Prologue – Night Of The Dead
At last Tam was old enough to join the real celebrations of the night of the dead. Midwinter night, the last night of the year, the longest night. The fun celebrations had been going on all day, of course. Gourds had been carved into ghastly faces and all the youngest had gorged themselves sick on the sweets, biscuits and special treats. Now they were being taken to bed and the real celebrations were about to begin.
Standing in line with the other boys, he shivered as the cold night air played across his naked skin. The Dream Walkers processed between the two lines, male one side, female the other, eldest first, youngest last. Tam could only faintly make out the flicking Talash brushes that sprinkles the ice-cold blessed water over the assembled. As the leading Dream Walker, Master Hol-Ka, approached the younger children, Tam felt a strange growing tension that seemed to swell up through his feet from the ground beneath him.
Despite the need to stay silent, the cold and the dark, Tam felt as if he should be singing. He was resonating with a sound he did not understand and could not really hear.
Finally, Hol-Ka reached the youngsters and, followed by the rest of the Dream Walkers, passed Tam with only a glance and the ritual flick. The children reached down and picked up their blue robes, robes whose colour showed the wearers to be juvenile and, therefore, gave them a certain degree of leeway during the major part of the ceremonies. Wearing his warm robe and with his feet in his thick boots, Tam felt calmer and more ready to face what lay ahead.
The Dream Walkers had reached the Talish tree. Removing their tokens from around their necks, each Walker touched it to his or her forehead. At this point, the tokens began to glow softly. Tam gasped. He knew it was supposed to happen but he had never seen a token actually glowing before.
Hanging their tokens in the tree, the Dream Walkers turned to face the assembled villagers and bowed. The villagers bowed back and the night of the dead had begum.
The light from the tokens on the Talish tree was brighter than Tam thought it would be. Looking around, he could see the multi-coloured clusters of the villagers as they gathered together to remember their dead. There were no Village leaders or Dream Walkers to remember this year so, until the nights end ceremony, people were free to remember who they wanted in whatever manner they chose.
Tam moved towards his family. His mother stood out in her pure white initiates robe. They would be popular tonight as Sharmia was favoured by people remembering lost children. The summer fever had taken many babies whose hold on life had yet to become firm enough to allow the Dream Weavers to do their work. Tam decided he would not join them. His two older brothers, Rafillo and Tirrillo would not care to share their status as helpers and his sister, Kara, in her new yellow robe denoting physical maturity, would prefer not to have to watch over him during the services his mother would hold, she would want to participate fully.
So Tam decided to risk what he had planned for this night. Drifting apparently aimlessly over to the dogwood bush near the north gate, Tam smiled but shook his head at the invitations to join the history telling groups. Two months ago, he was afire to join one of these groups, sitting with his friends and hearing the full histories for the first time. That was before. Now, after, he just wanted to remember Rin himself.
Reaching under the dogwood, Tam pulled out the little fabric pouch he had hidden there earlier. The dogwood provided a shadow which acted as a screen for his actions. Solemnly Tam sat in the correct cross-legged posture. Opening the pouch, he took out the contents and placed them in a circle in front of him. A sliver of wood he had whittled from Rin's food bowl. The collar he had made as his first leather work project. The wooden whistle he had used to call Rin. A feather to represent the birds Rin had chased. A rabbits tail to represent the rabbits they had hunted together. A tuft of wool to represent the sheep they had herded. Finally, in the centre of the circle, the few hairs he had gathered from the brush he had used on Rin.
“What are you doing boy?”
The words were softly spoken but they whipped across Tam's ears like a shout.
The response was automatic and, even as the word escaped him, Tam realised how futile they were. The evidence of what he was doing was laid there before him on the grass. Tam knew he should stand but to do so would be to ruin the ceremony he had started. Ruin it forever as this questioner would surely demand he destroyed what would be seen as mockery.
“What are you doing boy?”
As the question was repeated, the questioner moved into Tam's sight. The earth brown robes of a Master Dream Walker. The voice was not that of Master Hol-Ka. A visiting senior Dream Walker. The best Tam could hope for now was to be dismissed to bed and declared too young to attend for at least another year.
Stiffening, Tam decided to hold his head up and face the consequences. In for a lamb, in for a sheep as his father often said.
“I am holding a private remembering Sir.” Tam responded, quietly but firmly.
“What is the name of the remembered one?”
“Rin? An unusual name. Tell me of the life of Rin.”
The reply made Tam look up swiftly in shock. These were the ritual words. The words a Dream Walker would say for a major remembering. This Dream Walker Master must not have understood what he was seeing.
“Rin was my dog, Sir”
Tam closed his eyes, braced for the uproar that would follow.
“Was he a faithful dog to you?”
Again the ritual words. Was the Master mocking Tam? That did not seem right. Surely a Master would not make fun of a rite, however abnormal it was.
“He was, Sir.” The words flooded out and with them the tears Tam had not been able to shed all these weeks. Tam found himself telling of his earliest memories of Rin. How the dog had let the toddler Tam haul himself up by hanging on to Rin's collar. Of the long golden days exploring with Rin, first in the garden then, as Tam grew older, in the nearby fields. The pride Tam had felt when he and Rin had been set to guard the sheep one day when his father had been needed at a neighbours. Oh, he knew now that Rin had been quite capable of guarding the herd by himself for those few hours but it had made Tam feel so useful and part of the family. His even greater pride when he was allowed to go with his father and Rin to help with the herding and how he had learned to direct Rin with the whistle.
Tam told of Rin showing him the countryside. Hunting birds and rabbits. Of long evening walks in the fields. Of rolling in the hay barn on rainy days. Of a childhood shared with his canine friend.
Finally, he told of Rin becoming slower. Moving less freely. Then, that final morning, greeting Tam only with a wag of his tail. Tam told of spending the morning sitting with Rin by the fire. He told of Rin licking his hand. He told of Rin going to sleep and breathing slowly and gently. Slower and slower. Then not breathing.
“His life was good. He lived it well. You share the memories. Remember him and be glad. He was loved. He loved you.”
The Dream Walker Master rested his hands on the items on the grass as he spoke the ritual closing to the remembering.
Tam choked out the ritual response. “I remember him with love and with gladness for the time we shared.”
Even as he spoke the words, Tam realised it was true. All things end. Rin's end had been peaceful. He had been with one he loved and who loved him. It was enough. The hole in Tam's life was still there but the sharp pain had gone. Time now to heal and move on.
Tam raised his eyes to the Dream Walker.
“Thank you Master for your grace in allowing me to remember Rin like this. I know it is not proper to remember a dog as one would a person.”
“To you, he was and is a person. Why should it be wrong to remember him so?”
The Dream Walker Master smiled.
“I will tell him of this ceremony”
With that, he was no-longer there.
Tirrillo touched his young brother on the shoulder as he spoke. Tam started and turned to look at his brother.
“What are you doing, Tam? You must have been sitting here for hours. You are freezing! Come on, it is time.”
Tam looked wildly round. False dawn was staining the horizon, it was time for the final ceremony. Scrambling to his feet, Tam stuttered, “I was talking to the Master.”
“What Master? There was no-one near you. Don't tell me you fell asleep and missed everything! Well, you will have to wait for next year to hear the histories now. Come on, we had better join the others. Pick your bracelet up.”
Tir turned and walked towards the rest of the family who were gesturing to the boys to join them. Tam looked at where his brother had pointed and saw a leather thong with a brown bead sitting where he had made the remembering circle. The bead was the colour of Rin's eyes. Tam picked it up and tied it on his wrist as he jogged over to join his family.