“Ssssahale,” it said as Hania continued his guttural chant in the background. “One named for the higher placessss. You come before me assss Yellow Eagle oncccce did. You think yoursssself brave assss he did?” Eddie was paralyzed as fear locked his muscles in place, rendering him stiff and still. “You wish to be known assss a brave among your peoplessss, the mighty Apache?” The snake continued his stealthy approach, now only inches from Eddie. It rose up it’s great body in front of his face, tongue flicking in search for prey. “I will decssside your worth, young warrior. Let ussss ssssee if you can withsssstand my bite.”
Eddie sat frozen and helpless as the giant rattler rose up into a coiled nightmare of fangs and scales. It lunged faster than eyes could see and buried its dripping fangs into his chest. The serpent’s venom poured into Eddie’s veins like lightning from an angry storm cloud. Every fiber in his body screamed in burning agony until the beast released its crushing bite. The serpent remained poised for another strike, weaving its head before Eddie’s face. Tears rolled down his swollen cheek while the venom’s liquid fire did its worst to his body, wracking him with pain.
“Now, young brave,” the snake hissed to him again. “We will ssssee what it issss that you fear. My venom sssspeakssss to your mind and revealssss your thoughtssss. Relive your nightmaressss and prove your worth to me.” Eddie still could not move. He strained to cry out and awaken Hania, but could not. His voice was drowned. The cry stayed locked in his burning chest. “You sssshall reccccieve the blessssing of the warrior if you can return to your peoplessss below. Yellow Eagle possessed great wingssss to return to the earth, yet you only carry a coil of rope, sssshaped much like me. Ironic, don’t you think? You musssst hold the line and prove your worth. If you cannot, you become one with the Great Sssspirit, and I sssshall be victorioussss yet again.”
Each scale began to glow with a white-hot fire all it’s own. All of the sudden, the snake burst into flame before Eddie’s eyes and Hania awoke with a start. Eddie was able to move again, but fell onto his back into violent convulsions when he did. The cave spun in wild circles as the venom took hold of his muscles and reflexes. Hania reached into his sack and pulled out a small buffalo hide, placing it over Eddie. The weight of the thick fur and dense skin was comforting to him, as if the pressure of the heavy hide would suppress his body’s revolt. His shaking mercifully stopped but he was no longer in control of his faculties. His head rolled to the side and spittle pooled below his mouth on the dusty floor.
Next, Hania took out a large ceremonial rattle, painted red and adorned with two eagle feathers, and a bundle of sage. He passed the sage through the fire to catch the embers. Though he could not move, Eddie could discern the unmistakable scent. He waved the bundle and the totem over Eddie and shook it at different times in the highs and lows of an ancient chant only the medicine men would know. Ashes of the burnt sage nestled in the hide, also giving Eddie a distinct scent of burning hair.
“Sahale,” Hania said after what felt like an eternity of this. “you have faced the first trial and now will continue on your own journey. I leave with you this eagle feather.” Hania held up the rattle and plucked a feather out of the adornment. He nestled it into Eddie’s constricted fist. “Never release this feather. It is your link to the world of the living; your life line. You will have a vision. The demons will come and they will torment you. Show no fear and return to us as a brave. Hold the line, Sahale. May the Great Spirit watch over you until we meet again.” With that, Hania stood, took up his satchel and left the cave.
Eddie’s mind screamed out to him not to leave but his paralyzed body and mouth betrayed his fears. He was left alone to face whatever came next. And what did Hania say it would be? Demons? As if the serpent wasn’t bad enough, now something else was coming?
The tiny flame in the rock circle threw dancing shadows around the room. He could see the fire in the corner of his eye as the scorching venom ran its course. Every nerve shrieked in agony yet he still could not move. In his fingers, he could feel the coarseness of the feather shaft. One flicker of his finger was all he could muster to clutch it tighter.
Stay anchored to the feather, he thought. Hania said to never let it go. No matter what comes for me, hold tight!
Eddie lay prostrate beneath the buffalo hide staring into the fire. He had no concept of time. All he felt was the rage of the snake’s toxin wreaking havoc on his senses. His ears rang. His pulse pounded as the venom raged through him. He could taste it in his mouth. He could feel it in his heart.
Am I dying? It feels like dying…
Slowly, letting go of life…
That’s when he heard footsteps in the gravel.
Who’s there? Has someone come to save me?
Eddie was still unable to move, his spindly limbs locked in shape by some unnatural bond he could only feel, not see. The sound of gravel crunching underfoot came closer. His eyes strained in the sockets to see who had come to save him but the range of his vision was limited and he could not see who it was. Was it his grandfather? Did Zeke or Danny follow them up here? Please, he thought. I’m here! Please let it be someone who has come to help.
“I cannot help you in that way, Sahale,” came a deep voice with a strong Apache accent. “I am no medicine man.” The footsteps came closer and suddenly a foot wrapped in an adorned leather moccasin stepped into his view. The unknown man strode past the fire and sat cross-legged in the same place Hania was when the snake first appeared. “As much as I would like to help you, I am forbidden to interfere in that manner by the Great Spirit. However, I can guide you on your journey, Sahale. Your thoughts are open to me. I can share in your nightmares.”
Eddie stared at the man through the dancing flames. He was young, but carried the mantle of an elder. His face held the deep lines of age and wisdom, yet appeared youthful, like someone who has seen many seasons but still clung to their child-like appearance. His long raven-dark hair hung in two braids over either shoulder and was held back by a golden beaded band. Two eagle feathers hung with the braids. He wore a simple pair of leather leggings with a bright red breechcloth. Across his chest was a bead and bone breastplate encrusted with silver and turquoise finery. He stared at Eddie through the dark pools of his eyes for a long while before speaking again.
“Before long, young child Sahale, the venom that paralyzes you will dissipate and you will rise again.” Not once did his piercing gaze waver. “When it does, you will be given a choice, much as I was when I faced the same trial.”
Who are you?
“Ah, there you have it.” The man smiled for the first time, revealing his brilliant white teeth. “As your mind makes questions, I will be able to answer them.”
I said, who are you?
“In time, brave Sahale, in time. But who either of us are is not important right now.” He continued to stare at Eddie, never so much as blinking. “So tell me, child of the Apache, why do you deserve to become a brave among your people?”
Because I am fourteen. It is my time to become a warrior.
The man chuckled. “You think it is age that makes you ready? That the number of seasons you have lived makes you a brave? Perhaps I should ask a different question, Sahale. What do you fear?”
That was a question Eddie hoped he would not have to answer.