She stands perched on the edge of Dragon Country with a coyote at her side. He sniffs the prairie breeze that fluffs her white hair. She watches the black smudge on the horizon. It roils in the wind. Plumes of grey billow upward, mixing with the sky's fluffy clouds. The darkness blossoms like a thunderstorm; lightning flashes within its depths.
The coyote whines as the blackness douses the sun. He nudges her leg but she cannot move. Fear freezes her.
Then winds wail toward her, tearing at the fringe of her tunic. The red bears of her mother's needle appear to flee from the onslaught. The coyote presses himself against her legs.
The blackness twists like a giant tornado. It twirls across the prairie sucking everything into its shadows. She hears the scream of the gale as it descends upon her but Earth Mother holds her close. She will protect them both as rain pummels their bodies.
Then, with wet hair clinging to her cheeks, the dark, whirling cloud swallows her up. Wrenched from Earth Mother's embrace, she twists upward in the wind. The coyote howls. She opens her mouth to scream. Her breath is sucked from her.
Time has no meaning. Is it days she is tossed in the darkness or a heartbeat?
A flash of light blinds her. Hot air bathes her face. Within the cloud, something roars. Fear ices her spine as she is drawn toward a dark shadow.
As the cloud shreds, she sees a giant creature looming above her. Its scales glisten as flames erupt from its jaws. Huge bat-like wings fan the fires. They broil toward her, igniting the black with orange and yellow flames.
She screams as she burns.
She slowly shook her head to rid herself of the dream. It had woken her just as the sun rose. Now, she climbed the quiet hills above the camp to calm her fears. She paused a moment to sniff the breeze. That was odd. The stench of death drowned the fragrance of the buffalo grass.
She scrambled up the familiar gully. The gnarly cottonwood branches tugged at her deerskin tunic and snagged her braided white hair. She pushed through their grasping fingers curious to know what caused the stink.
Where the coulee knifed into the crest of the hill, she found the dead coyote. She had watched this mother care for her pups. Crouching among the gray-green willows, she hunted the hillside for the coyote's killer. What beast had left the animal to rot?
Or had hunters from the spirit world come to kill? Was it possible her uncle, Raven, had returned to the hills he loved? No, she couldn't feel the presence of spirits. Even Earth Mother, who often spoke to her, was not there.
The wind sighed through the trees clutching the hillside. As their new leaves slapped together like tiny hands clapping, she thought she heard a soft whine.
She crept into the open and approached the body. Flies had come to feast upon the carcass. They swarmed a gaping wound in the coyote's side; an ugly slice too jagged to be from a hunter's knife. A circle of blackened grass surrounded the body but it was the blood-soaked earth at the mouth of the coyote's den that drew her eye.
The pups! Their mother had died protecting them.
A tear slid down her cheek. "Earth Mother, please take care of her spirit,"she whispered.
A yip came from the den.
Dropping to her knees, she peered into its darkness.
"Hello, little ones," she cooed. "Don't be afraid. Earth Mother has sent me to warn you. You must leave before the beast that killed your mother returns."
A shadow glided over the gully. She glanced up. A vulture.
"Please, little ones, follow me. I know where you can hide."
She slowly backed down the coulee. A little black nose stabbed through the den's darkness. She saw it twitch as it caught her scent. It knew her smell.
Two paws clawed at the soft earth and a little grey ball of fluff wriggled out. The sadness of its brown eyes captivated her.
"Little one, come to me."
The pup followed her as she moved away. When it reached the body of its mother, it squatted back on its tiny haunches and howled its grief.
She waited, wondering if the others would follow. They did not. Only one pup had survived.
It waddled to where she crouched as another vulture joined the first. Slowly, they circled above them.
The pup nudged her with its snout then whined.
"She's not coming back, little one." Tears welled in her eyes. A year ago, her mother had also left this world to walk among the spirits. It had been a long, sad year. Her father never spoke of it but she felt his pain and added it to hers.
"Come," she whispered. "There's a better place to mourn her."
The previous Fall, when the tribe had returned to their wintering grounds, she had found a jumble of rocks in the coulee. Using the knife her father had given her, she stripped a few saplings of their bark and wove a lattice of branches. This she draped over the rocks forming a tent. Often she made a small fire to warm her secret place. The pup would be safe there.
It followed her without fear, its ears still floppy and its paws huge compared to its spindly legs. She smiled as its back feet moved faster than its front and it tumbled down the slope behind her.
At her shelter, she took the last of the jerky from her pack and tossed it inside. The coyote pup scrambled after it. It gnawed the dried meat with its needle-like teeth then gave up to swallow the piece whole. It yipped for more.
"Sorry, little one, that's all I have," she said as she turned to go. "Remember what your mother taught you. Hunt and beware."
The pup whined, gazing at her with sad eyes. She prayed it knew all it needed to know.
As she slipped outside, she glanced at the sun. It was midday. If she didn't return to camp now, Father would be cross. He often objected to her sneaking into the hills, especially when Winter's winds howled. But, when had she ever listened to him?
She smiled. She knew he'd probably not miss her today. Everyone would be busy packing for the trek to the Gathering. She would not walk these hills again until Fall frosted the rye berries.
She whispered a quick goodbye to the pup, then started down the path to the river. A yip made her turn and the pup came galumphing down toward her.
"No," she said, firmly. "You must stay here. This is where you belong."
Gently, she pushed him back into the shelter.
"This is your new den. Wait until the vultures leave then you can hunt. Stay!"
Again she left. The pup soon followed, crashing into her legs in its rush to join her. She set it on its feet noticing it was a male.
"What am I to do with you?" she asked, slumping to the ground. "I can't take you to the camp. No one likes coyotes, you know."
"He is yours now, little one." The soft voice of Earth Mother filled her head. "You are his mother. Just as I am Mother to all creatures."
"But the tribe will kill him."
"Not if you persuade your father first. You were meant to be mother to this pup. He has a role to play in your future."
"What future?" she asked but Earth Mother was gone.
Scooping the pup up, she hurried down the gully. As she reached the camp, she stuffed him into her pack. He was not happy but the leather muffled his yips and with people scurrying about, no one noticed her squirming bag.
The home she shared with her grandmother, father, brothers, aunt, and cousin stood at the camp's centre. As she approached the tall, conical tent, she saw their packs lined up against the drying rack. Her father had added another step to the ladder that was the back of hers. She'd be carrying more weight this year.
She stepped into the tent's darkness. She paused as her eyes grew accustomed to the dimness. The pup in her pack whined a little.
"Is that you, White Crane?" asked her grandmother as she rolled up the small furs the baby slept on. No one else was in the tent. Already it had lost its feeling of home. The sleeping pads were stacked against the wall with their fur covers draped over them. Her father, Golden Eagle's hunting bow had been wrapped in its carrying bag and her grandmother's cookware waited to be lashed to the packs.
"Yes, Grandma Magpie. I found something in the hills and want to know if I can keep it."
"As long as it fits in your pack and is not a burden to others. Yes. Now, please pack up my cookware as you promised. I've been waiting to clear this floor."
"Busy, as you should be. Off you go, get your bed furs and stash my cookware wherever you can on your pack. Did you see your father increased its size? He thinks you're growing even if Earth Mother does not."
White Crane gathered up some of the clay pots and lugged them outside.
The coyote pup yipped louder now, determined to be free of the pack. White Crane did not want him wandering off so wrapped a leather thong around his hind leg then tied it to the drying rack. The larger packs would hide him from view as she worked.
She laid her bed pad on her pack frame then carefully wrapped the pots in her sleeping robes. The bison fur would cushion them as she walked. She rolled her Winter leggings and mantle together with her Gathering dress praying it would fit again this year. She had grown but not by much. She had made sure of that.
Grandma emerged from the tent with a sack of dried meat. "Can you tie this to your pack, White Crane?"
She nodded. When old woman's back was turned, she slipped a chunk of meat into the pup's mouth. He slumped to the ground and gleefully gnawed it.
"Do you want me to take Baby Crow's furs?" White Crane asked. The old woman nodded and pointed to the bundles she had stacked nearby.
"When you're done, can you put the pads and furs on your brother's pack. Not sure where he's gone but my guess is he's preening somewhere."
White Crane smiled. The eldest in the family, Blue Jay, planned to marry at this Gathering of the Tribes. Everyone knew the girl he had chosen but Goldeye had had to wait for proof he was a man. The rack of antlers laying next to his pack would persuade her father that Blue Jay could provide for her and their children.
Marriage was not in White Crane's future. She had decided this when her mother died. Blue Jay and White Crane's cousin would wed at this Gathering but not her.
She would miss Chickadee as they often chatted together in the dark of Winter's nights but it was all part of growing up, or so Grandma said. White Crane refused to grow up and leave the tribe. Earth Mother had agreed with her. She had given her the gift to control her moon blood.
White Crane sighed, patting the coyote pup on the head as she rested against the drying rack. Her mother would have understood why she didn't want to grow up. Red Bear knew the sadness that came with leaving one's family and learning the ways of a new tribe.
"Don't dither, White Crane. We must be ready when your father gives the word to move out. It would not do for the chief's family to be scrambling with last minute packing."
White Crane nodded as she wrapped up the rest of the pots and some wooden utensils in Blue Jay's sleeping robes. The butchering knives she strung in among the bundles then laid the rack of antlers on top so all could see he had become a man.
"Can you help me here, dear?" Grandma Magpie asked. "I can't seem to get my gear balanced."
White Crane glanced down. The coyote napped in the shade of her pack so she left him.
Grandma Magpie helped with all the birthing in the tribe. She was as close to Earth Mother as any one of this world could be. She knew the herbs to ease the pain of childbirth and she knew the ones that gave a new mother vigour to suckle her baby. White Crane gently wrapped her herb bags and instruments in the sleeping furs.
"My healing pot! I almost forgot it." Grandma Magpie scurried back into the tent, shaking her head. She had saved many babies during difficult births but she couldn't save White Crane's mother. Baby Crow lived but Red Bear had not.
Quickly, she wiped away her tears. She missed her mother's soft auburn hair and iron-grey eyes.
"Ah, here you are, White Crane. I see Grandma Magpie has put you to work."
White Crane looked up into her father's brown eyes. Yellow brows curved above them. He looked like his namesake, the Golden Eagle. His blonde hair was bound in a single braid and wrapped in white leather, the sign of a chief.
"I'm almost finished with packing, Father. The tent must be bundled then we are ready to go."
"Well done, my dear. I hope you've left room for extra items. Last year, I almost left behind the Gathering pipe and who knows what would have happened had I done so."
"You'd have still told the legends, Father."
Her father's brows arched in surprise. "But how would I know when to pause? I use the smoking of the pipe to tell the tale properly. You've packed it this time?"
White Crane nodded. It had been among her grandmother's things.
"Let me check with Grandma Magpie and then perhaps we can begin taking down the tent."
She watched as he bent to enter their home. He was a big man among their people. Tall and with a nose like an eagle's beak. She had seen men challenge his leadership but none ever won against his strength or wit. There was no chief better than him. Of course, the Bird Tribe was the first of the four tribes of Earth Mother so his word was the law most followed but there were always some who disagreed with him. Golden Eagle strove to keep the tribes happy. Marrying outside one's tribe was the tradition that bound the tribes together as families as well as friends.
Golden Eagle stepped out of the tent. "Grandma Magpie isn't quite ready for me to take the tent down. Would you like to sit by the river for a few minutes?"
White Crane shook her head. "Father, I have something to show you." She took her father's hand. His skin was as brown as Fall's leaves, a colour her pale skin would never be.
"What is it?"
"A gift from Earth Mother.” She lifted the furs hiding the sleeping pup. "Grandma Magpie said I could keep him. Earth Mother gave him to me. She knows I won't be married this year, Father. She knows how I love babies and She wanted me to have one of Her babies."
"Earth Mother gave you this gift?" Gold Eagle's right eyebrow arched incredulously. Not a good sign.
"She loves me as She does all Her children," White Crane gushed. "She wants me to be as happy as Chickadee. She knows I am different so this is a gift to keep me happy until She feels the time is right for me to marry. Please, let me keep him."
"White Crane, I swear Sky Father sent you to try my patience. I would never go against the wishes of Earth Mother but I'm not sure She was the one who gave you this pup."
White Crane blushed. "He would have died, Father. Some creature had slashed his mother and eaten his brothers and sisters. I know Earth Mother wants me to care for him."
Golden Eagle frowned as the coyote woke. Something in the pup's eyes must have melted her father's heart for he smiled. "You may keep him, my dear, but you must make sure he doesn't hurt anyone. You know there are those in the tribe who will not like a predator walking among us."
"You could tell them Earth Mother pitied me. They would believe you, I know they would."
Her father sighed, sweeping away a few strands of blonde hair from his brow. "Perhaps, but if the shaman renounces this gift, the pup must die."
"I will do as the spirits wish." She prayed Earth Mother would convince Snowy Owl the pup was a gift.
"And, White Crane, someday this little guy will want his own family. You must let him go and be what Earth Mother wishes him to be."
Grandma Magpie bustled out of the tent bearing the last bundle of their belongings. "Strap these to my pack, my dear," she said to White Crane, "then go find the others."
White Crane picked up the coyote pup and slid him back into her small pack. He yawned, then went back to sleep. She smiled. He was a gift from Earth Mother even if her father had his doubts.
"And, that's what I'll call you, little one. Gift."
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