It's a little long, so please be patient.
The section you are about to read takes place in Part Two of my young-adults' novel, "Tree-Dancer." For two years, the title character Alina (Pen'ya) has been the adoptee of a tribe of feral adolescents--the Children of the Wood. Now twelve, she mourns the death of her only friend and mentor, fifteen-year-old Indigo. Indigo has been killed in the midst of her rites of passage, her Trials, and now Alina is left to grieve this loss alone.
The following chapter deals with Indigo's death rites, and though I think it a bit heavy, I feel that the writing is solid. I hope to share this with somebody--this secret. It's a bit rough yet, but I hope you enjoy.
Chapter 11: Friend, Sister, Hero
I fell back into the clutches of mourning as I returned to the camp. I climbed back up the ladder to my hut and felt the shroud over my thoughts grow heavier. I remember feeling tired, more tired than I had ever been in my life.
The hut was deserted when I entered it. I wondered after Wintergreen, and secretly longed for her company. We were united in our loss, she and I. With none to share in this event, I sat and sulked alone in my hut. I broke down again, mourning my fallen friend. I was angry at Nightshade, angry at Ave'chane, even angry at Indigo. Most of all, I was angry at myself. I understood none of these feelings, only the sense of abandonment and betrayal that they brought me. I remembered, for the thousandth time in days, that I was suddenly alone in my tiny world.
Hours passed. The clouds darkened, and the light of day began to fail. From somewhere below, I picked up the smell of cooking squash. I can remember that it awakened my hunger, but at that moment I can only say that I felt no desire to eat. At one point, I heard movement outside. Stepping out to investigate, I looked east to see a long procession of Children, approaching in two lines along the edge of the clearing. At first I panicked. I worried that perhaps I had missed the assembly for my Indigo. Then, as the group passed under my hut, I saw who was at the front of the procession--Wintergreen. Ave'chane walked beside her, and my hutmate leaned against her as they went, sobbing. I realized then whose burial was about to take place. I realized, too, that Wintergreen's was a pain different from mine, a pain that I could never share. It shamed me to stay where I was, but I could not bear the idea of going out to see the funeral. I felt the old sting of guilt again, but still I went back into my hut.
Time passed. I thought of what was going on out in the woods. I lay on my side in Indigo's hammock and curled myself into a ball. I thought I could still smell her on the musty hide. After a time, a single drumbeat echoed in the treetops outside my hut. A cry of many voices followed. Another beat followed a moment later, followed again by an eerie wail of mourning. The drums and the chant then merged into one, and I knew then what was happening. Frostbow's funeral was now in progress. The noise sounded muffled, faraway. It must have been quite distant, I thought.
The eerie funeral chants went on for some time. It moved like a wave; as each cry faded, another sprang up in its place. The effect frightened me, and when I listened closely I found I could imagine the pulling of hair, the sobs, the tearing of clothing. I had never heard of such an outpouring of grief. Laying there on that now-abandoned bed, I thought of what the Song-Keeper had said, how Indigo's funeral would be different, somehow less in honor than the one afforded to Frostbow. I still felt anger at this memory, and once more I cursed Ave'chane for her stubbornness. I tried to imagine what was going on out in the woods, but when I pictured the ceremony the face I saw in the grave was not that of Frostbow, but Indigo. Even in my mind, her face looked cold and lifeless, a shell.
As evening approached, I heard the clamber of footsteps on my ladder. A figure appeared at my doorway. I looked up. It was Rowan. She had abandoned her usual scarlet robe for one of charcoal gray. Her dreadlocks were tied back, and her eyelids smeared with some black substance. The effect reminded me of Nightshade. She didn't knock, only stood there and waited for me to notice her. When finally our eyes met, she asked me, "Are you coming, Pen'ya?"
I stared at her. At the time, I was sitting on the curved floor of the hut, leaning against the far wall. I drew my arms against my chest, and looked at the backs of my hands.
She pressed me again. "It's time, Pine-Nut. The ceremony is about to start."
I held my silence. I knew that this was the time of goodbyes, but just then I remember a sudden sense that I didn't want to go. I had been preparing myself for Indigo's funeral for days, but after my conversation with the Keeper-Of-Songs, I suddenly found myself filled with dread. Perhaps Rowan saw this. She stepped into the hut then, shivering at a sudden gust of damp wind. She approached me, and knelt. As her shadow swallowed me, she leaned in and took my hands into hers. The act made me look up. I saw the older girl's face there, thrown into shadow.
"You have to be strong, young one," she said, pausing. "For her. And for me. Come now."
She stood, still gently holding my hands. I avoided her gaze, but did as my guest commanded. I stood and, led by one hand, made my way out of the hut.
We didn't go immediately to the burial site. Instead, we stopped by the fire-pits first. My guide knelt and licked a fingertip. She ran this finger along the edge of a charred log, and rubbing it against her thumb, made a paste of the soot. She stood, and turned to me.
"Close your eyes," she said.
Reluctantly, I obeyed. I felt her fingertip, coarse and grimy, caress my eyelids. I made to squint, but then she corrected me. "Don't squirm, or it'll sting." She pulled the hand away, and when she brought the finger back, I recoiled at the sticky wetness that was there. I sighed and endured the discomfort until Rowan pulled away again.
"There," she said. "Open them."
I did as I was told. I could feel the flecks stuck to my eyelashes, and as soon as I looked up I knew that now my face resembled Rowan's. As if expecting me to ask, she spoke again.
"It's tradition. We blacken our eyes with ash when mourning the dead."
Tiv'ria. Tradition. I had found myself hearing that word often of late. I remember the distaste I was forming for the idea. Granted, child, not all tradition is bad, but like any good knife, it cuts both ways. Some traditions uphold our shared sense of self, and others trap us in the past, blinding us to ugly truths. In any case, this week found me hating the word. Rowan bade us walk then, and so once more I followed.
We headed south down the western edge of the clearing, taking the same path that Frostbow's procession had followed earlier. Rowan and I traveled in silence for sometime, until out of nowhere she spoke.
"I'm sorry, Pen'ya."
I looked at her. I still felt anger at the Healer. Not sure of what she meant, I asked her: "Why?"
She looked down, shaking her head slowly. "All of this." She glanced out at the clearing as we walked. "We should have found you as soon as the Scouts returned. It wasn't right for you to have to find out the way you did. I know you think we were hiding Indigo's death from you, but believe me, all we wanted was to get you somewhere where I or Oak-Root could tell you gently."
She fell silent. A look of guilt crossed her face, and for a moment I had pity upon her. "I hurt you," she went on, "and you have no idea how sorry I am for that. I should have done better."
I looked away. I remember feeling the urge to say something cruel, but thought better of it. "What does it matter?" I asked instead.
"Pen'ya," she chided me. "It does matter. This was your friend, and you deserved to know sooner. I'm just sorry that I let it get out of hand. It was my fault, and I'm sorry. Ja'su ci'desa."
I stared down at the path, frowning. "Did you kill her?"
A pause. I didn't see Rowan's face, but her reaction was clearly one of shock, almost offense. "What? Of course not."
I glanced up at her. "Then what was your fault?" I looked away. "Blame whoever did it. Blame Nightshade."
"No, Pen'ya. That's the wrong way to look at it. This isn't about blaming anyone, and certainly not about blaming her."
She folded her hands in front of her. She said, "I know that Nightshade is difficult. I understand that, and I know that it's easy to blame her just because she was there. But if you only knew how this was affecting her, you'd..."
A sudden silence. I stared at her, and she trailed off. She sighed, and shook her head. She looked up at me.
"I'm not getting anywhere, am I?"
She gazed at me a moment, searching. I looked away, and she said nothing further. She began walking again, and seeing this, I followed behind her in silence.
We moved west and away from the Star-Meadow, into a part of the Wood that I had never seen before. The trees were mostly bare here, and began to block out the already-dimming light overhead. By this time, the clouds had spread, but in the west the dying sunset threw golden splashes of light across the tallest branches. I looked up. High in the reaches of a massive birch, a falcon held a clawed foot to a piece of prey, tearing at its prize with savage jerks of the head.
Going deeper into the Western Wood, I found the setting looking more and more like one of my mother's old fairy-tales: dark, unfamiliar, gloomy. I found myself reaching for Rowan's hand again, and she took it without complaint. I followed her in silence as she led me deeper into the Wood. We went first over a shallow creek-bed, the stones wet and cold and smooth underfoot. Then we began to climb a shallow ridge, which took us down into a broad, bowl-shaped depression.
We were headed into the setting sun now. Here the trees grew straight and thick, and there was almost no brush to block the path. The sun's rays slid orange over trees whose trunks were scarred by the deep grooves of age. The air danced with specks of dust caught by the evening light. Here and there, I began to notice large stones jutting unevenly from the earth. Their were the work of human hands, and they ranged in color from peppered gray to almost pink. Squinting, I could see some marked with hand-carved symbols. Some I knew as Ara'pal, while others were styled in some older, stranger script. I looked to Rowan for answers. Without a word from me, she gave them.
"Gravestones. All the Foundlings who ever died are buried here. Some of these stones are older
than anything in this Wood."
"Where are we going?"
She glanced over at me. She did not smile, and the effect made her seem cold and alien. "You'll see. It's just up ahead. There's a tree there were Indigo wished to be buried."
"I thought that Indigo didn't deserve a proper burial."
It was a statement, not a question. Rowan ignored me. We turned right, walking along the bank of another creek. I tried another tack. "This tree.... what's so special about it? Why'd Indigo..."
Rowan gave me a strange look. "It was where she was found, Pen'ya."
A pang of guilt. I thought of the first time that Indigo and I had met. I thought of the story she told me, thought of a younger Indigo, lost and crying out into the Wood. The image brought me an unexpected pain. We walked along the creek-bank then until at last, following a hook in the stream, we came to the stump of a gutted-out old oak. What remained of the tree stood at least six yards tall, and one side had collapsed, leaving the hollowed innards bare to the sky. A bed of mulch lay disturbed at its base. A new stone jutted out of the center--I recognized the name engraved there--and a large bundle lay in a deep pit at the front of it, wrapped in a hide blanket.
I had to take a deep breath. The desire to start crying again was just too great. We were not alone there. A crowd had already gathered at the base of the tree. Dozens of people, all with eyes smudged black like our own. They flocked around the great stump, but none dared block the path to the grave. I frowned--even from here, I could tell that the group numbered nowhere near so many as had gone to bury Frostbow.
The mood was somber. Children stood, holding each other, speaking in hushed tones. Some were crying quietly. I recognized faces there--Oak-Root, Ivy, Claywort. Even Wintergreen was there with the Healer Crabmoss. She was standing off to my right, sobbing into her friend's shoulder. Crabmoss, pudgy and awkward, looked lost in this position. The only faces I couldn't see were those of Nightshade and Ave'chane. I gave no thought to this. I didn't feel the need.
There were also two faces present that I didn't recognize. Two boys, long and thin like Oak-Root. They had dark hair, and also like Oak-Root went bare-chested. However, I noticed that their bodies were painted in striped hues of red and black. Their faces were done in much the same way. I thought of Nightshade's own unique style of war-painting, and when I looked closely I thought I could see the same hardness, the same intense eyes. I pointed them out to Rowan.
"Those boys," I asked her. "Who are they?"
A somber look crossed Rowan's face. "Alder Guards," she whispered. "Personal attendants of the Black Alder himself. The taller one is their Master, Stonewood. The other is named Birch-Splitter."
"Why are they here?" I pressed.
Rowan remained silent. I gave up on further questioning, and after a moment Rowan led me between the throngs of people, hugging and offering kind words. I followed her until at last she bade me stay where I was, as she went up to the grave and began speaking to Wintergreen. They stood there, talking as Wintergreen sniffled and nodded, for a long time. I eventually found myself standing lost in the crowd.
Watching Rowan, I soon realized that, far beyond being a Healer of the body, Rowan was in some sense a Healer of the soul as well. She was by nature incapable of doing harm to others, and the idea of bringing about harm in any way genuinely grieved her. I had never even seen her eat meat. She attended to the sick of heart as well as the sick of flesh. In being here, I realized that she was carrying out her life's work. I felt a swell of respect for her then, as well as a sense of envy. Rowan, I realized, was kind but also strong, firm yet soft. She was giving in ways that I could never be, and for this I felt ashamed of myself.
We must have lingered there for nearly an hour. The affair that followed was quiet, almost pitiful. There was silence for a long time. People stood around and stared, as if not quite sure what to do. The entire assembly seemed ill at ease. There was no beating of drums, no sobbing or wailing songs of grief. These, I saw, were a people lost in a situation they could not grasp. I wondered how many there had actually lived to see a Foundling die. After what seemed to be an awkward eternity, a shape brushed past me from behind. I jumped and looked to my right--it was Ave'chane. Her limp seemed especially bad this evening, and as she glanced back at me I saw her face made heavy by some weight that I could not guess. Perhaps it was the pain, I thought, or perhaps the setting. Either way, I took no comfort in the Song-Keeper's gaze.
She turned to face us. She clung to her staff, but when she breathed in she seemed to grow a few inches in height. Indeed, her very being seemed to swell with terrible purpose. The Song-Keeper pursed her lips, and held her head high. Her sleepy eyes flared with new vigor, and after a moment, she spoke.
"A Foundling is dead."
Her voice came out stronger, more clearly than I had ever heard it. It seemed to stretch out into the farthest reaches of this glade. There was no shout to it, but rather an intensity that bade one listen. She paused, allowing this statement to sink in amongst the gathered, before continuing.
"Today, I mourn for us, for today we have lost a part of our future. We have lost Indigo, Scout-in-training, and there can be no replacement for that loss."
I flinched. A drop of rain struck my forehead. I looked up. The sun was still out, though barely. Curtains of rain were beginning their descent from the skies above. They shimmered orange and silver in the twilight. I looked around, hoping to see a rainbow, but found none. Meanwhile, Ave'chane began to pace, and stared out at the faces assembled around her.
"Some of you knew Indigo. You are most fortunate. It is not often that we see such a spirit as Indigo's, and to have such a one as her in our midst in a rare treasure.
"However, most of you--" she glared out into the crowd--"are here mostly as a formality. You came here expecting a memoriam that you will not find. There will be no funeral songs today, no stamping of the earth and weeping the soul of the fallen to sleep." She turned, and fixed the two Alder Guards with an evil look. They seemed to shrink into themselves, ashamed.
"And why?!" She bellowed. "Because Indigo died a Foundling, and our custom dictates that we not weep for the Seed that lays dormant in the ground. We do not mourn the egg that never comes to hatching. And so we bury this one, never have known the true beauty, her true grace." She raised her arms to heaven, staff in hand, as if calling down a mighty storm. "Those of you I have mentioned before--those of you who come only to pay polite respects, I pity you. Yours is the true loss today. Your life is less the rich by having missed her."
More raindrops. The Song-Keeper continued to pace, and all the while the air around us seemed to hum with a tension. For a time, Ave'chane's youth was restored by anger, by grief. She appeared to me then as great as the mountain, as terrible as the storm. I could see then why the old woman was respected so among the Children of the Wood. I felt shame then, that I had blamed her for what she had told me earlier. I could see now that it affected her deeply as well. She went on.
"For those of you who do not know, I will tell the story." She stopped in front of the grave. "Indigo was taken from us in the midst of her Trials. She was in a place where she was supposed to be safe from intruders, and yet that safety was violated!
"As has become so often the case of late, Indigo and her party came under ambush by Raiders of the Wheel. These strangers, these so-called 'adults,' with their wars and thirst for blood, defiled the sanctity of our Wood, and in so doing exposed Indigo to dangers that she should never have had to face." She sought out Oak-Root with her eyes. She implored him, shouting. "Noble Scouts, open your throats and tell me if this is not so!"
The droplets became a sprinkle as she spoke. The gathered Scouts, including Oak-Root and Silver-Seed, responded by pounding their staffs upon the earth. A quick one-two beat, and then a thunderous shout in unison: "Ca'es'ci! It is so!" I watched the Alder Guards stiffen noticeably, and here I realized why they had come. They were here to oversee custom. Ave'chane, the stubborn old woman that she was, was busy working up the mourners into a frenzy, and in so doing defying the orders of the Black Alder himself. I stared at Ave'chane, feeling a sudden swell of pride.
She raised her hands and began to pace again, so that even her limp nearly disappeared altogether. She pointed out into the crowd, and continued. "And what did Indigo do?!" Ave'chane roared. "What did she do? She stood as a fully-tried Scout, and fought by her instructor's sides, even when they attempted to speed her to safety!" For a moment, her eyes found mine, and I could see the fury there. The Song-Keeper looked away toward the others.
"She made no distinctions between Child and Foundling! She did not try to shirk her duty because some would not treat her the same!" She pointed to the swaddled lump of Indigo's body in the grave. "No! This one stepped forward! This one accepted the danger. She took the fate she was given, and fought bravely, such that the raiders of the Wheel, when they retreat to their campfires, will tell years from now of a dark-haired terror--one of their own former slaves no less, escaped of her bonds! Surely they will remember the blur of her whirling staff! Surely they will remember the fierceness of her blows! It is for us that Indigo dispensed such wrath! It is for us that Indigo fought and ultimately died!"
She cast out her hands before her. "Who among you!?" she asked. "Who among you dares to think that they possess such courage?! Who among you would sacrifice her chance to partake of eternal youth, so that the ones she loved might continue to enjoy such a gift?! Who among you can claim to EVER deserve such an honor?!" She pointed at faces in the crowd accusingly. "You! You who come merely to pay your respects! You who would deny her the honors of a full burial!"
She fell silent, looking out among the faces. Her eyes found mine again, and for a long moment we stared at each other. "I can think of only one," she continued, "who might find something of herself in the tale of Indigo's glory! One among us we might consider Least! So before you grieve in Indigo's name, grieve first for the one she leaves behind! What is that one to do with the loss of such a worthy friend? What lessons have been denied her in the death we mourn today?!" She broke her gaze from mine, and began to walk again. She cast her hands high, and lifted her faces to the boughs. The rain had arrived at last, and was misting its way down through the boughs, while far above, the last of the sunlight was fading to a bloody red.
"Will you not speak for her?! Will you not sing for her?!" She turned toward me, face still turned skyward. "Will none forget what is custom, in favor of what is right?!" She looked upon the crowd of mourners, almost pleading.
"Will you not give her memory the justice it deserves?"
Silence then. Ave'chane hung her head, exhausted, and turned away from the group.
"No," she said, quietly. "Of course not. It is not custom."
A few individuals exchanged glances. Oak-Root and his Scouts stared at the ground. I looked over at Rowan, who gazed straight ahead and wiped at her eyes. Even the Alder Guards looked chastened. It was custom, I would later learn, that the Artists would compose a funeral song--an elejat--and perform it in the name of the fallen. However, the Artists were obviously absent, and either none here had thought to compose one themselves, or none wished to. I flushed again. Here, I saw, was a group of Children in a place where tradition could not guide them. It seemed as though none knew how to respond. The crowd fidgeted awkwardly. For a moment I feared that I was going to either scream or cry in frustration, but then my thoughts were interrupted by an entirely different sound altogether.
"The drops alight upon my cheek... I feel the coming rain."
It came from behind me--a girl's voice, high and sweet. The crowd turned. It was Nightshade. She had been lurking behind a tree all this time, and now she stepped forward. She walked slowly toward us, and the crowd parted to let her through. She held her head high, and her voice echoed in the treetops. She sang in an older, more stylized form of Ara'pal, much like High Eng, but the words were clear enough to me, and beautiful. Her tone was light, almost innocent, but the melody was low and full of sorrow:
The spirit sendeth me Her tears
To cleanse me of my pain.
But still, this loving gift, I fear,
Cannot assuage my grief.
The greatest Tree be made the less
If it be less a Leaf.
"O Indigo! O Indigo!"
I call thine honored name,
"Thy sacrifice hath cut me deep
And I am not the same!"
And so I swear, on all I love,
And to this vow am held,
That if thou art forgotten hence
Then 'twill be I who failed.
She approached the grave, but did not look at anyone. Eyes went wide across the congregation. Even Ave'chane stared openly. However, Nightshade took no notice.
To know and have been known by thee
I stand amongst the Bles't,
And so I thank thee, Indigo
And bid thee soundly rest.
Her voice caught slightly on the final couplet. She sniffed and played it off. There was silence again, save for the rain. The sun was entirely gone from the sky by now. The crowd stared blankly at each other, and Nightshade bent down to throw a fistful of earth upon the body. She exchanged a cold look with the two Alder Guards, and then departed, walking out of the circle without a word. She passed me as she left, and I saw then that her eyes were red.
I stared after as she disappeared, confused. This one, Nightshade, who cared for none but herself, had been the only one to stand up and give Indigo her due. I didn't know what to think of this. Slowly the sounds of whispers and sobbing returned. A few Children, including Rowan, followed Nightshade's example and tossed earth onto the body, but for the most part the gathering dissolved quickly. I struggled to step toward the grave, but found that my feet could not move.
Rowan came to me and bade me take her hand. She led me to the body, and I did as the others had done with the soil. Then we turned, and she was leading me back toward the village. How she found her way amazes me, even now. My vision was too blurred to see anything.