Mata named me Stek. I’ve had so many other names now that she and that name are both beyond the windings of shroud-cloth, the river of death, the ritual blood on the great stones. The chill fog that pains my bones binds me to this spot. They are calling for me over the field, by the stones where the fire burns. I know I must pull my aching body up and go. But I wish I could linger with Mata’s memory for a moment. Her face is still soft in my mind’s eye as she was in those long ago times.
Herakul, Enheduanna, and my sweet Vila told me our fates are in the hands of the Gods. It’s hard to say otherwise. Surely, if I wished, I could see divine guidance moving me like a pawn on a nomarch’s Senet board. Big choices seem to happen to us, beyond our puny will’s desire and plans. But there are other forces at work, ones that lie in the deeper places of our minds. Some of these forces are good and others evil. As I lie here on my cold, hard bed the distinctions of light and dark are blurred and chaotic. Now that Aon has passed, there doesn’t seem to be much for me to hold on to; nothing much to live for.
Still, it’s been a wondrous life. Whether it’s the Gods’ or my own doing, or both, I have lived a life full of vast opening. And though my shade slips away in this weak hour, I am glad I was able to do some things for the sake of others even weaker and less certain than me.
They are beating the drums and calling my most recent name. My people, my flock of sheep. May the so-called gods come help me rise and accept their honor, not for myself but for how it helps them. Dark times lie ahead as far as the eye can see, but who can say what will come next? The Gods? Perhaps, my friend, perhaps.
Mata’s voice rang clear and echoed from the mountain’s sheer, cold face above me. “Stek!” “Stek” again and a third time, ever diminishing. I whistled sharply at Tulli and she ran up the steep green meadow, barking at the sheep and goats. I walked down the hillside to make sure the animals kept moving towards home. They wanted to linger, eating the sweet grass of the meadow- flowers time. I looked out across the narrow valley at the towering, snow-clad peaks that seemed so close. A breath of cool air blew down from great Carn-Ta, his mighty flanks rising ever upwards to the sharp crags. From his breast flowed the Voda, the gift and milk of Awa.
In my short years I had seen the snows come and go nine times that I could remember, though I knew there were earlier years that had slipped from my mind, leaving only a handful of pictures: a sunny day, Mata looking at me as she bent over by the fire, Tulli as a little pup jumping on my tummy. This was my favorite season, the time of the meadow flowers and honey-bees, when the Voda ran clear and I could catch little trutta with my flint-tipped spear and net. Awa didn’t mind, as long as we left some fish for her, with an offering of flowers, and goat’s milk in a cup. Awa bred the trutta and the sheep and goats and the meadow flowers and even me, Mata said.
Awa was in her grotto, high above the valley. It was difficult to reach her in the snow time, but a joy now. Mata would take us up with our offerings and we would sit before her. Awa looked a little like Mata, true, and like the other women of the valley: round, with breasts and wide hips. But she was rounder than Mata. Plainly Awa fed better than Mata did, because the Goddess had all the people to feed her. Mata told me that Awa was the Goddess of all, even the Oddars.
Our dog Tulli and I prodded the bleating animals, complaining as they always did, down the mountainside to our house. Mata was in front, stirring the bir bowl with her wooden spoon. She wore her plain dress of scraped sheepskin, the fringes of which trailed in the dirt. Her long, dark hair was swept back and bound with a twist of leather. She wiped sweat from her face with the back of her hand as she stirred the pot. The smoke had reddened her eyes somewhat. Her charm against the vaskan, the evil eye, a round carved wooden eye colored blue with the pigment of ground flowers, swung on a cord from her neck. The smell of the bir was pungent, wet, and sweet, like the smell of Mata herself. The door to our little round house was open, letting the summer air into our single dark room. Mata had swept the floor with buck brush and hung flowers from the walls to make the smell better, though it never smelled too different from the sheep and goats that slept there with us. The braided plait of skorda had its own thick smell, but I was used to it, as we left it hanging on the door above the threshold to keep out were-wulfen and shape-changing witches and the like. If only we had a hunter we could count on to kill the wulfen, Mata might not have been so fearful, but Arkan had been gone for many years now, and since we weren’t in the village, wulfen would carry off our animals if they were outside at night. Perhaps Arkan would return, but I thought not. He was probably lying dead in the high snows, killed by the Oddars. Mata didn’t cry for him. As for witches, there was no real way to stop their power; you could only try to stay on their good side. Besides, most women were witches in the service of Awa the Great Goddess.
“I am old,” she told me one night as we sat in front of our house and looked up at the brilliant stars, “Arkan is gone, and the other men have younger girls. It is Awa’s way. We women are like flowers, first we come out of the ground, then we flower, then we dry up and wither away, like old Shutta!”
We laughed at the thought of the crone of the village, an old lady of more than fifty snows, who endlessly harped on people for their real and imagined shortcomings.
Mata poked at our little fire with a stick. “It is fine,” she said.
I thought for while and then asked, “If women are flowers, then what are men?”
Mata laughed, “Men are like roosters. They crow and puff up and strut around like they are big stuff, until the wulfen or the women’s axes take them!”
I put the sheep and goats in the stone-walled pen and sat on a log near the fire pit and watched Mata stir the bir. Bir and curd cheese and mutton was our food. In this time we had abundance. Mutton soup slowly cooked in the big bowl on the hot stones. Mata had added some roots and leaves, even a few flowers Awa had taught us were good. Some were bad, the ones the witches used to curse and kill. Awa’s eye above our door protected us from them, or so Mata told me.
I believed that, why shouldn’t I? I had never known other than a good life, except for hunger and cold. All had those. Others had died or gone missing, but that was the way of Awa and the other Gods: Ock the thunderer, son of Awa, Kulla the shape-changer, Arta the huntress, younger sister of Awa, the Mother. Beyond all the other Gods and Goddesses and spirits of the mountains, trees, streams, and secret places, Awa was the World, the changing of the seasons, giver of milk and bir and fire. She was the secret of new babies and the taker of souls at the end of life into her bosom. It seemed to me that Mata and I were blessed by Awa. Beyond the high mountain passes were the lands of the Oddars, those who hunted us, but here we were safe, in this land of amazing beauty and bounty. But still Mata lived in endless, dark fear of the curses of others and the unseen spirits of the dark unknown.
I saw my friend Tarn running up the path from the village. He seemed excited. It was early morning, and the sun hadn’t reached into the blue valley yet. Smoke trails drifted up from the scattered houses down on small bench of flat land just above the Voda. Far beyond, I saw where the valley of our sacred water passed around the huge bend of steep peaks. Awa only knew what lay farther than that. Someday soon I would be a full man; then I would go and find out. I was growing taller; I had some dark hair around my manhood. Mata told me I had thirteen snows. One more year? The time was in the hands of Awa.
Tarn got closer. He was wearing what we all wore: scraped sheepskin shirt and pants, with the long shirt gathered by a belt of sheep-leather. His deerskin shoes were better than mine, I thought: they had fine, tall leggings tied almost to his knees. His bow was slung across his skinny shoulders, his quiver on his back. His cap was missing, though we usually wore sheep-skin fleece caps to ward off the chill. Tarn looked a little different from most of us. His skin was a shade darker, his hair darker. Mine was light, my skin light. Mata’s hair was a dark reddish color, though now it was streaked with grey. People whispered, “Tarn’s father was an Oddar, maybe a Danu or worse!” Some thought Tarn’s mother, Belit, was a witch. She was feared, but also respected. She could heal the sick sometimes, with the grace of Awa, she said. Tarn had never had a father around. It was also whispered that Belit initiated young boys into the arts of Awa, the Seductress. My own manhood was with me now, and I secretly desired her as did all men. She was thin and large breasted. Unlike other people, she feared not to speak to anyone. There was no one in the valley who had more authority with Awa. So, if she was a witch, all the better to do whatever she said. If you crossed her, she could strike you down with the vaskan or a curse.
“Stek, “said a breathless Tarn, “Oddars!”
“Oddars,” I said. I’d heard this so many times. “Where are the Oddars this time?”
“On the other side of the pass of the Voda. Ruuk saw them; he wouldn’t lie!”
“Ruuk likes to drink a lot of bir, “I laughed. Ruuk was a hunter who was famous for his story telling. He had, to hear him tell it, been down to place where the Voda met the endless water. He tended to fall asleep around the fire after too much bir and story-telling. People liked Ruuk’s tales, but didn’t believe everything he said. He said, for example, that where the Voda met the endless water, there were houses that have wings like great birds and flew by magic on the waters as fast as the wind! He also said that there Oddar villages of many houses where the people were more numerous than all the sheep of the valley!
There were many stories told. There were shape-changing men that lived in deep caves, who came out and drank the blood of people while they slept. That there were flying horses and Goddesses with hair made of snakes, and ogres that threw stones the size of houses, and mostly, there were tales about how Oddars came and stole the young if they weren’t good. The Oddars ate the young.
I didn’t know what lay beyond the mountains, and the stories scared me, but Mata said, offer to Awa, and you’ll be safe. Still, wulfen prowled the night and sometime there were screams and sounds in the dark that made us draw the door- log tight after nightfall. I wondered about the endless waters and the flying houses, but put it out of my mind. I had sheep to care for.
Tran and I looked up the valley, to where great Carn-Ta rose. To left of the peak was a notch in the mountain wall. The pass. I had been up to it. Beyond were other mountains as far as could be seen, with jagged white peaks and deep valleys between, dark with forests and shadows. Tarn and I had boasted to each other that we would cross the pass and hunt the Oddars when were we men. Soon.
“Let’s go look.” I said.
Tarn looked at me as if I was crazy. But he said, “When?’
“We could take the nets and say we were fishing. Tomorrow.”
Tarn looked scared. He seemed to shrink even smaller and thinner than he was. I knew his time of manhood had come, but right now he looked like a child.
“Are you a rabbit, little Tarn? “ I teased.
Suddenly, a rockslide came crashing down the far side of the valley. At first a small crackling slide, within a few seconds it had ripped away a side of a peak. Boulders the size of houses thundered down, almost reaching the Voda. An omen. For good or bad, I couldn’t tell.
Late in the day, after I had brought the sheep down, I looked up the mountainside and saw a large hare hopping along at the top of the nearby meadow. Everyone knows hares are messengers of the hill –gods, and are dangerous if they cross your path, but I knew they were also good to stew. I grabbed my bow and quiver and slipped up the slope quietly. Mata liked me to bring a rabbit, a marmot, or any game to the pot. It was getting to be dusk, blue shadows lengthening from the peaks to the west, and I would have to be quick to avoid the wulfen. I made my way behind a line of large boulders. I could see the hare moving up ahead through the grass. A line of pines was a little higher up, and once the hare entered there, my chance to take it would be gone.
I am a very good shot with the bow, the best of all the boys, and better than many of the men. I took my first deer when I was only nine snows. Mata liked to say I must really be Arta the Huntress’s son for my prowess. I only know that I can see the trace of a shot, the rise and fall of the arrow, how the wind will carry or blunt or slip it sideways, in my mind before I let the arrow fly. I can feel it in my fingertips as they hold the arrow to the string. My bow always felt alive in my hands. It was made of ash-wood, my arrows fire –hardened and tipped with sharp flint. I had complete confidence I would soon take the hare. It seemed almost to be making it easy for me. It stopped and looked in my direction a few times while it nibbled on greenery. I froze and then stealthily crept closer after every pause. I thought I saw the hare look in my eyes once, but then it just put its head down and ate. The light was in my favor, being behind me. I was just a shadow. By some trick of the clouds and peaks, a last ray of sunlight lit up the rabbit as it reached the edge of the meadow, just near the trees. I slowly drew back my arrow and raised the bow into position to let fly. I loosed the arrow, but just at that very moment, the hare darted into the woods. I must have hit it, I thought; I was only a few lengths from it when I shot, and I rarely missed. I eased forward, looking for tell-tale blood or the dying hare itself, but found nothing at the edge of the forest. There was a game trail there; the branches were parted just enough in the thick weave of pine boughs to allow deer or wulfen to pass. The sunlight had flickered out and darkness was rising up from the floor of the valley. From far below I could hear the tumbling, rushing voice of the Voda. I knelt down and crawled into the opening in the branches. It was quite dark under the trees.
I waited, with the deadly stillness of the hunter, in silence for a few moments. Nothing; no sound. Then there was something up ahead in the dark. A tiny rustling sound, like rabbit feet on pine needles. I crept my way further into the woods. There was no sign of the hare, and I couldn’t find my arrow either, which irritated me; it took a long time to make one properly and I never liked to lose one. I was about to give up and turn around when I heard a new sound. It was a buzzing, like a bee or a hummingbird, then the sound rose in pitch and I knew it had to human. Or Godly. The woods are no place for humans after dark. Wulfen, bears, and also ogres and witches. I began to back out very slowly on all fours, but before I had gone a few feet I saw a light, like a candle flickering through the boughs. The humming noise continued. It sounded like a woman’s voice now, but whose? I inched deeper into the glade to see.
About twenty lengths in, the branches parted and I saw a clear space about ten lengths across. Why did I not know this place? I thought I knew every trail and glade. In the center was a large, rounded stone, more like an egg than any other shape. It was as big as two men. Near its top, a little ledge cut from the rock held a mutton-fat lamp, the kind we used in our house. It sputtered and flamed, its twisting light casting fantastic shadows on the circling trees and the grey stone. On top of the stone was the Goddess, Awa, in her normal form as a round-breasted, wide-hipped mother. The lamp underlit her face and made it seem as if she was dancing a slow, undulous dance. The humming seemed to be in concert with these magical movements. The sound was coming from a woman seated crossed legged before the stone. From the silhouette I knew at once it was Tarns mother, Belit. She had her back to me.
She sat still and did not turn around, though I accidentally snapped a twig underfoot and revealed my presence. She said, in a very quiet voice, “The hare and the hart, all the beasts of the wild are in the service of the Goddess. Awa knows us all and takes us to her bosom. Come here, Stek, and sit beside me. I would show you something.”
I awkwardly sat on the pine needles next to the beautiful Belit. She calmly turned her face towards mine and looked deeply into my eyes. She had twenty-five snows, twice what I had. Women had children at thirteen snows here. Her eyes flashed in the light of the flickering lamp. Her long dark hair fell in mysterious waves over her shoulders and her breasts, which were bare. She took my hands in hers.
“Look into my eyes and I will give the gift of the Goddesses’ mystery. It is time for you, since you are going to leave us forever very soon, aren’t you?” It wasn’t really a question, more like a quiet statement. I didn’t say a word. I was nervous and yet excited to be with her under these trees. I had never allowed myself to look directly on her face before. All was perfect proportion: her eyebrows were curved like strung bows and dark, her nose long and elegant, her lips full as vanna-grapes. She smiled at me looked deep in my eyes. Hers were blue, the rare color of witchcraft and the vaskan, the evil eye. I mustn’t cross her. I didn’t want to anyway. I was under her spell. I felt myself falling, but she squeezed my hands tighter and whispered, “Don’t be afraid. Let your eyes see.”
At first I saw only her face and flickering lamp shadows. I seemed to float in the darkness. A mist cam over my eyes, but I remained still. Then something passed by like a great- antlered buck, only this was no deer, but something larger and more powerful. It was running, thundering the ground as raced. Then there came more and more and I found myself riding in a company of a huge herd of these animals, alongside of men geared for war. Ahead rose a line of high walls. Arrows whistled past us. The walls were beyond my knowledge and the people I had never seen before. Some were dying, blood was everywhere. A loud voice called, “To the Archer!” It seemed a thousand voices raised the cheer. Suddenly, there was a noble looking warrior rising up in front of me, about to strike with a heavy axe. I threw my arms up to ward off the blow, but my arms were caught by Belit’s soft, white arms, which pulled me close to her. I could feel her breasts touch me, her lips on my lips. My manhood was inflamed. She took me into her and I exploded in a fury of ecstasy.
Then she was up and she whispered. “You must go. Your time is now. Awa has a destiny for you far from this valley. Belit has seen it. She will be part of you as you travel. Flee now! You are no longer safe here, and you have nothing that binds you!”
She blew out the lamp and fled from the glade with the grace of a deer and everything fell silent again. What had happened? My manhood still throbbed with the first encounter with the Goddess.
Then I heard a scream far down the hill and instantly knew. It was Mata. The Oddars! I stumbled from the trees, bow drawn, my arrow ready. I found my way down the hillside in the darkness that had fallen on the Valley. I saw flames rising below by the village.
By the time I got to the house, the roof thatch was almost all burned. I shouted for Mata, but got no answer. Then I found her, legs wide apart, her belly slit wide open. Blood poured across the ground, dark in the light of the flames.
I cried out, “Oh Mata! Mata! Mata!”
Down below in the village other fires were going up. I looked back at her. She was with Awa now. I turned and ran in the half darkness of the thatch fires down the paths I knew so well. I reached the village. People were screaming and fighting the Oddars. There were many of the strangers, in bear-skin caps and wielding flint axes. I wheeled about, trying to make sense of it all. Where was Tarn, Shutta and the other villagers?
Suddenly a huge shape rose up next to me and my mind went dark.