by Sean Hower
Table of Contents|
in issue 109.
Alice crept to the protective cover of a buckeye for a better view of the deer. The animal was grazing just a few paces into the field and hadn’t noticed her yet. The tattoo on its hind quarter was the mark of the Salmenca tribe and the reed basket drawn just beneath the mark meant that the tribe was looking for basket makers like her.
This was the first such animal that Alice had seen since her tribe had banished her a month ago. They had too many basket makers, they had said. The tribe was heading in a new direction, they had said. Leaving would give her a chance to grow, they had said. The only thing leaving did was force her to beg for handouts and stretch what little she had saved away for an emergency. The weather was also getting cooler, the Driadda twins would soon freeze the land into winter, and if she wasn’t adopted by a tribe she wouldn’t see spring.
“Hoo naa,” Alice called. It was a traditional greeting to let the deer know she was looking for a tribe.
The animal pricked its ears and glanced around.
Alice hopped out from behind the tree. “I’m Alice, maker of baskets,” she beamed. “I offer my skills for your tribe.”
The deer glanced at her but avoided eye contact.
“Here is my work,” Alice continued, holding up a basket for the animal to see. “Notice how tight the weave is.” She tugged at the basket to show that it wouldn’t fall apart.
The deer turned away from her and ambled deeper into the field. It was rejecting her even before she had a chance to show off her talent.
Dejected, she decided to head to Buck’s Star River, a popular gathering place for the banished. Headmen often went there to find new tribe members. She had been there herself before looking for basket makers. She had never thought she would resort to it herself.
With the drought, the river was low. The fjord was barely ankle deep and the bulk of the river flowed through a dark channel that she could easily jump across.
There were twenty men and women milling about the shore, chatting, working, and sending dragonflies with messages. Among them was Bruce — a hunter from her tribe who had been banished the same day as she. He was surrounded by a group of other hunters, you could tell by their vests and charms, chattering as usual. The man was a social wolf. It’s what cost him his place in the tribe.
“Bruce,” she said. She offered the top of her hand in deferential greeting.
“Alice!” Bruce touched her. “It’s been a while. You’re still looking for a tribe too?”
“Unfortunately. This drought has been a rough one.”
Bruce nodded. “Everyone,” he said to the group, “this is Alice. A top-notch basket maker from my last tribe.”
Top-notch? There he went, schmoozing again. This was why Alice never really liked Bruce. Still, he was someone from her tribe and they had both been banished. She felt a camaraderie that she hadn’t before.
The group smiled and greeted her.
“You were there for how long?”
Bruce shook his head. “And they kicked you out just like that. Typical, I suppose. You get the ‘New Direction’ speech?”
“No use analyzing the path you’ve traveled, I suppose. Keep an eye on the path ahead, right?”
“Right, that’s why I’m here. Any headmen around?”
Bruce grinned. “The Greiling must be on your side. We’re expecting a group any time. You’ll want to get ready. We’ve gathered supplies for our presentations, feathers, paint, incense, that sort of stuff.” He pointed to a makeshift camp under a cluster of white alders. A hunter stood watch over a stash of supplies.
“Just tell Ned that I sent you over. You might want to let him know before you get too close. He’s a bit jumpy.”
“That’s really nice of you, Bruce.” She didn’t like accepting the favor but the boon would go a long way to help her get into a tribe. “I better get ready then.”
When she got within a few steps of the supplies, she held up her hands and called out to Ned. He didn’t respond, so she entered the camp. There was an assortment of bird feathers, charms, jewelry, and clothing. There were also bowls of face paint: yellow for confidence; white for talent; black for bravery; red for commitment. It was all in very good condition and as she browsed the items she thought about how she would present herself. Her skills were the most important thing she had to offer and she needed to focus on those.
Alice emerged from the shrubbery with her head shaved and coated in a base of white. Two red stripes crawled up from the back of her neck to the top of her head, past her eyes, to the ends of her mouth. Yellow ringed her eyes and each cheek had a thumb-sized spot of black. A fan of red-wing blackbird feathers sprouted up behind her head while humming bird feathers dangled from her ears. Fish-bone rings looped out from her lip and brow, a stylish touch of wealth to show that she wasn’t desperate. No one wanted someone who needed a tribe.
Headmen began trickling into Buck’s Star River late in the day. All the banished began shouting for attention. A few broke out in dance. Others demonstrated their specialized skills.
Everyone hushed when the first of the banished, a basket maker, was adopted. The headman was a young, perky woman that Alice had spoken with.
Alice wondered why she hadn’t picked her.
Just as the sun touched the horizon, Bruce approached Alice with two headmen, a man and a woman, in tow. They were very chummy, as though they had known each other all their lives, but Alice knew that was impossible.
“Here she is.”
Alice brightened, bowed, and held out the top of her hand. Each headman touched her and smiled.
“You won’t find anyone more skilled than Alice. She taught the basket makers at our tribe and she was lined up to be a headman herself before the horsemen merged with us.”
“Well, let’s see what sort of things you do.”
Alice paraded her work before the headmen. They agreed that it was perhaps the best they had seen. They warmly agreed with everything she said. This encourage Alice and she grew more excited at the prospect of finally finding a tribe.
“Well Bruce, you were right,” the woman said. “You’re very impressive, Alice. Do you have any questions about our tribe?”
Of course she didn’t have any questions. One tribe was like any other. She tried to invent a question, but was too excited to think clearly. “No, Sir,” she finally said, a bit flustered. “Not right now.”
The headmen frowned. “I see,” said the woman. “Well, thank you for your time.”
The headmen walked away.
Bruce looked at Alice. “What was that?”
“You didn’t ask them anything about their tribe.”
Bruce sighed. “You have to be interested in them, Alice. Otherwise no tribe will accept you.”
“What was I supposed to say?”
“Anything. You could have asked about their gods. You could have asked about the other basket makers. Heck, you could have asked about where they put their trash. Anything would have been better than nothing.”
“I’m not going to lie.”
“Showing interest is not lying. Maybe I can get them to come back.”
Bruce darted off after the headmen. After an animated exchange, he looked back to Alice and shrugged. Then the three left Buck’s Star River.
When the sun sank beneath the horizon, most of the banished had been adopted. Those that remained were forming little clusters and commiserating. A few invited her to join their little groups but she politely declined. She had to think of how she was going to get through the winter and didn’t want to waste time socializing.
“I suppose you’re a basket maker,” a man said to her. He wasn’t dressed like a headman. His head was crowned with hair that looked more like a blackberry bush. His face was painted like skull and a ferret’s rib pierced his nose. A necklace of rodent skulls rested on a leather tunic that was decorated with buzzard feathers. Pieces of amethyst were embedded in bands of black and yellow twine that were wrapped around both of his wrists. His feet were buried in moccasins made from bear paws.
Alice struggled with a smile. “Yes, Sir.”
“We don’t need basket makers. We do need someone to repair nets during the winter. Have you done any net work?”
“A little. Mostly river fishing.”
“This is for ocean fishing. The nets are big and complicated. The tribe needs someone to work on them over the winter. The repairs need to be done before fishing season begins in the spring.”
“What about after winter?”
“Well, if they like you enough, they might adopt you. More than likely, however, that won’t happen. I know a lot of headmen though and they’re always looking for extra help.”
“You want me to be a freewalker?” She was offended that someone would approach her for this sort of thing. Freewalkers were shiftless, disloyal sorts that only cared about themselves. They didn’t care about the tribe and they certainly couldn’t be trusted. This guy wanted her to become one?
“I prefer freehand, but yes. You’ll be treated well, of course.”
Yeah, right, Alice thought. Her tribe had treated freewalkers like chattel. They weren’t worth much more effort.
“And if there’s any problem you just come to me.”
“Why do you even think I would be interested in this?”
“You’re still here, which means you weren’t adopted. We’re also in the middle of a drought when baskets aren’t really needed. It’ll be winter soon and you’ll likely have a tough time making it through. I’m just trying to help out. If you don’t want help, that’s fine.” He began to walk away.
“Wait! What’s in it for you?”
“Oh, the tribes provide for me. A little meat here, some acorns there.”
Alice didn’t like the idea of selling herself out but winter was too close. It might not be too bad. She certainly wouldn’t be like those other freewalkers. She would be dedicated. She would impress the tribe so much that they would have no other choice than to adopt her. Yes, things could certainly work out well as a freehand. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
“Great! I’m Chuck, by the way.”
“Well, Alice, let’s get going. The tribe is up past the White Hills so we’ve got a bit of a walk ahead of us.”
Alice gathered her things and followed Chuck out of Buck’s Star River. The other banished eyed her as she passed them. They were suspicious and perhaps just a bit jealous that she was going to be a part of a tribe, even if it was just for the winter. It was enough to keep her alive for now and would give her time to find another tribe. Maybe by next summer the drought would be over and the tribes would need basket makers again. She hoped. After all, the only thing that was ever certain was the importance of being in a tribe. A temporary one was better than none.
Copyright © 2005 by Sean Hower