It was time. Little Bird shouldered his pack and set off after his father on the long walk that would begin his new life. They did not speak and their feet touched the ground silently; early morning birdsong was the only sound. The climb began almost immediately, once they left the heavily forested river valley and entered the Trace. Sun was just beginning to fire the treetops and the trail of sunrise sparkled on the water. Little Bird gave thanks for this Time and this Place; the People had been driven from so much of their land. They traveled single-file, as the trail demanded, using all breath and energy to scale the steep hillside.
There was much time to think, to remember. He was named Little Bird for his habit of looking at people with first one eye and then the other, reminding his mother, Grass Singing, of a baby bird with one eye on each side of its head. She had laughed at him and ruffled his hair. But he had passed twelve summers and was tired of women’s ways. His brothers were grown and had been on the Autumn Hunt. He’d seen them dance their stories in the firelight and noticed the shy eyes of the girls, glowing like stars in the night sky.
His childhood hunts had been in this green wilderness, air sweet and heavy with the odors of vegetation. He had stalked foxes and small game here, but never climbed so high, or gone so deep into the Big Turtle passage. He would camp in the open; his father would help to build the ring of stones and he would sit within that circle for three days and nights, without food or water, without leaving the place outlined by the stones. When his father returned for him, he would be a Man and have a new name.
The path became steeper and narrower, opening suddenly onto a rocky outcrop overlooking the Cut, where the water fell from the sky to beneath the earth, roaring, sometimes overflowing the banks and heaving giant trees aside, like sticks. In late summer, the falls still filled the air with thunder, but everything was green to the water’s edge, now darkening and rusting with the kiss of promised autumn.
The ledge was wide, at least ten long strides. He and his father foraged for stones of the proper size and shape and placed them in a circle twice his length across, using branches to rake the inside of the circle. They worked well together and, when all was complete, they ate the dried venison Grass Singing had packed and drank sweet water from earthen containers.
Then his father stood and lit the chanumpa, the ceremonial pipe, making offerings to the four directions, invoking the Dreamtime. “This one would be a new Man. Teach him what he needs to know.” He placed his hands on Little Bird’s shoulders, saying “I will return on the third day, when the sun is sinking behind the western peak.” Lifting the pack, he turned and walked back the way they had come, down the steep path before light left the slopes.
Little Bird was alone within the ring of stones, with only his medicine pouch. He opened the pouch, placing his sacred objects in front of him on the ground. Enfolded in red cloth was an Eagle feather fan, fringed and beaded by his mother. He opened the wrapping and stroked the feathers. He had prepared for this ceremony for over a year, and now it was real.
The first night, Little Bird slept soundly. He had no blanket and no fire, but the night was warm and he had traveled far and worked long. He awoke to the sun climbing over the eastern ridge, gilding the hillsides and making rainbows in the mists rising above the falls. He was thirsty. The sun rose higher and he knew that this would be a hot day. He spent the hottest part of the afternoon in the patch of shade cast by the large stones they had placed in the south.
The second night, clouds moved across the sky and the darkness was unbroken. The squeal of a rabbit, fallen prey to some night prowler, woke him. Several times, he thought he saw eyes peering out of the underbrush, awaiting his inattention. Staring into the darkness, he said the most sincere prayers of his life.
It wasn’t hunger. He hadn’t thought of meat or corn or beans once. But he had visions of melons and berries and, most of all, water. He had never been unable to drink, and as the sun rose high in the sky, the shade disappearing once again, he curled himself around one of the stones, seeking any coolness that might remain. As the third night approached, Little Bird made prayers and brushed himself with the Eagle feather fan, creating an aura of protection.
There was no moon, but the sky was alight with countless stars. This night, he had waking dreams. He saw lines of people, traveling west. They looked sick and weak. Some fell in their tracks and could not get up. And he saw the predators and the scavengers closing in on the People. He saw that they could not survive. Then, a huge young Eagle soared above them. His wingspan cast a shadow that blotted the sun from the sky. The Eagle spiraled lower. Talons outstretched, he landed on the back of a mountain lion, poised to leap on a woman who had fallen and was too exhausted to rise. The big cat screamed; the Eagle dug in his talons harder, allowing the woman’s escape.
The next afternoon, his father found him seated in the center of the circle of stones, the Eagle feather fan in his hands. The new Man stood, stepped outside the circle and held out his hand to his father. “I am Kwetamolc, Eagle Spiraling Downward. The little bird has flown.”