This is a work of fiction.
As soon as I took the gag out of his mouth, the male Leader of Worship started screaming for help. Quickly, I gagged him again, and then I listened. I heard a distant voice. So did he. He smiled.
It took a few seconds before I could hear it properly. It sounded like a young woman. I did not want to hurt anybody, but I couldn’t allow my interrogation of the male Leader of Worship to be stopped. If she found us, which it sounded like she was about to do, I would tie her up and let her go when I could.
I grabbed a length of vine and hid behind a tree.
It wasn’t long before I heard her footsteps, which sounded oddly familiar.
A hand pushed some leaves aside, and then I saw a young woman with my daughter’s face. On trembling legs, I came out of my hiding place.
As soon as she saw me, she said, “My father.” She looked around and saw the male Leader of Worship in his canoe. “You!” She looked back at me and said, “Have you seen his Partner of Worship?”
“Yes. She’s tied up in another clearing. I was just about to interrogate him, but first, I . . . don’t understand how you . . . didn’t fall to your death.”
“Let’s go down to the river and talk.” I followed her nimble form as she navigated the complex path down to the water’s edge. When we got there, we leaned against trees on opposite sides of the path.
“My daughter, speak.” She smiled.
“It was terrifying. I was falling. I tried to grab the air but there was nothing. It was so bad, I don’t have the words for it. It wasn’t real, yet it was. There was a scream trapped in my spirit, and I could see rocks and branches flying by, but I couldn’t reach any of them to grab hold. Dad?”
“I was only a step’s length away from the ground, do you understand? No, don’t answer that, nobody can understand, me least of all. I was this close,” she demonstrated with her thumb and index finger, “when I heard a sound and felt something grabbing me. It hurt. It felt like I was being stabbed in both sides. I thought death would feel like a great blow or like nothing at all, but it was like there were spears being driven into me. I thought it would never end, and I hung there for centuries looking at a flat, gray rock just below me.” She slid down the tree and sat on the ground.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. I kept staring at the rock that was supposed to kill me when I struck it, but I was bleeding, trying to scream, and still somehow alive. The ground inched closer and the pain in my sides was tremendous. Then I was on the ground, on my stomach on that flat rock. Whatever had stabbed me let go, and then I actually saw it. It was a huge grayish brown bird with a wooden seat strapped to its back, and there were bags suspended from each end of the seat. I thought I was dead and dreaming in the spirit world, but I was bleeding and feeling the pain in my sides. There were pools of my blood on either side of me and they were so incredibly red against the gray rock. I started to shiver and I didn’t think this was what death felt like. Do you have any food?” I reached into my pockets and pulled out handfuls of red berries. She saw them and squealed with delight.
After she’d eaten them, she said, “Thanks. The bird wasn’t moving, and I couldn’t, so I just lay there waiting to bleed to death on that flat, gray rock. I heard a sound and then the children I had sketched climbed out of one of the bags. They helped a young bird out, and soon, they were standing in my blood. ‘What’s that red stuff?’ the sister asked her brother. ‘Blood,’ he said. I feared that they might not recognize me and would walk away, so I said, ‘help.’ They did.” She smiled at me. The breeze played with our hair and birds sang in the trees.
“I know the birds and the children,” I said. “What happened? How did you find me? Where are they now?”
“The mother bird was dead. Saving me was her last act. The young bird climbed onto my back and put her wings against my sides and held pressure until the bleeding stopped. I was an egg and she kept me warm. Then the children brought me food and water. There wasn’t much preserved meat, and the young bird needed protein, so once I was able to get up, we found fish, insects, and worms for her. After a few days, I went for a long walk and was resting before going back, when I saw the man who’d offered me a ride. Dad?”
“I love him. There really wasn’t room for my mother in his little bicycle cart. He still feels bad about that. He’s a hunter, and he came back with me and caught meat for us. My father?”
“Yes, what is it, my daughter?”
“I have his child in me. You’ll be a grandpa!”
“Then you must eat these,” I said, and pulled the rest of the berries out of my pockets. She grinned, took them, and devoured them.
She wiped her face on a leaf, looked up at me, and said, “Where is my mother?”
I told her the truth. She cried until her tears ran out.
“We must return to where she was drowned. If we can find her, we can free her trapped spirit.” I nodded.
“Do you have more to tell me before I question the male Leader of Worship?” She shook her head. “Would you like to come with me?”
I showed her where to find more berries, and then I went to the clearing where the male Leader of Worship was still tied in his canoe.
“I’m going to make sure you don’t do any more screaming for help,” I said. I searched his canoe, and found food, blankets, and tools. Among them was a well-sharpened knife. “See this?” I held it up. He glared. “If you scream, I’m going to gag you, and then use this on your privates. I know how to stop the bleeding and just exactly which leaf to use to turn the wound to fire. So, my advice to you is that when I remove the gag, you start talking immediately.” I took out the gag, and he didn’t scream. “What I want to know is simple. Why?”
“I was getting bored.”
“Of living up there on that mountain and running the temple. The birds were nice for a while, but then they just became chores, and the children became chores as soon as they were born.”
“Okay, so why didn’t you pack a bag and leave? You could have gone somewhere else and done whatever didn’t bore you. Why the dark tide?” He smiled.
“The gods showed me the way. I asked for a vision of what would make life more interesting, and they reminded me about an old legend the Leaders of Worship before us told to me and my Partner of Worship. A roiling cloud from the ground was exactly what was needed. All kinds of fun things would happen. I didn’t need the children or the sitting bird or the eggs, but my Partner of Worship was warm and comfy at night, so I took her with me. Can I have some berries?” I shook my head. “Why not?” I reintroduced him to the gag, and went to the berry bushes to talk to my daughter about going to rescue her mother’s spirit.
She wasn’t there. I walked among the bushes but there was no sign of her.
Had I dreamed the whole thing? It had all seemed so very real, but my dreams usually did. Had I truly fallen for my own mind’s desperate lie? I couldn’t remember waking up, but somewhere between talking to my daughter and interrogating the male Leader of Worship, I must have done so.