Authors: Joseph Bruchac
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Â© 2014 by Joseph Bruchac
Cover photo of night sky Â© Serge Skiba; photo of South Dakota badlands Â© by Ciapix Media; art of eagle Â© by HunterXt
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher.
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For My Friends at Pine Ridge. . .
for your kindness
and with the greatest respect
for your determination against all odds
here was a special kind of quiet inside the inipi.
Inipi. That's our old Lakota word for a sweat lodge. It's one of the handful of words I know from our language. Inipi. The place where breath gives life. A place of purification.
Inside the dome of bent saplings covered with towels and old blankets, it was hot that night. Even hotter than it had been during the day. It was midsummer in what had once been the state of South Dakota, before the world ended. Well, before their world ended. Not ours.
It was dark inside the sweat lodge at first. The darkest dark. Nothing to see, making the scent of sage smoke in the air that much stronger. Then Aunt Mary lifted up the blankets that covered the door. Her face wasn't visible, just her shape outlined by the fire behind her where the grandfather rocks were heating. But I knew there was a smile on her face.
“Ready for rocks?” she asked.
Then, without waiting for a reply, she handed in the first white-hot lava rock with her pitchfork. I guided it into the hole I'd dug earlier today with the deer horn in my right hand.
I greeted that rock with a sprinkle of cedar needles. Pungent smoke curled up as the needles ignited, which made my eyes water a little with its blessing.
A second rock from Aunt Mary. A third, a fourth. Then more until there were seven.
“That enough for you?” Aunt Mary asked, and then answered her own question by turning and going back for another stone.
I took a deep breath. I tried not to think about the danger outside. There was no danger inside the sweat lodge, where it was already so hot that I was soaked with sweat. But outside, where Aunt Mary was all alone, worried me. There were monsters out there.
It was because of Aunt Mary's dream that we were out there that night, high up in the hills above Pine Ridge. Her dream had told her it was time for me to do something, even if it did not tell her exactly what that something was, aside from having me do a sweat. The purification in the lodge, which was meant to cleanse my mind and spirit as well as my body, was just the starting point, a first step to be followed by a whole bunch of other stepsÂ .Â .Â . some of which would surely involve my confronting real danger. All of that scared the heck out of me.
But then again, being scared was part of what life was all about since the coming of the Cloud. In the months since it happened, I had gotten used to being scared.
Also, I was not about to question the power of Aunt Mary's dreaming. If it wasn't for her dreams, none of us would have been alive after the power went out. We would have been dead in the Deeps with the overseers.
I tried to concentrate, tried to pray. But it was hard to do. And even though Aunt Mary had attempted to teach me, I wasn't sure I could do it right.
“Rose,” she'd said. “Listen.” Then she'd sung the chant to the Creator, the ancient song to Tunka-shila, the Grandfather Rock.
I'd listened as best I could. But now the only thing I could remember was the first word. We'd practiced and practiced the chant, but it left my mind as soon as I crawled into the lodge. It wasn't fair. Aunt Mary had spent years learning our traditions and was a grown woman when FRL1 was passed. After spending my whole life being commanded never to speak a Lakota word or learn anything about our old ways, now I was supposed to go on a quest to become some kind of medicine woman?
Why me? Why was I chosen for this?
As far as I knew, no one had done this sort of thing in years. Not since FRL1, the Freedom from Religion Law, was passed and strictly enforced. That was before I was born. Aunt Mary was one of the last to be given that kind of training. She hadn't been allowed to talk about it. Like everyone else, she had to be productive.
A productive member of the proletariat, or a prole as our masters called someone in the working class, was a happy prole. Work hard enough and you'd get your reward, be allowed to rise in the hierarchy. Earn new stick-ons, games, and viddy-toys, then (perhaps, but not likely) the gene modifications, the injections of nanobots, the additions of powerful implants, the near-immortality of the powerful and famous that had ruled our planet so firmly. That was how it had been.
And us happy proles at the RidgeÂ âÂ proles who used to call ourselves Lakotas in public (but only did so in private after the FRL), back when we had a reservationÂ âÂ had been “freed” from our old ways. Freed from the responsibility of having our own tribal government. Free enough to be able to spend our time (those of us who stayed strong enough) working in the Deeps, far beneath the surface, digging out the ore that was used to fuel activator technology. We were down there not days, but weeks or even months at a time.
“Rock,” Aunt Mary said. It woke me from my confused thoughts. I looked up as she thrust in a glowing lava stone the size of two very large fists. I slid it off the tines with my antler and levered it into place. Then Aunt Mary handed in the bucket of water before she turned back to tend the fire.
Aside from my own uncertainty, everything was going as it should. Soon Aunt Mary would close the door, and I would start pouring water over the stones to make steam as I prayed for health and help for myself and all my relations. I was even actually starting to remember the chant to the Creator and to Grandfather Rock. My worries might have been overblownÂ âÂ
Suddenly something dark passed in front of the door, outlined by the fire thirty feet away. It looked like a huge leg.
“Aunt Mary!” I shouted. I forgot for a moment where I was and tried to stand, banging my head on the bent saplings above me.
It felt like I was stuck in glue. I couldn't make my body move as quickly as my mind. I could see the light of the fire, see what it illuminated out there: a huge, hulking shape rearing up on its hind legs. Its humanlike paws were spread open wide as it loomed over my aunt, who stood frozen, pitchfork in her hands, on the other side of the fire.
“EAT!” it roared.
That human word roared from the creature's mouth was more terrible than any normal animal sound.
As soon as I heard it, I knew what we were dealing with, and it was the worst possible option. A ripple of terror shivered down my spine like ice water.
was not a good enough word to describe how I felt.
was more like it. But Aunt Mary was out there. I had to help her, I had to get out of the lodge.
But it was too late. A huge gray head thrust in through the doorÂ âÂ the first awful creature's mate. And the glow from the lava stones was just bright enough to confirm it was exactly the beast I'd feared it was.
Madbears were a crazy mixture of human and ursine genes, just human enough that they could possess the rudiments of speech. But they were filled with an insatiable hunger and a burning rage far surpassing anything in the makeup of real grizzly bears. In other words, they were just the sort of horrific creature that the bored and nearly omnipotent rulers of our world had loved to create before the coming of the Cloud.
Madbears are so crazy they sometimes even eat their own offspring. The only beings that madbears don't feel compelled to rend apart and devour are their mates. They always hunt in pairs.
The madbear stared at me. Its insane, unsettlingly human blue eyes reflected the lights from the stones. The whole lodge shook as it tried to thrust its broad shoulders through the narrow door. I pushed myself back against the far wall. My left hand ended up in the bucket of water behind me that was meant to be poured over the hot stones to make the purifying steam. My right hand still held the deer antler.
As the monster pushed itself farther in, the bent poles of the lodge cracked. Its breath was rank with the stench of dead flesh. The pile of heated stones hissed and spat as saliva dripped from its mouth.
“EAT YOU!” it rumbled, baring its long, sharp teeth.
It snapped at me and opened its jaws wider.
Just wide enough,
I decided. I slid my wet left hand under the nearest of the stones and caught the hot lava rock between my palm and the deer antler. With one swift motion I lifted the stone and thrust it as far as I could into the madbear's wide-open mouth. Snatching my hands back, I left the hissing stone and the deer antler stuck in its throat. One canine tooth raked my right wrist as its mouth snapped shut, but I escaped getting my hands bitten off.
The monster roared in muffled agony. It reared up so hard that it pulled the saplings out of the ground, lifting the entire sweat lodge with it as it fell backward into the fire pit. The blankets of the lodge and the madbear's fur caught fire at once. It writhed on its back, clawing at its throat as it tried to dislodge the lava rock and the deer antler.
The two rifle shots came so close together they almost sounded like one. Both .44 rounds hit the exposed chest of the monster bear, and it slumped back into a burning heap.
I looked in the direction of the shots. Aunt Mary stood there, her short-barreled carbine still held up to her shoulder. In the months that had passed since the coming of the Cloud, she'd always kept that Winchester close. While she was tending the fire, it had been leaning against an aspen tree about twenty feet away.
She nodded at me, then turned, pointed the gun, and fired it into the head of the first gray-skinned beast, which was slumped on its backside by the base of that aspen tree. It didn't move. Apparently the pitchfork that was still sticking out of it had reached the heart.
“Well, I guess it is really dead,” Aunt Mary said in a matter-of-fact voice.
I just nodded at her as she walked over to me. I was still sitting in the circle that once held the inipi. The left shoulder of her blue blouse was ripped. There was a scratch across her cheek, and her gray-black hair, escaped from its braids, was wild. But apart from that, she seemed unscathed. She looked at me, at the skewered dead beast and its still-smoldering mate.
Then she nodded.
“Well, Rose, honey, I guess this will have to do as far as the sweat lodge part of your ceremony goes.”