This story is by Jeannette Buck and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Kirita’s Journey takes place 4,000 years ago in what is now Canada. Ancient burial practices such as the “sky burial” encouraged the dead to travel to the afterlife. Early indigenous legends speak of the Pleiades as the home of the Ancestors.
May the stars carry your sadness away
May the flowers fill your heart with beauty
May hope forever wipe away your tears
And above all, may silence make you strong
Chief Dan George
Winter. Under a slate sky, the crystalline cold burns my skin, the scent of evergreen and snow in the air. The beauty of winter is lost on me as I squint my eyes through the tears. I can barely make out the tree line with mountains beyond, the sound of water flowing, ice cracking. Across the snowy meadow I see the scaffold, the funeral platform, holding the body of my beloved grandfather, the leader, shaman and medicine man of our clan.
I step closer with the weight of grief, of sorrow, of dread. In honor of our leader’s passing – there have been three days of sending ceremonies: feasting, sorry songs and dancing, the potlatch and the give-away.
It seems the others have transformed their grief and loss into letting go and celebration – already doing the calico dance to restore harmony within our clan.
Me? I am lost and broken… cannot eat or sleep these past three days… With a heavy heart I climb the scaffold: pine poles lashed together, to reach my grandfather, Dancing Thunder.
As my grief overcomes my fear, I kneel beside him and shout: “I can’t believe you’re gone! What will I do? How can I go on? You’ve shown me the ways of the spirit world, the plant and animal nation and now the clan expects me to carry your medicine – but I’m not ready!”
I wait for the answer as he taught me. “Please come back Grandfather – I need you! I’ll cut my limbs in supplication! I’ll give away all my belongings! Please Mother – Father – Creator – bring back Grandfathers’ spirit – I NEED HIM!”
My pleas echo in the canyon. I pray with my Chanupa Wakan, the sacred pipe, offering sacred tobacco; asking, pleading for his return, his spirit to say what I need to hear… In stillness I can hear whispers on the wind.
As the long arc of the day turns to twilight; to lapis and shimmering diamonds, my heart aches and the tears fall. I offer my best dentalium shell beads, in agony I cut my arms and legs with my white flint blade, offering my blood to Creator. I pull the bear skin tightly around me against the cold, sit silently praying all night, calling in my guides and guardians, clutching my Chanupa. My power animals: bear, wolf and owl appear, as well as Dancing Thunder’s: coyote, raven and snake, followed by the Ancient Ancestors of all seven directions.
A warm calm settles upon me as Dancing Thunder sits across from me, speaks to me without words but with his thoughts. He says: “Kirita, do not grieve for me, as I have not died, I’ve only left my tired body behind. My spirit lives on.” He reminds me that “the plant spirits are eager to speak to you. Still yourself and listen, always approach them with reverence and gratitude, never take too much.” He says: “Earn respect by behaving honorably, be impeccable with your word. Do not talk too much, speak only the truth.” “Little Star, you are a shining hope for those who are lost and broken. Have courage, and above all, be kind.”
I startle awake with the bugle of elk resounding in the canyon. The sky turns from lapis to rose, diamonds fading. My heart breaks open as I gaze over at Grandfather, expecting him to continue his teaching. The words now dissolving in the mist, he lies there as before wrapped in a buffalo robe, his sacred pipe and cane by his side.
Morning. Shivering, I weakly come to stand facing east welcoming the day star. Grandmother and the elder women search for me – I hear them calling: “Kirita! Little Star! Where are you?” their cries increasingly frantic, fearing I’d been killed by wolves during the night. By midday they discover me on the platform with crow, an omen of change.
“Kirita! What are you doing up there?!”
I cry as they drag me down. I hear the elders admonish me: “Let our leader go. He needs only one more day before his journey to the afterlife, to Great Mystery and back to the Pleiades.”
I stumble as the women lead me back. They eye me with pity, they dress my wounds and try to console me. I wander aimlessly that day, weary and numb. At twilight the celebration continues in honor of Dancing Thunder: a feast of deer meat, bear, salmon, beaver, berries and bannock. I’m devastated and lost. I cannot eat much less dance and celebrate.
Voices rise as the dances begin. I hear and feel the heartbeat of the drum in my chest, become mesmerized in its steady rhythm. I lean against my favorite juniper, feeling the vibration, the repetitive drone… the steady rumble of Mother Earth below me…
I open my eyes as a young man dances on the other side of the bonfire. He looks like Grandfather. The same green and gold glint of his eyes, but he looks so young!
He dances in his deerskins in the way he would – agile, graceful, stepping in perfect time to the ever-changing rhythms, the earth resounding with each foot fall. As my heart pounds, I run into his arms.
“Grandfather! You’re here! Where did you go? You’re back and you look so young and healthy! I knew you’d come back!”
“Yes, Kirita, it’s me.”
I am so happy to see him I want him to share in the potlatch feast and offer him the best piece of deer meat– his favorite.
Quietly he says, “No granddaughter, I will dance – but I cannot eat. Let me show you where I will be going soon.”
He takes me by the hand and in that moment, his body explodes into a blinding white luminous shape. I look down at my body, and I too am a white shimmering form.
As we ascend, I notice a luminous cord extending from my light body, attached to a young woman lying against a juniper tree.
As I hold Grandfather’s hand, we fly over Emerald Lake glistening in the moonlight. I feel the exhilaration of flight, of rapid ascension as my heart swells with excitement. I see the mountains, forests and the big water to the west below us. We continue above the clouds, higher… We travel to a place of brilliant astounding light, celestial music, joyful faces greeting us with love. A home-coming! So strange and yet familiar. Ecstasy!
We are met by the Council of Elders – six Holy Men, exuding silver and gold light. One Holy Man steps forward with power, love and grace. He wears an eagle feather headdress and white beaded leather. He says: “Dancing Thunder is home, but it is not your time yet, Kirita. You have much to do as Shaman and medicine woman: healing and honoring your clan, leading them when you are called.”
“Do not grieve child, you will meet Grandfather again.” I beg to stay but I hear a clear “NO!”
Suddenly I find myself alone, slumped against the tree, the rosy glow of the morning star coming up over the ridge. Grandfather gone.
…Three years have passed since then. Many times when I gather plant medicine I feel Dancing Thunder near me, hear plant spirits instructing me just as he said. Now they call me Shaman, leader and medicine woman of our clan. My dear husband and I are having our first child. The women offer up the blessing ceremony to welcome the new child to our clan.
I haven’t felt this kind of pain since that night on the scaffold… Mother hands me my boy child wrapped in softest the deer skin. The sweet face, the clutching hands – so familiar… As I bond with my baby he looks up at me with adoring eyes, innocence and trust.
We lock our gaze and I recognize the green and gold glint in his eyes. Can it be?