THE DAY THE world changed forever seemed like an ordinary day in the heart of the Amazon rainforest where a handful of tribesmen fished along the shore of the mossy-green river.
Takwa, the tribe’s best hunter, brought a gourd to his mouth, taking a long guzzle of the fermented brew, chicha, 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 gourd 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 exhaust trail. He pointed at it. “Look!”
All of the tribesmen stared at the strange flying beast. They didn’t often see an 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, and then used at a later date as a remedy for warding off infections. He stopped his quest when he noticed his fellow tribesmen staring at the sky. Curious, Pahtia hobbled through the underbrush, making his way to the riverbank where the jungle canopy gave way to the open skies. He stood behind the other men, leaning on his staff while studying the plane’s exhaust trail that reflected the colors of the rainbow. He muttered, “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 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. Takwa 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 noticed the commotion. The prehistoric creature slid into the river, gliding toward an easy meal. 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 himself 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, 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. “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 meandered 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 walls 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, then 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?” Zachary asked.
“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.
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. The man 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 beast. “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.
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 her face as she gazed down at the baby while singing a traditional lullaby. The moment Zachary saw them, he forgot all about the failed fishing incident.
Conchita smiled at her husband, but her joy quickly faded when she noticed his hand was bandaged with leaves and bamboo twine. She asked with concern, “What happened?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he answered, wanting to forget the whole thing.
“Let me see it.”
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. “Where’s Eva?”
“Outside. See.” Conchita pointed out the doorway at the sunlit center of the village where the young children were having fun with a Capuchin monkey, which 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 noticed his troubled expression. “What is wrong?”
Zachary decided to shake off his worries. After all, what could he do about the plane trail? So instead of answering, he smiled, brushing his wife’s 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 Zachary the baby, then settled beside him, giving 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 these that caused Zachary to remember why he had come here.
During the night, Pahtia hobbled through the rainforest using his staff to steady his steps. 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 pace.
He made his way across the quiet village where everyone was safely tucked inside their huts, sound asleep. He peered inside his daughter’s dwelling, past the lattice gate made out of bamboo poles that protected the doorway from night-roaming predators. Pahtia whispered, “Conchita…” She stirred, but did not wake. He held onto the doorframe, poking his staff through the gate, nudging her.
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.”
He 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 huffing through the 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 resting 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.
He continued, “I will ask my helper spirits to be your helpers. All that I have is now yours.” Pahtia 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 dried 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. His 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.”
Outside, the storm unleashed its heavy rains.
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 she 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.
Pahtia acknowledged Taslia’s presence, “Thank you, old friend, for coming. I need to speak to Maka. Will you please take us to her?”
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 spirits surrounded them—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 skin 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. “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.
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