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"Kalitelm?" Fala called softly as she slipped through the door.Author's Notes
"Here," came the healer's reply. "Alainya and Oromaal are both asleep at the moment. What do you have there?"
Fala lowered the divided basket to the hearth. "I brought more willow bark and some spruce buds," she said as she set out the bundles and packets.
"Thank you," said Kalitelm. She waved a hand at the peeled willow twigs. "Are those for your mother's basket weaving?"
"No, I tormented the yarn yesterday, so I thought I'd bend some sticks today," said Fala. Her skills as a guide far exceeded her skills at crafting, but she enjoyed the attempts anyway. "I don't feel like going too far from the village just now."
Kalitelm glanced at the bed where Oromaal lay sleeping. The old woman stirred briefly, then settled. "It won't be long now," the healer said.
Fala waited for Oromaal to grumble, "I hear you girls chattering over there," as she had several times in the last month ... but the grumble never came. Fala sighed. Oromaal had gone far along her final journey. Fala wondered if she even still heard the voices around her, or if she had set her ears to what lay ahead.
"Go ahead and talk to her, Fala. You won't wake Alainya either," said Kalitelm. The little girl, recovering from a bout of snow-fever, lay in a bed near the old woman.
So Fala sat beside Oromaal's bed, folding her long legs out of the way. "Today we went down the valley a bit, Oromaal, gathering willow and spruce. You know the place, where the willow thicket grows around that little pool in the creek..."
* * *
Fala turned her face to the wind, letting it dry her cheeks. She had stood with the others when Oromaal crossed from this world to the next. Now it fell to her to serve as Oromaal's guide one last time and choose the place where her body would be given back to the world. Fala knew many beautiful, hidden places. Whenever she took bower duty, she did her best to find just the right spot for the trailhead of that person's final journey. The little procession of rangers wound slowly up the mountain, far away from the village and the trails frequented by the hunters. The snow-unicorns chuffed softly, their breath steaming in the cold air, snow creaking under their hooves.
Ahead, the brush gapped slightly where it leaned against the sheer rock. Fala nudged her mount and they pushed through the gap, the others following behind them. Soon they came to a tiny clearing barely big enough for their group. Willows sprouted where a crack in the rock funneled water down the cliff, their yellow stems bright against the dark green spruce.
Fala dismounted, and the other rangers quickly cut branches and fetched stones to assemble the bower that would shelter Oromaal's body while it returned to the world. They built a sturdy platform at waist height, held up by wooden legs anchored in rock piles. In colder weather, a bower might have to be made of snow and ice, but today they had access to plenty of wood.
Then Fala and Birka laid out the body. The elder had been dressed in her oldest clothes, as worn out as her body, all the bright beads of her life cut away. Those who loved her would carry her memories now. A death shawl covered her face, the pure white snowy-wool decorated with exquisite embroidery of her favorite things and people. Fala touched one of the soft corner tassels, swallowing hard. Birka caught her eye and nodded. Together they closed the bower. Their quick strong hands wove the arching willow canes into a sturdy enclosure, finishing the top just at eye level. Now the bower blended in with the scenery. In time, it too would return to the world.
As the rangers rode away, the willows murmured softly in the wind.
* * *
Later, the talk was all about who would speak at the remembrance ceremony, and what they might be saying. Nobody wanted to wind up telling the exact same story as someone else, so there was a discreet little dance: Are you speaking? Is she speaking? Someone is thinking of this story, or that one...
Fala found herself sitting with Kalitelm, looking at the bowls of beads that held so many memories of Oromaal. "What story will you tell, Kalitelm?" she asked.
"Maybe I'll tell how Oromaal helped me become a healer," said Kalitelm. "I was always looking after children, so I thought I might become a raiser. But she's the one who noticed how I turned first to the sick ones."
Fala stirred the beads with her finger. "I remember this one," she said, holding up a tiny snow-cat. "Oromaal asked me to lead a gathering party, just us and a few of the children. We were picking tufts of silkwool from the thorn hoops when a snow-cat jumped right in front of us! I smacked it with my staff, and the cat clawed up my good coat. Then Oromaal grabbed a branch and ran at the cat, screaming like the winter wind! That cat sure left in a hurry." The bead shimmered as Fala turned it over in her fingers.
"That's a good story," said Kalitelm, "but I think Alainya has her eye on that snow-cat bead."
"Really? Do you think she'll speak at the ceremony?" Fala asked, raising her eyebrows.
"I hope so," said the healer.
"Maybe the snow-cat will help Alainya learn to pounce on what she wants, instead of waiting for it to fall into her lap," said Fala as she placed the bead back in the bowl. Another one caught her eye. "Oh, look at this bear! When I was little, I almost ran right into a bear once. That was the day Mama told Oromaal how I never get lost. They've told that story so many times, it's one of the first that I learned to tell ..."
"You know a lot of stories," Kalitelm observed.
"Yes. I've known Oromaal my whole life, and we went gathering many times," said Fala. Her eyes turned to the bundles of willow bark drying overhead. "She said once that our lives are like the song of the wind as it flows down the mountain, through the willows and the spruces, down to the sea. Not even the wind knows what its song will be until it gets where it's going. I think Oromaal's life made a happy song. What do you think?"
"I think we'll find out when we get to the remembrance ceremony," said the healer, standing up.
"So we shall," Fala agreed.
When they stepped outside, the ranger swept her gaze across the village, bits of grass and brush bedraggled after the winter. But there in a soggy patch stood a sprig of willow, one green bud opening at the tip.
This story was inspired by "Beads and Memories." I wondered why Fala would not take the snow-cat bead, and this was the explanation, a subtle little piece of community life. I also wanted to show that one of her duties as a ranger involves transporting and laying out the dead, so here is a detailed look at more of the Northern funerary practices.