Cheeks

Standing in the middle of the tent, almost unable to breathe, he had to force his legs into motion. His movements were slow, deliberate, and terrified. His heart was racing in his chest but his mind was as clear as a morning sunrise. As he neared the exit of the tent he had to stop for a moment and feel his face to be sure. All his fingers felt was smooth skin. There was no imprint there, just like he had feared would happen. But he couldn’t believe it. He honestly could not believe it.

He had heard vague stories about this, always told late at night when the elders weren’t listening. He knew it was rare, but he had never dreamed this would happen to him. Or not happen might be a better way to say it. His spirit half couldn’t find him. He was alone. He would be alone forever. He was so clouded by something that he wasn’t able to get in touch with his other half. His heart skipped a beat at this thought. He took another step toward the entrance to his tent but his legs wouldn’t move anymore. He didn’t think he could face them, all the hopeful faces waiting to see the imprint on his face. The imprint that hadn’t appeared during his failure of a ceremony.

The ceremony had started long ago, with the original leader of the clan. It was a story that had been passed down from generation to generation. It was said that one day the original chieftain got lost in the woods while gravely injured. He was just beginning to give into the throes of despair when a wild horse stumbled upon him in the clearing he was dying in. To his unending shock, the horse did not run away from him. Instead it came closer and closer until he could see the whites of its eyes. The story says they must have stared into each others eyes for several minutes before the horse made its move. It must have seen something kind in the chieftain’s eyes because it stopped next to him and allowed the man to ride it back to his camp where he received treatment for his injuries. From that day on, the man and the horse were inseparable. Their bond stretched beyond this life and into the next.

After many years, the horse passed away from old age. The chieftain was heartbroken, until his son, who was just reaching the age of maturity, came to him with the imprint of a hoof on his check. The young man told a magical tale of waking up alone in the woods with the spirit of the horse next to him. The horse asked if his spirit could join the young man’s body and help to guide him through his life. The chieftain’s son accepted the horse’s offer and the horse then put his hoof against the young man’s cheek, creating the imprint that he carried from that day forward. The chieftain was overjoyed to find out that the horse that had saved him had joined with his son’s spirit.

The chieftain journeyed into the woods to the clearing his son had described. He wanted to stand on the holy ground and praise the horse spirit that had been in his life for so long. It soon became tradition that each chieftain would leave the clan during a young man’s birthday and venture into the woods to pray and praise the spirit halves he felt there. Over the years, more and more of the young men of the clan were joined in spirit to that of an animal. Eventually, the clan created a ceremony to celebrate this monumental occasion in a young man’s life.

The ceremony became more prestigious as time passed, but it always followed the same basic premise. A young man, a week before his fifteenth birthday, the age of maturity in the clan, would build a tent in the woods, in which he would be bonded with his spirit animal. The young men were thought to be guided to the location of their tent, and the materials with which to build it, by their future spirit animal. Each young man would then spend his birthday in the tent, bonding with his spirit half. The time it took to bond varied from boy to boy, depending on the bond they had with the animal in the physical world. But the boys always left with some kind of imprint of their spirit half on their cheek as a sign of the animal’s spirit entering into the body of the young man.

On a crisp autumn afternoon, while in the woods collecting sticks for his mother’s fire that night, he heard the crunching of leaves nearby. He ducked into a bush and waited for the sound to pass. He heard them before he saw them, two older boys from the clan, one of whom just received his spirit half. They were talking in quiet tones.

“It was strange. I thought I would be alone for the whole thing. But a spirit actually came. He had the shape of a man but the head of a fox. His body was unclothed but painted red, like the clay from the riverbeds down south. I always thought the spirit would be less…. solid…..”
“What did the spirit do to you? Were you scared?”
“The spirit told me to light a fire in the tent. He stood in the corner while I did it and I swear his eyes were possessed. They were so dark and soulless. Almost like…..” He trailed off.

“His eyes were like what?”

“I really shouldn’t talk about this”, he replied, with a nervous glance toward the woods around them. “He said I shouldn’t talk about it. He said he would know if I talked about it.” The boy’s panic started to increase with each phrase, his body shaking with fear.

“Well just finish your other statement. The waiting is killing me. Please.”
The boy took a deep breath before he responded. His voice was quieter than a mouse when he said, “His eyes looked like the chieftain after a fresh kill. Dark, soulless, dead. But with that gleam that makes us all want to run…. That’s all I’m going to say. We need to hurry up and finish. We’ve wasted too much time as is.”

He had never felt the call like the other boys had. They all talked about it, especially as their fifteenth year came closer and closer. As each boy reached the age of maturity, they found solace and companionship in an animal or nature in general. But he never found this solace or companionship anywhere or with anything. When he walked in nature, he felt nothing. He felt no connection to the plants or the animals around him. He was terrified by this lack of connection in his life. So he learned to fake it. He followed the pattern of the other boys, being careful to modify his version of their stories just enough so they wouldn’t be able to tell that the stories he told were actually their stories.

The week before his ceremony he did what all the other boys had done. He wandered through the woods, praying he would feel called to build his tent somewhere, anywhere. Or that he would feel called to build with something he found. After a solid day without a call from nature, he decided that he would just have to fake this too. He tried not to make a big deal about the place he decided to build his tent. Most of the boys were able to explain why they felt like their place was right. But he just mumbled something about it just feeling right when someone asked, all the while praying they wouldn’t dig any deeper. Although he got a couple of interesting looks from some of the older clan members, no one questioned the place he decided to call his.

The morning of his ceremony dawned, clear and bright, with birds singing in the woods and dew glistening on the grass. His mother was beyond thrilled for his ceremony. She prayed he would redeem their family name after the shame that was his older brother. When his father passed away a few years earlier, his brother gave up on their clan. Their father had been ill for a prolonged amount of time and his brother thought that the clan medicine man had not done enough to save him, seeing as he was too busy trying to prepare for the ceremonies that were happening that week.

Because his brother thought their father had passed away do to negligence based on being too preoccupied with the ceremony, he decided he wanted no part in the ceremony. The entire clan was horrified when his brother refused to look for a place to build his tent, but they all held out hope that his fifteenth birthday would come and he would be unable to resist his spirit half. The clan was rather shocked when they woke up on the morning of his brother’s fifteenth birthday to find the young man gone.

He and his mother had spent the past several years trying to recover from the shame of his brother running away. His brother’s name was shamed in their clan because of his actions. In fact, there were certain members of the clan, particularly among the elders, who refused to acknowledge them as part of the clan because of what his brother had done. He knew his mother was hoping that his ceremony would bring their small family back into the good graces of the entire clan. He was worried that he was going to disappoint her, all the while praying that his spirit half was just having trouble reaching him. He was hoping beyond hope that his fifteenth birthday would force his spirit half to come crashing into his life.

The ceremony itself had one downfall in their clan. If a young man failed to find a spirit half on his fifteenth birthday, he was deemed too damaged to be a significant part of the clan. He was given to the chieftain to do with as he willed. Most of the young men who failed to find a spirit half remained in the chieftain tent for one night, presumably to learn about how to survive in the world outside the clan, before being forced out of the clan forever. On rare occasions, the chieftain would take certain boys as his, using them to do menial chores for him and his family. These boys were particularly tight-lipped about what they did for the chieftain although their eyes always seemed to be darting around, either looking for a threat or an escape.

What terrified him even more then disappointing his mother were the rumors. They had been flitting around camp for weeks, growing in hideousness each time they were told. Each story was slightly different but they all had one main character. The chieftain. The only other repeating factor in the stories was the presence of a young man with the chieftain. In some stories the men left the chieftain’s tent with suspiciously red eyes and dried tear stains. In other stories, the they left his tent with blood stains on their clothing. But the young men always left his tent under the cover of darkness and it was an unspoken but well understood rule that no one was to ask about what happened in the chieftain’s tent. No matter what story was told, the boys of the camp had become increasingly wary of the chieftain, each of them wishing to remain out of his sight.

He finally worked up the willpower to move. Putting one shaking foot in front of the other, he lifted up the flap of his tent and went to face his clan. Blinking to adjust to the sudden influx of sunlight, he watched as, one by one, the faces of his clan members fell as they saw his cheek. He turned to look for his mother, hoping she would not hate him for his failure. She made eye contact with him and deliberately turned her back on him, making her opinion of his failure know. He felt something break inside him at that point, perhaps the last piece of hope he had left in his life leaving him.

He wanted to sink to his knees, wanted to break down and cry, mourn the loss of his family and his future, but he forced himself to remain upright and strong. He watched as his clan walked away, each member turning their back on him, turning their back on the memories they shared together. He couldn’t say he was surprised though. He would have done the same thing if he had been on the other side of this ceremony. The lack of a spirit half was too shameful to come back from. At this point, he knew his time with the clan was coming to a close.

In a short amount of time, the only person remaining in the clearing with him was the chieftain. “There is no imprint on you cheek,” the chieftain remarked, his voice cold and level.

“There is not,” he replied, a slight tremble in his voice. “I have failed to connect with my spirit half. If I even have one.” This was said with a slightly stronger tone.

“You know what this means, correct”

“Yes I do. When should I leave?”

“You will spend tonight in my tent. I will explain to you about surviving outside the clan, among other things. You will leave before the sun rises tomorrow morning. You may have the afternoon to say your goodbyes, if anyone wishes to speak to you. Be at my tent before the sun sets.”

“Yes Chieftain. I will be at your tent before the sun sets.”

As the chieftain walked away, the young man shivered, but not with cold. There was something about the chieftain, something about the glint in his eye, or perhaps the rumors he had heard, that made him dread going to his tent tonight.

He made his way back toward the camp, his dread mounting with every step. His former clan members refused to make eye contact with him, lowering their heads when they noticed him walking by. He felt his heart break a little every time one of his former friends walked by without saying anything. His family tent came into view and he hurried to it. Perhaps his mother would actually speak to him before he left. When he entered the tent, she was sitting by the fire pit, watching the glowing embers. Hearing the slight whisper of the entrance opening, she looked up and into the eyes of her remaining son.

“Why are you here? Haven’t you been banished by now?”

“The chieftain gave me until sunset to say my goodbyes to the clan. You’re the first person to actually talk to me.” His words were spoken with a calm he did not feel.

“You shouldn’t have come back. You failed me. Just like your father and brother. You’ve left me alone in the clan, alone to fend for myself. How am I going to survive the winter? There is no man left in my family to hunt for me. Will I have to survive solely on what I can pick for myself?”

“Mother. You know I didn’t mean to leave….”

“I have no interest in hearing your excuses. I must plan how I am going to live by myself. Maybe I shall just die. It might be easier. Take your stuff and leave. I have no need for it here. I will need all the space I can get to prepare for this winter”

He did not even try to argue with her. Once she set her mind to something, the woman was impossible to sway. He grabbed his bedroll and extra jerkin and paused a moment to take one last look around his old tent.

“Hurry up and get out. I no longer wish to see your face.” Although her words were cruel, her voice sounded broken and defeated.

He continued on his way to the entrance, pausing for a moment next to his mother. He laid a quick kiss on her cheek and noticed the glossy look of her eyes. As he exited the tent for the last time, he pretend not to notice the streaks down her face or the gentle shaking of her shoulders, wanting to let her mourn his leaving in peace.

Looking at the sky as he left the tent, he tried to judge how much time he had left before he needed to be at the chieftain’s tent. Using a moment to stop and take a deep breath, he wondered if he would be okay. The wilderness was a terrifying place, especially for someone traveling alone with no weapon. He said a quick prayer that the chieftain would gift him with a weapon of some kind before sending him off but he didn’t get his hopes up. He knew it wasn’t likely that the chieftain would do something so kind to an outcast.

The sun was just starting to set as he walked up to the front of the chieftain’s tent. He turned his back on it for a moment and looked back on the camp he had called home for fifteen years. He watched the children being shooed inside by their mothers. He watched the men and women just a few years older than him do their awkward mating dances by the village fire pit. He watched the older men come in from the forest, bearing that days kill for their families. Turning to the forest, he gazed at it one final time from the safety of his clan before turning back to the chieftain’s tent to face his future.

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