The shaman stood on the high mountain peak, wind screaming through his hair. Some, on the edge of such a precipice, would have been gripped with trepidation. Not the shaman. How do you scare someone who has no fear?
He closed his eyes and listened to the pine trees creaking as they rocked back and forth. He listened to the crash of the water as it tumbled over the side of the mountain. He listened to the rasp of the cold air through his nostrils as he breathed in the night. And in between it all, he heard the whispers of the spirits from other worlds.
Lifting his drum to his ear, he began pounding on it, chanting to himself. His rawhide drum, its skin stretched taut across the wooden frame, was his steed, his chariot, his guide. It was the horse that would ride him from the middle world to the upper, helped along by the smell of the burning incense already whipped away by the night air. The sound of the drum became a steady, rhythmic drone that mingled with his prayers. The music faded into the sounds of the world, drowned out by the mighty rushing river and the howling wind.
I was there that day. I saw how his soul left his body, borne on the wings of his drum. As he spoke praises to his god, his eyes went hollow yet still his body chanted and stomped and beat. Where did he go? Who of us can truly say? Only fools know themselves to be certain.
I had known the shaman for many years. I was a small boy when I came to him, a teary-eyed child ripped from the burning wreckage of a massacred village. I was scourged and branded, as was the custom, while he stood there, counting his change. In the beginning, I was scarcely allowed to be in the same tent, aside for the most mundane of chores. Eventually, the shaman had me mixing herbs for the rituals myself, taught me to draw the runes in chalk on the bare rocks, even let me observe the seances for myself. But that was the extent of it. Other apprentices might have been taught the secrets of the ritual itself, but the shaman told me he had no use for a successor. He said he didn’t plan on dying.
Over time, we became close, but never enough to learn the last secret. I ate with him, drank with him, bathed with him. I had seen him walk across a frozen lake in deep midwinter, lick red-hot irons, suffer the fits and tremors of his condition. But never had I seen him like that, how he was when he returned from his journey. His shape, his true one, was distorted, bent, and immediately I could sense something was wrong. Despite his best efforts, I still learned much from him, and some things I could now see clearly. He cried out to me, and I saw immediately that his once-brown eyes had gone pale, milky white.
He never told me what happened that night, no matter how much I begged. I can only guess that somewhere along his journey he had taken a wrong turn. Perhaps he was even led astray. Even today, I shudder to think what he might have met on the road between worlds.
I’m with him still, years later. Whatever strength he once had has deserted him, as cold and intangible as moonlight on snow. I hand him a bowl of broth, cupping his fumbling hands around the warm wooden bowl. I smile, comfort him, let him know he’s not alone. It seems to relax him a little. A small smile lifts the wrinkles in his face, and the firelight throws his features into sharper relief. It’s dark this time of year, yes, but night never leaves him now. His eyes are still as white and blank as that night on the cliff.
Somewhere out in the forest, a lone wolf howls. The noise seems to frighten the old man, who shrinks deeper into his blankets. I speak to him softly, in gentle, hushed tones. The animal is not near, I say. It is only one wolf in the darkness. He nods, like a child seeking reassurance. I take the bowl from his bony, knotted hands and sing to him softly, telling him the story of the horse that grew wings and flew into the sky to someplace far, far away from here. It had been taught to me by my mother, long ago, in a tumbledown hut many miles from here, now ashes. Once he finally settles, I leave him to turn over what’s left of the wood in the fireplace. The dying embers dwindle in the hearth, pulsing softly, and the shadows loom larger than ever in the tent.
Rituals of a certain nature can be devilishly tricky, I had long since come to learn. A misspelled rune or a different phase of moon can have dire results. Even a single wrong herb ground into the incense. I had never seen it done before, but I knew how it must work. I admit, the shaman’s last trance had gone more terribly than I anticipated or could have hoped.
I can feel how close he is. He is slipping away, as his memories unravel and the bridges that tether him to this world grow weak. He is like a drowning man who clings to the surface, just before he slips beneath the waves. I breathe him in and his stories and memories are so close I can almost taste them on my tongue. The soul of a man who’s spent a lifetime walking the road between worlds, touching the divine, and skimming hell.
A drum beats solemnly somewhere. I smile, my white teeth stretching across the darkness. He is mine. Almost. But I’m patient. I can wait.
Eddie Nicolas lives and writes in New England, USA.