Muleki woke astonished and dazed. Mostly though, he suffered a piercing hunger and so decided that whatever his dream was, he would call it a message from the spirits and ran to the village before all the bean cakes were gone. He found his mother kneeling at her work in the dust before her hut and his sisters beside her pounding reeds and combing the strands of it like hair. His mother asked about his dream after mopping his brow and checking his wound and he told her between great mouthfuls of kachoa fruit.
"Tell me of your father's voice." she said softly, her eyes fixed on her hands grown still in her lap.
"He called first with urgency, next with softness. Last, he called with weeping." His mother's hands fell slowly from her lap, the tools sliding from them without notice. She turned her face away to hide her wet eyes.
"How did you know our father's voice? You were only a baby when the men were slain. You never even knew our father." said his oldest sister.
"I do not know his voice." he said. And this puzzled him even as he spoke the words, "Still, I'm certain."
"We will go to the old ones and they will ask the Great God for direction and for the meaning of these things within the Crones' Circle." said his mother.
Word of his return and the Crones' Circle shuddered through the village with a wave of tense expectation. Everyone helped prepare. The youngest gathered stones and tinder while the older girls tamped the clearing inside the ring of huts. Last came the crones to consecrate the earth with their bundles of coca leaves, squinting tight their rheumy eyes and turning slowly to each of the four directions.
At last light, Muleki's grandmother brought the carved jaguar head with its fearsome snarl and keen eyes of jade from its shroud--the totem of the Great God. The god above all others, the god like a jaguar, with ways mysterious, violent and inexplicable--the god who sees, but is unseen.
She stabbed the earth at the heart of the village and balanced the jaguar on the pike. Then the crones stretched a cord taught from this pole and stamped a circle into the earth--a circle for the old ones, a circle of prayer. They carefully measured a wider circle next and marked it with a ring of small fires. These the mothers tended--the circle of revelation. Last they laid stones around an even larger circle--this for the tasks of this earth and for death.
As night fell, the crones danced in the flickering oranges and purples of firelight and shadow, tamping the ground with their leathered feet. They sang softly and whispered to the dead. Their words fluttered like rising wings up into the thick dark, then floated to earth again soft and silent as ash.
The mothers cut their arms and fed the blood to their little fires. They keened in soft voices for their lost husbands and sons, their whispered loss hovering around them like smoke. Muleki and the other children watched from outside the circle of stones. For nearly all the children's lives, they had been a hunted people and lived without fire except for feast days and prayer, and so the children crouched in the shadows, enchanted by the dancing lights.
Long into the night, Muleki's grandmother left the crones and spoke in urgent whispers to his mother who left her fire and came to where he sat watching.
"Tell me again about the mountain. What did it look like?"
"A big rock with no trees and covered in spots with white."
"Draw its shape for me." She motioned his grandmother over and they both looked intently at the lines he scraped into the hard earth with a stick. A look passed between them, but they said no more.
At first light, high in their nests, monkeys howled their greeting to the sun as it rose somewhere beyond the canopy of leaves and dripped a soft light into puddles on the tamped ground. Then came the steady thrum of birds and bugs--a thousand colors of hunger in rustles and chirps and squawks.
In the heavy heat of the day, as the air thickened with the mud smell of the river, the world grew weighted, silent and sleepy. The children dozed. The oldest women rested on their shadows, but still the mothers sang. And with the rising of the moon came the blossom of night noise--the chitter and hiss and chaos of night bugs, the pulsing of frogs, the flutter of bats. Sang the mothers still.
Muleki sat on his heels until the monkeys howled the sun awake on the second day. His sisters brought tenachl root and water for the children outside the stones, but the old ones took no food or water, nor the mothers.
Suddenly, when the sun was high, the singing stopped. His mother rose and came to him and he stood to meet her with needles in his feet, his legs wooden.
"You leave at sunrise." she said, her voice a choked whisper. Dirt and exhaustion and fear smeared her face--and a raw grief. Her eyes would not meet his. The old women passed by him slowly as he stood shocked, each one touching him with a pained tenderness, letting their gnarled fingers rest overlong on his arm, his back. Their eyes also could not meet his.
Last came his grandmother. "You promised I wouldn't have to leave!" His words came out choking and hot. To speak to an elder thus was ill mannered and abrupt, but no one scolded. Instead, his grandmother gathered him in and wept her shaking sobs into his hair.
At long last, she came to herself and whispered into his ear, lest anyone else hear, "My child, the gods have called you to preserve our people. I have prayed and argued with them--I told them you were too young, that you should wait--but the gods have willed it and shown the way. My heart is broken that the task falls to you." She did not bother to dry her eyes, only smoothed his rumpled hair made damp with her tears and went with the others to prepare.
The whole village busied itself with the departure in an urgent, yet weighted sorrow. His sisters cried openly as they rolled stacks of tahia leaves and bound them tightly together with grass. They wove clever braids of kachoa and nut fruits and hollowed a large gourd for water.
That night, they formed the circle of the people. The crones linked their arms at its center and all the village sang in whispers, then prayed with one hushed voice. His sisters clung to him, the youngest weeping.
He lay sleepless that night in the tangled heat of his sisters' arms while his mother sat silent at the hut's open mouth and stared out into the dark. He tried to memorize the damp smell there--heat and reeds drying, sweat and raw earth. He felt the soft flesh of his sisters' arms and the distinctive scent of each one's hair. His wound still throbbed, but he hardly noticed for the raw and jagged gash in his heart and the cold stone of his grandmother's words.
With the new sun, the crones came with their powders and magic, with their paste of kali berry to paid the red of it beneath his eyes. One by one, they red their palms and placed their prints on his skin. To his back, they tied the blanket woven with their people's story, then coiled the sash that named his ancestors around his waist. Into a bundle, they rolled his own blanket, the one woven by his mother that told his name, his story, her dreams for him, her prayers for him.
Then sang his mother to bless him. It was their people's most sacred song--The Mother's Song. Her voice faltered only twice, but when she finished, her cheeks were wet. She red her palms with kali berry and with a soundless prayer, placed the print of her hand upon his heart. She left her warm hand there as she sang his name--Muleki--the treasure hidden.
She sang his story, how she hid him high in a monkey nest as a baby when the flesheaters came to slay the boy children. How an old mother monkey lay her body over the baby to keep him from being discovered, then hissed and snarled when the flesheaters came near with their bloody knives. At this part of the song, Muleki heard the soft weeping of the other women for their own lost sons and felt the weight of their grief sink into his bones even as he felt his mother's magic enter through her palm pressed to his heart.
His mother then tied a braid of crow feathers around each of his arms to mark him a pilgrim, a seeker protected by the gods. She took the little pouch hanging from her own neck and, with great care, placed it around his. His sisters tied their father's knife, cleaned of his blood and polished with sand to shining, onto his sash and touched their own red palms to his legs. They touched the wet of their eyes to his cheek and brushed the ends of their hair upon his feet. The youngest offered her baby sloth with its fur green as moss and it latched tight to Muleki's arm, but he pried the little claws loose and returned him.
Muleki's own eyes brimmed wet and hot tears spilled down his cheeks to his shame. He summoned all his strength to tamp the great lump of sadness and fear that rose in his chest and threatened to choke him there in front of everyone.
His mother led the procession out of the village--a long single and silent line. The women and girls stopped at the end of the known trails, but his mother walked on before him to a far rock by the river's bend. There she stopped.
"You must follow this river back to the place of its birth, into the high land and then into the mountains." She was quiet then. Her eyes found his and spoke to his eyes for a long moment. He knelt once more for her blessing, for the trembling weight of her hands on his head, then walked on alone while his mother waited upon the rock.
He walked beside the river, not stopping even in the heat of the day. He walked against the current as his mother had said, and when the sun was almost set, he found himself on a little hill and turned. Far, far away he saw his mother still standing, waiting on the rock. He felt her eye follow him even as he walked on in the gathering darkness. Long into the night, he could feel her standing on the rock, her eye searching for him in the deep black.