Back | Next

Chapter 6: A Man of the Pwi

That night, 160 Pwi gathered on the banks of the Smilodon River a mile east of town to witness the ceremony that would make Tull one of their family. A dozen bonfires lit the scene, and flame-lit smoke rose up in clouds, casting red light upon the water. Bullfrogs croaked in the bushes, and bats wheeled about beneath the redwoods.

Freya, a small moon, was nearly full, and its pale blue light shattered the darkness. The night was clear. In the sky above, one red drone—an ancient war machine left by the Eridani to ensure that the inhabitants of Anee never took to the stars—plodded in its orbit, a long red tube of light, brighter than a comet.

Tull chose Chaa to be his father and Chaa’s wife, Zhopila, to be his mother—which would make Ayuvah his brother and Fava his sister. They were best friends, so the arrangement made sense, and Ayuvah’s family was one of the best in town.

From childhood, Tull had always dreamed of being a member of a family like this. The word Pwi means both family and person. As far as the Pwi were concerned, to be one was to be both.

Amid the light from bonfires that reflected in the river, each mother from among the Pwi brought out a favorite piece of leather and told the group why it was special: “I planned to make a coat for my child from this leather,” one woman said, “and so I have worked it till it is very soft.”

“My brother painted a piya bird on this leather,” another said, “and so I think it is beautiful.”

“My son killed the trees-on-head that made this leather, before he left for the House of Dust,” a third woman said, and tears streamed down her face as she spoke of the lost boy. It was only old pain, and her husband comforted her while she remembered the son who had died.

Chaa inspected the gifts of leather and agreed that each held kwea—a memory of power, of pain, or of love—and therefore, the gift was sacred because it was also a gift from the heart.

The Pwi gathered together and sewed the leather into a great bag. The river was alive with the croaking of frogs and the startled calls of night birds; a cool thermal wind crept down the river channel from the mountains.

When the bag was sewn, Chaa stood before the Pwi in the guttering torchlight and said, “No two men walk the same world. Kwea shapes each man’s perceptions. Kwea shapes his loves and fears, and because of this it is often not easy for the Pwi to understand one another.

“Here, we have Tull Genet, a man who has been Tcho-Pwi, and he is hard for us to understand, for he sometimes thinks like a human. Yet I say that he is Pwi, and that it is right for us to adopt him into the family.

“My grandfather taught me that all things are connected: when a man plants wheat in a field he makes bread from it, and it is easy to see that the man would not exist without the bread, and it is also easy to see that the bread would not exist without the labor of the man. If you are awake to the connections, then certainly you will see that the man and the bread, they are not separate, but are one thing. They are two parts of a greater whole.

“But the bread and the man, they could not exist without the wheat. And the wheat cannot exist without the rain and the oceans and the sun and the soil and the worms within the soil. And both the bread and the man who eats the bread become connected to all of these things, and they are not separate, but part of a greater whole.

“You are rain and soil and sunlight and wind and oceans. Always there is an ocean throbbing in your veins, and when you exhale, you add force to the winds, and when you work in a field on a hot day, the sweat of your body rains upon the ground, and when you are joyful, you release sunlight in the twinkling of your eyes.”

Chaa said, “We are not only connected to all things, but to all. other. people….

“You have known Tull for many years, and each of you feel kwea for him. It is right that he become one of us, that he become Pwi.”

Then Chaa leapt back and shouted to the crowd, “Who will be the midwife?”

Old Vi, a woman who had served as a midwife for most of the villagers shambled forward. Tull hadn’t realized how old she had become in the past few years. Her red hair was going white, and the hard edges of her body had become soft.

Chaa bowed to Old Vi, and presented his ceremonial dagger with its blade carved from a carnosaur’s tooth. She took it hesitantly.

Tull stepped into the bag of leather, and all the Pwi set great stones in the bag, sewed it closed, dragged it to the river, and threw the bag in.

The bag floated a bit for a few seconds, and the air was forced to the top. But as air leaked from the bag, the weight of the stones made it sink. Tull began struggling to tear the bag open, searching for the weakest seams, the thinnest leather, even as the air escaped.

The hot air in the bag smelled of brine, sweat and flesh. The stones quickly sank into a pile near his feet, and the air bubble began shrinking at the top of the bag.

Tull tried pushing against both sides at once, using hands and feet, head and buttocks, to rip the seams, but the bag was too large. So he returned to pulling at the weakest of the seams, struggling to find thread or leather that would tear. He worked at it for several minutes, and the pocket of air kept escaping from the top of the bag, even as warm water trickled down near his feet. He had to arch his neck to grab a hasty last breath.

Suddenly, all of the air hissed out in a rush, and Tull suspected that a hole had opened near his head. He scratched with all his might, worrying the seams, ripping fingernails, as he tugged at the leather. He struggled to hold his last breath.

That’s when he realized that the ceremony had gone awry.

I’m going to drown, he thought, even as I struggle to be reborn. Won’t I look like a fool?

His heart pounded in the silence, and he stilled himself, wondering what to try next. His lungs were burning, his fingernails bled, and he grew dizzy. He could hear only the sounds of the river washing past the bag, felt it bump the muddy river bottom as it drifted downstream, out to sea.

Suddenly he felt a tug, a push as someone touched it. The bag budged a bit up from the river bottom, and then lifted quickly, as if pulled from the water by many hands.

Tull gasped for air, but none could pass through the wet leather. He gasped frantically, sucking in the breaths he’d let out, hot and unsatisfying. His head reeled, and sweat formed on his brow.

Suddenly, light pierced through the darkness, a slit opened. Old Vi stood above him. She had sunk her knife into the bag near his face, and Tull shoved his face forward, sucked the air desperately. Water spilled from the bag, widening the gash in it.

Tull wriggled out on his belly.

As Tull lay gasping on the ground, he saw that the bag had a leather rope tied to the top, so that it would not have gone downstream. It was an umbilical cord, binding him to the tribe.

Now the Pwi circled him, holding burning brands of wood from the fire, so that he could see their faces, and they stood smiling at him. He saw love on their faces, and joy, and remembrance of children born before. His new mother was shedding tears, much as if she had birthed him herself. The woman who had lost her own son beamed proudly, and Tull realized, To her, I am her new son.

“It is a boy child!” Vi shouted in mock surprise, raising her knife triumphantly. “Very large—the biggest I have ever delivered!”

The Pwi laughed and cheered.

With great ceremony Old Vi dragged the leather bag and its towline to the river and heaved it out into the water. “May this cord never be severed!” she cried.

The Pwi raised their hands and shouted, as if it were a solemn oath.

Fava was beside herself with joy. She twisted her hands together, holding them so tightly that her knuckles turned white and her nails made half-moon crescents in her palms. If the ceremony had been less solemn, she might have danced her happiness on the shores of Smilodon Bay.

She was happy for Tull, for he had the family he always wanted. She was happy for the Pwi, who’d gained a strong, new son, and she was happy for herself for the new possibilities of the future. There were so many things to be happy about that Fava was sure one Pwi could not contain it all.

Surely now that Tull was Tcho-Pwi no more, his heart would unlock itself. He would settle in Pwi Town to live among Pwi neighbors, play with Pwi children, and surely now he would see that he should marry a Pwi, a woman like Fava.

Fava was so excited that she nearly missed Chaa’s pronouncement.

“A new boy is born into our family,” Chaa announced, his voice frail and shaken. Everyone quieted to hear the name Chaa would give Tull. The name was very important, a portent of the type of person Tull would become. “I have walked the path of his future, and I shall call him Laschi Chamepar, Path of the Crushed Heart.”

Fava’s grin fell, and her heart pounded in fear. It was not a formidable name for a Pwi; it was not the name of an animal or plant—like Chaa, the dark crow of magic and wisest of birds; or Fava, the pear, most generous of trees.

A name should describe the qualities of the person named, or the qualities the person would develop. Tull stared hard at Chaa, and the Spirit Walker’s face was still drawn in horror, even though he tried to remain smiling like a Pwi.

Then Fava understood: the name described the person Tull would become, a man with a crushed heart.

The Pwi came forward and hugged Tull, welcomed him into the family, all of them talking at once.

Fava hugged him, tried to console him. “I have seen you watch Isteria,” she said, pronouncing Wisteria as best she could, “that human girl. Now that you are Pwi, you should look at girls among your own people,” and Tull blushed. By Pwi standards he was obscenely old to be single, as was Fava.

Twice, Fava knew, Pwi girls had set their belongings on Tull’s doorstep, asking him to marry him in the manner of the Pwi, and he had left the belongings on the doorstep until the girls took them away. Fava had been one of those girls.

An old man hugged him and reminded, “I have two daughters, and they both need a husband; perhaps one wife would not be enough for you?”

And when the marriageable girls in the village hugged him, Fava could not help but notice how some hugged him with passion, so that their breasts pressed firmly against his chest. He would be able to feel their soft curves, and Fava knew that it was not done by accident.

Some Pwi left early, for they still sorely mourned the deaths of Denni and Tchar. But others sang and danced, guzzling beer from a barrel until the air smelled sour and warm, ripe, and sticky; then they spun madly and jumped into the air until they could no longer stand.

When Tull looked toward his home, as if to go sleep, Zhopila pleaded that he come to sleep in the home of his new Pwi family.

Fava’s heart leapt when he agreed to do so.

They went to the house, dug there into the side of the hill, and Fava put fresh wood on the small fire in the hearth.

For a while, Tull sat up with Ayuvah’s little daughter Sava, warmed by the light of the hearth, and carved her a tiny sailboat from a walnut shell.

Ayuvah told his mother about seeing Little Chaa touch the mayor’s Dryad, and Zhopila became angry. Zhopila told Little Chaa, “You stay away from that monster, or someday she will carry you away from home to be her lover, and make you her slave.”

So she told the boy the story of “Tchulpa and the Dryad of the Pines”:

Long ago, the Starfarers created many trees and animals—both the mammoth and the redwood and the beasts in Hotland, but their work was not done. So, to finish their work, they gave birth to seven Creators—beasts terrible to look upon: Xicame to rule the fishes of the sea. Mema and Va to form and to rule the birds, lizards, snakes, the three breeds of dragons, and the serpents. Dwafordotch was made master of the insects. Zheforso to rule the hairy beasts, the Hukm, Mastodon Men, and the Pwi. Theva to rule the deserts and plains. And last of all, Forethorun to rule the jungles and trees.

Each Creator gave birth to new plants and animals, filling the world with life and death.

But when he was yet young, Forethorun made his home in a cave, and one day the mountain fell upon him. So, in his place, the six Creators made Dryads to tend the trees.

In those days, Tchulpa, a man of the Pwi with a beautiful wife and six beloved children, went into the forest with his basket to hunt for pine nuts in the month of White, and as he foraged, he heard a woman singing, and he crept toward her and found her beside a river.

Her skin was green, like the leaves of a young pine tree, and softer than the petals of a flower. Her beauty was above that of any woman, and when she walked, she moved as gracefully as a prancing deer, and her breasts bobbed like peonies in the wind.

Her voice was more beautiful than earthly speech—as if the meadowlark had lent her her song, and she sang of love, so Tchulpa thought that surely this must be the goddess Zhofwa, who blows her kisses upon young people so they fall in love.

He thought he should hide himself, because he did not want to look upon the goddess, so he hid behind a tree and called out to the Dryad.

Tchulpa begged her to leave before the desire he felt for her slew him. He said, “I love my wife deeply, and I want to go home to her.”

But the Dryad seemed not to understand his pleas. Instead, she sought him out, smiling and innocent, and he peered into her eyes, paler green than winter ice. She smiled and put her avocado-green lips upon his.

In that moment, Tchulpa knew she must be the goddess Zhofwa, for his desire rose up. So great was his lust that it overwhelmed his desire for all other women. His beautiful wife seemed deformed and twisted in comparison to the Dryad. And just as a husk upon an oat stem will sometimes fool us into believing that we have found grain in winter, he thought that surely his beautiful wife must have been only a husk of a woman after all, and he had somehow been deceived into believing that he loved her.

His love for his children and the Pwi was swept away, too, in this madness. And when he lay with the woman upon the soft moss of the forest floor, he felt as if he were buoyed upon waves of desire, and he thought that surely he was giving his love to the goddess Zhofwa herself.

But when he was done, the beautiful green woman turned her back upon him. He went to stay with her in her home of living trees, but she took no notice of him. During the day she foraged for the dung of giant elks, and buried it at the roots of the pines.

And in the night she did not give love to him the way that a wife should. Instead she searched among the needles of the pines for grubs and caterpillar nests and then she would squash them, and since she barely took time to find food for herself, she fed upon the dead insects, instead.

In time, she learned to speak, but at night, she talked only of her work and of her love for the trees, but she never spoke of her love for Tchulpa.

If he left the room to get firewood, she would take no notice. If he fed her, she did not thank him. Sometimes, even if he tried to simply speak to her, she would only stare away, as if lost in thoughts of trees.

Tchulpa became sad with the despair-that-leads-to-death, and he realized finally that she had no love in her. Instead, he thought she must be a demon, created by the earth to punish men for how they treat the forests. He remembered his wife, and wished he could see her, but each day he would look upon the Dryad and the kwea of the moment when they first met would come upon him. He would think back on the magic of that time together and become her slave all over again, as if he were a Thrall held in chains by a Slave Lord, and he could not leave.

Days melted into months and months blended into years.

After three summers, the Dryad bore a daughter with skin as green as pine needles. Tchulpa became angry, for she had not made love to him during those three years, so it seemed obvious that she had borne a child from another man.

One day, the Dryad wandered away, and in her devotion to the trees, she stayed away for nights catching moths that were laying their eggs. When Tchulpa found her again, he was furious, for he felt sure she had gone off to sleep with another man while he tended her child. (In those days, the Pwi did not know that Dryads mate only once and give birth slowly over the years; so Tchulpa did not imagine that the green daughter was his.)

He dragged his second wife home by the hair and tried to make love to her, but she fought him. He screamed and tore his hair in frustration, but she said, “I love only the pines!”

Tchulpa wondered if she had made love to a tree spirit, and the tree spirit had fathered the green daughter. So he went crazy in his grief.

This was in the month of Dragon, and the forest was at its driest.

Tchulpa picked up a brand from his cooking fire and ran outside and tossed the torch into the pines.

The Dryad ran from the hut with her daughter, and when she saw the fire raging in all the trees, madness came over her. She screamed, and twisted her face into a mask of rage, and took a stick and speared Tchulpa in the shoulder. She leaned toward him, as if she would rip his throat out with her teeth.

In that moment, Tchulpa saw into her eyes and realized that she was an animal. He had not fallen in love with a goddess, or even a woman, only a lowly beast.

He ran from her then, and heard the Dryad give a blood-curdling call, a wail more like that of a wolf than a human. It was a pure expression of her grief for the dying forest.

Tchulpa thought that he was free then, but as he looked back into the forest, he saw many green women with doe eyes chasing toward him, for the Dryad’s call had alerted others of her kind.

Tchulpa ran for his life. Some Dryads ripped him with their fingernails and bit him with their teeth, while others clubbed him with sticks, but Tchulpa escaped them all.

The Dryads’ cries haunted him through the forest, until he reached a band of oaks, and the pine women stopped.

The Dryads would not leave their beloved forest.

Tchulpa’s heart was torn, for he remembered his love for his wife and children. Now, he wished only to return.

For a time, he would not eat, but so great was his sadness that he hoped only to find comfort in the House of Dust with his ancestors. Yet, he knew he could not let himself die without first telling his family what had happened and begging their forgiveness.

When Tchulpa reached his village, his back and legs were swollen and infected with green pus that ran from him like sap from a tree—the worst kind. For this is what comes from the bite of a Dryad.

He told the Pwi his story, but everyone imagined that it was only fever talking, for none had ever seen a Dryad in those early days. So they brought him into the house of the healer, lanced his wounds, and washed him gently.

They thought he must have gone through a terrible ordeal, to be gone these three years. They wondered if slavers had captured him. His wife was elated to have her husband alive again, for she thought he had wandered off a cliff and died, or perhaps had become food for a smilodon.

That night, as his wife Azha tended him, so happy to have her husband home again, she put him by the fire and fell asleep.

She woke to the sound of Tchulpa’s cry. A nude woman with skin the color of pine needles stood above Tchulpa, and she ran from the room as quickly and quietly as a dream.

Tchulpa cried out again. Azha rushed to her husband, and he coughed blood into the air. In his chest was a stake, whittled from a branch of blackened pine.

Tchulpa raised his head and said, “Remember the kwea of the night we became husband and wife? That kwea is upon me. I feel nothing for that animal anymore.”

Azha nodded and took her husband’s hand. With his own blood, Tchulpa drew joined circles, the symbol of eternal love, upon her hand before he died.

Tull listened and smiled. Years ago, he’d realized that humans always seem to tell stories of conquest, of men who bulldog mammoths into the ground and slaughter each other in battle, but the Pwi always seemed to tell stories about reconciliation.

Pwi often told of brothers or lovers or friends who went to war in their youth, and only a great act of love or sacrifice could heal the evil kwea built up over the years. Such stories seemed odd—as if the Pwi believed that every fence could be mended, all hate and anger washed away.

Tull only had to look at his relationship with Jenks to see how false this notion was.

Yet the story of Tchulpa and the Dryad made Tull laugh, for somehow it seemed backward: Tchulpa did not find happiness with the Dryad at all.

He had to fall out of love, and that seemed important to Tull.

The silly ending, with Tchulpa drawing the symbol of eternal love on his wife’s hand, seemed more like a fable than something that would really happen.

Instead, Tull imagined that Tchulpa would have gasped “Oh shit!” as he died.

After the story, Zhopila went to her room to sleep, and the rest of the family lay on the floor in the living room, on piles of soft bearskins, and talked late into the night.

Little Chaa, although he was only twelve, talked of his plans to accompany Tull and Ayuvah to Seven Ogre River, until finally he fell deeply asleep, as if lost in pleasant dreams.

Ayuvah lay on the floor next to his wife and daughter. Fava, Tull’s new sister, lay to Tull’s right. Fava’s five little brothers and sisters slept on the other side of her. With so many people in the house, and with the embers still glowing cherry-red in the hearth, the room was very warm.

Tull could not sleep, lying so close to Fava. Her legs were long and bare in her summer dress, and he could feel the ribbons that signified her maidenhood around her hips as she snuggled against him. Her hair was scented with vanilla water; she smelled fresh and desirable.

He could not detect any beer on her breath, perhaps because it was still so strong on his own. He sat up on one elbow, and his head spun. It should not be so hard to love, he thought. Even ignorant children can do it.

He knew by Fava’s breathing that she was still awake, so he wrapped his arm around her to see what she would do, his clamshell bracelet rattling in the dark. She squeezed his hand and placed it on her stomach, drew figure eights on the back of his hand. The figure eight, two circles forever joined. It was more than a symbol of love, it was the Pwi symbol for marriage.

Tull did not know if it was better to leave his hand and encourage her or to pull it away and deny his attraction. Among the Pwi, marriage was sacred. When a man and woman married, they mated for life, and the kwea became so strong that when one spouse died, unless there were children, the other mate stopped eating, stopped drinking, and followed his or her beloved to the grave.

Only a heartless man would encourage a Pwi maiden to love him if he was not willing to return that love. Tull pulled his hand away.

This of course is what had happened with Tull’s own father. Jenks was incapable of love, and Tull’s mother had becomed so bonded to him that she could not break away, even to save her own children.

Somehow, Tull expected better from his mother. She should have been strong enough to leave the man.

Fava sat up, very quietly, and turned to look into Tull’s eyes. She reached forward to trace the shape of his brows with gentle fingers. Her cool lips gently brushed his jaw..

“Now you are truly Pwi,” she whispered. “One of The People. My people. Now you will find hathna, a woman who shares her soul with yours.”

Tull stroked her cheek for a moment, wishing he could kiss her. Then he stopped and gently pushed her away, knowing how unfair it would be to entice her further.

When Tull was a child, he heard the word love, but by the age of twelve he realized that he no longer believed in it. Having never felt loved by others, it was hard to feel for them in return.

To him, love was an emotion that people only pretended to feel, or perhaps it was a common delusion held by many in the world.

But in his twelfth summer, Tull’s parents had moved to Smilodon Bay, and he’d met Ayuvah’s family—a father who felt pain for his children and cried with them when they hurt; a mother who not only spoke of love but showed it in every small deed. Zhopila took great pains to cuddle with her children, to tend to their needs, and to encourage them to be the best people they could become.

For the first time Tull had become convinced that there really was such a thing as love in the world. Some people felt it, at least.

Like a tender forest plant that grows in feeble light, he searched inside himself for the ability to love another. He wasn’t sure yet if he could do it.

Until tonight, Tull had always envied Ayuvah for his parents. But now Chaa was his father, and Ayuvah was his brother.

Fava is right, he thought. Today, for the first time, I am Pwi. I am a person. I am family. For now, that is enough.

He knew he could take Fava to wife, but for the moment, he contented himself with the simple feeling of belonging to a real family.

Tull awoke late that night to the soft sounds of children breathing, and a queer thought came to him. Chaa had stayed outside after the ceremony, and Tull began to worry. He should have been home hours ago.

The Neanderthal shaman was still weak from his Spirit Walk, and Tull wondered if he had fallen along the path.

Tull imagined that Chaa could come home already, could have stepped over all the sleeping bodies in the dark, crept back to his bedroom with Zhopila, but that seemed unlikely.

Tull had keen ears, and the slightest noise woke him from sleep. He wasn’t sure if he’d grown wary as a child, for Jenks would often wake him with a beating, or if he’d simply grown accustomed to the solitude of his own little neck of the woods.

At any rate, the sounds of a crowded room kept him fluttering at the edge of sleep, and he felt certain that he would have noticed if Chaa had come into the house.

Tull climbed up from the floor and picked his way over the sleeping bodies. He stepped outside the house where the night air smelled fresh, and the scent of the woods mingled with sea air.

The night was still. Freya and Woden, the two smallest moons, shone blue and white in the night sky. He stood listening for a moment, but did not hear Chaa anywhere. Tull softly sang an old Pwi song:

The sun has finally fallen. Now the stars shine on the sand,

And I hear the Darkness conjuring dream images again.

Night brings peace to those who seek it, and scatters wisdom where it can,

For darkness is lover to the poet, the dreamer, and the solitary man.

It was a song made for lonely people.

From the side of the house, Chaa said, “There is no vessel as empty as a life without love. You should go into the house, open your heart to Fava.”

Tull could see his silhouette in the moonlight. The old shaman stood with his head tilted to the side. Chaa’s face was wet, for he had been crying softly. As he drew closer, Tull could tell by the smell that the old man was drunk on warm beer.

“What is the matter?” Tull asked. “Why do you cry?”

Chaa said bitterly, “If there are gods, I hate them.”

“Shhh—speak softly,” Tull warned. “They might hear you.”

“They know when we will blindly fall into a pit, yet they do not warn us,” Chaa said.

“That is why we have a Spirit Walker. That is why we have you,” Tull offered. “You are afraid things will go bad for us on this journey. It is drawn on your face. I think you fear for your sons. If you do not want Ayuvah and Little Chaa to come to Craal to catch the serpents, tell me. But if you want them to come, I will protect them—even from slavers.”

Chaa did not speak. He stood for a moment, peering through his drunken haze at Tull. He wished that Tull could let go of his fears, his fear of love in particular. There were things that Tull needed to learn if he was going to grow and become a proper shaman, and learning to care for others, to love deeply, was the most important.

Had Tull opened his heart to Fava, he could have averted much catastrophe. Now, the path before him was set with snares and riddled with pits.

Gently, Tull reached out and took Chaa’s hand, then led him into the house. Chaa staggered about, as if he’d just stepped off a boat.

And if there are gods, Chaa thought, then I am worse than them. For not only do I not warn my sons of the pit they shall fall into, I send them there to die.

Back | Next