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The Rite Stuff

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Jim watched as the two adversaries faced the man who would decide his fate. He tried his best to understand their words and caught the gist. One man spoke for him, the other against.

"This man will bring trouble by being here. His injuries are repaired. He is strong enough to make his own way now.  We should expel him.  He is not of the tribe." Nanto, the man who spoke against Jim, said.

Incacha, his advocate, spoke next. "He is alone; his fellow warriors have been killed.  He is strong and could be useful.  Our test of manhood will show whether he is worthy to be one of us.  If he passes, he will be one of the tribe; if he fails, he will be dead and no longer a problem."

There was a murmur from the crowd who had gathered to listen to the arguments.  Although they spoke softly, Jim could hear them; he just had trouble understanding the words.  It seemed there was support for both sides.  The women who had tended him and whom he'd started helping with chores seemed supportive; the men less so.  The chief, who'd been listening, stood up. There was immediate silence.

"Incacha's words ring true," he said gravely. "Our test, although normally applied to boys who seek to be warriors, can be used here.  Take him away and explain the rite. He may choose to take the test, or he must leave."  With a wave of his hand the crowd dispersed.


A group of warriors surrounded Jim as Nanto explained the test.  Jim would be left somewhere in the forest, where he had to survive for five days. Then he had to find his way to the village and bring back food.  Not necessarily enough to feed the entire tribe, but enough to be considered a good hunter.  He would have only a knife to help him. He would leave with the men taking him to the starting point after the evening meal. Better chance to confuse me in the dark.

As Jim listened to the vague parameters, he recognized that young boys probably were required to do less to pass this first rite of passage.  Perhaps survive fewer days, or bring back less bounty.  He knew he would have to out-perform to be accepted by doubters such as Nanto. He was already thinking of the various animals he'd seen the women preparing for meals--birds, snakes, guinea pigs and some larger chunks of meat he couldn't identify. Prior to deploying, he'd been briefed on the more exotic foods he might be required to eat, such as monkeys, to be accepted by the locals.

Incacha pulled him aside. "You must use all your skills, everything you've learned here, to succeed. You must have faith in yourself."  He put his hand on Jim's shoulder, then left with the others.

Jim went down to the river, as much to have time to think alone as to get one last bath.  Who knew when the next one would be?  As he moved easily through the water, he thought on Incacha's words.  Surely, he'd been able to communicate that he was a soldier and, as such, had good training and skills.  But Incacha had added the words "everything you've learned here".  What had he learned as he recuperated?  He hadn't been allowed out with the hunting parties--they didn't trust him to be helpful.  Perhaps they think I'd scare away the game.  Instead, Incacha had pushed him toward the women.  Having an exotic outsider--and a man at that--in their midst made them curious and open.  They'd shown him how they made clothes, prepared food, even how to make a fire if necessary.  Incacha had taken him on walks, gathering herbs for healing (different from the cooking herbs the women used) and showed him which snakes were venomous.  On another day, they climbed a tree to capture a tiny frog.  Incacha had rubbed the tips of his darts on the frog's skin, explaining that it was a powerful poison they used to bring down game.  Always, always, Incacha prodded him to smell, to listen, to look beyond what he thought possible.

He remembered that, as a kid, he used to use his senses more.  He remembered smelling Sally's pot roast and knowing when Steven was on his way home from down the street.  When did he stop using them?  When did they become less sharp?  Incacha had called him "sentinel".  It didn't have any real meaning, other than in the military sense, but he got that Incacha recognized that he was special, and much of it was because of the senses.

*****

The men had left, some giving him an encouraging pat.  He decided not to stray too far that night; better to start fresh in the morning.  He gathered branches and fronds to lay on, to keep him off the ground; he could bundle them up and take them with him when he left.  Since he could still see well enough, even in the gloom of the forest, he looked around, noticing some of the healing herbs Incacha used.  He tucked some into his camo pants pocket.  He sat on his mat and closed his eyes, listening.  He heard moving water, perhaps a nearby stream.  He'd investigate tomorrow. He heard the songs of birds in the trees as they settled for the night, but no animals closer. Probably scared away by the men.  He switched to smell.

He was getting used to the cornucopia of smells of the forest, both when humans were in it and not.  Incacha kept telling him he could find a specific smell by identifying other smells and ignoring them.  He remembered a strong-smelling herb the women used in cooking; something like fennel. He tried finding it by first ignoring fresh leaves, then decomposing ones, then bird feathers and droppings. One by one he identified and eliminated what he wasn't looking for.  Finally, he thought he caught it--just a whiff.  He stood up and did a slow-motion pirouette, trying to find a direction.  Got it, he thought excitedly.  He carefully made his way to the plant with lacy stems. Smiling, he picked a nice bunch and stuffed them in a different pocket.  If--when--he found food tomorrow, this would make it more palatable.

As he made his way back to his camp, a glint caught his eye--something was out of place.  He bent down to find a treasure: an old piece of flint. Unable to believe his luck, he pocketed the stone.  He didn't need to start a fire for warmth, but it would come in handy to cook and preserve food.  As he lay on his bed, he wondered about the stone.  Perhaps it was lost by someone in a hunting party; it was obvious this place was used often, either for the rites or as a jumping off point to longer hunting forays.  Or, perhaps, it was left on purpose; something that one of the boys going through the rite might find and use.  Jim smiled at that thought.  A bit of kindness to make a difficult life less difficult.  Even though he didn't feel tired, it wasn't long before the hum of insects lulled him to sleep.  

*****

Jim woke with the light and unfurled his hearing to take stock.  Nothing of alarm in the immediate area.  He stripped and inspected his body, making sure no critters had taken harbor during the night.  As he dressed and packed up his bedding, he decided he was hungry, but not enough to start eating grubs.  He'd try his hand at hunting today.  But first, water.

It was a nearby stream he'd heard.  Clean and cold.  He saw some small fish and decided to try to catch some before disturbing the water by drinking or bathing.  Straddling the stream with his long legs, he held still and watched until a few came near.  His first scoop missed and scattered the fish.  He patiently waited and, on his next try, he cupped a fish and tossed it onto the bank.  Deciding it was enough for breakfast, he quickly killed it, cleaning it downstream.  Sushi, he thought, as he ate the fish.  It didn't have much flavor, but it satisfied his hunger.  He washed his hands and knife, then drank his fill.  Since he needed to survive for five days, he decided this would make a good base of operations. Animals might come to drink and there were probably edible plants here.  He could practice his fire-making skills.  He'd also make a travois to carry back the required food for the tribe.  Satisfied with his plan, Jim decided to patrol his perimeter.

*****

Three days later, Jim was happy with his progress.  Instead of casting around trying to find game, he'd worked on his hunting skills and tools.  He'd been able to start a fire and had gathered as much dry brush as he could find.  He'd tried to make a bow and arrow, but couldn't remember enough to construct one.  Instead, he focused on darts.

Jim dispatched a hapless bird who had flown too close with a well-thrown rock. He'd roasted the bird with some of the cooking herbs and saved the feathers.  He'd whittled a nice selection of slender darts.  He'd found a hollow branch that was straight enough, although not very long, to use as a blow gun.  Then he'd practiced, first blowing out the darts without feathers, then attaching them in different formations, trying to find the trick to making them fly true.  In his mind's eye, he could see Incacha's, and did his best to imitate them.  After hours of practice, he had a collection of half a dozen darts that would go more or less where he blew them.  The next part was trickier.

Using his sense of smell, he located the tree frogs, wrinkling his nose at the acrid poison.  He gently stroked the darts on the backs of the frogs, then carefully placed them in a quiver he'd fashioned out of leaves.  He was ready for the big hunt.

During those days, he'd continued to eat easily accessible food.  The fish usually served for breakfast. He'd set traps and caught a couple of guinea pigs, which he'd roasted.  He'd even killed and eaten a snake, carefully saving the skin.  But, all the time, he was surveying the area for larger game that he would bring back for the tribe.  On the second day, he'd found a likely target--a group of capybaras.

The group was quite large, with males and females, some pregnant and some nursing their young.  He decided that two males would be enough to pass the test. He scoped out their habits, deciding on which two would least affect their tribe.  He knew he wouldn't get a second chance if he missed, which was why he had taken so much time to practice with the darts.  In the early morning of the fifth day, he woke at dawn and crept up to the sleeping herd.  He identified his quarry and struck each with a dart while they slept.  An hour later, he listened, trying to separate the sounds to see if the two were dead, but It was beyond him; there were just too many heartbeats.  He decided to wait another hour, then made noise to scatter the herd.  Sure enough, the two lay still.  He dragged them one at a time back to the stream, where he went through the unpleasant process of cleaning and skinning the animals.  He left the carcasses whole, but wrapped the offal separately in wet leaves.  He packed everything on the travois and covered it with more wet leaves.  He lashed it all with vines and set off unerringly for the village.

*****

He smiled as he heard excited voices.  Some of the boys had been set as lookouts to wait for him; they were already spreading the word.  Suddenly, there were Chopec all around him, pulling him away and exposing the contents of the travois.  Men carried the large carcasses to the center of the village; the women picked up the organs, nodding their approval, and headed to the cooking pots.

Minutes later, he stood before the chief, who was flanked by Nanto and Incacha with the entire village encircling them.  Jim was conscious of his appearance; he was sweaty from the long, hard trek and his clothes were covered with bits of dried blood and fur. He'd have preferred a bath and fresh uniform before facing his fate.

Incacha came to stand before him, holding out his hands for Jim's blowpipe and quiver of darts. Jim warned him as best he could about the poison tips, and Incacha smiled as he took them.  Then Incacha demanded that he empty his pockets.  Along with the knife, he handed over the herbs and flint. Incacha nodded his approval at the collection, then held them up for all to see. He brought them to the chief, who nodded and spoke. "According to our laws, this man has passed our tests and become part of the tribe. Today, Enqueri is a man of the Chopec."

Jim looked quizzically at Incacha, who smiled again.  "While you were gone, I had a vision. When you returned we would give you a new name.  You are now Enqueri." He then raised his voice so all could hear.  "Enqueri… our sentinel."

With that pronouncement, Jim was led away to the river to bathe. When he returned in a new outfit he was given a place of honor at the table.  Incacha drew ink patterns on his arms and face, all the while men and women approached him, touching him in approval and welcome.  After, he was given a stew of capybara heart.  He didn't know what his life would be like, but he knew he was no longer alone; he was part of a new tribe.

*****

"Chief, what's this?" Jim asked.  It was a lazy Saturday afternoon.  They'd made love all morning, then showered and did laundry and other mundane chores.  They were getting ready to go out to dinner and Jim was poking through Blair's jewelry box, trying to find his favorite earring. He held up a sliver of bone. As Jim looked closer, he saw a pattern of slender scratches, like scrimshaw.

Blair looked over from where he was tucking in his shirt. "Oh, that," he said with a smile.  "My initiation into a tribe.  When I told them Jews were prohibited from tattooing, the chief had that made and pierced my ear with it."  He looked at it fondly.  "My first earring.  Hurt like hell, but I had to do it. Rite of passage, you know?"

Jim smiled.  "Yeah, I know."  He put the bone back in the box and picked out the sapphire stud he'd gotten Blair for his birthday.  He handed it to Blair.  "Ready to go?"    

~~the end~~