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Praying With Fire


The old man poked at the fire with a stick. It was all he could do to keep it going through the chill night – he would have sacrificed the stick itself, but it was the last bit of wood he could find in the bushveld, and they were miles from the nearest tree.
No matter. A night of hardship under the cold stars was necessary training for a shaman, and the boy in front of him would be spared no lesson, even if the old man wished that the teacher could be. He hunched in closer to the shrinking tongues.
“What is the power, boy?” he asked.
The child straightened his back against the cold, determined not to be seen weak in front of his master. He fingered the small pouch tied around his waist.
“The power is the bones, Ubaba,” he said.
“How so?”
The child hesitated.
“They ... know things, Ubaba,” he managed. “They tell us what will happen. Without them, we are nothing.”
The old man sucked the end of the stick for a moment, thoughtfully.
“The bones know spit, boy. They are just bones. Do you think they are special? There are lands far away from here where people read the future in leaves, in the stars, in palms and the insides of animals. Goats are not smart, boy. I doubt their insides would be different. The bones tell us what we know because we know how to read them. You can read anything, if you know how. Now, tell me. What is the power?”
The boy composed himself. After a moment’s thought he opened his hand and reached it forward into the heart of the fire. He removed it and held it out, a single tongue dancing in his palm, consuming nothing, but blazing brightly.
“The power is our control, Ubaba,” he said.
“How so?”
“We ... move things. We make the waters rise like snakes, we make the wind halt its dancing, we make the ground...” he paused for thought.
“...do stuff, yes, I get it.” The old man nodded. “Your poetry is admirable, but you are wrong. That is not the power, boy. That is the story. That is the lie to make people fear you and respect you. That is the show. That makes men scared and women weak. That is not the power.”
The old man looked into the child’s eyes, his own hazel pits burying deep into the boy’s soul, reading his thoughts, judging his character. Measuring his worth. He opened his mouth and breathed.
This is the power.”
And the world exploded.
There were no flashes, there were no flames, but all the same the world had changed suddenly and had changed dramatically. The fire between them was still flickering lamely, but their surroundings were now as balmy as summer. Sweat rolled down the child’s back and the yellow grass beneath him began to wilt in the overpowering heat.
“The real power is what we can do without show. No waving of the hands, no funny words in made-up languages. No. It is what we can make happen just by wanting it to happen.”
“I understand, Ubaba.”
“You do? I am glad.” The old man grinned. “Now, make me fear you.”
Uncertainty was not a shamanistic trait and the child asked no questions. He bent his head down and concentrated. The unearthly heat had faded, and the night’s cold had begun freezing the sweat on his skin. After a minute’s pause – after collecting his thoughts to the world around him, to the slight currents and whispers of the air, the crumbling of dying fuel and the insects and low gods creeping to the warmth of the flames – he lifted his head again and breathed out.
Chill vanished and the world flooded with warmth once more, the frost melting and continuing its slow journey downwards. The boy looked up at the old man and grinned. He was greeted by a scowl and a speeding palm.
“I said make me fear you!”
“Ubaba!” said the boy, rubbing his cheek where the bony hand had connected. “I used the power! You saw nothing!”
“My point! I saw nothing.” The old man shook the sting out of his fingers and his voice dropped to a whisper. He had been practicing it.
“You fear what you do not know, boy. You fear what you cannot see. But if you do not know what you cannot see, you cannot fear it. And if you cannot see what you do not know, it has no power!”
“But you said the power was outside of the show. The power was invisible!”
“It is. And it is not. You must show me what I do not understand if you want me to fear you. You might have the power to do without it, but I do not know that, do I? I have never seen it, because of the power’s true nature. No. For me to fear you, you must lift your hand and let fire fall from it like dirt. You will be tricking me. Yes, you will be fooling me. But my boy,” the old man leaned in closer, and the child saw a lively, cheeky glint in his eyes, “you will be scaring my bowels clean.”

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