“It is today, Sahale, that we celebrate your passage into manhood,” the old man said standing over the three boys. His dark eyes behind the deep and wise lines of age were fixed on Eddie’s face, making him shift uncomfortably. “Today, the Great Spirit will decide your destiny.”
His father called him Eddie when he was a baby. He usually went by that, but he liked his real name, too. Sahale meant higher place in Apache, but he only ever heard it when one of two things happened. First was from his mother when he was in trouble, and Eddie had caused a lot of that in his fourteen years. The second is when he was a part of official business during the investigation of his father’s death. Today was the third time he’d been addressed with his native name formally by a tribal elder, his grandfather. Eddie sat cross-legged by the fire while his best friends Danny and Zeke—known formally as Keokuk and Kele—circled him with smoldering sage bundles. The savory scented smoke washed over him.
“Away with you, Sahale. San Jacinto awaits,” the old man said with a dismissive wave. “Kele, Keokuk, tell Hania to prepare the way.”
The two boys led him out of the Wikiup, where Hania, their medicine man, waited. He was a terrifying sight in his black and gray wolf’s head cloak and red-painted body. In his hand was a long spear and a small coil of rope. Danny was afraid of Hania anyway, even without the formal dress, but he had to be brave for his younger friend. Today was the day Eddie would either join their ranks as a brave of the Apache, or join with the Great Spirit and watch over them from the pastures of the sky. He looked over to Zeke, who gave a reassuring nod. They both handed their sage bundles to Eddie and sank back into the crowd gathered about to watch the spectacle.
“You are prepared. Come, Sahale,” was all he said, turning his back and walking toward the base of the cliff. The others around them, adorned in tribal finery no outsider had ever seen, erupted in whoops of encouragement. With ceremonial spears and bows raised in triumph, they willed Eddie forward. Bile climbed high in his throat. He looked up at the path before him, as far as he could see to the peak of San Jacinto. Hania handed him the coil of rope, but held on to the spear. “Now, we go up.”
Eddie was told stories of the bravery ceremony from as far back as he could remember. His grandfather loved to tell of his own trial with the Great Yellow Eagle. He remembered the old man’s words. One day Sahale, you will meet the Great Yellow Eagle, too he would say. Remember to hold the line. Never let go. Always hold the line. Now that he held it in his hand, he wondered if he was ready. It was just a rope after all, and nothing special. Hania turned, the black tail of his wolf cloak swaying, and started up the cliff trail. Eddie fell in step behind him and the old Apache medicine man and the young brave began their ascent. Eddie looked back to see Zeke and Danny hold their hands high for him. He would be so proud to return to them no longer as a boy, but their equal as a man.
Minutes became hours as the dusty and stony trail continued upward. Eddie’s legs burned with the fire of inactivity. Grandfather warned him the trek would be difficult and that he should get out from the front of the white man’s electronic box. No good can come from white men preaching our destiny from miles away inside a box of wires, he would say. Only the Yellow Eagle knows what is best for we Apache, and a smart coyote would have made many meals of roadrunner by this time. Eddie dismissed the old man’s warning with a scoff. He liked watching television. Now the understanding washed over him as they went higher and higher up the incline. Hania showed no fatigue at all. Eddie had to jog at times to keep up with the scary old medicine man.
Not a word was said between them until they reached what appeared to be the end of the trail into a sheer rock wall. “From here, you travel alone Sahale. I will greet you again where the Great Yellow Eagle perches on our world.” Hania gestured up where the rock face stopped, about a hundred feet above them. “Now climb.”
Eddie put the coiled rope over his shoulder, found a precarious hand and foot hold, and took a step up. The wind at this height blew hard from his left. Small bursts of dust clouded off the tiny rock shelves, stinging his eyes. He glanced back only to see Hania was gone. Was there another way up? he thought. Why couldn’t we just both go that way instead? However, he knew if he was to pass the trial, he must do what Hania said. Eddie closed his eyes. “Your name means higher place,” he said to himself. “Guess we’ll put that to the test.”
After the first few movements, his ascent became easier. The rock face had a gentle slope he couldn’t see looking up from the bottom. Another trial from the Yellow Eagle, he thought. I’ll pass your test! I will be a brave today! More than once his handholds crumbled away, causing him to grasp onto whatever he could reach and rake his knuckles on the sharp rocks. Still, his grip held. Gusts of wind stung his cheeks with sand as he went upward hand over hand. With grim determination, he finally crested the cliff.
The rock ledge was about the size of his bedroom back home. He sat down to rest from the arduous climb and looked around. Peering down into the canyon where his journey began, he could barely make out the shape of the Wikiup and his family and tribe gathered, awaiting his triumphant return. Which ones are Zeke and Danny? he thought. Was Grandfather still waiting in the Wikiup? He wondered if they could see him from there. In the distance, a large city of the white man could be seen through the haze, a jagged scar piercing the skyline with its disdain for the natural shapes made by the Great Spirit. Above him, the white-hot sun beat down from the clear blue ocean of the sky. He basked in its warmth for several minutes before getting to his feet, ready to take on the next part of his challenge.