Tamela J. Ritter is my seventh guest blogger from Write by the Rails – the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club‘s Endless Blog Tour 2014. In the coming weeks, you will find here posts from eight additional guests. Tamela’s post is an excerpt of her novel, “From These Ashes.” Enjoy!
Tim and I walked for miles before we started to hear chanting through the trees. As we got closer, the smell of meat cooking and sizzle of fry bread being dropped in an oil skillet carried on the air. Entering the clearing, we saw a small tribe encircling a large fire. About a dozen women and children were dancing around the fire with arms raised.
“What are they doing?” I asked. I’d only seen people dance and chant at ceremonies.
“They are praying to the Great Spirit. Thanking Him for the food they eat, the land around them, and the people they love.”
I walked fearlessly straight up to the circle. The woman who had been leading the prayer moments before was the first to notice me.
“Who is this beauty before us?” she asked.
“My name is Naomi West, daughter of Virginia West, granddaughter of Naomi and Charles Lagueux, Chief of Salish-Kootenai Tribe of…”
Another woman looked passed me to Tim and said, “Oh, Silent Stream, did you bring this little beauty?”
“Why do they call you Silent Stream?” I asked him.
He struggled to answer, the struggle I’d watched him fight all my life. Finally he just shrugged and looked from me to the woman. I turned back to her. “Why do you call him that?”
“We call him Silent Stream because he flows through us quietly and sometimes his current is slow, and he stays for hours, and sometimes it’s fast and he’s here and gone in a blink. Like the stream, no matter how silent, has many fish that swim in it, so does he; no matter how silent, has many souls swimming through him.”
I instantly respected this tribe who looked at my brother and saw what I saw: the beauty that some saw as weakness, the heart that some didn’t see at all.
“Who are you?”
“We are the tribe Nopiinde,” the women answered.
“I’ve never heard of you. Are you a member of the council?” They shook their heads. “Where are you from?”
“We’re from here,” she answered.
“Here the Grand Canyon?”
“Here America. Nopiinde means the Tribe of the People. We are nomads. Most of us were not born in this tribe but found it when we were looking for meaning and direction to our lives that our own tribes, in these modern times, have not provided for them. Do you understand?”
“Would you like to meet her?” the woman asked.
“The Mother who names us all. Phoenix Daughter.”
“Yes,” I answered immediately.
She held her hand out to me. I looked back at my brother who nodded slightly, so I took it and followed her passed the row of tents that half circled the fire. Behind those were many more tents and teepees, a small village of people and activity, mostly women and children.
I was mesmerized. I had seen villages like this in books but never at any Powwow I’d ever been to before. Powwows were elaborate regalia brought out once a year, vibrant and immaculate teepees slept in on these occasions only. Powwows were not full tribes of people living the life every day in ordinary but traditional Indian attire.
She stopped in front of the only teepee that had any color. It was a vivid red with green, blue and orange shapes to represent the Earth, sky and fire.
She ushered me in. When I turned to thank her, she was gone.
“Step up child; let me see you.”
The old woman was standing in a fog of heavy smoke coming from the bundle of sage and juniper she waved all around her. She tore the bundle in two and put one half in a stand to her right and one on her left.
She put her hands palms up, and I instinctually put my hands in them.
She was tall but didn’t tower. She did not smile but radiated kindness. She was ancient with ageless eyes. Two long, grey braids hung over each shoulder and she was wearing a beautiful light purple dress and a white belt decorated with turquoise.
The room smelled strongly of sage, obviously, but I also smelled cinnamon for some reason, and I knew from then on, that would be the scent I would associate with Wise Women.
Before I knew what was happening, she had pulled me to her bosom with both her arms around me tightly. After my heartbeat slowed to match her measured rhythm, I realized I was being rocked back and forth. She was chanting a soft, mournful song. Without knowing the words, I found that I was overcome with an odd sort of peacefulness, yet was shocked to realize I was simultaneously shaking with painful sobs. She held me while I wept for things I couldn’t even name.
“You and your brother have the biggest hearts I’ve ever felt from outsiders. You both are very special,” she whispered in my ear.
I pulled away, feeling warmed from the inside out. “My brother talked to you, didn’t he?”
She sighed with a smile. “Yes, although I had to hold him to me much longer than you. The hurts run deep in him, but you know that, don’t you?”
“He feels the pains of both of us, and sometimes I think, for our whole tribe.”
“Yes, I feel that in him as well. I fear there is nothing we can do to ease the pains, but it’s up to the ones who love him to make sure he also feels the joys and pride of his tribe. Can you do that?”
I promised, and after a long silence where she simply let me cry, she asked, “Will you join me in the ceremony of name?”
She turned us around. “We face the East and acknowledge that today is a new day where we can be born again, erasing past hurts and pains.” We turned again. “We face the South as we ask the Great Spirit for what we want to be and need to accomplish.” Again we turned. “We face the West and ask the winds of the great waters to blow away the spirits that work against us.” Finally we came full circle. “Now we thank the Great Spirit for this new life and promise to honor the gift we have received.”
She faced me, dipped her fingers into the ashes of the burning herbs, and wiped my tears that refused to stop flowing. “No need for more tears. In the tribe of the Nopiinde, you will be known today and evermore as Soaring Fire.”
She put her hands on my shoulders, and I felt the connection between me and her, me and the earth, me and my people—all my people.
“Will I ever see you again?” I asked, clinging to her.
She rocked me back and forth, chanting. “If not in this life, then in the next.”
Tim was waiting for me. Without a word, I took his hand and we walked in silence; the only sounds our footsteps and the wind singing through the trees. “So, did you like her?” he asked.
I squeezed his hand. “No, I loved her.”
He squeezed my hand back. “Me too.”
“Do you think when we’re old enough to find our own tribe, we’ll find them again?”
He didn’t answer; he didn’t need to.
For years after that, every Powwow we went to, we would search for our lost tribe. They became our three ring circus; when we dreamed of running away, we dreamed of them.
Tamela J. Ritter was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, her debut novel From These Ashes was published in March 2013 by Battered Suitcase Press. She now lives and works in Haymarket, Va. You can find her on Twitter or on Facebook.