“The days of my uncleanness are upon me, my husband. I go from you for a time, even as our son reaches his Days of Manhood. I will pray to Old Man Coyote to guide him in the trials to come.” Ni’ka made her statement as she gathered acorn meal and dried salmon into her feathered basket.
While it was unusual for her to leave the village, she had done so on rare occasions. The village was scarcely that: a collection of brush shelters, not destined for permanence. . A Dreamer Woman, she often retreated within herself, away from the Red Earth People.
The People were seasonally nomadic, settling in the oaken plains to gather acorns in the fall and then to remain through the winter. Spring would find them fishing the Shabaikai, or Snake, River or climbing the mountains to camp on the shores of the Sacred Lake. For Ni’ka’s group, spring usually found them following the Shabaikai through the Forest of Dark Giants to the Endless Waters, where fish and shells were more than abundant. Berry gathering preoccupied them at the edge of the cool woods and mountains in summer. Then, the cycle would start over again.
Ni’ka thought of these things as she made her way down river in the simple tule canoe, more commonly used on the Sacred Lake. The sun warmed her as the chill of winter lifted from the land. The great blue heron and a flock of snowy egrets watched her passing and were neither surprised nor fearful of her.
Coming to the place she sought, Ni’ka pulled her craft above the waterline and anchored it with heavy rocks. With a quick pace, she turned away from the river and headed into the forest. Ni’ka’s movements gave no hint of fear or revulsion for the myth of Evil Spirits in this darkened glade. It was late afternoon before she reached her destination, about five miles inland.
Alongside a thin creek, the giant tree she called “Old Friend” waited for her.At the base was a room larger than the brush shelter left behind that morning. Using a broom of ferns, she swept the place clean of rodent droppings and debris of five years absence. Filling her water basket and placing her food on high, she was satisfied by the completion of her tasks and settled in. She wouldn’t go far from the tree again until it was time to return to the People.
Sitting in the entryway, Ni’ka watched the darkness come quickly on the forest where dense treetops hid the setting sun. She listened for the rare sounds of animal life and was rewarded. A doe and her fawn came to drink at the creek and approached Ni’ka. They lay down near her, the fawn taking nurturance from its mother. The trillium, just outside the den, closed upon itself for the night.
Entering a suspended state, Ni’ka sought understanding, peace and renewal. Her son was passing into manhood and, with that passage, he would become her equal. She welcomed this strong muscled young man exuding the high spirits of youth . She mourned the loss of her baby, his buttercup soft skin, his deep trust. She remembered the seriousness of his infant gaze as his eyes followed her movements. How wise she was then, how quick, how able to meet his every need!
Ni’ka regretted the passing of her age of power. Now, her son was beginning to know the limits of her power to protect, to guide, to share. In coming into his own adulthood, he was discovering something of the frailty and powerlessness of the human adult. True, he had learned some lessons along the way, as when his friend, Ts’it, died, or when the People nearly starved during the Year of No Water.
She studied on the future. How could she keep him, but also let him go? The answer didn’t come readily. On the fourth day, sitting in her doorway, Ni’ka spied a grandmother sea trout making her way downstream. Ni’ka considered the ways of the salmon and sea trout. Each fights its way upstream in wild wintry waters. Then, spawning their young in near-glacial pools, their similarity stops. The salmon, exhausted by the task, dies, but in early spring the trout returns to the sea.
“I am as the sea trout. My young has spawned and grown. He has been just behind me in the creek of life. I can still guide him a ways yet. And as he catches up to me, we can swim companionably, side by side, past shimmering sands, warning each other of rough places and obstacles. When he passes me, as his strength and youth insist, I will be content to follow his lead. He may take me to new places and new ideas. I will not be able to follow him everywhere, but, then, I won’t want to. It will be enough to rest in my own quiet pool and enjoy his comings and goings.”
Ni’ka rested fully that night and returned to the People, her husband and her man-son on the fifth day.