The Circle of the Bear – Part Two: The Cave

This is part two of a four part series. Click here for the beginning of the adventure Ned Bowles made me strip. I was buck naked in front of him and five other guys, while

This is part two of a four part series. Click here for the beginning of the adventure

Ned Bowles made me strip. I was buck naked in front of him and five other guys, while another poured water on my head. It was from a mountain spring, cold enough to rob me of my manly pride.

Joseph Hayes was sitting by the fire, beating on an old skin drum and making a whole lot of noise that someone else might call singing. Bowles had stripped down to a buckskin loincloth and faded rebel flag tattoos and was dancing around the flames in a bearskin.

As a professional with thorough training in anthropology, I am obligated to tell you that none of this was normal. Not by any standards. This wasn’t a historic Eyeish ceremony, and certainly not one recognized by anybody on the rez today. I had said as much when they told me to strip.

“We ain’t Eyeish,” Ned had said. He had a low growl of a voice. “Our fathers lived with the Eyeish, but we ain’t them. Now do it.”

I did. They poured water over my head out of a big cowrie shell. When that was done, Ned took a bowl of incense and waved it over me, making sure the smoke touched every inch of my skin. It stank. The Eyeish made incense from bear grease and tobacco. If this was the same thing, it was a bit rancid.

“Now hold still,” the big man said, and he pulled out a large, sharp bear claw. A couple of the others grabbed me by the arms to hold me still, and Hayes started beating faster on the drum.

Have you ever had a claw shoved into your skin? It hurts. Bad. I screamed. There was blood running down my chest, and I struggled, and those big old boys held tight and refused to let me go.

“Shut up,” said Left Goon, whose name I later learned was Roger. “Take it like a man.”

I could have been insulted by that. I could have let fear take hold. I really had no idea how this would end. But in the back of my mind, the unflinching rational part that carried me so far in life, I recognized this for what it was—initiation. I was being cleansed, and tested. I was being made ready. Like Jimmy said, I was becoming part of the family. In whatever not-Eyeish tradition this was, I was also becoming a man. I thought about that, and bit my lip, and shut up.

Then, I swear, Ned put his mouth to the wound on my chest, sucked on it, and spat the blood out on the ground. Like a maniac. I tried not to squirm, but he did it another six or seven times while I stood there. The two goons didn’t say anything, and Jericho didn’t stop drumming, so I just went with it. Eventually, he stopped.

Next a guy came over with a black pot. It had a wide cylindrical neck, but the base was in the shape of a bear’s head. It was different from the effigy pot in the mound, though. No snake.

Ned scooped out a big slimy glob of grease from the pot and smeared it on my chest. He spread it around real good, then took out a second helping and applied it to my arm. Bit by bit, he slathered my whole body in the stuff. It was the most uncomfortable experience of my life.

When he was done, the drumming stopped. Ned looked me up and down.

“Good enough.”

The two goons let go, and Left Goon—Roger—slapped me on the back. Then they started walking towards the mountain. I was politely invited to accompany them.

The cave was big and empty. It was oval-shaped, as long as a couple buses set end to end. The walls were smooth, without a single stalactite hanging down from above. The floor was swept clean of any debris. The roof was covered in stars.

You could have mistaken them for natural irregularities in the stone. But a moment’s attention showed them to be too regular for that. They stood in familiar patterns: Orion, Casseiopeia, the Pleiades. And the dippers.

I knew about the dippers. They formed a part of two larger constellations, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

The bears.

The back of the cavern narrowed into a tunnel or the mouth of some new chamber. I couldn’t tell which, as it was screened off. Someone had fixed mountings into the stone, stretched some kind of rope across the top of the opening, and hung cowhides from it. The hair was still on, and I recognized the mottled pattern of what looked like a longhorn, the black and white of a belted Galloway, and a dull red-brown. Probably Angus.

“Come sit here,” Jericho said. I obeyed, lowering myself to a spot before the screen and crossing my legs. I was facing the curtain, but Ned sat right next to it, his back to whatever lay beyond. The others stood around us with torches.

That torchlight wasn’t much in a cavern that size. They flickered, and the shadows danced in the little pocks that turned the stone above into the night sky. No one spoke.

There was a sound of heavy shuffling in the space beyond. There were no gaps between the hides, nothing for light to slip through. Whoever was in the chamber beyond… stopped moving. They spoke.

I am not a trained linguist, but I have learned a few languages for my work. The language I heard—and it was a language—bore some resemblance to the archaic Chinese dialects spoken in the late Shang dynasty, or to Classical Tibetan. The words were short, mostly single syllables, simply constructed. There appeared to be many consonants an English speaker’s ear isn’t trained to distinguish, variations between vaguely sibilant sounds, like s, sh, ch, and so on, or others in the family of b, p, and ph. Much of the meaning was conveyed tonally, with subtleties of rising and falling pitch. What was spoken—words that could be uttered by human lips—could rewrite the linguistic history of the Americas.

I emphasize that the language was human, because, in the darkness of the cave, in the midst of that strange ceremony, I was not at all sure the speaker was. Its voice was… wrong. Low, rough, and hoarse, it made sounds that I’ve never heard come from a human throat.

I’m shaking now, thinking back on it. I can’t make sense of what I saw or heard, out in those mountains. I have to believe my senses, my memory, and what others told me. But I can’t swear I wasn’t drugged. Who knows what was in the smoke Ned Bowles blew on me? Who knows what was in that ointment they smeared on my body, on the open wound on my chest?

I can reflect on it now, but as it happened, there was little time for thought. A few bare syllables slipped from behind the curtain, and the big man translated.

“You are welcome, brothers, to the meeting place of our fathers. I testify on behalf of my people that the spirit of evil is not upon us. I do not smell it in this place, though senses may be deceived. I smell only the sweetness of incense, which is the victory promised. What do you testify concerning this?”

The voice behind the curtain stopped, and in the silence, the man who had held my left arm stepped forth to speak. He barked out rough words in the same language, and Ned translated.

“We come who are of the Circle of the Bear, and free of the spirit of evil. We bring with us a boy who would become a man. He is washed of all filth, and the spirit of evil was hushed with the incense of victory. We pierced his breast and drew the poison from the wound. He withstood it as a man. He is anointed with the oil of victory, and comes before you to receive the ancient wisdom. Receive him, brother, for he would become a son of our fathers.”

The strange words stopped before Ned’s English. The speaker behind the screen waited for him to finish. Then it answered, growling out its weird syllables in that same inhuman voice.

“We gladly receive him here, in the meeting place of our fathers. Let him join you in the hunt, that he may slay one from among our ancient enemy, whose heart is an offering for us, and whose entrails are an offering for you. So may the spirit of evil be kept in fear and silence, and our fathers’ land be kept in peace until all deeds are done. When the enemy is slain, then may our brother receive the ancient wisdom.”

Our speaker answered.

“Let it be as you have said. We go forth to hunt, and if we do not return, it is because we died in the fighting. Let our blood then be the offering.”

“Let it be as you have said.”

With that, the heavy shuffle in the chamber beyond retreated deeper into the mountain. The others looked at me, and I knew that they recognized what I was feeling. They had felt it before. They understood.

But they had endured.

I prayed to God my nerves would be strong enough to do the same.

Join Jonathan Sparks in the next thrilling episode–The Hunt!

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