Few considered her blindness as a curse. Most believed that Walks Looking had lost her sight at the behest of the Great Spirit for a nobler purpose that would be revealed in time. At the age of thirteen, as she stepped awkwardly from the comfort of childhood into the unknown realms of becoming a woman, Walks Looking often mused on the matter.
She had not been born blind; the accident that had stolen her sight had at least granted her a few years to make associations in her mind. She could visualise her father, for example, when he spoke in his sonorous rumble. She could picture everything about him as he had been, from the lines on his weathered face to the bunched knots of muscles of his forearms. Sometimes, she missed him; missed looking at him, but all she ever had to do to see him was remember.
In those early weeks after her sight was gone, Ghost Wolf had carried his daughter from place to place. Soon, however, his wives convinced him that the child would never learn to cope if she did not take the time and trouble to learn. As children are wont to do, she met the challenge with determination (if not more than a little fear) and amazed everyone with her ability to move around. She seemed able, somehow, to sense obstacles and avoid them. Within months, she was once more free as a bird, running with the other children who never treated her any differently.
She was a woman now, though, or at least that was what the medicine woman had told her. The pains low in her belly and the startling mood swings had frightened her at first, but the old woman’s reassurance that she was simply a bud who had bloomed into flower set her mind at rest. The moment her puberty was confirmed, the countdown had started to what all the children yearned for. Walks Looking had fed her thoughts and feelings on the matter for a good six months now and it was this matter that sat at the forefront of her mind now.
“The Great Spirit welcomes you. Walks Looking, you are now an adult and your heart beats as one with those of the People. Be your path that of the warrior, the priest or the hunter, today we will find where the Great Spirit guides you. Are you ready? Then say the words.”
“Walks Looking greets the Great Spirit with honour and joy in her heart.” The girl knelt and kissed the dusty ground. “The Great Spirit is my mother and father both. The Great Spirit is my protector. I swear that whichever path I take, I will protect in return. I am ready.”
The ritualistic nature of the greeting was a necessity, she understood that. It did not matter that the incumbent Spirit Priest was her maternal uncle and had once carried her on his shoulders as she had giggled and laughed and snatched at sunbeams. The formality of it all was sobering and she felt the solemnity touch her every bit as much as the heat from the fire touched her face.
“Sit, my dear, and we will continue.”
There was a faintly sweet smell in the air of the tipi, the smoke that curled through the vent in the top carrying the hint of burning herbs with which Walks Looking was very familiar. She inhaled deeply and moved from her kneeling position so that she sat cross-legged. The doeskin, fringed skirt that she wore pooled around her. The Spirit Priest considered the child – no, the woman – before him.
She was becoming as beautiful as her mother had been, but with a more serious air to her. Whether because of her blindness or in spite of it, Walks Looking possessed a seriousness that made her seem older than her thirteen years. One of the sleeves of her plain, undecorated blouse was pushed up over her elbow, the other long enough to cover her fingers.
The Priest smiled to himself. He knew great pride in guiding his own niece on her path today. Ghost Wolf would be pleased when his daughter’s path became clear. And when Ghost Wolf was pleased, the whole camp was happy.
“Breathe deeply, Walks Looking. Breathe from the centre of your body. Feel the blood flow in your veins. Listen for the rhythm of your heart and match your breathing until you are one with yourself.”
She did as he instructed, eager to commence, but the Spirit Priests was in no hurry. He encouraged her breathing for several minutes and then he began to speak in a low, soft and hypnotic voice. Combined with that, and her current state of relaxation – and the medicinal properties of the incense that he burned – Walks Looking found herself drifting into the world crafted by his words.
You stand alone at the edge of a vast forest, the trees offering cover and sanctuary to all who dwell in its heart. You hear the sound, close by, of falling water and you know that a river passes through this place. This is the realm of the animal spirits. You remember the blue of the sky, don’t you, Walks Looking? The sky is blue, the sun strong on your face. Here, the air that you breathe is purer than anything you have ever tasted.
She inhaled again and instead of the heavy incense, her lungs filled with the clean, crisp air of the spirit realm. Her heart skipped a beat or two and the voice pulled her back to her course.
As you approach the edge of the forest, a most curious sight greets you. Animals stand here. All animals, in harmony with one another and guided by the Great Spirit to welcome you. The deer stands beside the wolf. The hawk preens beside the prairie dog. All here is peace.
You watch them for a while, even as they watch you. You may think you are judging, choosing, selecting your own animal, but you are wrong. It is they who judge. As each reaches its decision, those who do not choose you turn and retreat to the sanctity of the forest.
The Spirit Priest did not lie. Even as she watched, the animals turned one at a time and walked away from her. She felt a pang of loss as each one left: the wolf, the deer, the coyote… even the hawk rose and soared beyond the trees.
A handful remain. One by one, they dwindle until you are left with the one who has chosen you. The animal who will shape the path you walk when you return to your own body. Consider the shape of your animal guide, Walks Looking. Study its form and shape. It will guide you.
Her uncle’s voice snapped her from the trance and she started, almost falling. His hands came out to stop her and she gripped his arms with gratitude. She felt faint and more than a little sick. She felt a bowl pressed into her hands and raised the water gratefully to her lips, drinking deeply. She became aware that her cheeks were damp.
“You weep, child.”
How could she put it into words? How to tell him that no animal remained? That none had deemed her worthy of patronage? The grief of that knowledge was all pervading and the trickle of tears became a flood. The Spirit Priest fought back the urge to hold the girl in his arms and comfort her as he had done in her childhood.
“You did not find your guide, did you?”
She shook her head. The Spirit Priest felt a sudden, inexplicable fear stab at his heart. But he rested his hand on her arm affectionately.
“Child, do not cry. It means nothing more than you were not ready. In time, you will come to know your spirit animal. And then the tears will be forgotten.”
His words were kind and they took some of the sting away from her heart, but as she gathered herself together, her mind could not shake the image of an entire menagerie of animals turning their backs on her and walking into the oppressive darkness of the spirit forest.