I

Clash of Hearts

 

Helki and Igashu sat silent. Born in the same village at the same hour on the same day, the pair were inseparable. Both tall and lean with long dark hair, almond-shaped eyes, and skin the color of pale copper, the silent knowing of their hearts bound them in an unshakeable friendship. Yet life, as they had lived it, was about to change.

Sharing a large granite shelf that jutted from the ragged face of a high cliff, they had not spoken during their climb. They found no need for words when a mere glance or gesture was sufficient. Together they looked out over the ever-changing world of their valley—the place where the white swans sing.

A broad river fed by smaller streams that joined it like ribs to a crooked spine split the oval-shaped valley from north to south, while jagged snow-capped mountains enclosed the whole in a granite embrace. The northern and southern end of the valley was the home of the wapiti, pronghorn antelope, and deer. These shared the timbered land with the bobcat, puma, and wolf in tense harmony.

The center portion of the valley was a flat prairie. At its edges, the grassy earth abruptly ended in a thick sash of conifers that grew midway up the mountains before ceding the ground to perpetual mists and snow.

From their vantage point, the tepees of their village far below looked like clusters of upturned pinecones. Crooked avenues of hard-packed earth stitched the far-flung lodges of four other villages into a cohesive community.

Near the village center, a small tepee enclave housed the men and women called Those With the Two-Spirit Heart. These men and women, some as young as fourteen, cared for orphans, widows with no family, the very old, and those made lame either from hunting or simple accidents. Two-Spirit people were the keepers of the sacred fires where the spirits of their dead ancestors warmed themselves on cold winter nights, and everyone in the tribe acknowledged and honored them as vital.

The late summer air remained hot even as the sun sagged low in the western sky. An unseen eagle patrolling the vacant sky in ever widening arcs screeched somewhere high above, and save for their moccasins and loincloths Igashu and Helki were naked.

Helki grabbed a handful of scree and began tossing single stones out into the void.

“When will you leave?” he asked, even though he knew the answer.

“Tomorrow,” Igashu answered with a deep sigh. “My uncle is anxious for me to begin my vision quest training. I’ll stay there for fourteen sunsets. It’s a lot longer than I thought.”

“No longer than my final training. When you return the earth will come awake.”

“Final training? You’ve been training?” Igashu said.

Helki ignored the question.

Baffled by his evasion, Igashu reached into Helki’s hand and picked out a small stone. Rolling the smooth pebble between the palms of his hands, he said, “When I return, you and I will perform the basket and bow ceremony. Helki, our lives will change. You will choose the basket and tell what everyone already knows. You are Two-Spirit. And I—I don’t have a choice.”

Helki wrestled with his response. They had talked and talked until all that was left were words stripped of meaning. He loved Igashu. He wanted Igashu. They had been so close so many times, and each time Igashu pulled away. Night after night as his mother, Leotie, slept close by, Helki conjured up Igashu with rising passion, Igashu’s scent, his smile, the feel of his slick skin, and the imagined taste of his kisses. All these phantoms combined to torment Helki, until at last he banished them with silent spasms.

“You do have a choice,” Helki insisted. “Igashu, you can be true to yourself or you can lie.”

Igashu frowned. There it was again. From the moment the two had discovered what desire was, Helki had pursued him like an otter after its breakfast. Not that Igashu minded the attention. Helki was smart, brave, kind, and beautiful, but the unbidden ghost of Bena, Igashu’s brother, was a constant reminder that he was his father’s sole surviving son.

Igashu changed the subject back to his leaving. “I don’t want to go from here.”

Helki said, “You have to. It’s your father’s wish. Besides, your uncle is a good man—it’ll be an adventure!”

“Listen to yourself, Helki. One minute I’m the master of my fate, and the next, I’m a prisoner of my father’s wishes.”

“It’s not the same thing and you know it. All of us need guidance in preparation for our vision quest, but your heart belongs to you. No one can tell you how or who to love.”

“Well you seem to have a lot to say about it.”

“Are you saying you don’t love me?”

Igashu felt his heart leap within his breast. His pulse pounded in his ears.

“Helki, life doesn’t stand on tiptoes all the time. You want to surrender yourself to me completely. You want me to do the same.” Igashu looked into Helki’s earnest eyes. “I do love you. Helki, I just don’t know how to live with that love. Not yet.”

Helki pulled his legs up to his chest. Resting his elbows onto his knees, he made two fists and pressed his face into his knuckles until his cheeks hurt. Let it go. Let it go.

Igashu leaned back on his elbows and spread his legs.

Helki stole a sidelong glance and then looked away and dreamed a moment of passion.

Igashu broke the tense silence. “Helki, you’re my only real friend. I’ll be unhappy in a strange village. Who will I talk to?”

“You will talk to your uncle. That’s why you’re going. Besides, I’ll always be with you wherever you go. You know that. And you have cousins there. Muraco is about our age, isn’t he?”

“It’s not the same. And you can forget about Muraco. He never liked me.”

“Then make him like you.”

“Never mind Muraco. He’s the last person I want to talk about on my last day home,” Igashu said. “You still haven’t told me who you’ll train with before your quest. My father told me that he asked you to be as a son to him for over a year now, but you refused.”

“It’s true I have refused your father’s offer.”

“But why? He’s taken care of you and your mother ever since the great yellow cat killed your father.”

Helki frowned at the mention of his father’s death. “One day that puma and I will meet. That day will be its last.”

Igashu thought he knew his friend well, but the remark puzzled him. He was silent for a while, and then he said, “What’ll you do while I’m gone?”

Helki turned and looked deep into his friend’s eyes. He wanted to say, I’ll dream of you, but that admission, while true, would begin another conversation that would end in frustration for both of them.

“Igashu, The Wise One has asked for me. Mahkah is old and sick. He says he’ll die soon. He has no sons to follow him, and as you say, I’ve no family except my mother.
And—”

“Helki, are you crazy? No one enters Mahkah’s tepee!” Igashu glanced around and whispered, “He makes magic. Some say he can even make men die just by wishing it!”

Helki gave Igashu an impatient glance. “Do you know this for sure, or is this the talk of children and women?”

Igashu scratched his head and smiled. “You’re right. It’s just talk—but he does make magic. That, I do believe.”

“Well then, I guess I’ll learn how to make magic, while you learn how to kill wapiti and buffalo.”

“I already know how to hunt and so do you. This isn’t about hunting. And while we’re at it, why didn’t you tell me before that Mahkah called for you? I tell you everything, but you… you’re already hiding from me.”

“Because I knew you’d react this way and because Mahkah asked me not to tell anyone until after the basket and bow ceremony. For a long time now, I’ve been learning the ways of a Wise One. Mahkah says I learn well.”

Igashu shook his head. “I’m losing you to magic already.”

Helki stood and stretched his cramped muscles. “Don’t be silly. Come on. We’d better get home. I’m starved, and tomorrow you have a long walk to your uncle’s village.”