He walked purposefully to the top of the dune to take a closer look at the strange formation he had spotted earlier. It looked a little like the bones of four elk legs were reaching up to the roof of the world. But as Onaway got closer, he could see that while this was no elk, he had no clue regarding what it was.
Onaway was on his rite of passage quest. Every male member of the Wapiti had to survive for five days in the desert on his own upon reaching the age when he could participate in tribal matters as an adult. Most of those who set out on this mission survived. Onaway was on the verge of completing his fifth day and night, and it seemed to him likely that he would make it as well.
There were still dangers to face. There was a story about a cowboy out here who had a horse die on him. Another story was about a desert nomad who identified with the dead horse in some way. And from the depths of his childhood memory, Onaway half remembered the cautionary tale of a foreigner trying to fly away. The ghosts of the past mingled with the spirits of his ancestors and gave this strange place an eerie feeling.
This feeling sharpened as Onaway noticed the sun diving into the ground. This time of year was in the middle of the summer, and the rising and setting of the sun occurred much more quickly at this time than at any other time of year. Onaway quickly unrolled his blanket and laid it out on the sand. He sat cross-legged by it for a few minutes giving his devotations to the Great Spirits. Then, at peace with himself and his god, he stretched out for the night on his blanket.
But sleep did not come. He was still too restless and unsettled from his four days and nights in the desert. And just as it seemed that he had finally reached that state where sleep was welcome to overtake him, the stars began to shine brilliantly overhead. He identified first with the collection of stars which formed the great bow. It was easy to see where it had launched the arrow which had pierced the great elk in the sky. Even though the sun was set, there was still a glow on the horizon where it had been, but even so the stream of white blood from the wounded elk flowed across the sky.
Onaway was troubled by wavering faith. He had heard that others felt that the elk’s white blood was instead a heavenly river of holy water, separating the dark hereafter from the afterlife of light. There was also the unsettling thought that the white band across the sky was actually mother’s milk for a strange menagerie of beasts that were not part of his understanding of that world. He had heard, for example, that the mighty bow was thought by some to be a dragon with great, translucent wings. It was not clear to Onaway what the dragon was doing, or even why there should be a dragon in the sky at all.
But most unsettling was that apparently there were some who did not see the celestial elk at all. In its place was a wagon, or a gourd, or a chariot, or a rickshaw, or even a bear. Onaway had to squint his eyes and even then he could not see how that grouping of stars could be a bear. He figuratively shrugged his shoulders. (He was too tired to actually shrug them.) He guessed that once there was someone who saw the group of stars as a bear. This person had taught others to see the bear and they had taught still more until a large group of people could only see a bear. Somehow, this understanding made Onaway feel better even if it did little to calm his doubts about his faith.
So Onaway fell into a fitfull sleep on his fifth and last night of his rite of passage. During the night his eyeballs rippled under his eyelids as he dreamed of bears and dragons and elk. He woke as the first rays of the rising sun struck his eyelids. As Onaway struggled to regain his waking senses, he reflected back to his musings of the previous night beneath the stars. It began to dawn on him that the reflection (he thought of it as a meditation) had begun to restore his faith. It didn’t matter that others saw a dragon where he saw a bow. It didn’t matter that others saw a bear where he saw an elk. All they had to do was look with an untainted eye to see what was really there.
Onaway was to meet his family in the nearest town. He would be escorted back to his village where he would be given the honors accorded to an adult. And now he understood what the five day mission was for. It was to give him a wider vision of how different people saw the world around them and at the same time to refresh his strenght in his faith. Onaway laughed at himself for wondering how others could see a bear in the sky. With vision untainted with what he was supposed to see, it was clearly an elk up there. And a bow and arrow. And the white blood flowing across the sky. The clouds had been lifted from his eyes.
Onaway paused to give thanks to the Great Spirits for giving their enlightenment to him. It took special wisdom that only they had to make it clear to him that the signature star group of his family was an elk rather than something else. They had done this for him when he had never seen an elk.
Onaway put the last of his water and a few pieces of dried meat on his blanket. He took his time in rolling up his blanket and tucking it under his arms. He was anxious to meet his family and then to take his place as an adult among them, but he also wanted to savor his stronger faith. He took a long and deep breath, and then let it out slowly. If he had looked at the southern horizon, he would have seen a flash of light, but he missed it. He started out on the last leg of his pilgrimage and headed toward the town of Jackknife.
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