An excerpt from The Crown of Light, winner of the Nautilus Award
Note: The Paika is the name and title of the elder who leads the Paika clans. In this scene, she offers some advice to the lovestruck, 15-year-old Ari Ara.
The Paika teased out her braid to comb her white hair, watching Ari Ara steadily, running her silver-backed, boar’s bristle brush through her tresses. The old woman said nothing as the girl feigned curiosity in the ancestor statues she’d already examined three times. The Paika counted the number of stretched-out sighs Ari Ara issued, waiting for the question or outburst that she sensed would soon erupt. She winced as she tried to reach behind her head to untangle the snarl at the nape of her neck.
“Can I help?” Ari Ara offered, turning to her.
The Paika nodded and lowered her arms with a sigh. She held out the comb to the girl. The elder tried to rise and stretch daily, but each day, it took longer to massage the stiffness out of her joints. She tried to totter out and join the family in their work. She would curl her gnarled hands around a knife and pretend to peel potatoes while the younger ones discretely did the bulk of the work. The time of chores and childrearing had passed for her. She participated to keep herself from collapsing in on her aching bones, but oh, how they ached, ever more so as the years weathered her away like the Grandmother and Grandfather Mountains.
These days, her duties lay more in remembering and reflecting, advising and directing. The Paika clans turned to her wisdom in troubled times. While the mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles had the task of caring for children and beasts, larders and tools, homes and hearths, they needed her to stare at the dancing flames until the answer to their problems came. In the Paika culture, each person played their part in the community’s well-being and heroes came according to the needs of the times. They were given poets in eras when poetry was needed and warriors in periods when fighters were required. The Paika watched the current crop of children singing and dancing and took it as a good augury for their future. When a generation spent more time telling stories than stick fighting, it boded well.
The girl combed carefully, her hands surprisingly gentle, easing the tangles out so as not to yank out a single strand of the elder’s thinning hair. The Paika was appreciative – she had seen Ari Ara wrenching at her own curls, her face screwed up in a grimace, a determined set to her jaw.
The girl should learn to care as tenderly for herself as for others, the old woman thought, drifting in the warmth and light touches of comb and nimble fingers. She fell into a half-lull until a sharp tug snapped her out of her musings.
“Ouch!” she cried out, more startled than hurt.
Ari Ara tumbled out of her thoughts, apologizing. She had been thinking of Finn, his pointy acorn chin, the shape of his muscles pressed against his shirt as he hefted an armload of wood, and his weirdness this evening. She began to comb again, but The Paika reached out a wrinkled hand and stopped her. She tugged the girl around to face her. The elder gestured to the carpet and bade the girl sit, trying not to envy the ease with which Ari Ara folded her legs beneath her and plopped down. If the old woman tried a motion like that, she’d break a bone.
“Tell me what’s on your mind,” The Paika invited.
Ari Ara’s eyes turned the color of granite in a rainstorm. She wrestled with her words, the questions barraging her faster than she could express them. Her thoughts jammed up and spilled out of her eyes instead. She wanted to pick up a pillow and throw it across the room in one big, answerless question about everything.
The Paika waited with the patience of one who has spent long hours listening for answers to hard questions. The old woman gave the girl her complete attention, as if she didn’t have dozens more pressing problems to think over. One never knew how important the smallest detail might be to the survival of the clans. Listening to a confused youth might seem less significant than determining the fate of the Paika, but time might prove her wrong. She had lived long enough to understand that, at least.
“Why is it so hard to grow up?” Ari Ara groaned out, at last. Her eyes swept up in an anguished appeal. “Is it always this confusing?”
“How many years have you seen?” the wrinkled, white-haired elder asked the girl.
“Fourteen – no, wait,” Ari Ara corrected, remembering. “Fifteen.”
Her birthday had come and gone. She wasn’t used to celebrating it; the Fanten never did. Unless other people thought of it, she forgot that the frosts marked the completion of another year in her life. She certainly didn’t feel a minute older. Everything still felt as confusing and frustrating as it had before. Ari Ara looked up at The Paika expectantly, hoping for some sympathy or wisdom or something to make her feel less miserable.
“Have you ever seen a caterpillar?” The Paika asked her.
Ari Ara blinked. Whatever answer she had expected, it hadn’t involved bugs. She nodded. She’d seen those green, inching creatures chewing holes in leaves, forming cocoons, and emerging as glistening butterflies. Sensing where this conversation was headed, she rolled her eyes.
“Are you going to tell me I’ll be a beautiful butterfly someday?” she grumbled. “Because I won’t. I’ll crawl out of the cocoon round, slimy, and still hungry.”
The Paika chuckled at the thought. She doubted that very much. Ari Ara was more likely to break all the rules of nature and crawl out as a tiger.
“No. I was going to tell you about turning into goo.”
Ari Ara let out a bark of laughter. She knew all about that! She’d felt gooey and weird all year long.
“Inside the cocoon, a caterpillar doesn’t just grow wings. It dissolves completely. It turns to mush and then, only then, does it reform into a butterfly.”
Ari Ara scrunched up her nose; that sounded gross.
“I thought I was supposed to be done growing up,” she complained. “I sang my Woman’s Song. I completed my druach, my proving task. Why am I still goo?”
The Paika bit her lower lip, trying not to laugh. No youth enjoyed being laughed at . . . but no elder who had made the Crossing from child to adult to elder could help it.
“You’re never done growing,” she told the girl.
“You mean I’m going to feel like this forever?” Ari Ara screeched with horrified alarm. “I won’t. I can’t.”
“Calm down,” the old woman chided. “No, you won’t always feel like you do right now. This is special to your age, I assure you. Nothing lasts forever. The Changes are the only thing that is constant. The Changes and the Crossings.”
“What are those?” Ari Ara asked, mystified.
It was The Paika’s turn to blink. But, of course, no one else talked of these any more. Not the Marianans nor the Harraken. And, evidently, not the Fanten . . . though perhaps the girl had been too young for this lesson when she lived with them.
The Paika clans believed that life was a long series of Changes and Crossings. It wasn’t a journey with a destination. One did not arrive at adulthood like a town at the end of a road. Every person made endless Crossings through the Changes, from infant to toddler to walking child to adolescent to youth to adult to the first touches of silver in one’s hair to the heat that rushed through a woman’s body as she aged to a wrinkled elder like The Paika. The Wrinkling Crossing traded vigor for wisdom, and The Paika had not minded making the bargain.
“You’ve made the beginning of your Crossing from girl to woman, with your monthly blood arriving, your woman’s song, and your druach,” the old woman shared with a twinkle in her eye, “but think how many more lie before you on life’s path. You may make the Mother Crossing one day and have a child. You may go through the Fire Crossing that will trade your monthly blood for the heat that burns away your foolishness and makes you smart like me. If you’re lucky, you’ll live long enough to go through the Elder Changes, and grow wrinkled and wise. But for certain, you will make the Last Crossing, the one that goes into the Unknown.”
“Death?” Ari Ara asked, frowning. “I thought you joined the Ancestor River or Ancestor Wind when you die. I know you do. I’ve seen the spirits, spoken to them, dreamed with them.”
The Paika shrugged. Every culture had their stories about what lay on the other side of the Last Crossing. But who really knew? Not her. Not yet. When she left this old body, she’d find out. The Paika grinned. It was something to look forward to, a new adventure that didn’t require aching bones.
She fell quiet, though, sobered by how many people never lived through all their Changes and Crossings. Cut down by war. Felled by disease. Shot by arrows in bandit raids. Violence was always a tragedy, cutting short the journey through the Changes and Crossings. Far too few got to live like her, with a long life and the hope of a gentle Last Crossing. Even among the Paika, the wisdom of the Changes and the Crossings was being forgotten. One had to grow as old as she to truly understand this knowledge, to have experienced the profundity of its gifts. When she welcomed the clans’ newborns, she always prayed for them: May you make all your Changes and Crossings before the Last.
She shook herself as an invisible draft traced an icy line down her back. The girl still stared at the hearth fire, lost in her thoughts. Sensing the elder’s gaze, she turned her head with a determined look.
“So, how do I stop being goo?”
This time, the old woman laughed merrily. The answer was simple.
“Stop resisting your Changes and grow through them. Make your Crossings with courage.”