The bittersweet tang of sap filled the air as the knife blade bit deep, then slid back, then cut deeper. Slice, slide, slice, slide, and then nothing. He held the branch in his hands as its lifeblood dripped away and concealed on the forest floor far beneath him.
Placing the branch between his teeth, he slowly descended the three. When his feet touched soft leaf mulch, he took the branch from his mouth and laid it on the floor. From his pocket he gently pulled long black and white feathers. Eagles.
Grass grew thinly here, but that only added to the test. He pulled clumps of it and deftly wrapped them into fibres, sealing the ends with the last of the juniper branch’s sap.
Not long now, he reflected. Not long until he became pure. Not long until that purity would be abandoned forever.
He fastened the feathers to the branch and stood up. It was short, only a foot and a half to his six, but he could sense the power in it. With this staff, he knew, he would unlock the darkest secrets of the world.
Not yet. Three days hence from here to his dwelling in the middle of nowhere, not that this forest was anywhere near anything, or anyone for that matter. It had to be three days, just as the Navajo had done for years past. The ritual had to be corrupted, but some elements had to remain the same if he was to succeed in his endeavour.
Three days from making the staff until he could return. Whatever symbol it had formed for the natives, for his purposes it was survival. If he could not live here without food, water, or outside contact for only three days, he did not deserve the power of the ’ánt’įįhnii.
The sun set, and set three more times until he rose and knew the time was upon him. He hungered now, and that was good.
An hour passed and he reached his so-called dwelling, although it was not he who lived in it now. He stood for a moment, admiring his handiwork. He had piled sticks to form walls, with a hole in the front for a door. It had been his first test, and one of many, to prove his worth.
He turned around, putting the hogan behind him. He placed the staff in the ground in front of him and began to chant. He sang the sacred songs of the Enemy Way, of how Naayééʼ Neizghání slew the Horned Monster, but his words were not the hallowed ones of the Navajos, for he was not of them. He was not even apart from them, for he had never met more than one in his life. That one had been more fond of money than his people, and had taught him the songs to sing in the misguided hope that he would not twist them into evil corruptions – as he had.
He reached the end of the songs and fell silent, one hand on the staff, staring out over the world. He could almost feel the dark power surging inside him, but it was dormant still. There were more tasks to perform.
He entered the hogan and came out with a small wooden box. He held it closed as he strode back over to the staff where it stood planted in the ground. He fancied he could see energies collecting around it, but knew it was merely his imagination. This kind of power was unseeable and unknowable to the uninitiated.
He opened the box and, pursing his lips, blew its contents into a cloud which floated over the staff and drifted away in the air. He set the box down on the ground and whispered a prayer.
Happily may their roads back home be on the trail of pollen.
Happily may they all get back.
In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty.
It was finished, but nobody who knew what foul substance he had used in the ritual could have said it was done in beauty. For in a corruption of the ritual, instead of the corn pollen used, he had blown into the wind the dust from the grave.
He waited a while and smiled. His offering had been accepted.
He returned to the hogan and dragged something heavy behind him. It was time for the final test so that he might finally be accepted into the fold. He heaved the thing beyond the staff, but not far. The sun was still dead, and its rays would not begin to be reborn for at least another four hours. He had time aplenty.
The bundle began to squirm. Noises of panic and fear made themselves known, as they did through the musky scent of urine which soaked into the ground.
“Relax,” he drawled. “This won’t take long. You remember that, don’t you?”
He looked down at the girl who lay at his feet and cracked a hideous grin.
“Of course you remember. I do. That night when I woke surrounded by fire, alone, my hands and feet bound, my mouth stuffed with hair and meat and gristle. How could I forget?”
He took a knife from his pocket and sawed at the rope which gagged her. When it gave he pulled it out of her mouth, but left her other bindings in place.
“Please, don’t do this to me,” she begged. He frowned.
“Come now, sister, I thought you of all people would know why I have to do it. After all, you tried to do it to me once. I am simply returning the favour.”
“Our mother made me do it!” she cried. “It was either you or me.”
“And you chose yourself,” he growled. “Selfish as always.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing! If you do this, you will become a monster.”
“I’m counting on it.” He raised the knife. She shook with fear as death stared her in the face, her breaths tearing their way out of her lungs.
“Please- brother – no —”
He sliced into her shirt, then her trousers, leaving her bare and open to the elements. He held the knife hovering over her chest, a little to her left. The ropes held firm; she could not struggle.
“You know how this ritual works, sister. There are some taboos so great in society that to perform them is to cast yourself out.”
“Please…” her voice gave out and she lay whimpering, defeated.
With the precision of a surgeon and the brutality of a beast, he sliced her chest open. She screamed in wordless agony as her blood seeped into the ground. She lay still, but her eyes had not yet taken on that glassy aspect. She lived still, and would for minutes to come. She would know all the pain and defilement he inflicted on her.
He dropped the knife to one side and lowered his face to the seeping wound. With his fingers he pulled the cut open wider until her ribs were exposed. With his hands he tore them out until the beating heart below was an inch from his face.
He bit deep and drank deeper. When his thirst was satisfied, he raised his scarlet-coated head and felt the animal stir within him. He tore his clothes from him, knowing that the change would ruin them otherwise. He dropped them in the pile with the remains of the clothes of his sister.
He lowered himself to her as her life faded from her and took her violently, like an animal, as she died. By the time he had finished there was no life in her, and he knew that from this moment forth, he was an outcast.
Now all the tests were complete, and he was worthy for having done so. He left the body of his sister, covered in blood, urine, and more. It was worthless now.
Pain shot through him as his bones cracked and reformed, his muscles tearing and fixing themselves into different shapes. Every sense failed and came back sharper, stronger than before.
If only his mother could see him now. She had wanted a child who would follow in her ways, but he had no intention of doing so. This power was for his sake alone. The woman who had once tried to have him killed so that her daughter might follow the Witchery Way had been renounced as family long ago. Now he would welcome her with open arms and open jaw.
The skinwalker loped away from the hogan into the morning light. He had prey to find.