The Shaman

"Shaman, the traders have returned and wish to see you."

The shaman kept staring into the fire as he nodded almost imperceptibly. His apprentice, knowing how to interpret the reaction turned and left the hut. He waited for a few minutes before heading to the traders and telling them that the shaman would see them now. They followed him into the hut and he left them there, closing the door behind him and placing himself in front of it to make sure that nobody would disturb the meeting. It didn’t really matter and he knew it, since nobody in their right mind would even think about disturbing the shaman unasked for, but it was the traditional place for a shaman's apprentice. He wasn't sure whether the shaman knew he could clearly hear every word that was being said inside, but he suspected that the man did. After all, he must have been an apprentice himself, once.

He could picture the traders almost huddling together at the door while the shaman was still sitting in the same position, still staring into the fire as if he could read its secrets. The shaman would look up after what would seem like an eternity and smile, which would scare the traders because of the way the light of the fire would play on his face.

"Welcome back. I trust that your journey went well?"

"It did, shaman. We have sold all of the fish and have been protected by the spirits along the way."

"Yet there is something that bothers you or you would not be here to see me. What is it?"

The apprentice could almost see the trader who did the talking swallowing and gathering his courage before answering this question.

"On the way back we stopped at the usual shelter. When we tried to make a fire we discovered that this was impossible as the wood simply refused to burn. It was as if it turned to stone the moment we applied a spark to it. Yet throughout the night we did not suffer from cold. In fact, as soon as I closed my eyes I could swear that a fire was indeed burning there as I could feel its heat keeping me warm."

They didn't get an answer immediately. The shaman was probably staring into the fire again, the flames reflecting in his dark eyes although the traders would not be able to see that. When he finally did answer, something in his voice made the apprentice shiver. He could only imagine what the effect would be on the traders.

"This is not the first time I hear about this. A spirit must have bound itself to the shelter. I shall travel there tomorrow night and converse with it. Leave me to my preparations."

These words told the apprentice that he should open the door again, much to the surprise of the traders. He escorted them out of the hut and accepted their donation for the shaman, which in this case consisted of several heavy golden coins. After he had seen them off, he entered the hut again and placed the coins in a jar which already contained several others, causing the shaman to look away from the fire.

"They sound heavy. This spirit must be very important to them. Come, help me pack some of the herbs I might need to offer the spirit to appease it should it turn out to be hostile. Name them while you offer them, and tell me the effect of each one of them."

The apprentice started going through the dried herbs, naming each and every one of them as he offered it to the shaman, who put them all in his bag.

"Wolfsroot will frighten an animal spirit. It is only to be used in emergencies, if a spirit is angered beyond appeasing and about to do unpleasant things. Waterlily leaves will either soothe an angry spirit or refresh a tired spirit. Bearclaw will grant a weakened spirit renewed strength."

With a nod, the shaman indicated for his apprentice to continue as he got each of the herbs correct.

"Ivy will ensnare a spirit so that it cannot move until it has taken time to free itself from the tangle. Daisies can be used as an offering to make a friendly initial contact with an unknown spirit."

"Very good. I can see that you shall soon be ready to take my place. Tomorrow you shall remain here in the village when I leave."

"Can I not join you to learn how to interact with an unknown spirit?"

"No. It is important that the village has a shaman at all times. In my absence, the people will turn to you. This is the time for them to start accepting you as their new shaman."

"As you wish, shaman. But surely they started accepting me as their new shaman when you took me as an apprentice?"

"That is different. At that time, they started accepting you with their minds. Now, it is time for them to start accepting you with their hearts."

As he had done so often, the apprentice nodded that he understood. The next morning, the shaman set out before sunrise to get an early start. His apprentice was the only one who saw him leave.

As soon as the shaman had vanished from his sight, the apprentice went back into the hut. The hut itself was more familiar to the apprentice than that of his parents. Ever since he had become the shaman's apprentice he had lived here, keeping it clean whenever he was not assisting in the preparation of some ritual, being taught the shaman's knowledge or simply arranging dried herbs according to their effects.

The walls were plain wood, decorated with various animal bones. On one of the walls was one half of a fox's skeleton, on another was a collection of fish which had been caught in one of the nearby lakes. Like all of the other huts in the village, it was built around a central fire pit, with a hole in the roof to let the smoke drift up to the spirits of the clouds, offering them warmth in exchange for their protection of the village and, on specific days, the smell of herbs which the shaman put on the fire to mark certain turning points of the year.

The ground was covered with sand which the apprentice regularly replaced. The shaman would use it to make intricate patterns, all of them centered on the fire. The villagers thought these patterns had certain meanings and were made on specific days in order to please the spirits, but one of the first things the shaman had taught his apprentice was that they were just there for decoration. Making these patterns soothed his mind and helped him find focus, he had explained. When the apprentice had expressed his worry about treading on them and disrupting them, the shaman had shaken his head and smiled.

"Such is their very nature. They are not meant to last for they are made in sand. If I had wanted them to be forever, I would have carved them in stone or laid them out with bones on the walls. As it is, creating the patterns is more important than keeping them. If you look carefully, you will also notice that your footsteps turn the patterns into different patterns, causing them to come to life."

The apprentice had nodded that he understood.

"The other important thing to remember about these patterns is that the villagers believe that they have some mystic importance. This is important because, as long as the shaman does things that the villagers do not understand, they will keep him in higher regard than they would if they understood him completely. After all, if they knew everything I know, they would have no need for me anymore and would most likely dispose of me since I would be useless to the community."

Once again, the apprentice had nodded, although this time he'd had a question on his mind. The shaman had noticed this and told him that, if he wanted an answer, he would have to ask the question.

"But why does the village need a shaman, if anyone would be capable of performing your tasks?"

"Why does the village need specialized fishermen? Anyone could go out to the shores of one of the lakes and catch fish. Why does the village need specialized washerwomen? Anyone could do the laundry, yet everyone in the village comes to them with their dirty clothes. Likewise, someone needs to lead the village, heal the villagers when they are sick or injured, comfort them in times of need and provide them with a sense that there is something more than this existence."

The apprentice had nodded a third time, his question sufficiently answered. After that, he had replaced the sand and the shaman had started creating another pattern on the floor while the apprentice made their beds. They were two simple wooden beds filled with carpets and soft cushions, probably the most luxurious beds in the entire village as the rest of the villagers had to sleep on straw. Both the carpets and the cushions had been gifts from traders from other villages who had spent the night here. It was custom to offer the shaman of any village a small gift as a token of gratitude for received hospitality from the villagers under his care.

Aside from the table, two chairs and a few cabinets, they were the only furniture in the hut. There was no need for any other furniture, neither in the shaman's hut nor in any of the other huts in the village.

Some remains of last day’s rituals were still lying around and the apprentice cleaned them up. Several of the villagers had come by seeking advice. Many of this advice had been given through obscure rituals, most of which the apprentice had already learned. The shaman had been right, he was nearly ready to become a shaman himself, yet the thought saddened him. It meant that, if the shaman continued living, the apprentice would have to kill him on the day he felt ready for it. The shaman, however, had been a good teacher and had become a valued friend. It was a pity that a village could have only one shaman at a time. Suddenly a thought struck him.

I could leave. I could just walk away and start a new village, perhaps even not too far from here. The shaman could go on living and we could visit on occasion in order to have more discussions.

Practical considerations immediately fell into his mind, however. The shaman had taught him to think everything through and consider all possible consequences instead of simply acting on whatever idea struck him.

But a village requires people. Where shall I find those? I can't just ask the villagers here to come with me, that would be as bad as killing the shaman as he would be left without a village. Perhaps I could simply seek out another village in the area which requires a shaman. It is well known that sometimes a shaman dies before his apprentice is ready. Surely having a shaman come from another village which has two would be a better solution than killing one shaman and leaving another village with a shaman who is only half-trained?

He thought about it for a while, liking the idea more and more, until another thought interrupted his ideas.

No, it wouldn't work. That would mean this village would be left without an apprentice shaman, so when the shaman does die there would be nobody to take his place, dooming the village. Although ... if I were to continue training the apprentice in the other village I might be able to return.

The moment he thought that, he could almost hear the shamans voice interrupting him.

"That would be a foolish thing to do. The people here would have seen you leave and would have barred you from both their minds and their hearts as their shaman. They would not accept you again. Instead, you would be an outcast, a hermit, unable to influence them for they would attach no value to your words anymore. Moving to the other village to continue training their apprentice would be an equally foolish thing to do for mostly the same reason : the people there have never heard you, have never had a chance to accept you in either their minds or their hearts. To them, you would be nothing more than an intruder come to tell them what you believe is best for them without knowing what their lives are like before once again leaving them to their fate."

With a sad shake of his head, he left the hut and got to work in the garden, discarding the ideas as he stepped through the door.

Perhaps the way things are now really is the only possible way for them to be.

He spent some time weeding the garden. Although the shaman had taught him that all herbs are good herbs and are useful in some way, unknown though it might be, there were certain plants which he did not want growing in his garden.

"It would be foolish to grow plants which you have no use for but which would destroy other, more useful herbs."

He enjoyed the work so the morning passed faster than he liked. He sat down for a simple lunch before he sat on the ground in front of the fire, staring into it as the shaman would do to clear his mind. It wasn't long before the first knock on the door came. He waited a few moments to let the uncertainty of the visitor grow before raising his voice without looking away from the flames.

"Enter."

A young woman walked in. He knew her, just as he knew everyone else in the village. She was the daughter of a fisherman, and madly in love with the son of a carpenter who was not interested in her. All of this passed through his mind as he watched her reflection in a strategically placed metal bowl on the ground. He let the silence stretch for a while after she'd closed the door before nodding.

"Apprentice, I have come to seek advice."

"Yet the shaman has given you advice on this very matter only three days ago."

It really isn't that hard, the apprentice thought as he saw the reflection of her face take on a surprised expression. Her infatuation is the only thing on her mind, so of course there is no other subject she would come seeking advice about. I shall not be an apprentice much longer.

A pang of sadness shot through him with that last thought, but he did not let it show.

"Indeed, apprentice, but I was hoping that he might have discovered something new, something which would enable him to offer me different advice. I did not know that he would not be here."

"I shall act in his stead."

The apprentice stared into the fire a little more, letting his hand make little patterns in the sand on the ground next to him. When he saw that she was uncomfortable enough to take his advice without protesting he stopped and pretended to study the patterns.

It's nothing but trickery and some herbal lore, is it? The patterns mean nothing, the advice is just common sense. Still, if she will accept it and find satisfaction, I have lived up to the expectations and she will continue with her life.

"The advice is still the same. If he is not interested in you, it would be in both of your best interests to forget about him. Let him out of your heart and, in doing so, set yourself free. Open yourself up for someone else, someone who is as interested in you as you are in him."

Why does most of the advice the villagers seek have to do with matters of the heart? One would think that they would at least be able to sort out their own desires and wishes. If they cannot do it for themselves, why do they expect that I can?

For a brief moment the woman looked as if she was going to argue and he wondered whether he should have kept her waiting a little longer. Then she just nodded, placed her donation on the table and left.

Almost immediately after she left there was another knock at the door. This surprised the apprentice: normally the villagers left some time between visits to allow the shaman to prepare himself for the next person to come seeking his advice or aid. He decided not to make this one wait. Either he would come seeking advice and expect to be kept waiting, which would keep him off-balance, or there would be an urgent situation which required the shaman's immediate presence. Either way, keeping the visitor waiting would not achieve anything. In the reflection of the bowl he saw the object of the woman's infatuation entering. The expression on his face made the apprentice stand up and turn around.

"Is it your father?"

The chance of there being something wrong with his father is big enough to hazard the guess. He wouldn't be so distressed otherwise.

The man nodded, immediately launching into a barrage of words.

"He slipped with one of his chisels and took his thumb off! There's blood and he's holding his finger in his other hand! Apprentice, please, is there anything you can do to help him?"

The apprentice simply nodded, grabbed a bag which always lay prepared and motioned for the man to lead the way. He briefly wondered whether this would be a good opportunity to point out the fisherman's daughter but immediately decided against it. It would not only be a horrible time to do so, it was not his place to meddle in such things. It was always best to let nature run its course.

When they got to the carpenter's hut, the man was sitting in front of it, looking quite calm, if rather pale, for a man who had just cut off his thumb. When he saw the apprentice approach, he nodded respectfully and opened his right hand, revealing the thumb he was holding in it.

"I have made sure not to lose it, apprentice."

"Very good. As you know I cannot guarantee that it will grow back. If it is not meant to be, nothing I can do will change that. I did bring some herbs which will aid the binding of your thumb to your hand. Please bring me a pot with warm water."

The last words were directed to the carpenter's son while the apprentice knelt in front of the carpenter and, feeling more certain of himself than he ever would have thought possible, took the thumb from him. While they were waiting for the water he took a leaf from his bag and gently rubbed it over the part where it had been cut off, moving his lips as if he was intoning something.

If he believes it will grow back, the chance of it happening will be that much bigger. Cleaning the wound will only help and making him think I'm performing a ritual which involves a spirit can only bolster his belief.

When he was finished with the thumb, he took the man's left hand, removed the crude bandages around it and started cleaning the wound there in the same way with a new leaf, once again moving his lips in a silent litany. When the carpenter's son approached with a pot of water he calmly finished the cleaning and produced a pouch from his bag. He emptied its contents into the water and watched as the powder dissipated. When he stuck his fingers into the water he had to fight the urge to pull them back as the water was hotter than he had expected. With some effort he managed to keep his face straight and stirred a little until the water had taken on a greyish colour. He submerged the thumb and asked the carpenter to put his hand in the water as well. When the man did so, he yelped in surprise but managed not to pull back his hand.

Good. In his mind I cannot be hurt by mere hot water from now on. The notion will eventually spread through the village.

When he was satisfied that both the thumb and the hand had soaked for long enough he made the carpenter pull out his hand and placed the thumb against the stump. He carefully wound a new bandage around it, securing the thumb firmly in place.

"There is nothing more I can do for you. The rest of the healing process is up to the spirits and to your own body."

"I understand. Thank you, apprentice. Our donation to you is nearly finished; my son shall bring it to your hut later today."

The apprentice nodded, knowing it would happen exactly as the man had said. Nobody in their right mind would dare to break a promise to the shaman or, as a consequence, a promise to his apprentice. He returned to his hut to spend the rest of the day in meditation. The only interruption was the carpenter's son bringing him a small, exquisitely decorated table which he placed beside the door for people to leave their donations on.

When the shaman still had not returned the next morning, the apprentice realized that something was wrong. Since he couldn't leave the village himself he decided to send out the first person who came seeking his advice that day. He didn't have to wait long : one of the traders visited him shortly after sunrise.

"Apprentice, I was planning to travel one of the nearby villages today with a cartload of furniture but I had troubling dreams last night. I believe they were trying to warn me to stay here."

"Tell me about these dreams."

"I dreamt that I was traveling with a cart of furniture, on my own, without wondering where my usual company was. When I came to the shelter halfway between the villages I wanted to stop and rest but I couldn't seem to approach it. Both my legs and my mule seemed to have decided that I needed to get to my destination as quickly as possible, without stopping along the way. I glanced at the shelter but I could only vaguely see it as it seemed to be trying to avoid my gaze. When I looked at it from the corners of my eyes I could see it a little more clearly, however. There seemed to be a few people there, but I couldn't really make them out."

The apprentice interrupted him.

"Did you make it to your destination in this dream of yours?"

"I don't know, apprentice. I woke up when I tried to count the people in the shelter."

"Then here is what you will do. You will set out as you were planning to, but will not take any wares with you. Ask your usual companions to come with you, also without their wares. You will seek out the shelter, see what is there and return to tell me about it. Even if there is nothing out of the ordinary there, you will return to tell me. Whatever you see there, do not touch it, no matter what it is. This is very important: do not touch anything in the shelter. I shall require no donation of you this time if you follow these instructions."

The trader left the hut to go and gather his companions. It would be at least two days before they returned with news. Deep down, the apprentice felt anxious to hear about what the trader would find at the shelter but he managed to control his impatience. He spent the two days doing his usual chores: taking care of the garden, keeping the hut clean and giving villagers advice whenever they sought him out.

When the trader finally returned the apprentice was certain that he would bring sad news about the previous shaman. In spite of his eagerness to hear the news, he made the trader wait for a while before admitting him into the hut. He didn't even have to look at the man's face to know that what he had seen had disturbed him greatly.

"You have seen things you wish you could forget. You will dream about them for nights to come. This is the best way to deal with them. Do not try to force them from your mind, for only by facing them can you leave them behind you. Tell me about them."

"There were three of them. They were just sitting there, sitting and staring at something that looked like the remains of a campfire. They didn't move, they didn't even breathe! I didn’t have to get very close to them to feel that they were all radiating cold. I didn't linger because I could feel the cold starting to affect me as soon as I got close, so I headed straight back to the village."

"They were shamans, all three of them?"

The surprise on the trader's face told him that he was right.

"That shelter is not to be used anymore. The trade routes shall be changed in order to go around it. As soon as you get to one of the other villagers, you shall inform their shamans of my decision. If they have not already decided the same thing, I am sure they will agree with me when you tell them what you have told me."

"It shall be as you say, shaman."

When the trader had left, the new shaman sat staring into the fire for quite a while.


Category: Stories
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