THE BEGINNING OF LEARNING
"That's stupid!" Kevin exclaimed.
He and Agla had spent the day looking at and naming plants. Agla declared that whenever plants were picked it was important to talk to them and to thank them.
"It would be stupid not to thank them Avin-ke!" Agla declared just as vehemently. Agla used the name Kevin had been dubbed by some members of the tribe. Since Kevin had yet to receive his name from the elders he had been given the nickname, 'Avin-ke', which meant, Blue-White one. The people with their keen sense of humor and love of word play had taken 'Kevin', which they found hard to say, and turned it into, Avin-ke, which described Kevin's skin color most of the time. Although Agla knew it was slightly mean, it certainly was accurate when the weather took a turn and sent Kevin looking for the turkey feather cloak and warm blankets .
"Avin-ke, don't you show respect to those that feed you—that take care of you?' he asked. "The plants feed us, they cure our ills and they can also kill. We must keep in harmony with all the plants, the creatures--,"
"I know, the hills, the waters, the sky, the spiders, the chiggers."
Agla laughed. "You are learning after all," he said.
Agla's unfailing zeal was a source of annoyance to Kevin at times but generally pulled him out of the funks he so often got into when he was tired. "But what am I learning?" he asked.
Agla sat down on a rock and Kevin threw himself on the ground beside him. He knew he was in for a lecture. It was always a mistake to blurt out questions lightly.
Agla pulled the sprouting top of grass and nibbled the tender bottom end. He was silent for some moments. At such times his gravity impressed Kevin. He seemed old beyond his years, possessed of a wisdom no adult had demonstrated in his previous experience. Even if his words mimicked those of the old man, he nevertheless, inhabited their meaning.
"Grandfather says that you are out of balance." Agla began. "It's true, Kevin. Look at you now."
Kevin was about to defend himself, but it was clear that while Agla sat at his ease he, by contrast, was red-faced, sweating, tired and ill-tempered.
"This rock likes me." Agla remarked, looking meaningfully at Kevin. "If you would find the spot that likes you, you would feel better."
Agla had said things like this before so Kevin knew better than to ask what he meant. Dutifully following the procedure he had been taught, he stood up and taking a deep breath, tried to still his mind. Following the procedure was easy enough, achieving the desired outcome, not so.
"Just don't step on little sister." Agla was pointing his grass stem at what appeared to be a clump of grass. As he looked, the clump resolved itself into a ball of dry grass inside of which was a mouse. Once more Kevin marveled at Agla's skills of observation. He would certainly have crushed the mouse and her young in their nest without even being aware of their existence. He carefully scanned the immediate surroundings noting its features, then he scanned again without looking at anything in particular. Continuing to scan in this way, he automatically walked a few paces to his left. Without thinking he turned, took one step, and to his complete surprise, sat down.
"Feel better?" Agla's voice made Kevin start. He had been in a kind of trance. About to retort no, Kevin, realized that in fact he did! All his previous skepticism about the things Agla had been telling him was checked at that moment.
Much as Kevin liked Agla he had retained a condescending attitude toward him and the People. The old man certainly scared him but did not inspire respect. At the same time as he was impressed by the way they went about their lives, he never really considered that these primitive people might have a better understanding of the world than all his teachers, the grownups he knew, all the people on television. Tears welled in his eyes.
"I don't know what's happening" he said in dismay.
"It's alright, Kevin. No one else does either." Agla spoke with true concern for his friend, sensing the conflict going on in the young boy's mind. Kevin was at last experiencing something close to a nervous breakdown. The loss of his parents, the subsequent changes, the fantastical nature of his present situation, all, somehow, he had managed to take in stride—although the school art therapist had voiced concern about his apparent lack of emotional response—nothing had hit him like this. Very likely there was an element of delayed reaction to all of his recent past in this, but all that he had been able, in his own way, to explain. Now he was uncertain about his perception of reality. Other things that Agla had tried to point out to him would now demand reappraisal. It was all too much for him. The two sat silent for a long time. The sun was warming, there were birds calling all around, frogs could be heard down by the creek, there was a stillness that was nevertheless full of vitality. An organic wholeness, an inclusive, engulfing oneness where time and space seemed suspended.
In Kevin's mind not much had happened during the months that had passed. The Winter Solstice rite, perhaps the most important of the year, one that had occupied populations worldwide for millennia, meant nothing to him. Interesting though it had been, Agla's explanation of the event had left Kevin unimpressed as to the pressing need for the ceremony. The activities surrounding the Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring, had struck him as equally unnecessary. The seasons came and went, what was the big deal?
Perhaps it was a big deal after all. Certainly it was convenient to know when Spring Break was due, and the weather forecast for the weekend. Information that could be obtained with the flip of a remote, even if everyone said the forecasters were full of it. For the People it was something more than mere convenience however. Each change in the weather brought new plants to be gathered. The recent addition of the young leaves and pods of Shepherds Purse to the acorn soup, their dietary staple, gave it a peppery flavor Kevin appreciated. It also provided a good dose of vitamins A and C. Unlike most other plants, Shepherds Purse blooms in the winter making the pods available in early spring. Not that the People needed a ceremony to alert them to nature’s changes, they were tuned to everything that took place around them. But their celebrations were grounded in meaningful and actual changes, not arbitrary dates commemorating the birth or death of quasi-historical individuals or mythological figures from the past of people in lands far away The end of winter meant that the near starvation rationing endured regularly by the tribe would soon give way to abundance. With spring came migratory birds, the reappearance of elusive animals and fresh growth. A time to celebrate indeed!
Kevin's physical appearance had changed. A late height surge put him at nearly six feet. His hair had grown long and he now wore it tied back like the other males, excepting Agla, whose hair remained burnt short in mourning for his father, something he refused to talk about. His pierced ears were strung with deer thong and around his neck hung the tooth of a mountain lion. The old man had presented it to him saying it would protect and guide him. While he pretended to be unimpressed, nothing would part him from his amulet. Whether he acknowledged it or not his life was irrevocably changed. He was no longer Kevin Jones but Avin-ke, at least until he received his proper name. Agla perceived that he was almost ready.
Kevin found the healing plant he needed and wrapped two of the leaves around the cut on his finger. He now knew the names, appearance, medicinal properties and uses of some fifty plants. While only a fraction of the total plants used by the People, he was quite proud of his new found ability. The old man, who Kevin addressed as Father, had taken over his education. Today nearly everyone was gathering the young tender tips of the Greenbriar vine—a plant that Kevin despised and feared. Its ability to grow straight up until it found a tree to climb made it a constant walking hazard often forming dense barriers, but it was the single stems, because of their virtually invisibility in some lights, that usually resulted in the worst cuts. Now he was enthusiastically seeking them out, all the while watching out for poison ivy, merely brushing against which gave the worst rash that itched like mad and which everyone found utterly hilarious when anyone was affected. It was his attempt to drag down a strong vine from high in a tree that had inflicted the latest cut. A thorn had penetrated the skin as he had borne down on the woody stem. All of the women and children were out scouring the woods for the delicate, tasty tops. Soon it would be time to gather the Agarita berries. The prickly leaves of this bush presented a challenge also, but the spines could cause a rash. To minimize contact, the undergrowth was knocked down, deer-hides spread on the ground and the branches beaten with sticks. The ripe berries fell off easily. A drink made from the mashed berries simmered in water, heated with rocks hot from the fire, was a favorite drink although mostly the berries were dried and stored for a variety of uses. Another delicacy sought at this time was the flower stalk of the Twist Leaf Yucca, one of several agaves utilized in so many ways by the People. Before the flowers open the stalks resemble giant asparagus. It was hard to resist picking them at that time as they were so delicious and, since deer too found them just as irresistible, it was always a race to see who got them first. Those plants that grew on the hard-to-reach places survived to fully flower. The People might pick them then or wait until the seedpods appeared. These could be eaten while green or allowed to mature when the seeds were gathered.
The variety of plants and the ways in which they were utilized still astonished Kevin but then there was little in their environment they did not use. He learned there were different kinds of earth with different uses, different types of stone to be used for different purposes. His Uncle Bob had once given him an almost whole "arrowhead" that he had found, they were fairly common if you knew how to look for them. Much of the State is virtually littered with points, scrapers, fleshers and knives made from the flint that is abundant in certain parts. These artifacts were made hundreds to thousands of years ago by people who did not have the bow and arrow but used the throwing stick known now by its Nahuatl name, “atl-atl.” For the most part they had left the area long before recorded history, leaving nothing but some pictographs and these tantalizing reminders of their passing. The introduction of the bow and arrow to the Continent, which took place very late compared to how long it had been around, like any innovation, impacted the lives of America's natives forever. Some people, like the Aztec for instance, never adopted it. But the ancestors of the Steadfast People did and through the years refined the skill of making and using it. Each man made his own points, as well as the rest of his weapon. Kevin wanted desperately to make a point but the best stone was reserved for the hunters and could not be wasted. However, he was allowed to make scrapers and the knives used for skinning animals. He had become adept at finding those ancient artifacts lost or abandoned by their makers, but kept them as talismans for, although they were almost impossible to distinguish from those the men were making, coming upon one evoked a thrill he couldn't explain, knowing these had existed for a thousand years or more evoked a special feeling. Sometimes he would be given a broken point to reshape, although his efforts were usually reworked by one of the men after being given a thoughtful critique. Thanks to Agla's instruction Kevin had gained some mastery of the language and conversed easily with the men—the younger men still tended to keep their distance as it was known that he was the old man's charge and they were afraid of him. So far, however, the old man had left them alone, merely quizzing Kevin on his plant knowledge and adding bits of additional information about the way in which the plants were to be treated and about his general demeanor. He seemed to know much more about their "field trips" than he could have known from Agla if, in fact, Agla reported on their activities. That he should elicit the same kind of fear from the young men that he himself felt toward the old man made him even more concerned about what might be in store.