“You must be watchful,” Jimere said. His long, gray hair fell over his shoulders as he stood. “The Spirits love to surprise. Especially that one, Elodia.” With a trembling right hand, he pointed to a small potted plant near the doorway. “Elodia sends her scent to entice the unwary, and then paralyzes the body and the mind with the slightest taste.”
“Elodia’ll also give you a nasty rash if you don’t handle it carefully, but it’s the best thing for healing deep cuts when made into a poultice,” said fourteen-year-old Bitina. “Tell me something that I don’t already know. Maybe about that herb over there,” she said as she pointed to a tidy bundle of brown hanging from the rafters. “I want to know everything about healing, just like you do.” She crossed her arms over her budding breasts and glowered at her teacher.
“Time may be running out for your studies because your trial day is coming up, and if you don’t pass the test…”
“I’ll not get to be a healer. I know all this, Jimere,” Bitina said. She walked over to the working area and picked up a pestle. “Show me how to grind Kashere. I want to brew a tea to ease my grandma’s pain.”
“Yes, yes. In all good time.” Jimere lovingly ran his fingers along a row of clay pots on a shelf just above his head. He picked one up and looked inside. “Ah, Dulio. What is this good for?”
“I know,” shouted Renji as he rushed to his teacher’s side. “It takes the fight out of one who is possessed.”
“Right, my apt pupil.” Jimere ruffled the boy’s curly brown hair. “You’re the smartest eight-year old in the class.”
“I’m the only eight year old.” Renji’s shoulders squared with pride. He beamed at his sister, feeding the one-upmanship that marked their relationship.
“You said I was the smartest,” snarled Bitina. “Besides, I asked about Kashere. Please, Jimere, show me how to make the tea! Grandma’s fingers and toes ache so bad she can’t sleep.”
“Patience, dear one.” Jimere limped over to his work stool, leaning heavily on his cane. “Since you are also the smartest, tell me, Bitina, what Rodden looks like, and what it’s good for.”
“If I show you, will you answer my question?”
“Yes, yes. Of course.”
Bitina strode passed Jimere, her eyes scanning the shelved herbs. She pulled down a tied-together bunch with small, curly leaves. “This is Rodden. When someone is weak with fever, you take one leaf, crush it with a pestle, and then sprinkle it into a cup of boiling water. The sick one is to drink slowly, one sip at a time. If the fever does not go down in an hour, strengthen the dose and repeat.”
“So, you do listen and remember. That is good. That is very good. Now, go get the Kashere jar.” Jimere’s body suddenly began trembling and his face turned the color of old ashes. His eyes rolled back, he fell off the stool, and collapsed to the floor.
“Renji, watch his head,” Bitina said. “Make sure it doesn’t bang against anything.”
“I know what to do. Quit treating me like I’m stupid,” the boy said as he knelt by his teacher’s head. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” he intoned as he stroked Jimere’s arms.
Bitina knelt by the old man’s side, and counted the seconds as the tremors continued. “Twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one. This is bad, Renji.”
Instead of easing in intensity, as they usually did with time, the seizures seemed to get stronger and stronger.
“It’s never been this bad before,” Bitina said as tears poured down her pallid cheeks.
“Should I go get Lynnaia? She might be able to help,” Renji said.
Bitina nodded. Despite her years of training with the learned one, she felt incompetent in this situation. Jimere’s seizures usually went away quickly and then he was walking and talking normally, as if nothing had happened. She did not know what to do to help him, and so she simply sat and held his hand.
While Bitina kept watch, Renji ran down to the lake. Everyone in the village knew Lynnaia as the spiritual advisor, but she had also studied under Jimere when a young child. Going for her was a logical choice.
As time passed, and Renji did not return, and Jimere’s condition did not improve, Bitina knew that she had to do something. Her eyes flew about the room. What magic can I blend to make the seizures stop? She scanned the various plants growing in pots all along Jimere’s walls. Talluse. No, that’s to cure shyness. Denoy. Maybe. It can cure depression. I know! Altair. It’s good for all sorts of illnesses.
Bitina ran over to a cactus-like plant growing in the darkest corner of the room. She broke off a one-inch piece of leaf and carried it over to Jimere’s worktable. The defender. Yes, that will do. And I’ll add in a tad of Dulio, to ward off the darkness.
The girl put a pot of water over the warm fire. In the mortar, she crushed together the two herbs, working with the swiftness of a practiced healer. When the water boiled heartily, Bitina poured some into Jimere’s favorite mug. After carefully scraping the herbal mixture into the mug, she stirred.
What’s taking Renji so long? Lynnaia’s house isn’t that far away. Even if they crawled all the way back, they should have been here by now. Anger at her brother’s slowness would not help, and so Bitina tested the medicine to see if it was ready.
Jimere’s seizures had eased in intensity, but had not stopped completely. His mouth hung open as if to scream, and his back arched like a cat’s.
Bitina slowly knelt, being careful not to spill even one drop of the remedy. “Jimere,” she said. “I’m going to put some liquid in your mouth. When I do, swallow. It’ll help.” Bitina tipped the mug until a few drops fell into her teacher’s opened mouth. She didn’t see him swallow, but the medicine didn’t come back out, either. So she dripped in some more, and then still more.
The seizures slowly lost more and more power, making Bitina feel confident that her concoction was the right mixture. After she had managed to get the entire cupful into Jimere, his body noticeably relaxed.
She sat back on her knees and smiled. He’ll sleep the rest of the day now. She walked over to Jimere’s sleeping corner and got down two of his fluffiest furs. She carried them to where he slept. She spread one out next to Jimere, and then rolled his limp body over and over. When he was more or less in the middle, she stopped pushing. Then she covered him with the other fur.
After watching to make sure that he was out of danger, Bitina stood. Smiling with pride, she cleaned up the cooking area, humming a tune of thanksgiving. Renji should have been here ages ago. He probably found a frog and forgot all about Jimere. Wait until I see him!
Bitina wiped her hands on a clean towel, and then strode to the door. She looked toward the lake, hoping to see Renji and Lynnaia. There was no one near Garnock’s stall, one of the busiest shops in the village. No cluster of old women around the cooperative cooking pots. In fact, she could see no one milling about no matter in which direction she looked. This disturbed her, but she couldn’t just leave Jimere unless he was out of danger.
After checking on her teacher one last time, Bitina stepped into the street and headed toward home. As Bitina passed one house after another, she noticed no smoke coming out of chimneys, no noisy boys throwing rocks into the lake, and no men crafting weapons in the work area. A prickling sensation arose along the back of her neck. I’m being watched, she thought as she spun around. No, no one’s there.
She headed toward Lynnaia’s house, thinking she’d find Renji inside, eating peppermint candy. When she stepped on the old woman’s porch, Bitina noticed that there were no candles lit. Where’d she go?
Bitina took off, running past Jeca’s unkempt house, expecting to find her messing about in the dirt along the road. She wasn’t there, and she never goes anywhere.
Not knowing what else to do, Bitina headed toward the meetinghouse. There was almost always someone there, most likely another healer.
She ran as fast as she could up a small hill, leaping over rocks and fallen logs that were in the path. Bitina took a leap across a small stream, landing securely on the opposite side.
She ran and ran, and even though her side ached, Bitina ran some more. When she entered the meadow of the meetinghouse, she stopped to wipe the streams of sweat from her eyes. There was no smoke rising from the chimney, which was weird as that fire was always lit. If no one is here, then where could everyone be?
Terrified that some unimaginable evil had happened while she was tending to Jimere, she sped to the entrance door, hastily bowed the requisite number of times, and then lifted the latch. The door didn’t move. Bitina tugged again, leaning back on her heels and using all her weight as leverage. The door slowly opened, revealing total darkness inside.
A comforting breeze washed over Bitina as she stepped inside. She slipped off her shoes according to custom, and then pulled back the heavy curtain that lead to the worship room.
There was no glow in the fire pit, something that Bitina had never seen her entire life.
She shivered. First Jimere’s sickness, then Renji’s disappearance, the whole town empty and now the missing fire. It frightened her so much, that she stood frozen.
When something tickled the back of her arms, Bitina turned, terrified of what she’d see. But there was nothing that she could make out in the darkness.
Suddenly, from a corner of the room, beads rattled.
“Who’s there?” Bitina took a step forward, even though only silence greeted her shaking knees. “Is someone there? Please, speak to me,” She called out. Despite her best efforts to be brave, tears streamed down her face.
“The Spirits have chosen you,” a nearby voice called out. “Step into the heart of the darkness.”
“Who are you?” Bitina stayed close to the door, prepared to run away.
“Do not be afraid, for you are among fellow travelers,” a high-pitched voice intoned. “Step into the heart of the darkness.”
Bitina reached forward with both hands, and while waving them about, took ten tiny steps. “I’m in the center, I think.”
“Close your eyes and pray the prayer of hope,” the high-pitched voice commanded.
“Spirits of night and day, come to me today,” Bitina said. “Lead me far away to where my center lay. Bless me, bless me I pray.”
Sparkling lights suddenly erupted, filling the room with blinding color. Blinking rapidly, Bitina watched the display as awareness slowly came to her. She knew that this was how the crossing over ceremony began and so was no longer afraid.
With a loud swoosh, the fireplace burst into flame and strong arms wrapped around her chest, holding her firm.
“My child, do not fear,” the tender voice of Jimere whispered in her right ear. “You are to be named shaman. No longer are you apprentice.”
“But you were asleep when I left,” Bitina said.
“I know, I know. Thank goodness I taught you well. I was afraid that you would accidentally poison me. If I had not healed, you would have failed the test.”
“The test? That was my test?” A smile of pride lit Bitina’s face. “If I hadn’t thought of the right medicines, you might have died!”
“No, no. Lynnaia was right outside looking in through a window. If anything had gone wrong, she would have come in and taken over.”
“But, Jimere, how did she know to be there?” Bitina’s eyes got huge when she realized what had happened. Jimere had taken one of his own medicines, simply to trigger the seizures. “Why did you do that?”
“You had to pass the healing test. It’s the way that it’s always done. Now, look around. We are here to celebrate your special day.”
Bitina did as told. She recognized the people gathered around the fire. Renji stood with her parents. Lynnaia was next to Kitchell, and Alywin and Mercel stood together, holding hands. More and more faces became visible as Bitina’s eyes adjusted to the light.
Jimere chanted the crossing over song with pride in her voice. Soon everyone joined in, including Bitina. As expected, she fell to her knees and placed her hands on the soft dirt floor. Bowed, she gave thanks for all the time spent with the learned one, for her parents who had allowed her to study, to her brother Renji for helping her practice, and especially to the spirits, who guided her constantly. This was a truly special day.