image : ‘Forest Spirit’, Rob Purday
image : ‘Forest Spirit’, Rob Purday
…….stepping into the light Matais sniffed the air. He squinted as the late autumn sun sent arrows of light glancing from behind the darkening trees. The ‘copter carrying the chief to the hospital in the Bay had long disappeared behind the treeline, leaving a natural quiet to settle on the land. Matais felt his body relax. The valley around him was filling with shadows, the dark time would soon be with them. He closed his eyes and listened. Distant crows were calling, deepening his sense of familiarity with this place. An image rose up in his mind of the valley around him at Frozen River. It was as if he was seeing with his eyes open, only, in his vision this was the Frozen River that had belonged to his ancestors, long before the Europeans came – where the small cluster of buildings now stood he saw a wide sweeping valley with the river meandering through its center, dense conifer forests covering the gentley sloping hills to either side. Everything shone with an untarnished beauty.
Matais felt re-assured by the vision and the crow’s calls. Their ragged edged commentaries cut through to the heart of the moment, reminding him of how it had once been. His ancestor’s memories were interwoven with the natural law of this place. He knew that the land was still strong, that its wild spirit would once again rise and reclaim Frozen River. At least, with a little help from certain quarters, that might yet become a reality. But, there was something else, something at odds with this deeper sense and, as he looked more deeply, Matais also began to feel a subtle change in the air. Signs were that a shift had already begun and Matais knew he was not the only one who had noticed the change in the wind.
The old man had been right…….
…….standing outside his cabin deep in the foothills to the north Shadow Crow let the light of the setting sun filter through his half closed eyelids and stilled his mind. In his left hand a small twist of Juniper sent a thin wisp of smoke skywards, slowly dissolving into the air as it spiralled above the old man’s head.
Although to his mind the change in atmosphere was becoming tangible, he was waiting for a sign. At that moment a pair of forest Ravens sent a rasping wooden cry out as they sailed over the cabin and disappeared into the tree canopy. Shadow Crow felt a ripple run down his spine and turned to look down the track. He would be expecting visitors, and very soon……
Matais went straight to the old man, but, when he got there he found someone else waiting for him……an unexpected ‘face from the past’.
It was always an understanding that death could be just as much of an ally as an enemy to the living, but, in the indigenous way, a person would use the path of the latter to gain an understanding of the former. The understanding that arose from this was that, when death finally came to tap you on the shoulder, not only would you be prepared for the encounter, but, would have the sum total of one’s life force bound up like a coiled spring waiting for this moment to release itself in a magnificent manner appropriate to the full power and mystery that is the human spirit. It was the moment of ones Last Dance in this life, the dance in which that spring, which contained all the life experiences, and the energies gained from them that had strengthened ones life, would unwind with austere and dignified power and beauty. Death would have no choice but to wait and watch, this would be the agreement, and it contained an unspoken but mutual respect.
Crow had seen many go into the stillness, but, not all had been able to let the energy of their accumulated time here spin their spirit in the spiral of life’s Last Dance. Some, far too many in recent times, had been cruelly snatched from life, hooked by the barbed intent of fate, and by the violence of others. But, now, something else was stalking the living, unseen and predatory, its calling card a kind of madness, a cancer of the mind and spirit. Maybe it had been there all along, for those who had eyes and ears for it, but, the forest was dying and, unseen, a subtle presence was stalking life throughout the land. It had already begun.
Crow knew that the bodies that had recently been found out in the freezing snow were testimony to the increasing presence of this new threat in their midst. But, this was not simply a matter of death. Even though both Matias and Shadow Crow knew the bodies had belonged to Qoys, they were outsiders to the community. But, it takes a Qoy to know a Qoy and it was the fact that they were all Qoys that proved the point. Qoys almost always came back alive, that was their medicine. No, there was another power besides death at work here, one with an unexpected sense of purpose, and timing.
It was Crow’s way to see that the dead were honoured and he had unerringly made prayers for those of his friends who had met with violent ends. But, the Qoys made this a complex matter. The mystery surrounding these new mortalities required much deeper vigilance. He knew they would need all the help they could get in their journey beyond.
For many years Crow had followed the old understanding in relation to those who suffered violent and unexpected ends – for those whose life was taken unexpectedly or suddenly the last dance would take place beyond the boundaries between this world and the next, within the borderlands of the ancestral realms, and, unless the dancer was endowed with a rare and special quality, the question of how to approach death would include no options beyond that moment. There was no return once that place had been reached.
Yet, there was one thing that humans could garner in life that would make the difference. While the impetus of the journey in such cases would be against the dancer and only a magnificent dance might produce a temporary reversal of time’s flow, an opportunistic un-weaving of the thread with which all things were bound to each other could in fact release the dancer into that most sacred of capacities, choice. Few now knew how such opportunism was fostered ~ nevertheless, such had not been lost on Crow.
Old Shadow Crow knew how much had been lost of just what that simple looking word truly signified. In keeping with the balances and protocols that surrounded so many natural powers, choice hid its own true nature. As a power that was waiting to be claimed it was less a matter of reason, intelligence and decision, than of spirit, whether or not it was claimed. That special quality of spirit was naturally endowed in some, and became the life’s pursuit of others. In the ‘naturals’ it could also develop, evolve and grow and, if it was allowed or encouraged to do so, could eventually take the form of ‘complete independance of spirit’. Those in whom it was naturally endowed in this way were known as Qoyanisqat, ‘backward walkers’, or ‘Qoys’ for short. They were always life’s artists and natural dancers, but, when their power of choice was fully developed, it gave them the upper hand against death itself……while, by virtue of their dual nature all humans enjoyed excercising something akin to ‘choice’ the Qoys could survive the journey beyond the boundaries of their lives, return intact, and at the very pinnacle of their powers, take their body with them. Their inner split became their gift, the ultimate choice.
Shadow Crow was one of those few who had been, since very early in life, in the almost constant presence of Qoys within his community, mostly by virtue of the fact that he was born into a family of them. He himself was anomalous amongst them – although he was a natural Qoy he had aquired the powers of another line, the Skin Walkers, as they were known. It was a term that had given rise to much superstition and misunderstanding.
The Qoys and the Skin Walkers. There was a connection between these two medicines, a common ground of spiritual mutability. The differences however gave an unusual edge to the relationship between the two paths. While the Qoys had seemingly been given the power to slip in and out of life, to even cheat death, the Skin Walkers were in no way tied to the body they were born with. Qoys were the indigenous quantum magicians of the human world, known for their ability to appear in two places at the same time, bi-location, or to not be seen at all. By contrast, the Skin Walkers could shift shape and appear as something, or someone, other. This was an expression of their relationship with the powers and beings of the natural world that, while it gave them great freedom, was an ability which brought with it much misunderstanding and mistrust. Nevertheless, in both lines there was a mutual bond that was based upon a simple truth – they both had something the other could make great use of, or desired, depending on one’s prediliction for power.
If born into either of these paths that individual’s life could be spent in pursuit of the knowledge and abilities of the other ~ it was a path that could bring complete freedom, but, it also carried great risks. This was a recognised choice for the naturally endowed of both medicine paths, one that might well benefit the support of a mentor who had themselves made that choice and followed that path, and Shadow Crow had mentored many, with good reason.
For many amongst those who made such a choice, either way and no matter what their natural bent, this meant a life in pursuit of the Qoy’s ‘independence of spirit’. For this reason Qoy’s were both predated upon and, when the medicine was turned around, could take on the appearance, at least to the innocent living, of the predator. But, appearances can be deceptive – there was much more to it than that……
For naturally endowed Skin Walkers the choice was felt, curiously, to be less urgent and many natural Skin Walkers simply lived life as any other person might, especially in these times. And yet, while appearing curiously confident in themselves to the outside, they would also feel strangely detached from themselves inwardly. It was this sense of detachment that the Qoys most sought to develop within themselves, but, for them the difference was that they would do so with full consciousness. One who dedicated their life in such a manner lived a kind of paradox – they were both fully awake to their abilities and yet also completely independent of them. They had choice, and this was the kind of choice that made all the difference, both when death came a-knocking and in the time they were alotted while alive. Great things could be done with such a choice and, given such empowerment, a person not only became endowed with power that set them apart from the rest, they could put those powers to work within and for the community – such people became known as ‘warriors of spirit’, medicine people of high repute.
This had been Shadow Crow’s crowning achievement and, with it, while outwardly keeping himself quietly to himself within the larger community, inwardly he had dedicated his life to the well-being of the entire community at Frozen River and beyond. He was the finest exemplar of the heights capable in one who combined the medicines of both the Skin Walker and the Qoyanisqat in one lifetime’s journey.
There was only one path that gave as great a power, that of the natural Skin Walker who aquired the powers of the Qoy. In this path there were no guarantees, and the path could just as easily lead a person in the opposite direction, towards all-out self interest and, in some cases a dangerous hunger for power. Such was the path chosen by Shadow Crow’s visitor.
His name – Roy Silver Tree.
What marked Silver Tree’s attitude to the path he had chosen was the strength of his sense of detachment from the medicine itself. Not only was he not in the least interested in other’s views about him or how he used his powers, but, he appeared to act with complete impunity. What made him dangerous however, at least to outward appearances in the eyes of many, was an apparent indifference to those powers themselves. To the untrained and unfamiliar eye there was something all too throw-away about it all that had made him appear arrogant and lacking in moral or ethical awareness – he just didn’t seem to care, but, this could not have been farther from the truth.
Truth was, Roy had become the victim of other peoples ignorance and fears, which had stigmatised his existance since the death of Charlotte Rivers. For nearly half a century her mysterious death had been treated as murder and, even though the case had remained unsolved, Roy was the prime suspect, at least in the eyes of the feds. Charlotte Rivers had been a warrior of spirit, but Roy knew all too well how his innocence in relation to her death was now buried beneath layers of prejudice and bias that had come with the outright suspicion that both he and his sister Mojique were the guilty parties. They had been forced into hiding, being the perfect suspects, mainly because they knew that they had no way of proving their innocence, but, also because they knew that standing ground and proclaiming innocence afforded them no protection, especially in the face of federal law.
Shadow Crow knew this too and had discussed it with Matais only recently, shortly before the chief’s visit infact, which made Matais trust Shadow Crow’s intuition in handling the cop deepen. But, then, Shadow Crow apparently also knew who the killer was, and this crucial fact he was keeping to himself.
After so many years out on a limb, Roy knew that with this new round of Qoy bodies turning up and this new cop on the block, ‘the chief’, subsequently beginning to poke his nose into the unsettled business of the past, he had to set the records straight. He had to see Shadow Crow, if nothing else to try and find out who had infact killed Charlotte Rivers and where old Crow stood on all this, for, even after all this time, both Roy and Mojique were just as much in the dark as virtually everyone else and that, perhaps more than any other thing, made them all the more vulnerable. Only through a meeting with him would Roy Silver Tree be able to get Shadow Crow’s help and, hopefully, clear up this matter once and for all. More than that, he had to take precautions as he was anticipating the chief being dangerous, beyond the scope of his ‘official’ investigations, and Roy and his sister already had it hard enough. So, it came as something of a surprise to him to find out that the chief had been flown out to the hospital in the bay only the day before, after a suspected heart attack – “yeah, right” he’d thought to himself when he’d heard the news. As if an unseen hand were at work, miraculously and perhaps for Roy very luckily, their paths had swapped locations simultaneously. Strange how these things happened…..
When Matais found Silver Tree sitting in the exact same seat that the chief had occupied just 48 hours earlier, seemingly perfectly at home with Shadow Crow, it was as though a ghost had materialised…..and, for all the years that Roy and his sister had kept themselves off radar, it might just as well have been true.
Silver Tree was not what Matais had expected either. To look at him you would never have guessed his years – he was tall, lithe and surprisingly muscular. Also, unlike Shadow Crow, who had a full head of fine long grey hair pulled back into a tight braid, Roy’s hair was thick, cropped and peppery, neatly framing a deeply creased but remarkably smooth skinned and tanned hawk-like face in which two jet black eyes sparkled with obsidian intensity. He looked strangely alien. And, you instantly knew that nothing would escape that gaze. Roys voice however was a complete surprise – his quiet spoken delivery was softened even further by a slight rasp, giving him a rangy drawling quality that helped obscure a dangerously savvy intellect. Matais was instantly intrigued.
Shadow Crow made the introductions and, as was his custom in Crow’s house, Matais offered to make fresh coffee while the two old timers continued their conversation. Matais liked to look out for the old Crow, but, these two obviously had found a common understanding and seemed to be comfortable with each others company, which made Matais suspect that important matters had already been covered, and he had an idea of what they might be. More than anything else in that initial moment Matais simply needed to cover his genuine surprise at Silver Tree’s sudden appearance. When he returned with the coffee he was curious to know just what had motivated Silver Tree to come out of hiding. He knew better than to ask him straight out, but, he didn’t need to; Shadow Crow came straight to the point.
“Roy has decided to break cover, at least amongst those he feels he can trust.”
Shadow Crow let the words sink in; whether it was true or not, the implication was that he had always been a party to Silver Tree’s hiding, made it sound like an acknowledged tactic, a complicity, and this was compounded with ‘those he feels he can trust’, meaning……
Silver Tree cut across Matais thoughts:
“…..and I’ve known you both, at least from a distance, for many years, so, I’m counting you in Matais….providing you want in?”
Matais looked from one man to the other – it sounded like a challenge. Both Shadow Crow and Silver Tree held his gaze implaccably. Matais took this as a confirmation of an agreement already reached between the two. There was no reason to say ‘no’. After a couple of seconds, pausing to take in the faces of the two old timers, he gave a nod – both Shadow Crow and Silver Tree breathed out with a smile.
“Huh! Your a cool customer eh Matais?” Silver Tree exclaimed sitting up and looking Matais over as if he had just been out played by him. He slapped his thighs with both hands and stood up in one swift movement – Matais leaned away involuntarily; this man was agile, confident and not to be messed with, and, as his comment hinted, he knew very well how to get the upper hand…but, Silver Tree looked with kindness at Matais and nodded….
“….yip, you sure are…..”
…….and this time Matais felt that Silver Tree meant it, in fact, he was paying him a compliment.
“Crow’s been telling me about your dealings with the cops, and the Qoys…..” Roy said, moving over to the hearth. He had emphasised the last three words.
Shadow Crow was watching them both, his head slightly cocked to one side, only his eyes moving as he followed the exchange that Roy was building with Matais. Even without looking at his old friend Matais could tell that Shadow Crow respected this man.
“Well, if the Qoys I’ve known were anything to go by your never going get the jump on them by trying to figure ’em out – ya’gotta follow your own medicine and trust, ain’t that right Matais?”
It could have sounded patronising, as well as another veiled challenge, and the irony of Roy’s question was not lost on Matais. The thought crossed his mind that Silver Tree was trying to demonstrate that he had the initiative and was fishing for just how much Matais knew – Matais knew these kind of tactics well and also knew when someone was using them in trying to conceal a disadvantage of their own. Had it not been for the pressure Matais felt coming from the beady eye of the old Crow he might not have answered….
“What else is there?”
“Heh, heh – true, true…..” Silver Tree said as he fed a split log to the fire,
“…..unless you don’t know what your own medicine is…..”
Now Matais knew what Silver Tree was driving at. The cop.
“Hmm…..” Matais gave a brief smile and picked up the coffee pot asking both men with the gesture if they wanted some – they both nodded and as Matais poured he picked up on where he felt Roy was leading him.
“The guy’s gonna have to watch his ticker if he wants to follow his medicine any further”, he said with a deadpan delivery, and with a wry twist to the corner of his mouth he offered the coffee to Silver Tree. The tall man’s face slowly transformed into a beaming wide smile and he suddenly let out a loud barking laugh that cascaded into a gurgling wheeze. Shadow Crow’s face was cracked with a broad grin and, quietly laughing on his breath, he shook his head and let out a sigh…..if there was one thing the three of them had in common it was that same dry, wry sense of humour.
“What’s an overweight Fed nearing retirement doing getting transfered to the River anyhow……” said Silver Tree, wandering over to the cabin window. “….’specially if he don’t know he’s a Qoy. There’s something else, I know it.”
Shadow Crow pursed his lips and, catching Matais eye, raised his eyebrows – they all knew that was the sixty four thousand dollar question.
“Someone doesn’t want the Qoy medicine getting involved”, the old man stated matter of factly. “Its the only reason they’re bein’ killed off…..”
“Thats as may be Crow….” said Silver Tree as he gazed out, “….but, it ain’t as if it ever went away. Why here…..and why now”.
Matais felt he knew, but, it was a long shot…..
“Lot of folk getting hot under the collar over whats goin down since the big trucks started rolling in….’specially south of the Bay.”
Silver Tree turned to listen. He too had noticed the activities of the op around Hooded Mountain stepping up a gear – Matais was right, it wasn’t just the cop. But, could they be connected, the deaths and the mountain?
“You think the mining company has something to do with this……?” he said, fixing his hawk like gaze on Matais.
Matais shrugged, “Why else would a city cop be drafted in…..recruited, even”….
“…..heh! You think he’s been hired to clean up?…….Man!” said Silver Tree turning to look out of the cabin again. “They could’a chosen someone with…..” – but, he stopped suddenly.
Matais and Shadow Crow exchanged a glance as Roy reached for his rifle and lifted the latch on the cabin door.
“That’s Floyd Rivers…and he’s been shot….”
His hands gripping his stomach, a trail of dark crimson beads fell from his knuckles and led back down the snow covered track behind Floyd as he staggered towards Shadow Crow’s cabin. Last thing he was aware of was the clear sensation through his blurred vision that a man was running towards him……there was a voice, but, he could barely hear him…..and then a face very close to his, a face he recognised…..Silver Tree. But, it couldn’t be – he hadn’t been seen for twenty five years or more…….
……and then, as far as Floyd was concerned, the only thing that mattered was the vacuum of silence he felt himself falling into, and the overwhelming urge to summon all his might into one last dance……..
After all these years it seemed as though Roy Silver Tree could not shake off the shadow of the past that was following him. Death was stalking him, following his tracks as if waiting for the means and opportune moment to bring him down, at least that was how the Feds would see it if they knew he had been present at Floyd’s death. But, death carried no thoughts of vengeance, that was a human quality and the bullet that had pierced Floyd’s back had vengeance written all over it. Floyd too was a natural Qoy, one who had learned well how to use his gifts for the good of all, but, more than that he was a knowledge keeper of the medicines at Hooded Mountain, as had been his grandmother Charlotte Rivers. It was their responsibility to look after those matters of spirit that belonged this sacred place. To Shadow Crow and Matais this and Floyd’s death was the confirmation of the link and, true to form, they too now found themselves under suspicion of the Feds.
The shock of Floyd’s murder, and there was no doubt this time about the nature of the crime, produced a gaping wound in the indigenous community. Not only the people, the land and the medicines were now under threat, but, the immediate threat was now as tangible as the trail of blood that led to Shadow Crow’s cabin. When news reached the Bay the ripple it sent out across the community brought another kind of vengeance out of hiding, one that had been building ever since the mining company had begun their operations at Hooded Mountain. The peace of that sacred place was being violated, the rights of the people along with it, and the past could not be kept buried any more. Their voices would now be heard. But, there was one other curious matter that compounded everything ~ the cop, the ‘chief’, had gone missing…..
‘Fragments Blown Through Death’s Door’ is adapted from the novel ‘The Message’. I started writing ‘The Message’ and its sister works in response to the escalating violation of indigenous rights and violence being wrought in the pristine wildernesses of our world at the hands of corporate greed. The medicines of the people are at the centre of this struggle for freedom and justice and this story, the second of three exploring the roots of the medicines and the motivations of their enemies, is now nearing completion. This is an extract from the first draft. The first story, ‘Chenge and the Spider’, is currently being edited but extracts of ‘Chenge’ have already been published at Owlmirror. The third story is currently in its first draft – updates and further extracts from all of these stories will be published here in the course of time.
‘Fragments Blown Through Death’s Door’, ‘The Message’ & ‘Chenge and the Spider’ © Rob Purday 2013-17