The Guiding Voice
Moonlight filters through the canopy of leaves and illuminates the small clearing. The whole tribe is here. The men wear woven grass skirts and necklaces made of jaguar bones, while the women wear dresses made from animal hides.
My father has a scar beneath his ribcage from an old arrow wound. His arms are covered in geometric patterns, which have been carved into his flesh and darkened with ash.
For tonight’s ceremony, everyone plays a precise role. The women chop down small trees and throw them onto a roaring fire. The shaman scrapes the vine of the caapi tree. The men wrestle a boar and hoist its lifeless body onto a spit.
My father dips his fingers into the pig’s flesh and smears the blood onto my forehead. He pounds his chest, looks up to the skies and releases a war cry.
My aunt places the end of a narrow stick into the fire’s embers, then presents it to my father. My uncles grab hold of my wrists, then step on the back of my knees to force me to the ground.
Someone places a mask over my face. Someone else pours a liquid onto my right arm. My father prays to the gods, then tickles the stick over my arm in the traditional intercrossing pattern.
I scream out in anticipation of the pain that never comes. Someone rips off my mask. It’s my older brother. He’s laughing.
My father points to the markings on the men’s arms. “If you want these stripes, you must earn them.”
The shaman chants something in an unfamiliar tongue. He holds a husk of coconut filled with tea. Steam rises from the liquid, obscuring his face.
I take the husk from his withered hands. There are bits of roots and sap floating in the murky water. It looks like the swampy lowlands after rainfall. The shaman urges me to drink the concoction while it’s still hot.
I choke on the first sip, but the shaman tips the husk and forces down the sludge. My uncles spin me in circles, while the women dance around me, their lips red from the pig’s blood.
My father hugs me. “Go forth my son into the unknown woods.”
The shaman sprinkles a greyish powder onto my chest. “May the spirits guide your way.”
The tribe elder leads me to the edge of our territory. “Do not return until you’ve proven your worth to the tribe.”
I cry out. “Where am I going? When can I come back?” But there are no answers to my questions, only the sounds of the leaves ruffling in the wind.
I have nothing but the grass around my waist, the bones around my neck and the moon shining down upon me. I marvel at the brilliance of the light, so bright, as if daytime.
I see things I’ve never been able to see before. Ants crawling up a vine one hundred paces away. A chameleon mimicking the color of a mossy rock. The outline of a woman’s face etched into the moon.
I feel at one with the dense bush. I see life in the birds, the trees and even the stones. A warmth overtakes me as if ensconced in moonlight. A powerful compulsion drives me forward.
I hear a familiar voice through the tangled vines. “Come with me child, I will show you the way.”
The tangled vines morph into my mother’s thick matted hair. I reach for her hand but I can’t quite grasp it. She has a familiar arrow scar just like my father’s, only her wound is higher, near her heart.
I must get to her. I press my way through the dense bush. The vines’ sharp thorns slice into my flesh. Blood drips down my forearms and stains my hands red.
I use the shaman’s powder to temper the worst of the bleeding. I emerge through the undergrowth to the bank of a river. I spot my mother’s silhouette rocking in the water. I shout into the wind. “I’m coming!”
I step into the roaring stream. Waves crash against my chest and knock me over. I fall prone and instinctively flail my arms, pulling walls of water behind me.
I manage to wrap my fingertips around the base of her body. But something’s wrong. She’s as hard as stone and as cold as the water.
The moonlight falls upon her. She’s painted entirely in green. There’s an orange halo fastened to her head with rope. It’s made of a material that feels like the hardened sap of the rubber tree.
I run my fingers along the rope. It leads to a mesh netting that holds a motley of fish. I pull one of the jaguar’s bones from my necklace and use it to slice the net free. I tie the loose ends into a bundle and throw it over my shoulder.
I look back to the distant shore, trembling, wondering how I swam this far against such a powerful current.
My mother’s voice rings out from the skies. “Hold onto the halo as if it were my hand and I will guide you to the shore.”
I reach for her rubbery orange hand and kick my way through the current towards land. I wash up on the beach coughing water and gasping for air. I look up to the sky for one last glimpse of my mother but a mass of clouds blocks the moonlight.
I lie on the beach until daybreak desperately missing my mother. When the sun rises, I carry the fish back towards camp, eager to share the bounty with my tribe.
Jared Cappel’s work has been featured in Door Is A Jar, Reflex Press, and Slackjaw, among others. A lover of wordplay, he’s one of the top Scrabble players in North America. Follow the latest at www.jaredcappel.com.