Chapter Fifteen: The Apprentice
Fall arrived in a series of storms, each more intense than the last, until just after Halloween when a cold air mass from the north mixed with a wet air mass from the west. The valley lay blanketed under its first heavy snowfall.
Time had passed rapidly for Graydon and Mike; Graydon was unusually busy for a teenager: school had started, homestead chores and homework took much of his time, and he spent nearly every weekend at the Brightman ranch. Mike had strengthened his leg and walked with only a slight limp. He had not regained his full stamina. He needed to rest frequently during his forest walks with Graydon. Jim and Vi had a long visit with Dee Johns and won her permission for Graydon to spend weekends at the ranch; a "cover story" that Graydon was working part time as Jim's helper was accepted by Alex Sr., who didn't especially care as long as Graydon was bringing home some money each week and paying into the household budget. Jim and Mike had agreed this was affordable and it would provide perfect cover.
Graydon brought his skis and gear to the ranch. When the snow came he skied a long diagonal path to the upper hayfields, into the timber, and through the tree canopy to Mike's cabin. He would arrive early Saturday morning, check in for a hot breakfast with Jim and Vi, and ski up for a study weekend with Mike.
Much of the first month was spent in "focus" studies: learning to calm his mind through meditation, and singing chants in a strange tongue which Mike explained he would understand when the native language settled into his mind. How the process worked stymied Graydon, but he'd learned not to question Mike. He would accept it and do as instructed. As his studies went along, his understanding grew.
Mike took Graydon to a small domed structure behind the cabin and introduced him to the sweat lodge ceremony. The sweat lodge involves a sacred and closely-guarded ceremony of the native peoples, Mike explained. It must never be treated lightly or discussed. It is a cleansing ritual for purification of one's body and mind and is a way to commune with one's spirit and... sometimes... with other spirits closely aligned with oneself.
"Everything that we will do, all that you will learn, all that you will become, has one purpose: to become one with your spiritual nature. The body is only a vessel; the spirit, what the churches call our soul, is the essence of man. The body is a demanding thing. It demands food, water, rest, protection, comfort, procreation and pleasure. Those who habitually submit to the demands of the body lose touch with their spirit. They become prisoners of their desires. Look about you; you will see that western culture has become a culture of the flesh. Few believe in the power of the spirit. Few recognize that the spirit has power in the physical realm. Almost no one believes that their spirit can control or heal their body. As for other powers of the spirit, much has been falsely branded as witchcraft, superstition, or mythology. You will learn about your spirit, the duality of body and soul, and your connection to the universe of existence.
"I cannot introduce these things in a way you understand: the sound symbols of language. There is a great weakness in this. Words are weak. They are pale shadows of my thoughts and they cannot carry my full meaning. We must move quickly to another way. That is why we will commence with the sweat lodge ceremony. It is time. Let us begin."
Graydon sat cross-legged, head tilted back, unmoving, his eyes closed, lips apart, his hands laying palm upward on his knees. His eyes moved under his closed lids and his lips pursed as if forming words. His body glistened with beads and rivulets of sweat in the hot moist air of the confined space. He inhaled the clouds of steam; his chest expanded and contracted slowly, deeply, in a steady rhythm of long breaths taken hungrily through his flared nostrils. Vision followed upon vision like footsteps taken along a winding trail of time, tracing the decades of a life lived before his own, entwined in continuity with his own life. His awareness, his spirit expanded as a bud unfolds and grows under a warm sun.
The riders moved swiftly across the sand and greasewood plain. They had ridden for more than an hour and as they skirted the base of the high sandstone bluffs, a canyon opening came into sight. The old native turned his horse, stared for a long moment at the white rider, then spoke in clear English:
"You may depart us now, if you choose. Take with you our gratitude for the lives of our children, my grandchildren. If you return this way, you will be recognized as a friend of our people. You will be granted safe passage and if you have need, you will receive food and shelter and healing.
"Know this: you are in great danger from your kind because of what you have done this day. I make you an offer. Come with us, and remain with my people for a time. But know that once you enter this canyon, you may not leave until we believe you would never reveal what you see and learn here. To do so would be a grave threat to us."
The children sat silently behind their elders. The younger rider, their father, sat astride his horse and studied Michael's face intently, reading the truth of his expressions. Michael gazed back into the eyes of the old shaman. He saw in their depths something that spoke far more than his words: he saw promise, knowledge, an offer.
"I choose to go with you. I will leave when you judge me ready to leave. I will never be a danger to your people."
Hearing those words, the shaman spurred his mount and the three riders moved into the canyon mouth. They disappeared into its depths.
Bitter herbs left Graydon's mouth dry, his tongue numb. His sight turned away from his surroundings and focused inward, expanding into scenes of blue sky, red parapets and rolling gray-green sage and mesquite plains. Clouds streamed in from the west, piled up in scattered heaps. In their midst he saw ghostly figures of riders, horses with blankets for saddles, their barelegged riders surging forward with feathered lances and plumed head dresses. These were not of the living. These were the ranks of the ancestors, hundreds of generations of warrior forebears.
With muttering thunder the dark clouds rise;
heavens reverberate the ancient prayers
etched on the sandstone walls of the canyons,
echoing the reverence of the ancient race.
Shaman rituals forge sacred connections;
spiritual trails link yesterdays with today.
Invocations for blessings and guidance
hallow the depths of the canyon crossings.
Blessed sage smoke ascends in spirals,
high from the distant rim of the mountain;
there the reed-voiced, spirit-borne Shaman
chants his sonorous Prayer of the Ages.
Spiritual steeds arise with their riders,
emerging to gallop in heavenly hosts;
they race the west wind, leaping the ramparts,
ablaze in the glory of the western sun.
"It is a river; an endless river of time, the cycles of life, the stream of generations flowing through the seasons of Man. We must honor those before us, respect those among us, and regard those yet unborn. Do everything with regard for the seventh generation; your sacred obligation is that of the steward. This earth is not your possession but your sacred trust. This you must never neglect, lest your name become a curse upon your children's children's children."
And thus it was, as it had always been and with prayers may always be, the elder mentored the younger and Graydon set his feet to the path that no peer of his generation could know. During the northern lights of the winter nights his mind expanded, his knowledge grew, his spirit strengthened until he could reach into his inner depths and know with certainty who and what he was: a reverent product of a perfect Creator. With each rising of the sun his powers increased in measure with the maturation of his physical being; and after each setting of the sun when he slept, his mind matured and grew in understanding. Eventually it would lead to wisdom.
Graydon's head swam with delirium; his body hungered, his mouth thirsted. He had been fasting for three days. He'd taken only sips from his small water pot. The sun rose thinly overhead, its pale rays piercing through the budding limbs of the quaking aspen grove. Broken lights and shadows flickered ghostly patterns on his body. He was naked but for a beaded loincloth gifted to him for this ceremony, his vision quest. Three days earlier he had come to this remote grove, a tiny patch of aspens on an isolated ridge, highest of all the aspen patches that sprang from the mountainside springs. He spread his mat in the midst of the slender, sheltering trees, scattered his offerings to the sky, to the early spring winds, to the four directions of Mother earth, and he quested. He waited. His spirit sought his familiar, his guide, his counterpart whose strength and attributes would complement his own.
Fatigue overtook him. His head drooped, his chin rested upon his chest, his shoulders slumped in another fitful sleep. Then from above with a whistling dive and a swooping flare of outstretched wings, a nighthawk hovered before his startled eyes.
"I bring to your spirit wings of flight, and to your heart a hunger for wisdom; no violence do we seek, nor do we claim great stature among the creatures. Only the skies and the open expanses of the earth do we claim. Our skill is flight, to soar in all the worlds of being. On earth we rest in plain sight among the creatures; we blend with Mother Earth so even if all eyes seek us, none see us. If discovered, we possess feint and deception to lure our enemies in false directions. We are the nighthawk, a creature of twilight, a creature of humility, a creature of wisdom.
"Rise, gather your things and dress yourself. Return home. We journey together."
Outwardly there was no sign of change in him but for the obvious growth of a boy becoming a young man. He would be fifteen in midsummer. He let his hair grow longer. It darkened and lightened in subtle bands of umber and sandy brown. His eyes, medium blue at birth, deepened to a piercing sapphire blue.