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These Teeth, Like Stars   1520.04.15  
Creators: Elizabeth Barrette (Writer)
Marai and Valoi go to the Raiser Day celebration in summer.
Posted: 04/01/10      [2 Comments] ~ 1859 words.

On the fourth day of the Summer Gather, when the raisers of all three villages had arrived at the campground, they held their holiday. For the duration of Raiser Day, infants and children were firmly deposited in the care of parents and elders. This gave the raisers a whole day to themselves, when they could celebrate their occupation and then share the kind of gossip they loved the best.

Marai grinned and tried to sit still as Inama dressed her hair. Of course, Inama would not attend the ceremony since she was a crafter rather than a raiser, but Marai appreciated her age-mate's help with preparation. Several bone hairpins and a string of white seashells accented with red coral held Marai's black shoulder-length braids high on her head. Snowy-bone bracelets clattered at her wrists. Finally Inama patted her on the shoulder and signed, "Done!"

"Thank you," Marai signed back. She wished that Inama could accompany her to help translate, but no, this day was only for raisers and Valoi would be there to fill in what lip-reading missed. The crafters had their own special occasions. Being deaf would not stop Marai from enjoying herself.

The big ceremonial tent already stood waiting. It would shelter many different groups during the gather, but now it was decorated for Raiser Day. Hangings of white, yellow, and green fluttered against the dark felt sides. The smoke flap at the top was open to let in plenty of sunlight.

Marai stepped inside and exchanged hugs with the door keeper. Then she moved through the small crowd of raisers, greeting her many friends, some of whom she had not seen for a year. She also found her protegee, Valoi, who clung to Marai's hand despite being sixteen. Excitement hung in the air like the fragrant incense curling up from the stone-lined firepit.

Everyone wore their raiser dresses. Though they varied in detail, all the ceremonial garments shared a common motif: tiny white beads made from baby teeth. As a child grew, he or she would distribute lost teeth to beloved adults, with the most teeth usually going to the child's own raiser. Some dresses held only a few teeth, while others shone with many rows or clusters. Marai's dress was a dark, rich red adorned with chevrons of teeth on the bodice that reached nearly to her waist.

On the far side of the tent, several of the oldest raisers conferred. One of them held a tall white staff. Marai saw a stir of motion as people began to shake rattles. Someone passed her a rattle, its wooden handle smooth from many hands, its rawhide bulb hard against her palm as she tapped out the rhythm. She did not need to hear in order to keep the beat; she simply watched the other raisers shake their rattles. Inside the rawhide bulb, dozens of baby teeth flew back and forth, relics cut from the dresses of past raisers who had returned to the world.

One of the elders finally stepped to the firepit. Marai smiled to see that her friend Oyera from Itrelir bore the most teeth this year, her black dress so thick with them that in some places the fabric hardly showed. Oyera held the tall white staff in both hands, then ceremoniously upended it. Marai knew that inside the snowy-bone tube, hundreds of baby teeth were making their way to the bottom, bouncing off tiny bone pegs. Oyera had let her try it once before, so that she could feel the vibrations that other people heard as music like the falling of hail. Marai watched as Oyera turned the staff three more times, officially beginning the ceremony.

Then Oyera touched a finger to the first tooth on her left shoulder and began to recite. Marai had watched this recitation so many times that she could follow along in her head for the first dozen or so, naming the child who had bestowed each tooth. This part always began with the bearer of the most teeth, working down from there. Not everyone would stand up, because it took a long time to list every child for every tooth, but always at least one person from each village, whoever felt like it.

Marai stood for Itadesh, calling out the names of her darling donors. She knew that her voice would sound odd to other people, but that didn't stop her from honoring the children who had honored her.

Two men also stood, noticeable because the women significantly outnumbered the men. Tekura, from Itrelir, had recently completed the second row of teeth on his sunset-colored dress -- taking longer because he arranged his in wide scallops like the edge of a cloud instead of a straight line. Eqar, from Itakith, wore only a handful of teeth on his brown dress because he spent his early life as a ranger, retiring to become a raiser so that he could play with his many grandchildren.

The recitations concluded with the raisers who had received their first tooth since last summer. Marai knew two of them: Akala, from Itrelir, wore her bead on the left shoulder of her blue dress. That placement echoed Oyera's pattern, leaving room for the many future teeth that a raiser might accrue in the largest village. Ireluun, from Itakith, wore hers on a green dress, centered just below the collar, with a flower embroidered around it. Each young woman told a story about raising the child who bestowed that first precious tooth. Marai turned to Valoi, who mouthed names and added gestures to help Marai understand the stories. Ireluun's first tooth came from her own son. She was pregnant again with her third, the lucky woman, her belly just starting to curve.

When Ireluun sat down, Valoi grabbed Marai's hand, quivering with excitement and nerves. Marai gave her a reassuring pat. Then she stood.

"This winter, Valoi decided to become a raiser," Marai said carefully, placing her hands on the young woman's shoulders. Every word of the declaration ritual was engraved on her heart. "She knows the basic childcare skills. She is showing a knack for soothing fussy babies, so I am teaching her more about that. I am pleased to present her to all of you as a new raiser of Itadesh."

The assembly of raisers shook their rattles in applause. Valoi blushed scarlet.

"Come forward, Valoi," said Oyera.

Marai walked with her protegee to the firepit where Oyera stood. The old woman handed the staff to someone else. From a box on the floor, Oyera withdrew a small object wrapped in pure white snowy-wool. Marai caught her breath. Seeing this always reminded her of her own declaration ceremony.

Unfolding the soft cloth, Oyera displayed a lumpy plaque that bore the imprints of a baby's hands and feet. "This artifact comes down to us from the time of the Ancients. One of our ancestors saved it and passed it to her children. Now it symbolizes our profession; by holding this artifact, you take the role of raiser," said Oyera. She placed the artifact in Valoi's hands.

"I accept the honor you give me," said Valoi as her fingers closed around the plaque. Marai remembered the strange, slightly gritty feel of it in her own hands. Valoi traced the outline of one dainty footprint.

"This artifact is made from a substance we can no longer make. When you hold it, you hold the past and the future in your hands," said Oyera. "You do the same when you hold each new infant. Always remember that this is our sacred trust."

"Yes, Oyera," said Valoi. She returned the plaque to its keeper, waiting for the next step in the ritual.

Oyera swept a hand across the front of her dress so that her fingernails clicked over the many teeth shining on the black fabric. "These teeth, like stars, guide us on our way and light our path through dark times. They symbolize the love and trust our children place in us. This is why we measure our success by the number of teeth we bear," said the old woman. "Therefore, we present you with a new dress." She held out a bundle of rich brown cloth.

Marai helped Valoi remove her old dress. It would be given to a younger girl, and Valoi would never wear it again. Then Marai shook out the folds of the brown dress. She and Inama had made it this spring, and Marai had passed it to the tent decorators last night. Now Valoi put it on and smoothed the long skirt into place, her face shining with joy. Marai scrubbed the back of her hand across her cheeks; declarations always made her cry. Someday, probably a few years from now, she would help Valoi sew her first baby-tooth bead onto this very dress. Marai's own declaration dress had lasted until pregnancies thickened her body enough that she had to move all the teeth onto her current dress.

Oyera and Marai placed Valoi between them and faced the assembly. "Welcome Valoi, raiser of Itadesh!" she shouted.

"Welcome Valoi, raiser of Itadesh!" the crowd roared back.

Valoi squeezed Marai in a tight hug, breathing something that must be "Thank you!" against her ear. Then she was gone, pulled away into a long chain of congratulatory hugs.

When the crowded quieted and everyone was seated again, Floqu stood. "My son Jimoq will soon take the adulthood test and has decided on a profession. If he passes the test this summer, Itrelir will have a new raiser," she said. People shook their rattles in applause. The men cheered.

Finally Oyera thanked everyone for attending the ceremony. She upended the staff four times, marking the end of the official activities. Volunteers brought in baskets of food for lunch.

The raisers would spend the afternoon sharing their favorite gossip. Valoi made her way back to Marai's side to help translate again. Oyera was about to become a great-grandmother. Eqar's newest granddaughter was walking. Floqu's son Jimoq had optimistically carved three beads and hoped to finish a fourth before his adulthood test. Several other young people were discussed as raiser candidates.

Marai fingered the blank space in her necklace. Oyera saw her and grinned encouragement. The evening festivities of Raiser Day tended to get raucous as people who rarely had a free night took advantage of this opportunity to indulge themselves with other adults. So later there would be birch beer and berry wines, followed by the gifting of beads and the enjoyment of company in a tent with no children to be awakened by loud happy noises. Marai found herself in the mood for a wild night. Some of the young men usually gathered wood for a bonfire and danced around it on fourth-night, hoping to attract the attention of available raisers. Marai smiled. Maybe she'd wander by there tonight, and introduce Valoi to that opportunity.

Waving hands brought Marai's attention back to the present. "You want to follow this," signed Valoi. Then she motioned for Tekura to tell his story. It involved a moment's inattention, two naked toddlers, and a large pot of honey...

Author's Notes

Each profession has its own customs and special occasions. This story explores some of the private activities that help the raisers do their work and celebrate their calling. It also gives us a detailed look at the world from Marai's perspective.

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