It was early in the morning when the grand Shaman came to fetch him. The morning sun had barely peaked above the horizon, painting the lower sky hues of purples and pinks fading into the dark blue star-covered night. Early rays of sunshine kissed the branches of the weeping willows, casting infantile shadows upon the ground.
Kindle waited on the small wooden stoop, tired-eyed as the shaman stopped before him, extending a wrinkled hand, inviting him to his feet.
The grand shaman led him from the small hut, silent except for the soft ring of bells that decorated her staff and accompanied her swift swirl of hair into a loose bun. Ahead, beyond the small cluster of homes, a dark pond bubbled with mud, a concave structure in the ground. A thin line of tall grass and cattails surrounding the outside stooped inward, a beast called within its depths.
Kindle followed behind the Shaman rubbing at his bleary eyes. He had tossed and turned all night, apprehension burning in his stomach. He couldn’t stop thinking about Vanilla and the dark pond that somehow beckoned outside his window. When he thought he was drifting off into sleep, he’d jerk awake to the full moon shining through his window, or to the wild calls of the various birds that inhabited the swamp, echoing love songs back to each other. When it wasn’t that, he could see Vanilla’s face; the sharp contour of his cheekbones under pale white skin and the pearl gloss of his pupil-less eyes, soft under the milky radiance of the moon. His lips were moving, but he couldn’t understand a word. Kindle could hear him, but the words didn’t stick, they fell away into the night, listless amongst the wild bird calls.
The questions burned on his tongue, but he didn’t dare interrupt the strange calmness of the morning. Cold wrapped around his near-naked figure, a loincloth the only resemblance of warmth. But something else gripped him and wound him tight.
The mothers and children were already out for the day, but they moved silently as if swimming through liquid. The older mothers hung laundry or took down the tishebays, wrapping the jitterbugs in the silk to be eaten later. Often they began weaving another in a flourish of silver and gold as their bracelets danced with their hands.
The children wore almost nothing. They used sticks and stones to draw pictures in the mud and play. Kindle couldn’t look at the children without feeling the ropes pulling him down again. None glanced his way, even when his gaze lingered too long.
However, it was the young mothers with babes still at their breast, that came to greet him in his march to the pond.
As he passed through the village young mothers flocked around him. Each one dipped their head onto him, resting there for a moment before drawing a thin line of mud on his arm. Their eyes were large and knowing, shining with the new gleam of motherhood. The lines of mud began to crosshatch across his arm, weaving down into his palm.
Soon, the flock of women and babies thinned and altogether disappeared.
When the shaman placed a hand on his shoulder, he realized he was standing in sludge and cattails. The stillness of the morning seemingly shattered.
“This is our ancestral pond,” she stated, voice wavering with vibrato. “This is here that guiyereh women see their futures. The fates that tie our people together, and the stories retold by our ancestors. It is our connection to all that lives”
She paused for a moment, gathering breath, as her chest heaved to catch up to her words, her loose silver-white hair sparkling across her breast as it captured the light. It seemed her tiny body was too small to hold the grandness of her story as if she was an extension of the ground beneath her feet.
“And now you, Rudiourero, are one of us. The blood of the Ftujak runs through you. It is time you seek your destiny and that of the great one. Enter the pond and swim to the center. Her blessing will guide you,” her words shot a shiver down his spine and pulled upon something inside him, liquid and black that burned with a desperate rage. Its inky bitterness consumed blindly as Kindle’s barriers were weakened by the shiver.
As he took one final look out across the pond, the questions poured out of him, despite his sense of control.
“You realize this is just mud right? Do you expect me to walk in there and drown? What am I suppose to even do?”
The shaman took one shallow breath, “You will know,” was her reply as she turned her back and began her trek back into the village.
“Fuck, what’s that suppose to mean?” Kindle whispered to himself, his thoughts unable to keep up with his emotions.
He received no response as the Shaman kept walking back to the village, obvious to Kindle’s questions and dragging his feet behind her.
He took a deep breath and glanced back to the pond resigning himself to the fate he tossed all night for. The dark water appeared endless, trickling into a seemingly small stream as it disappeared beneath the weaving branches of the sleeping trees. A small bird nestled amongst the bark, its red eyes jested at him, reminding him of the gaggle of girls that giggled about the pond ceremony.
Last night, the girls had dragged him out of his bed at the onset of twilight to bathe with them. They took him to a hideaway place on the opposite side of the village where the stars twinkled across the vast canvas and plumes of heated steam welled up from natural hot springs. They washed his back and hair, lathering him in herbs that burnt the inside of his nose.
Sated from the bath, the women had gathered in the house, their whispers leaving echoes of Kindle’s expectations. His questions went unanswered as girls ducked their heads into the nearest pillow or shoulder to shyly peer at him. Their diverse conversation flitted around Vanilla’s strong arms, the creature with black eyes that he bravely wrestled and brought down, and marriage, without revealing the ceremony Kindle would soon be partaking in. Their red, red eyes appeared in his dreams throughout the night; their eyes never left the imprint behind his eyelids.
A wet feeling overtook his big toe. Without realizing it, he had edged closer to the water. Now as he stood at the bay, his feet slipped seamlessly into the silt that had settled there.
When he entered the pond, soft mud covered the bottom of his feet. It was slick, slowly pushing him further into it under the grasping trees. A foot into the pond and it was already at his waist, the depth increasing at a rapid pace. However, it was when Kindle tried to switch from wading to swimming that he noticed the strange property of the pond.
Pushing off the bottom, the weight of the water pushed back onto him. It clung to his skin, heavy and near paralyzing. He struggled against the water, trying to push forward with his arms in a futile attempt to move forward. As he thrashed around, he let out a cry of frustration and a string of curses. He stilled for a moment against the water. The weeping willows nearest him had dipped their branches into the pond, small oval leaves floating, frozen around the hand that held them. The area was deafeningly silent, with no wind to pick up the curse of whistling branches and migrating animals. It’s its own small enclave, private even from nature.
Kindle’s hair had dipped into the water, the tips pressed against his face and neck, sticky as they held him there. Floating for a moment, he could see early morning sunlight casting tubes of light into the impenetrable black water and onto the buoyant leaves.
He noticed that as he drifted there, the leaves were moving away from him. The current of the water was sluggish, gently pushing him forward. So, he gave up swimming and wading, letting the pond decide where he was going. The pond’s unnatural buoyancy prevented him from sinking to the bottom, just keeping his head above water.
It seemed to have a mind of its own, guiding him away from the wooden overgrowth that surrounded the pond as well as the many hanging branches. Amongst the weaving overgrowth of sleepy trees, a tunnel shaped from leaves was carved out.
The archway was low with the sides lined with various small flowers. Blooms of yellow and red splashed amongst the leaves, tiny buds hidden in the shadows. Where peeps of sunshine danced on the curved petals, the flowers turned toward the light, blooming in full vigour.
The passageway had left enough room for his head to pass through and he drifted further and further downstream. His thoughts bagan to drift and he blinked sleepiness out of his eyes.
A skeletal hand wrapped around his leg and he was suddenly pulled underwater. He didn’t have enough time to gasp for breath and he let out bubbles from his burning lungs. The buoyancy of the water pushed on him, building enough pressure to paralyze him freezing his arms above his head.
Between the bubbles, the fright in his chest, and the black, colorless water around him, questions poured into his head as he was dragged to the bottom of the stream. He didn’t know if this was part of what the old lady had warned him of or some other creature waiting for some unfortunate soul to drift along to be snatched up for breakfast.
His stomach flipped around and he could tell he was being turned over.
Suddenly his head was above water and his ears popped. He gasped for breath, coughing water out of his lungs. Water clung to his eyelashes. He noticed that the pressure around him disappeared and he swam forward in a daze towards the shore.
When he felt silt underneath his knees, he took a moment to finish hacking the water out of his lungs, rubbing his arms to stimulate warmth. Black seaweed entered the corner of his vision, and he looked up quickly, panic nearly bursting his heart out of his chest.
A mass of moving black seaweed floated around a woman’s skeleton, her eye sockets illuminated green into the darkness. On her rib cage, she wore layers of necklaces of gold and rubies. Her head had two horns extending far back into the darkness where he couldn’t see the ends of them. He could feel the waves of power rolling off of her, threatening to consume him. Age bowed to the creature, her eyes mined from creation, and bone and seaweed were gifted to the sea.
The creature put her index and middle finger against his forehead, and the world moved with her.