Of Stars and Clay | Chapter 3

Earth Sentinels II coverSpider Webs

In Alberta, Canada, the sunset glowed through the virgin forest surrounding the Bear Claw First Nation Reservation. An hour earlier, the tribe members had grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, but now lounged around the bonfire talking and laughing while the children entertained themselves by burning sticks. Some of the men stood outside the circle drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

John, a spirited young man with long hair that hung free, carried an armload of logs to the fire. He shooed away the kids before placing the wood on top of the burning embers. Sparks shot into the air. He grabbed a stick, using it to prod the logs until the flames grew bolder, dazzling the children who drew closer once more.

One of the boys stepped away from the blaze, going over to Tom Running Deer, a headstrong man in his mid-thirties who sat beside his equally headstrong wife, Cecile Two Feathers. The couple both had black hair woven into braids. The boy tugged on Tom’s t-shirt, which had the words “The Original Founding Fathers” printed above an illustration of four Native American chiefs.

The man set down his beer. “Yes?”

“Uncle, tell us a story,” Hoki requested, his big brown eyes hopeful.

Tom shook his head. “No, not me. Grandmother Hausis is the storyteller.”

Overhearing her name, the old woman, who wore a flower-print cotton dress, knee-high support socks and orthopedic shoes, stopped chatting with the woman next to her. She turned her gray-haired head, calling out in a crackling voice, “What? Did I hear my name?”

Tom explained, talking louder than normal, “Grandmother! Hoki wants a story! Would you do it!?”

When the other children heard the request, they aptly followed the conversation. They loved to listen to the stories.

“What does he want to hear?” Grandmother Hausis asked.

Hoki pointed at the sky. “Tell me about those.”

Everyone gazed up at the hazy opalescent plane trails that marred the burnt-orange sky.

“Those things?” The old woman shook her head. She knew the tribe had no ancient stories of this modern-day phenomenon. “Nay, why don’t you do it, Tommy?”

Hoki and the other kids refocused their eager energy on Tom.

Cecile patted her husband on the back, and said with a smile, “Yeah, let’s hear it, big guy.”

He cleared his throat while racking his brain. “Ah…give me a minute.”

The children settled in the dirt in front of him.

Tom tried to remain optimistic for the young ones, but, deep inside, he was somber. He had done his best to ignore the plane trails all day long because he knew the Earth Sentinels’ agreement with the world’s governments had been violated, and it was too bitter of a pill to swallow after five years of good medicine.

The fire sizzled and snapped.

Everyone grew quiet, waiting for the story to begin.

Tom cleared his throat. “There are prophecies from another tribe that speak of the end of days. One says, ‘near the Time of Purification, there will be spider webs spun in the sky.’”

The children’s eyes grew big.

A girl pointed at the misty plane trails, asking with a slight lisp because her front baby teeth were missing, “But…how’d they get there?”

Tom was at a loss for words. He didn’t want to ruin the mood of the gathering by explaining that, in the past, the government had sprayed chemicals into the atmosphere for unverified reasons. Geo-engineering, such as cloud seeding, was one possibility. He also had read that the sprays might contain particles that were used to reflect the sun to counteract global warming. However, because of the secrecy, he suspected something more sinister was afoot.

Not wanting to disappoint them, Tom improvised, “Once upon a time, there was a giant spider that spun webs to keep the stars from floating away.”

His opening line captivated the children. Some of the adults chuckled. They knew he was crafting the tale from scratch.

“Whenever a strand was weak, the spider would climb up to fix it, keeping every star in place. And, because of her efforts, everything was good and balanced. But one night, the spider slept too long, and one of the strings broke, letting a star hurl through space.” Tom pretended to fling a star.

The children envisioned it flying away, lost in the cosmos.

“The hole needed to be filled so the Giant Spider went after it, hoping to catch the star and bring it back.” Tom moved his fingers like a spider scurrying through space. “But while she was gone, another spider snuck through the hole.

“Now this new spider was not like the other one. It thought only of itself, and weaved a web across the hole to keep the Giant Spider from returning. And that—” Tom pointed at the plane trails in the sky, “is what that is. The Sneaky Spider’s web.”

A boy asked, “How will the Giant Spider get back?”

“When she returns with the missing star, its heat will burn up the Sneaky Spider and its sticky web. And after the star is in place, the world will become balanced once more.”

“Is the Giant Spider coming back soon?” Hoki asked.

“I hope so.”


A steady downpour hit the roof of the shack where Tom and Cecile slept. The clock on the nightstand read 8:05 a.m. The dreamcatcher hanging on the wall above the bed served as the headboard.

The sound of the rain prodded Cecile awake. She immediately noticed the aches in her body, then her throbbing head, and wondered how a sickness could come on so quickly. She looked over at her husband. His face was flushed. Concerned, she touched his forehead with the back of her hand. Feverish.

Tom opened his bloodshot eyes.

Cecile gasped. “Tom! Your eyes—” She didn’t finish her sentence. A sudden urge to vomit overcame her.

She tossed the covers off herself, rushing out of the bedroom, through the living room, and past the frayed green chair sitting under the rain-spattered window. By the time she made it to the bathroom’s threshold, she was lightheaded and forced to hold onto the doorframe to steady herself. What is wrong with me?

She reached for the sink counter, making her way to the toilet. She sunk to her knees, placing her head over the bowl, throwing up.

Tom unsteadily entered the bathroom to check on her. “You okay?”

She shook her head.

“Me, neither. Damn, I feel—” He unexpectedly gagged, then motioned for her to move out of the way.

Cecile sat back as Tom kneeled over the bowl, every muscle in his body contracting as he retched. Dizzy, he fell to the vinyl floor, lying face down and moaning.

“Tom!” she cried out, pulling on his shoulder, attempting to turn him over, but his moans echoed through her mind.

The room began spinning.

Cecile became disoriented.

Everything went black.


The makeshift infirmary in the tribe’s community center was divided in half by a waist-high barrier created out of blankets and sheets draped over chairs spaced evenly apart. The temporary wall offered a slice of privacy for the sick people lying on the floor. Men were on one side and women on the other. Most of them slept. A few moaned because of their aches and pain. All had blotches that resembled bruises covering their bodies.

A teenage boy entered from the outside through the entrance doors that had been propped open to let in the sunlight. The overhead fluorescent lights were off because the power was out. The teenager looked much healthier than his counterparts as he carried in a bucket of water that sloshed over the sides.

Adeelah, a junior at the reservation’s school, walked around the room to see who needed her assistance. She held a pitcher of water in one hand and a few empty mugs in the other. The blotches on her skin were almost indiscernible.

Cecile’s eyes, laced with broken blood vessels, flickered open for the first time since she fell ill. She lay on the floor with no idea how she had gotten here. 

Adeelah noticed that Cecile was awake and made her way over to her, sidestepping the other women. This normally timid girl seemed to embrace her role as a caregiver. She set the pitcher down, kneeling beside Cecile to check her temperature by feeling her forehead, saying, “You’re better, but you should drink something.” Adeelah poured water into an empty mug, then held it against the woman’s dry lips while telling her, “Just so you know, Tom’s here and he’s doing fine. He’s on the other side.”

Pulling her mouth away from the cup, Cecile asked, “Can I see him?” She tried to get up, but became woozy and had to stop.

Adeelah helped her to lie back down. “You should rest. Okay? Don’t worry, you’ll both be fine.”

Cecile examined Adeelah’s face, trying to detect if the interim nurse was lying, but found it hard to focus. She was simply too tired and weak. Her eyelids drooped.

Adeelah placed the half-empty mug next to the sick woman’s pillow. “Let me know if you need anything else,” she said, then walked away. There were others that needed her help.

Left alone, Cecile groggily noticed the teenagers were the only ones taking care of the others. She wondered, Where’s Grandmother Hausis? The elders? The children? But she didn’t have the strength to ask, and maybe didn’t want to know.

She fell asleep, dreaming she was walking down a red road. The sides were lined with arching trees dotted with pink blossoms. Crows flew overhead. The fiery ball in the sky was touching the horizon.

Each of Cecile’s footsteps became heavier than the last, and just when she thought she couldn’t go any farther, a stag stepped out from behind the trees, standing in the middle of the road. The sunset silhouetted its strong form and magnificent set of antlers.

The totem animal had a message for her. “This will be your most difficult lesson, but you will find the strength, wisdom and courage to do that which must be done.”

The stag became streams of light, swirling around Cecile, joining with her spirit before the woman drifted deeper into her dreams.


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Of Stars and Clay | Chapter 2

Earth Sentinels II coverCurator’s House

High in the misty foothills of the Ōu Mountains in Japan, built on the grounds of an ancient temple, stood a one-room curator’s house that was crafted out of stones excavated from the mountainside. A 200-year-old rose bush clung to its southern wall, dotting the stonework with thorny canes and yellow blossoms.

Inside the dwelling, the morning sunlight peeked through a gap in the faded cotton curtains, the warm rays fell over the futon where a man and woman lay together.

The man, a Native American named Billy White Smoke, had made his living by working construction and odd jobs back in the States until he ventured across the ocean to find the woman beside him. Her name was Haruto. She was an Earth Sentinel, like Billy, but also a Miko like her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother before her—a tradition dating back thousands of years to when female shamans mingled with Japan’s ruling class, acting as healers, mediums and ritual dancers. Her flowing black hair, tinged with a few grays, was sprawled across the pillow.

Billy held her close, kissing her forehead before rubbing her pregnant belly with his calloused hand.

Haruto wistfully said, “I wish this moment could last forever.”

His deep voice tenderly responded, “But then the baby would never come.”

“True.”

“Still think it’s a girl?”

She nodded.

“We’ll have to think of a name for her. Maybe your mother’s?”

“Maybe.”

Billy hesitated, then said, “I was thinking, before the baby comes, we could get married.” He waited for her response.

Haruto frowned. “We’ve talked about this before.”

He turned away, lying on his back, clasping his hands behind his head, trying to remain calm.

She said, “We are in love and have a baby on the way. I don’t understand why that’s not enough for you.” 

Billy answered louder than he intended, “Because I’ve traveled around the world to be with you.” He immediately regretted raising his voice and softened his tone. “I just thought you’d meet me halfway.”

“You know I want to be with you forever, but—”

“But what?”

“I just thought that you, of all people, would appreciate not conforming to society’s expectations. To its patriarchal controls—”

“God knows, no man would ever control you.”

Haruto shrugged. There was some truth to his words. “We can talk later, but, right now, I have to get ready for an appointment.”

Billy wasn’t happy at where the conversation was ending, but he was old enough to know you have to pick your battles, so he said, “Fine, I’ll walk with you.” He flung the duvet off himself, getting out of bed to rifle through his clothes piled on top of the dresser, putting on a pair of work jeans and a black t-shirt. He grabbed his black-brimmed hat decorated with silver conchos and turquoise from a peg on the wall, placing it on his head, adjusting it to make sure the tilt was just right.

Haruto snatched her scarlet-colored silk pants off the chair in the corner, pulling them on, wrapping the ties around her protruding stomach. She looked forward to this small act every morning. It helped her to measure the baby’s growth as the pant ties seemed to become shorter and shorter with each passing day. She let the white silk blouse fall over her head, sliding her arms through the draping sleeves, leaving the hem untucked so it would fit over her rounded belly.

Ready to face the world, the couple stepped out of the house. Billy closed the red-painted door behind them.

They strolled along one of the stone paths that meandered through the meditation garden filled with bonsai, cherry, apple and pear trees; lavender; wisteria; and cultivated roses.

As they walked, Billy admired the sky, taking in the view until he noticed several planes leaving iridescent trails in the sky, hatch-marking the atmosphere. He stopped walking, and cursed, “God, damnit! I thought we were done with that shit!”

Startled, Haruto glanced back at him, then followed his gaze, solemnly noting the unusual plane trails. “Was it all for nothing?” she questioned.

He scoffed, “Maybe. Maybe it was a fool’s journey to even try.”

Discouraged, she let out a deep sigh before offering Billy the only advice she could think of, “Just let it go…”

He gave her a reluctant smile.

Haruto stretched out her hand, opening Billy’s clenched fist, slipping her fingers between his, leading him through the garden toward the temple. “Everything looks wonderful,” she complimented him, hoping to brighten his mood.

“Thanks. It’s coming along.”

Billy was being modest. He had transformed the neglected garden into a thing of beauty by reinvigorating the trees, resetting the stone paths, and patching the numerous steps that had become hazardous. His favorite improvement was the addition of medicinal herbs that were planted throughout the grounds, which introduced an element of untamed wildness, and balanced the vibrational qualities of the landscape.

They moved toward the ancient temple at the forefront of the property, which faced the road at the bottom of the foothill. The building stood three-stories tall and had originally been built for Buddhist monks, who had abandoned the place due to a lack of parishioners and dwindling financial support. Its distinct gabled roof was a combination of Chinese and Japanese architectural styles, which, at one time, were used exclusively for those in power. The feudal lords had forbid farmers and commoners from copying it—one of the many tactics they had utilized to maintain their authority.

The couple stopped at the rear of the temple. Here, steps led to an expansive landing that supported a wooden pergola holding an enormous bell—seldom rung these days.

Haruto faced Billy. “See you tonight,” she said, standing on her tiptoes to give him a quick peck on the lips.

Two Mikos, who happened to be strolling along a nearby path, gave them disapproving glances.

Most of the women here had not adapted to Billy residing on the grounds, despite the passing years. Men traditionally weren’t allowed to live with Mikos. But in Billy’s case an exception had been made, allowing him to dwell in the curator’s house in exchange for his gardening and maintenance services. This exception spoke of Haruto’s status—one that had risen considerably after her participation in the Earth Sentinels’ group.

Billy ignored the other women’s disparaging looks, and tipped his hat to Haruto. “See you tonight.”

She went inside the temple, passing through the foyer and bypassing the stone staircase that led to the upper floors.

Haruto entered the common area where a few Mikos mingled with the city dwellers, who wore workout clothes and held rolled mats while they waited for the yoga class to begin in the Great Hall. A plastic banner with the words “Sign Up for Yoga Classes” hung above the fireplace mantle, but it seemed out of place in this age-old building. On a narrow table, pressed against the wall, were jars of honey for sale.

“Haruto!” a young priestess called out, gracefully moving toward her. “A priest is here. Should I send him to you?”

“Yes, please.” Haruto always enjoyed a visit from the local Geki—the male version of their sect.

But her anticipation was squashed when a young Catholic priest strolled around the corner. The Japanese man wore the traditional black robe and white collar, and held a Bible in his hand. The gold crucifix hanging from his neck was centered over his heart. His eyes glanced at Haruto’s pregnant belly. If he held any judgments, he concealed them well.

The priest bowed. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Haruto hid her displeasure at what she considered to be an intrusion, mostly because she assumed that he was here to convert her as so many others had tried before. She politely bowed. “The pleasure is mine. How may I help you?” Being polite was the Japanese, and Miko, way.

“I wish to introduce myself. I’m Father Chong from Saint Agatha Lin’s church located downtown. I’m reaching out to the community, and would like to personally invite you and the others to attend our mass on Sundays.”

“Oh…” slipped off Haruto’s tongue before she caught herself, and tactfully responded, “I’m flattered you came all this way, but you see, I’m quite content with my path.”

“I do see, and your dedication is commendable, however, sometimes people are looking for…something else.”

Haruto was offended by his implication that her path was somehow inferior to his, but she chose to overlook it, saying, “I am familiar with Catholicism. I, like the others here, have studied many different religions and beliefs. It helps us to better understand those who come to us for spiritual guidance and healing, so I’m quite sure your religion is not for me.”

“Yes, I also am familiar with the Miko tradition,” countered Father Chong who, after glancing at her bulging stomach, mentioned, “but I wasn’t aware that Mikos were allowed to marry.” His words were meant to demonstrate his knowledge of their traditions, not insult her.

Because Haruto believed the priest had inquired sincerely, she answered, “We are allowed to marry, but, if we do so, our status changes to that of priestess.”

“Oh…so you’re a priestess?”

“No, I’m not married.”

“Oh.” The priest was not sure how to respond.

Haruto was in a hurry to end the conversation. “I have an upcoming appointment that I need to prepare for. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Well, again, I welcome you, or any of the others here, to attend our mass, or visit, or call me personally if you have any questions regarding our faith.” He opened the cover to the Bible that he carried. “If you change your mind, here’s our church address…” He pointed to the first interior page, then offered her the book. “Please take this. It’s my gift to you. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to return again, and perhaps catch you at a better time.”

Haruto graciously accepted the Bible. “Thank you.”

She moved toward the entrance, encouraging him to walk beside her. As they passed by the table displaying the honey, she picked up a jar, handing it to him. “My gift to you.” This token offering allowed Haruto to feel that she had repaid Father Chong for the Bible—and thereby released her from all obligations to meet with him again.

However, her action gave the priest a very different perception. He thought perhaps she was having a change of heart, and was pleased by the parting gift. “Thank you. Honey is one of my favorite treats.”

He had touched on a topic they could both agree on.

She responded, “One of our Mikos loves taking care of the bees. And the taste is quite delicious, mostly because the pollen comes from our garden. There are roses and jasmine, cherry blossoms, lavender and honeysuckle.”

Father Chong salivated at the thought of eating the artisan honey later. “Nothing better than fine honey,” he commented. “Thank you, again, um…I don’t believe I got your name.”

“It’s Haruto.” She politely bowed.

Later that evening, dark storm clouds gathered in the sky. The wind howled through the trees, forcing the limbs to dance manically.

Haruto and Billy were having dinner inside the curator’s house. They sat at the small table next to the window whose handcrafted glass panes had been rippled by time. Candles lit the room.

She quietly chewed her food.

He wondered if she was still upset about their disagreement from earlier that morning. “Is something wrong?”

Haruto wiped her mouth. “I had a visitor today. A Catholic priest.”

A forlorn look came over Billy’s face. He set down his fork. “Really? What did he want?”

“To save me.” She stabbed at her food. “I know he meant well, but it was…umm…”

“Insulting?”

“Yes. Insulting.”

Billy sighed, then solemnly said, “The white man came and killed our people, took our land, then took our children—beating them with one hand while holding a Bible in the other, trying to make them believe in his loving God. I have no taste for their medicine.”

“But he’s Japanese.”

Billy shrugged. “Same Bible.”

A gust of wind rattled the window. The candles on the table flickered.

Outside, the mounting storm tore leaves and twigs from their branches, hurling them through the air.

A barn owl crash-landed on the windowsill. Its golden-rufous breast thumped against the glass.

Haruto gasped, startled by the bird’s sudden appearance.

Unharmed, the owl righted itself, struggling to maintain its perch as the wind ruffled its brown plumage accented with orange-tan spots. The bird of prey focused its eyes on Haruto, who felt honored. Owls were considered bearers of good luck in Japan.

However, Billy did not have the same reaction. In his Native American culture, an owl was an omen of an impending death or tragedy. He felt a strong desire to stand between his lover and the night hunter’s line of sight, even as he knew he couldn’t save her from the harbinger’s premonition.

The downpour pelted the bird as it stared at Haruto through the rain-streaked window. Its strange unrelenting gaze caused an unexpected fear to arise within her.

Lightning ripped through the turbulent sky. Thunder exploded.

The barn owl screeched, then flew away, disappearing into the ominous darkness, leaving the man and woman with a sense of dread they couldn’t quite name.

Click to read Chapter 3


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Of Stars and Clay | Chapter 1

Earth Sentinels II coverAmazon Jungle

The day the world changed forever seemed like an ordinary day in the heart of the Amazon jungle. A handful of tribesmen stood beside the slow-moving mossy-green river enjoying a day of fishing.

Takwa, who was considered the tribe’s best hunter, brought a gourd to his mouth, taking a long guzzle of the fermented brew contained within. The colorful feathers in his hair hung back. Red-and-black lines were painted on his bare chest and arms. After quenching his thirst, he let out a satisfied sigh, passing the coveted beverage to the man next to him.

It was then that Takwa looked to the sky. A passenger plane flew high overhead, leaving behind an iridescent misty trail. He pointed at it, calling out, “Look!”

All of the tribesmen stared at the strange flying beast. They didn’t often see a jumbo airliner this far from civilization.

Standing among them was a young man named Zachary, who was notably different from the others—tall and lanky with sandy-blond hair, and fair skin that was perpetually sunburned. He had no painted lines on his body, and instead of a loincloth, he wore cut-off jeans and a ragged t-shirt with a Pittsburgh Steelers logo on it. He put his hand to his forehead to shield his green eyes from the sun as he gazed at the plane. He frowned because he knew the exhaust fumes weren’t normal. The pearly sheen of the far-reaching trail made it obvious that something was amiss—at least to him.

Farther from the shore, wandering alone through the scrub was the tribe’s shaman, Pahtia, an older man with gray hair who was searching for the herb Pau D’arco, which, when found, would be cut and dried, then used at a later date as a remedy for warding off infections. He was also searching for the Chanca Piedra plant, which offered pain-relief qualities, but he stopped his quest when he noticed his fellow tribesmen staring at the sky.

Curious, he hobbled through the underbrush, making his way to the riverbank where the jungle canopy gave way to the open skies.

Pahtia stood behind the other men, leaning on his staff while studying the plane’s exhaust trail that reflected the colors of the rainbow as it drifted through the cloudless sky—a hazy cord attached to the silver speck on the horizon. He contemplated the situation, muttering, “Bad omen.” 

Zachary overheard his father-in-law’s comment and felt he was right. But, at that moment, a fish nibbled on his bait. The young man needed to react quickly, otherwise, the catch would be lost.

He jerked on the line, swiftly sinking the hook into the mouth of an impressive-sized Pacu—one of the best-tasting fish in the Amazon.

The fish fought for its life, wriggling out of the water, shimmering in the sunlight before plunging back into the depths.

The other men salivated at the thought of roasting the delicious Pacu, wrapped in banana leaves, over an open fire.

“Careful!” one of the men shouted.

“Not too fast,” another advised.

Takwa tried to steal the line from Zachary’s hand. “Let me do it.”

But Zachary resisted. It was his fish. The hunter gave up, but stood nearby, disgruntled.

The Pacu flipped and flopped, desperate to free itself, causing the line to spin off the stick that served as the fishing pole. Zachary rewound the line, trying to exhaust the fish. His amateurish technique frustrated the other men.

The stakes were raised when a fourteen-foot Black Caiman, one of the largest members of the crocodilian family, noticed the commotion. The prehistoric creature slid into the river, gliding toward an easy meal. This predator was the perfect killing machine. It had armored skin, a mouth full of jagged teeth, and clear lenses that protected its eyes when attacking its prey. It was also incredibly fast when it wanted to be. And although caimans, like alligators and crocodiles, were not usually a threat to grown men, preferring smaller game and fish, one could never be too careful so Zachary kept an eye on the encroaching beast as well as his fish.

No longer a passive bystander, Pahtia warned his son-in-law, “Hurry up! Or you will lose it!”

Sweat ran down Zachary’s forehead. Too fast, too slow. He tightened the line.

The caiman swished its tail more vigorously, closing the gap, its primordial eyes and ridged spine cutting through the rippling waters.

Then the reptile submerged.

The tribesmen knew the caiman would attack from below.

“Pull!” yelled Pahtia.

Zachary yanked the line, causing it to cut into his fingers. The fish flew into the air, bounding toward the shore.

Everyone’s eyes followed the glistening Pacu. The line slackened as it soared. And as it did, Zachary envisioned being the one to bring in the prize catch of the day. However, his dreams of grandeur died a quick death when the caiman lunged out of the water, opening its tooth-riddled jaws, consuming the entire fish and cutting the line before splashing back into the river.

The men groaned.

“You will never fit in,” Takwa jeered.

Pahtia sighed and shook his head, annoyed by his son-in-law’s continual failures, but then he noticed the blood running down Zachary’s fingers. The healer knew the cut could fester in this hot humid rainforest, easily turning into a life-threatening infection. Not wanting his daughter’s scorn, he reluctantly offered to help the young man, saying, “Come with me.”

Zachary hung his head low with indignation. He hated relying on Pahtia for anything, but it was better than staying here among the other men. Takwa’s contempt was obvious even with his back toward him.

Pahtia shuffled along, his staff steadying his gait as he led Zachary down a narrow path that wandered through dense foliage, tangled vines and ancient trees, heading toward his hut on the outskirts of the village. Few tribe members visited the shaman there. Most only came to see him when they were sick or needed guidance. His powers scared them a bit. After all, if he had the power to heal, didn’t he also have the power to make them sick? Or worse? But this arrangement suited Pahtia just fine. He was happiest away from the others. He liked being undisturbed while hunting for herbs or journeying to the spirit realm. He knew that one could only clearly hear the spirits’ voices when the mind was quiet.

As the two of them neared their destination, a flock of blue-headed parrots scattered. From an overhead branch, a toucan studied them, its observant button eyes peering past its enormous black-tipped orange beak. Squirrel monkeys, hidden in the trees, hooted.

The shaman’s thatched-roof hut came into view. Its walls were made out of bamboo slats spaced evenly apart. The gaps let the breezes flow through. They also allowed Pahtia to detect if anyone was approaching, yet still gave him some measure of privacy.

Inside, dried wild flowers, roots and herbs were tacked to the slats while others hung from the ceiling. Some fresh gatherings were spread across the worktable.

Pahtia instructed Zachary to sit near the ash-filled fire pit that he often used for cooking and simmering medicinal concoctions, then he walked to the back of the hut where he rummaged through his assorted botanicals, selecting a few leaves and roots, placing them in a stone bowl. He added a splash of chicha, then began grinding the ingredients together.

Meanwhile, Zachary sat staring out the doorway, thinking about the ill-boding plane trail. “Pahtia?”

The old man stopped mixing, looking up. Deep creases surrounded his eyes.

“Why don’t we visit Bechard and ask him about the plane?”

“Never again! That spirit tricked us.”

“He meant well.”

Pahtia shook his head. “He holds a darkness in his heart.” He tapped his chest to emphasize his point.

“Pahtia?”

With a touch of irritation, he answered, “Yes?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about the plane.”

“I know.” The shaman walked toward Zachary carrying the stone bowl. He sat down to finish mixing the compound.

“What should we do?”

“I am not sure. I will visit Maka later. She always has good advice.” Pahtia was referring to his spirit guide, who helped him with healings, divination and guidance on physical, mental and spiritual matters. He gathered a clump of the smelly herbal remedy with his gnarled fingers. “This will go on your wound to keep it from getting infected so Conchita will not be mad at me.” He added, “You can die from infection, you know.”

Zachary sighed. “Yes, I know.” He hated being treated like a complete idiot.

Pahtia shaped the clump into a ball, casually mentioning, “When I die, I will shapeshift into a great caiman.” His eyes gleamed as he imagined reincarnating as this noble reptile. “Maybe next time, I will take your fish.” He let out a rare chuckle, annoying his son-in-law, and then hummed while applying the fresh salve to the young man’s injured fingers.

Zachary winced.

Pahtia smiled.

Too embarrassed to return to the river, Zachary went home to his wife, Conchita, who stood in their hut cradling their infant son. Her long black hair hung over part of her face as she gazed down at the baby while singing a traditional lullaby. The moment Zachary saw her, he forgot all about the failed fishing incident.

Conchita smiled at her husband, but her joy quickly faded when she noticed that his hand was bandaged with leaves and bamboo twine. She asked with concern, “What happened?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, wanting to forget the whole thing.

“Let me see it,” she insisted.

He reluctantly held out his injured hand for inspection by the shaman’s daughter.

She balanced the baby on her hip, then used her free hand to examine the patch job, sniffing to detect which herbs had been used, flipping his hand over to study the other side, finally conceding, “Father did a good job.”

“Yes, he did.” Zachary glanced around the hut, asking, “Where’s Eva?”

“Outside. See.”

She pointed out the doorway at the sunlit center of the village where the young children were having fun with a Capuchin monkey that jumped from one child’s shoulder to the next, playing a game of catch-me-if-you-can. Four-year-old Eva ran toward the scampering rascal with her hands outstretched, only to have the monkey leap over her sun-bleached curls, landing on top of another child’s shoulder. The children squealed with delight.

Zachary laughed at their antics until he glanced up at the sky. Remnants of the shimmering plane trail still lingered.

Conchita, noticing his troubled expression, asked him, “What is wrong?”

Zachary decided to shake off his worries. After all, what could he do about the plane trail? So instead of answering Conchita’s question, he smiled, brushing her long hair away from her face, kissing her neck, softly saying, “Nothing’s wrong. Sit with me.” He sat down on the palm leaves that covered the floor, patting them with his uninjured hand to encourage her to join him.

Conchita handed her husband the baby, which he gently held in his arms, then settled beside him. She gave her son a quick peck on the forehead to assure him that she was still nearby. The infant gurgled with elation.

It was times like this that Zachary remembered why he had come here.


During the night, Pahtia hobbled through the rainforest using his staff to steady his step. In his other hand, he held a burning torch to light the way. The moon and stars were hidden behind the dark storm clouds forming over the jungle’s canopy. Thunder pounded in the distance, causing the old shaman to quicken his step.

He made his way across the quiet village where everyone was safely tucked inside their huts, sound asleep.

Pahtia peered inside his daughter’s dwelling, past the lattice gate made out of bamboo poles that protected the doorway from night-roaming predators. He whispered, “Conchita…”

She stirred, but did not wake.

He held onto the doorframe, poking his staff through the gate, nudging his daughter.

Conchita opened her eyes and saw a silhouetted figure standing outside the hut. She wondered if she was dreaming. It wasn’t until a gust of wind threw the torch flames past Pahtia’s face that she recognized him. “Father?”

He tersely responded, “Come with me.” 

She drowsily got up, quietly opening the gate, stepping outside, careful not to disturb her loved ones.

Conchita trailed behind her father, passing the outskirts of the village, continuing down a barely visible path. Branches and vines, flailing in the storm’s gusts of wind, hindered their progress. She glanced behind herself, feeling an overwhelming urge to return to her children and husband. The farther she went, the stronger the urge became. She came to a standstill, asserting herself. “Father!”

Pahtia stopped walking and looked back at her.

She said, “I am not going. Not tonight. I will come tomorrow.”

The shaman solemnly responded, “I have something to share with you. But it must be tonight.” He continued along the path.

Lightning crackled, flashing through the trees.

Against her better judgment, Conchita followed him. “Why not morning?” she asked, her voice nearly drowned out by the rolling thunder.

Without turning around, he declared, “Morning is too late!”

They reached Pahtia’s hut. The flames in the fire pit burned brightly, welcoming them home.

Conchita sat near the fire in her usual spot, combing her windswept hair with her fingers while observing the storm brewing outside, its ardent breath huffed through the hut’s slatted walls.

Pahtia went to his workbench, reverently picking up a leather medicine pouch. He returned to sit beside his daughter. With sentimental eyes, he said to her, “You have been a good apprentice. Learned all I had to teach.” He set the medicine pouch on his lap so he could use both hands to remove the amulet that hung from a leather cord around his neck. “This was my father’s, and now it is yours. Shaman to shaman.”

Conchita lowered her head to accept the gift. It was a great honor to be declared a shaman. She looked down at the amulet that rested against her chest, picking it up, holding it between her fingers, still not believing the shiny stone her father had worn since she was a child was now hers.

Pahtia continued, “I will ask my helper spirits to be your helpers. All that I have is now yours.”

He opened the medicine pouch’s drawstrings, reaching inside to take out an amethyst cluster. He held it up between his bony fingers. “This has magical powers. Hold out your hand.” He placed it securely in her palm. “This stone holds the vibrations of Mother Earth. Keep it safe.” He pulled out a jaguar’s curved claw. “Not Taslia,” he clarified, referring to his totem animal, which also happened to be a jaguar. “This was my first kill. I was brave and used only a spear. Very dangerous. Very strong energy.” He handed it to Conchita before he once more dug into his bag, removing a plant root. “This is a wise root. It knows the secrets of the rainforest.” Pahtia placed it in Conchita’s hand beside the other sacred articles. Next, he extracted a human tooth, staring at it as if he was remembering how he acquired it so many years ago, then, without an explanation, he returned it to the pouch.

“Father, why are you giving me these things?”

“I had a vision, a prophecy. And in this vision, I saw blood-red skies and a snake slither out of its hole, standing like a man with a gold crown on its head. I heard the moaning of men, women and children in pain, lying on the ground. Too many to count. The snake took joy in their sorrow, eating them.”

“Stop it. You are scaring me.”

Pahtia became angry. “No daughter of mine is afraid!”

His harsh tone made Conchita regret coming here.

Outside, the storm unleashed its heavy rains.

Pahtia’s demeanor softened. “Forget what I said. I know you are strong. Let us journey together one more time. I need to ask Maka for guidance.”

Conchita believed in her father’s prophecies, but that didn’t mean this one would happen tonight—maybe not even in their lifetimes. However, he was more riled up about this one than usual. All she wanted to do was return home and sleep with her family, but the downpour made her hesitant to leave. Besides, she knew her father would prod her until she relented, so Conchita reluctantly agreed, “I will journey with you.”

“Good. Let me get the herb.” The shaman used his staff to stand up, stiffly hobbling across the floor.

Conchita noticed for the first time how much her father had aged. His frame was frail, and his hair was almost entirely gray. She looked away before he returned.

Pahtia sat beside his daughter once more. He said a prayer while bringing the herb close to his face, honoring it before dropping the sacred leaves into the fire. Smoke burst out of the flames, billowing all around them.

The pair closed their eyes, breathing deeply, letting the smoke fill their lungs.

The shaman called for his totem animal, “Taslia, please come!”

A moment later, from out of the storm, an ethereal black jaguar padded through the doorway, entering the smoke-filled hut. The ghostly feline stood there swishing her tail, her golden eyes reflecting the flames. The totem animal contained the archetypal powers of strength and courage—attributes that would help Pahtia face the dangers encroaching upon him and his tribe.

The shaman acknowledged Taslia’s presence, “Thank you, old friend, for coming. I need to speak to Maka. Will you please take us to her?”

Taslia nodded.

Pahtia’s spirit rose out of his body and climbed onto the jaguar’s back. Conchita’s spirit joined her father’s, sitting behind him.

The big cat carried the pair out of the hut, entering the mystical realm of the jungle. Rain dripped from the shadowy leaves as they moved through the trees. 

Conchita held tightly onto her father. Even if they weren’t in mortal danger, she knew they were surrounded by spirits—most were benevolent, but some were malicious.

Pahtia, on the other hand, was enjoying the ride as if it might be his last, listening to the jungle sounds and taking in the sights. He breathed deeply, smelling the humus aroma the rain brought to the surface. The faint sensation of wet leaves dragging across his face and exposed arms didn’t irritate him as it normally would have, instead the cold austere contact made him feel alive.

They moved through a blanket of fog, and the rain stopped.

The totem animal strolled out of the trees.

In front of them was a roaring waterfall. The cascading water reflected the moonlight as it fell into an ebony lake.

Pahtia dismounted, then ambled through the dense ferns. He stood at the edge of the dark water with his daughter by his side, calling to his spirit guide, “Maka, please come!”

A ball of light appeared from out of the starry sky, hovering above the lake. It expanded into the form of a beautiful woman, who wore white-fringed animal skins decorated with colorful feathers and beads. Her black hair hung down to her knees. She gave the visitors a warm smile, saying, “Greetings! It is good to see you again.”

Pahtia bowed his head out of respect. “Greetings to you as well, Maka. Thank you for answering my call. We need your help. I believe the end is near.”

“The end of what, dear Pahtia?”

“The end of this life—for me and my tribe.”

“Pahtia, you know there is no death. Only change. Why do you falter now?”

The shaman bolstered his chest, touting, “I do not falter! I came for help.”

“I understand your concerns, but keep this in mind: That which seems to be the end is always the beginning. Remember, for the caterpillar to become a butterfly is a difficult process—one that requires a tremendous amount of trust before the metamorphosis completes itself. But never does the butterfly mourn the loss of its former self, although, for the caterpillar, the transformation feels like death. To take away the impending change would hinder your spiritual growth. This I cannot do.”

Maka stopped speaking. Her body glowed brighter and brighter until she was lost in the brilliance, splintering into a thousand sparkling lights, dissipating into the night.

Read Chapter 2

 


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