This article is part of the The Reificant series.
"I will tell you of White Painted Woman," says the elder, who is called River Stone for the way he is untroubled by difficulties. "First there was woman, who came to be filled with child by the rays of the sun and her child was called Killer of Foes. And she became filled with child by the drops of rain that fell upon her and she gave birth to an entire tribe. But there was a great evil stalking her sons and daughters. Killer of Foes went out to battle it."
The story, like all of their stories, is filled with layers of meaning difficult for me to decipher. River Stone tells me of the battle between Killer of Foes and a giant who fed upon his people. Killer of Foes was victorious and his people lived in peace. White Painted Woman became old, so she taught her daughters to give birth.
"'Do not leave us,' pleaded her daughters and sons. 'I will not,' said White Painted Woman. When she became too old to go on, White Painted Woman went towards the sun. On her way through the desert she came upon herself as a young woman. She took the hand of her younger self and they became one. She returned to the village a young woman and was greeted by her daughters with great joy. Whenever she grew old she would always return just the same."
I do not like this story very much. Though I suspect it is a tale meant to describe the natural lifecycle of these mammals, it reminds me of what must be done. The next day brings another reminder. I am using my killing claws to remove the pelt of an herbivore when a young man approaches me.
"Hello, Winged Brave," he says. I do not know him and so I quill that I am sorry, but I do not recognize him.
"I am River Stone's brother," he says. "I hold his memories. I come from the water."
"This is not good," I say to him.
"The water has given us many brothers," he says and gestures to the village.
I admit to difficulty telling one man from another - only the handful of juveniles are easy for me to distinguish because of their size. The adults have no fixed patterns and rely on temporary items like feathers and beads and bands of dyed cloth to distinguish one from the other. Now, surveying the tribe, I realize that this difficulty is not merely my unfamiliarity with their species. At least half the tribe seems to be duplicates.
That night, I seek council with the elder River Stone.
"Tell me how you found the water," I say to him.
"I knew you would ask this," he answers. "Very well. Sit down."
We sit beside the fire and he ignites a long pipe filled with fragrant herb. The cup glows orange with each intake of breath. After several long inhalations, he offers the pipe to me. I have no means to smoke this substance.
"Many years ago, when I was young and strong, I was a scout for my people. We were seeking better lands. We had been defeated in battle by the Red Rock tribe and many were hurt among us. I found this place by reputation. We were told to avoid the black rocks here, but it was desperation. My people were dying."
"You were their champion," I say.
"There seemed to be no hope, even here, until I saw the white dog. It came out from the mountains and led me straight to this place. I often wonder what spirit lived within this animal. Its eyes were blue as the sky. It took me into that cave and...it was many days in the desert. I had to have a drink."
"How many have been in the water?"
"Most," he admits.
"You must prepare your people for a grim task," I tell him. "You will continue to pollute this place with all who have been in the water. It will corrupt you until terrible things emerge from the water."
"Winged Brave comes from the water," he says. I feel chastened, but do not surrender the point.
"I have seen what other things will come. Every living thing will be their prey. The sky will turn black and the mountains will break open."
"It has happened to your people?"
"Yes," I say. "Any sacrifice is worth preventing this fate."
"What sacrifice do you ask?"
"It will not be easy. You must trap yourself in the water and never return. I think there is a way."
He exhales a long stream of purple smoke. His eyes are heavy with its intoxicating properties.
"This is a terrible thing you ask of me," his words are slow. "There are animal places in the darkness of the water. Spirits of great violence in my dreams of death. To condemn my sisters and brothers to this is a great evil. It is a greater evil to go on as we have and bring destruction to this place. What must we do, Winged Brave?"
I do not want to answer him.
We might find we have more in common than we think if we just stop fighting long enough to combine our bodies into a singular organism.
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