Sit Down in This Circle
The brothers call me with the beat of their drum. They call me to return.
I pull with a weary hand through the threshold. From bright blazing sun to the cave. I enter to smoke, to fire burning in the hearth against the wall, a circle of wide flat stones embedded in the ground. Brothers sit, hands in lap. Brothers lay long as if in supine relaxation. Brothers stand amongst themselves with a deep look etched into their weathered faces.
And two brothers call me with the beat of their drum.
The rhythm pounds in my ears. Each with a smooth stick, the ends wrapped in coils of soft leather. These slam like lightning into stretched buffalo hide. There is a ripple on the surface, continuous.
I am transfixed and edge closer. The storm is summoned, with it the dense black of oncoming night, the peal of magic, and a shade, in like the crisp light of dawn, through the cracked cave door comes.
In the space of a breath and with no warning, the drumming brothers cease the beat. There is sweetness in the silence.
Then the drumming brothers yell Let us dance! and pound once more, in time, like the stir of antelope across a faraway plain. It is old flesh made into the hot honey gold of sound.
The brothers, they ask more of me with this. Not only to listen for the call from distant lands, to leave a life tending herbs, brushing coats of braying lambs; not only to enter the cave after the journey, weary and in need of sleep. But to find my body in this place. There is the old pain in the deep seat of my back. It yawns each morning into a bite, and whispers at me now. There is the wound at the center of my belly. A white wolf got a mouthful of teeth into the skin there, shredded the fingertips of my boy, who was playing in a meadow. There is the shattered bone of my left ankle, which an antlered shaman from the plateau desert set. The poultice is out there, on the road to this place. I no longer carry it.
They ask more of me now—for movement, for dance. It is a cold stone turned swiftly over; a coal burning on the other side.
To stand tall as a man under the storm of thunder and swift sticks of lightning is to embody the call. The brothers move, one by one. Each begins to sway. I stand, I find myself willing, and I let the pieces of my body go. The shade watches me from the wall.
Is it a vision? I wonder.
But I have begun, and I go. I feel the dance in myself, the gentleness of my hips. Soft grace, sweet woman, the arch of skin. And I move, move into the heavy breath of the beat.
The flame flickers against the hearthstone wall and I shut my eyes. The darkness is womb. My hands come up to my sides and spread out. The bird in me opens, shoulders cracking, each tip of each finger like a fan of flame from the heartfire and I dance. To the rhythm there is surrender and I dance. For the deep earth I dance. For my father I dance. For love I dance. And for you I dance.
For you I dance, and out pours the shrieking cry of a hawk. My eyes snap open: each brother with bodies undulating, faces wild, their shadow animals walking the walls. Another cry comes, and a growl; each is the noise of the being that lives inside, the beast with claws. The eagle shriek leaps again from my throat, seizes the air. Each of us expels our dark pleasure as the drumming brothers pound the buffalo hide.
The climax comes, and the groan.
The dust of it settles.
There is a water pause.
In the space I can hear the fire snap. Wind scratches against the cave walls. One drumming brother, the elder, with the grey beard, looks each man in the eye.
"Sit down in this circle," he says.
The beckoning stirs something inside. It is my nature, our nature, to want the final seat that completes a simple circle of brothers; to be asked to join; to rest the whole of ourselves in the safety of another, even if just for a moment.
Wild fear runs through my heart, too. It is the shade that crawls the wall, the tightness in my chest. We fear the things we love. Even in the midst of that which is most sacred such fear rears, a stallion with frantic breath.
To the wide stone slabs the men flock. I am last. In sitting I look to the wall where the shade perches, hands and feet and tail and dark-crowned head flat against the rock. It has stolen my voice, and I move my eyes to the circle.
"Why are you here?" The elder asks.
He looks into me as he speaks, a full-breath pause, then roams his old grey eyes in an arc.
"Why are you here?" He asks another.
There are tales from every man's mouth. The call came to some as a whistle across many miles; to some, the deep and unending bass of a thousand beating drums. Some found it inside their chest one morning, lodged, and rose to seek its origin. Blood leaked in a dozen trails here. Families were left, love was lost. Time, as we reached the tender peaks of the final pass, slipped out and away, settling like a blanket to reap and sow those lands below.
While they speak I listen, but my sight is transfixed by the shade on the wall. Like a lizard it rests, still, bright white points along an inky back. It exists without breath and I find its eyes only when my own drift back into the circle.
Each man the elder asks; each man's answer an echo of the sorrow and search. He comes once more to me. He says again,
"Why are you here?"
I look to the wall and find the shade has moved; I cannot see it. I turn back to the elder.
"The mystic sense of seeking calls me to the cave," I say.
"What of the mystic?" he asks.
"There has always been magic in the sky," I say.
"You seek the stars?"
"I seek the words the stars wish to speak," I say. "I seek the wisdom of their light and years. I seek their purpose, so that I might know what they seek."
The elder's grey beard parts and he grins; a laugh emanates from his belly and throat and his eyes are alight.
After a long while he says, "Fear will break your wings."
He looks through me and I turn.
The shade looms. Its tail sways high in the cave. It cocks its head to one side as if to ponder me.
"Through any crack, however small, can fear come slithering in," the elder says. "Yet cracks are how the light comes in. What does it want?"
"It asks me not to look upon their light," I say, still turned, watching the shade, its shadows dripping into the crevices of the rock wall. "It wakes me in night. It whispers in my ear the small and petty things I cannot bear to hear. It promises warmth and sleep. Do you know its voice?"
I cannot turn away from the shade, and my voice trembles. I hear the brothers rise up, I hear them crowd behind. They murmur, a warm rush of deep voices.
"When we hold fear," the elder says, reaching out to grip my shoulder, "we are stronger for it. When we know fear for what it is," he says, "it no longer holds us."
My body shakes in the face of the shade. I see at the corners of my being long, shadowy fingers reaching up. There is a softness to the shade's face, a warmth no fire or sun or body can bring.
"Grip it firmly and lovingly," the elder says.
I reach out. My hands interlace with its fingers. It is like holding hands with embers.
"Pull it closer."
I swallow, close my eyes and pull the shade to me. Everything that is dark wells up inside: Sita carrying wheat on her back by the river, the cream-colored pearl on the grave of my father, the grasp of my mother as she begs me to stay, to be here, to never leave; how many years did it take to reach this cave, how much love did I leave, what of my sisters and their husbands, what of my brothers and their pride; what is the path one seeks alone when the world wants them to stay?
I am crying the river. The shade is there, pressing its lips against my cheek.
The brothers move to make a wall of my back. I am without space, pushed into the dark figure that wishes upon me the failure of a thousand years, pushed into the sacred circle of men and their wisdom.
I am crying the river, and I know I must open my eyes to see the world like this.
Daniel Zweier is an outdoor editor and writer based in Ventura, California. He enjoys green tea, dawn surf, and endlessly plugging away at his novel.