Mateo de Orikeno’s tall, slender body hovers several hands above the smoothly-packed dirt floor, hazel eyes focused on the pulsing ball of light in his right hand as he tells the tale.
“The chief of the land of the dead thought it over for a long time,” he says.
The ball of light, an effervescent crackle casting flickering shadows across Mateo’s smooth, unlined face, pulses in sync with his voice – a deep, soothing baritone inherited, like all of his talents, from his mother’s Oniat blood. Recanting the sacred myths of her people, he manipulates the ball of light into stylized images that dance in the background of the minds that view them, vaguely recognizable and open to interpretation, powered as much by the blood flowing through his veins as the timelessness of the stories themselves.
“Take her, he tells Kumokums. Remain in front and lead her. Upon reaching the land of the living, her soul will return…as well as her memories. Believe, and do not look upon her until you have left this land. Do this, and she will live again. You have earned this one chance by virtue of your love.”
Mateo’s fingers move swiftly, almost imperceptibly; and deliberately. His bare feet never touch the ground.
“And so he does, making his way through the land of the dead, his daughter behind him, life slowly returning to her hollow shell. Several times Kumokums is tempted to turn around, both intrigued and anxious.”
The ball of light pulses brightly, expanding…
“As the treacherously rocky path gives way to dirt, then grass, and the land of the living grows closer on the horizon, his daughter lets out a cry of surprise. Reflex takes over and Kumokums turns around, afraid that her regained memories have somehow mirrored his own second thoughts, and reaches out to comfort her.”
…expanding, engulfing his arm to the elbow…
“In the place where his daughter had walked moments before, a handful of bones crumble to the ground, lifeless.”
…then goes dark, with an audible whoosh…
“Kumokums’ scream is heard across the land.”
…and his feet touch the ground.
“From that day forward, death became permanent and grief, a public act.”
Galleano de Hamatia nods subtly, not quite approvingly, satisfied with his pupil’s telling of the tale, less so with his presentation.
“You lack subtlety, Mateo,” he says. “Craft. You choose the waterfall when the mist is enough.”
“Begging your pardon, jefe, but these times do not allow for luxuries of metaphor and subtle craft,” Mateo replies. “Our people do not have the time to decipher meaning in our tales when Cambrian swords threaten to cut them down without warning.”
“What the waterfall admittedly lacks in delicacy,” he smiles, “it makes up for in impact.”
“So you’ve held to since your lessons began,” Galleano sighs in mock defeat. “I give you credit for consistency, at least; even if it is born of stubbornness.”
Mateo laughs heartily. “I believe it is that very stubbornness that has enabled you to ably serve as bohike for nearly fifty harvests now. An honorable trait, I’d say.”
“Stubbornness, Mateo, is but a spice, adding flavor to a meal, never substance. As the primary ingredient, though, it can leave a most unpleasant aftertaste.”
Galleano pauses, enjoying Mateo’s rare moment of silence, and takes a long sip from the ceramic goblet adorned with the coqui and colorful petroglyphs that identify it as belonging to the Gran Bohike de Orikeno, the great shaman of the Oniat peoples of southern Kiskeya.
The goblet had previously belonged to his uncle, his mother’s brother, the Gran Bohike before him, Agueyba de Orikeno. The cerveza mais it held was cool and wet in his mouth and he holds it there for a moment, savoring the slightly bittersweet taste, before swallowing, letting the cool liquid spread throughout his parched insides.
Rising from his dujo, he stretches to his full height to a chorus of popping joints and creaking bones filling the small, humid bohio that served as his library and study. Never a tall man to begin with, the strain of ninety-five harvests had begun to pull his body in on itself, causing his back to round a bit and his gait to slow. He now walked with the aid of a petrified cane of bamboo that had carved into its sides the symbols of the Hamatia, his native tribe, and the Orikeno, the ruling tribe of the southern region of Kiskeya.
Shuffling across the room to the storage shelf hanging at its center, Galleano began to rummage amongst the woven baskets that held the various items and artifacts, trivial and enchanted, that he’d collected during his lifetime of service to his people.
Mateo was still young, brash and arrogant as is the way of youth, but there was no denying his anointing. Of all his students, he was the only one that had ever showed an innate talent for the shamanic arts and, despite his often blunt approach, there was no questioning his power. The visions had assured him of it the night before. Yocahu had spoken.
Mateo watched his teacher thoughtfully. Unable to ignore the obvious pain the short walk had caused him, he realized with a mix of anxiety and fear that the old shaman’s days were numbered. His beard had gone a shade of grey that was close enough to white to call it so and the hard lines in his face were like well-traveled roads on which many great events had occurred.
His eyes, heavy-lidded and wrinkled, still dripped wisdom and shone brightly, challenging any that might think him a doddering old man of little import.
Galleano let out a delighted snort as his hand hit upon what he was looking for. Withdrawing a small plain box from the basket, he opened its lid, extracted its contents and held it up for Mateo to see.
“You will be needing this for tomorrow’s aguinaldo.”
The cemis he held up was slightly bigger than his hand, shaped like a miniature loaf of cassava bread with a pointed bulge in its middle, resembling a snake in mid-digestion. It had been fashioned from the wood of a guava tree and painted a deep, almost blood red, not unlike the flesh of the fruit it bore. Flecks of gold decorated the skyward-facing point at its center like stars, while both ends had been carved into the likeness of the coqui.
On its flattened underside, delicately carved petroglyphs told the story of Ogbogu de Hairoun, the first mixed-blood bohike of the Oniat whose fabled exploits had preserved the Orikeno cacicazgos from Cambrian invasion and freed their Nubiran slaves from brutal captivity.
All cemis encompassed the spirit of the Oniat god Yocahu and were believed to have powers affecting everything from the weather to the well-being of the newly born. Most cemis were ceremonial and kept in the shrine room at the center of the yucayeque, but all bohikes had their own that they employed for various purposes.
Galleano handed Ogbogu’s cemis to Mateo, whose hands trembled slightly as he took it, wary of the fuller meaning of what was happening.
“Tomorrow night, Mateo, you will offer the legend of Ogbogu de Hairoun for the caciques and bohikes of every tribe of the cacicazgo de Orikeno to bear witness and, when the sun next rises for its journey across the sky, you will be the Gran Bohike de Orikeno.”
Mateo blinked in astonishment, hesitating briefly before dropping to one knee and bowing his head.
“As Yocahu desires. As Yocahu commands.”