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Rated: E · Short Story · Contest Entry · #1657884
Quotation Inspiration contest entry - March 2010
The baby flapped his chubby little arms every waking moment, scolding and squawking impatiently. His mother called him Tsa-ta-ga, Chicken. He grew to be curious and bold, afraid of nothing, especially trouble. He became such a notable pest in his village that he earned the name Tle-gu, Blue Jay. His name was his pride; he made every effort to live up to it. But it was only a boy's name. His mind and body matured; his name remained a raucous little bird. He yearned to grow beyond it.

The medicine man Agatanai-tsi-gili, Wise Owl, recognized the eagle's spirit in this little jay. He took a special interest in the boy, though he kept his fondness close to his heart. In Blue Jay's hearing Wise Owl frowned and warned, "We must keep watch in the forest for a magical thief. He hides in the trees and can take the form of any Tsalagi. Ahyoka left her longhouse to make water; she returned to find a cedar bowl of Se-Di-A-Su-Yi missing. The only creature she saw anywhere near had the shape of Blue Jay. We all know he would never do such a terrible thing."

Then the wise man's liquid black eyes twinkled deep in the folds of his nut-brown face. Blue Jay kept his eyes lowered, but couldn't keep a grin from twitching across his face, revealing the walnut remnants of the Se-D-A-Su-Yi stuck between his teeth.

When a Tsalagi boy had seen thirteen summers and reached sufficient strength, the elders instructed him on becoming a man. He had to perform a vision quest. Wise Owl sat with young Blue Jay to prepare him for his ordeal.

"This will be the most difficult task you have ever attempted, Blue Jay," cautioned the wise man. To ease the boy's tension he smiled and added, "Nearly as challenging as stealing pudding, and just as painful if you fail."          

The boy's face was carven stone, his eyes black pebbles. He did not smile. "I understand this, uncle. I am ready to shed the jaybird's feathers and become a warrior, with a powerful name."

"Then you must know what is to come. You will go alone deep into the forest, where you will fast, and you will pray and wait. You will tremble like a mouse in a fox den, and you may feel as crazy as the loon in the night, but you must find the strength to accept the wisdom offered."

"But what am I waiting for?"

"You will know it, Blue Jay. I cannot tell you; it is between you and the spirit world."

"Does everyone succeed who seeks?" worried Blue Jay.

"No. I will not lie to you. The spirits take some, leaving only their bones. Some are not ready to pass into manhood. Your spirit guardian may choose not to show itself."

Defiantly the boy exclaimed, "I won't fail. I will not remain a boy!"

Wise Owl's face became grave. "Our shaman will mark you, that you may be recognized and protected."

They prayed together each day. The shaman etched his symbol over Blue Jay's left shoulder blade, which the boy endured without complaint. Finally the sun awoke one dawn to find Blue Jay ready for his journey. He carried only his knife, his bow and quiver, his heavy cloak and his wits. His last meal sat warm in his belly.

Three others were also attempting their passage. The elders purified them with smoke. Wise Owl advised Blue Jay, "Only your heart knows the path. Trust it." He watched the seekers pass through the palisade and leave the village, sharing no words as they parted.

Tsa-gi-doe-u, Dreams Truth, another wizened elder, murmured softly, "As always, last sleep I dreamt of the seekers' return. The blue jay was not among them." He sighed sadly.

With an enigmatic half-smile, Wise Owl replied, "He will return. He has left something here of great value."

Dreams Truth, not one to miss a business opportunity, suggested, "Seven doe-skins says I dream truth."

"As you say. I will patiently await my skins, old friend."

Blue Jay glided through the forest. As the midday sun stood over his left shoulder, he scrambled up a steep rocky escarpment. Often only the surprising strength of his brown sinewy arms stood between him and his ancestors. By sunset he had gained a bluff with a grassy shelf large enough for him to establish his vigil.

He was exhausted, thirsty and hungry, but neither sleep nor water nor food was permitted. Wrapping himself in his cloak against the bitter cold, he waited. And waited. And still he waited.

The sudden whup-whup of powerful wings pummelled the air above Blue Jay's cloaked form, startling him. A haunting hoot echoed across the dark valley, momentarily chilling his soul. “Tsi-gi-li!” he cried, “Are you to guide me, as you do my uncle?” The owl circled three times, then hunted on westward, without acknowledging Blue Jay.

Creatures too numerous to count awoke and performed the nocturnal dance of living and dying. All ignored the wide-eyed boy shivering on the ledge. As the sky purpled with morning, branches rustled and snapped in the bush above Blue Jay, accompanied by loud snuffles and grunts. An acrid stench stung his nose. “Gv-ni-ge-yo-na, wise one! You are my spirit!” But the bear scratched his back on a rough old cedar and ambled on.

The sun rose and walked the sky six times. Blue Jay grew weaker and hungrier. His tongue cracked. His throat burned. During the cold night the yellow moon peered inquisitively down at him from behind scudding clouds. He spoke softly to the moon. It refused to answer; he railed angrily at it.

On the seventh day, he knew he had failed. He had seen no visions. No spirit had appeared. He knew his own spirit would leave his body to wander lost for all time if he did not abandon his quest before the sun slept. But he could not return to the village as a mere boy while his friends received their names of power and took their places among the warriors.

He struggled to his feet and stumbled down the rocky, loose slope, falling several times. He felt faint as a wraith's shadow when he reached the forest floor. It had rained; he was able to sip enough moisture from the cupped leaves of ground plants to stave off dying of thirst. Lacking the strength to pull his bow, he could not hunt. The forest offered him dried up remnants of summer’s plump berries and rosehips; he choked them down.

Delirious, he wandered as aimlessly as rain water in the moss. After two cold nights of shivering half-sleeps he was ill. He fell to the earth like a spent arrow. His legs would no longer carry him. The mist swirling in his head momentarily thinned; he beseeched his ancestors to forgive him his failure, making his peace. The blackness swallowed him.

Voices pierced the darkness that held Blue Jay. His eyes fluttered open. He lay on a rough mat. Dim light illuminated the wattle inner wall of a circular house. Strange faces glared at him. A man rushed from the hut to the beat of moccasins on packed dirt.

He returned with a fierce looking shaman, blue with intricate tattoos. The voices died to a murmur. People cast their eyes down and gave him room. This was a man of power. He spoke gruffly. Blue Jay was roughly pulled to his feet, stripped, and supported. The shaman inspected him.

His back was exposed. Gasps broke from the watchers. "Hii-ee-ah!" barked the priest. Silence. Grasping the captive's shoulders, he turned him face to face and stared sternly into his eyes for a hundred breaths, unblinking. The boy stood frozen, a petrified stump. The shaman's features relaxed into a smile. Blue Jay would have sooner expected this from a hickory snag. The shaman shook his head slowly and chuckled. The boy could have sworn he uttered under his breath, "Wise Owl."

The shaman Kowishto-nakni, Man-Cougar, would not divulge to Blue Jay why he was not enslaved, as was customary with enemies. Using sign language, the boy told of his failed quest, that he was no longer Tsalagi, but an exile.

Blue Jay quickly learned the language. Man-Cougar, impressed by the boy's talents, taught him much lore. He was as curious and smart as a raccoon, so the Chickasaw called him Shawi. Daily he lamented failing his tribe, especially Wise Owl. He yearned for home, knowing he could not return. When a turn of the seasons had passed, Blue Jay realised he must leave the Chickasaw and continue his search.

Man-Cougar understood. The boy again was tattooed. The shaman walked him to the village gates. Solemnly he said, "You have far to go, nameless one. The spirits favor you."

"Hmmmph. They show it strangely."

The cycle of capture, distrust, acceptance, learning and parting repeated as Blue Jay encountered the Comanche, Apache, Navajo, Paiute, Yuma and Yuki on his slow journey westward. His heart remained heavy even as his skills and knowledge grew.

On the eve of a sweltering day late in the fourth summer after leaving the Chickasaw, the sun had painted the heavens vividly to ease its parting. Alone, Blue Jay stood on the hot sand, gazing out over vast waters. He waded out chest deep into the brine, as red, warm and salty as living blood. He stood truly at the edge of the world.

A hoot from the shore drew his eyes. An owl circled three times and soared off northeast along the cliffs above the ocean. The omen was clear. He must return to his own blood. He must follow his heart despite the consequences. So began the slow, tortuous passage eastward.

He found welcome and learning with the Nez Perce, Arapaho, and Osage. The Kiowa were less hospitable. On the eve before his intended execution, a warrior he had befriended allowed him to slip away. He reported that the captive had shed his cloak, transformed into an owl and glided free into the night. A similar tale later told of his escape from the Shawnee in the pelt of a wolf. Seeds of a legend sprouted in his every footprint, though he had no part in their sowing.

Eight springs had passed since his failed vision quest. He stood before the Tsalagi palisade. As elders appeared he fell to his knees in humiliation and grief. Through his tears he recognized Wise Owl, standing stern and mute.

"Uncle!" he pleaded, 'It is me, Blue Jay."

"I once knew a Blue Jay. You are not he."

"But I am! I have searched and I have failed."

Turning to Dreams Truth, Wise Owl said, "I will await your gift of a wonderful beaded seven-doe-skin cloak at the fire tonight." He grinned. " I love what your wife has done with my hides. She is a shaman with an awl." Dreams Truth scowled as if he had bitten a sour cherry.

Wise Owl spoke to the newly returned young man. "Some, and I won't say who," winking at the old man beside him, "would say that to travel to the end of the world only to end up where you began is failure. I say you just went for a long walk in the woods."

"But I have failed! No spirit guides me. I have not become a warrior." Eyes downcast, he muttered, "I am no one."

"Warriors are numerous. What you have become is much rarer, a wise man. You have gathered knowledge with every footstep." He paused. "Your name was born with your first step. You had but to return to wear it. You are Ga-li-quo-gi-ga-ne-ga. All spirits are your guide."

"Seven Skins? I don't understand."

"You will."

As an afterthought, "Oh, I have a small present for you at your naming ceremony tonight. It will be welcome when the snows come."

The boy who had departed an empty vessel, and returned a man overflowing with the knowledge of many peoples, became the most respected shaman the Tsalagi had ever known. The legend of Seven Skins' journey across the world and his ability to take on animal form spread among the tribes, growing with each telling. Seven Skins shed his last skin and joined his ancestors in his one hundred and second year.

1999 words
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