Soon I will be left behind.
This I know.
This I see.
I saw the mother of Reya four seasons ago, left behind.
She chose to beg and plead.
I told the mother of Reya not to beg and plead. It is my way, to say what is necessary and right.
I told her I would assist her. I am mistress of the green world. I know which herbs open a path to her own mother who waits to take her hand and lead her to the place of the elders where she will sit at the foot of the never-ending fire and conjure a new life from the ashes of the old. But the mother of Reya retorted that the path she sought was made not by her mother, but by her daughter who carried two small ones newly born side by side. She told me that no one would see her falling behind because there she would be, in her daughter's footsteps, carrying her world on her back as she always did.
No, I said. You are slow. You are old. During the last walk you made us wait. We came late to our winter grounds with the winds tearing our flesh and gnawing our bones and two small ones left behind under ceremonial rocks on the cold hard ground. To save one old one we gave away two young ones, two who were on their first foot-journey, off their mothers' broad backs and on their own legs. Your path no longer is ours. Our path is no longer yours.
These words did not please her. They did not please me. Yet they were necessary and right.
On the day of our leaving, her daughter Reya bundled her two side-by-side children at her breast as they were not yet ready for her broad back, and she put one foot in front of the other, again and again, as did we all that day. The mother of Reya did the same, but soon she fell behind. We did not halt our steps. Reya did not halt her steps. We did not see eyes filling with water; we did not hear begging or pleading; we did not hear cries keening out over the hills. We heard only children crying for their grandmother while Reya walked on. The mother of Reya fell far behind; the children's tears dried; we did not look back.
We returned to our summer grounds after the long winter to find many bones marked by wolves who had led the mother of Reya into the next realm. Reya took those bones into her world and honored them, thanking her mother for her sacrifice, asking her mother to look upon her with favor from the next realm. But she did not ask for forgiveness.
There was nothing to forgive.
I will not beg and plead. I am mother to three sons. They come to me; they bring their wives and children. I embrace them, one by one. They are young and strong. They walk on their own legs. The women have followed me into the green world where I have shown them the lairs of the prickly star, the three-leaved and fur-stemmed plants. I have shown them how to mix the plants together, how to keep them apart, how to make them dry, how to make them wet, how to heal the deep cough and the red wound. I give them my bounty; they share it among themselves. This takes time and yet time flies away.
I keep only one mixture with me.
I sit at my door, watching the sledges grow high with food and hides. I watch my many grandchildren don their walking skins and weave one another's hair with special feathers to quicken their journey. I watch the fires burn out one by one. I watch my people leave one by one, carrying, pulling, walking.
I do not put one foot in front of the other. My path is not their path. Their path is not my path.
They are waving reeds in a field stretching to the horizon; they are leaves floating in a brook that flows away from me; they are arrows of birds in a far away sky; they are dark stars in the furthest reaches of night; they are shapes and sounds that live in my heart and nowhere else.
I rise with water in my eyes. I beg, I plead. I say what is necessary and right. Yet it is only the wolves in the hills who answer, the wolves who soar their voices with my keening cries.
I lift my spirit potion to my lips. I drink the bitter liquid drop by drop until my dream flows like a clear river to the other realm. The wolves are my voice; my journeying song rises in the empty air. I see their shining eyes like suns that shimmer white and gold surrounding, lifting me until I fly free. I hear my mother's voice...
...she sings to me; I sing to her. She takes my hand and leads me toward the light of the dancing fire where the elders wait. Soon I will sit at the foot of the never-ending flame and conjure a new life out of the ashes of the old...
When the warm season draws near, three sons return to find a sight so strange that many stories are told around the fire about the woman who left no wolf-gnawed bones behind, not even the smallest of finger bones, who left instead a small stone jar inscribed with an ever-dancing flame, a small stone jar to be given to the next-born daughter of her sons, along with her name.
Notes from the Author
I was editing a friend's essay about women who walk, through deserts, over mountains, into forbidden zones, and it struck me how much of human (pre)history was taken up by walking before we discovered faster ways to travel. Then I began to think about what it was like when you could no longer keep up. The two women in this story handle their situation in very different ways: one fighting the inevitable; one accepting, even aiding it. In that world, survival of the whole meant more than an individual's right to live; in our current culture we have the means to continue to support people regardless of whether they can "keep up." I hope we can keep it that way!