easy power. Did your experience at the first shrines make you think you know everything?”
Deer Cloud backed away from the shaman’s rage. “No, No! I’ve never met the evil ones! Panther Claw could tell you! I have never dreamed with witches. You must believe me!”
Stone Face gave a sudden howl to the sky, then danced around the huddled Deer Cloud, singing furiously. He coughed towards Deer Cloud’s right shoulder, then over his left, spun around behind him and coughed again. He shook his rattle in three wide arcs around Deer Cloud’s head.
Stone Face hopped on one foot chanting in a high, strained voice, then bent slightly forward with his back to the frightened apprentice. In an instant he whirled around and blew a puff of red dust in Deer Cloud’s face from a cane pipe.
Red powder settled on Deer Cloud’s face and hair. His mouth opened and closed, but he couldn’t speak. Stone Face had accused him of witchcraft! The night before on the ledge had been enough to scare Deer Cloud’s heart right out of his body. How could Stone Face think he was cavorting with evil spirits?
Deer Cloud’s legs started to run. He dashed under the menacing rattle and into the brush. He ran without stopping all the way to Rushing Water Falls. Then he plunged into the frigid water.