We stand in the still moment when the darkness is letting go. Around us we can hear the heavy, tired breathing of the dancers who have brought this time into our lives. They have been embracing the sky for three days and nights to prepare the way for what and who we are here to witness. I can’t see them, but I hear the slow release as they allow their bodies to lie back on the stones in the courtyard near where we are standing. The footsteps of the Medicine Mistress and her helpers are the only sound that indicates movement. They walk across the stillness to bring the healing drink for the dancers. The smell of it reaches my nostrils. With its arrival come the memories of every climb up the mountain path under the stars and every morning in the cold and dark when I have stood here with everyone I know, waiting. Sometimes it rained in the night and sometimes there were winds that whispered of ice. But every year of my life we have climbed through he longest night to be here in the darkness before morning.
When I was four and thought that I could understand everything there is to know, I asked anyone who had time for a question how long our people had been climbing the mountain on this day. I got more smiles than answers, but the answers I did get told me that even my second oldest grandmother didn’t know for sure how long we had been climbing this path. By the time I was five, I had formed the opinion that we had been making this trek up the mountain for as long as we had been here.
There were a few stories that my very oldest grandmother told around the fire when I was very little that included another place that was different from this one, so I knew that we had not always been here. That place had more mountains and the sea was not part of those stories. There were also several animals there that didn’t live here. In one story there was a kind of sacred tree that I had never seen. As my very oldest grandmother told the stories, I would sit close to her near the fire and stare wide-eyed towards her as she described the mountains and how dry the valleys below them were. I understood that our people had to leave that place and come to this one because of the dryness. As she told hers stories, she seemed to become many different people and many different ages. Then at the end she would go back to just being one person and one age. It was the most interesting thing I had ever seen.
My very oldest grandmother became an ancestor when I was three. One of my aunts held me while her sons carried my very oldest grandmother out of our home on a long bed made of small trees. Since that was before I was four and started asking that particular question, I was never able to find out what she had to say about how long we had been climbing the mountain.
The smell of the healing drink is like no other smell. It is sharp and sour, with a spicy, earthy aroma of herbs that nobody uses to cook with. Only the Medicine Mistress knows the origin of those scents, but all of us carry them with us, layer upon layer. A deposit of memories contained in a smell for each year we have been alive. Each of us has stood here in the darkness and waited since we were a squirming bundle in our mother’s arms. Before that our mothers stood here and waited while we wiggled in their bellies.
The smell of the drink served by the Medicine Mistress is the smell of the beginning of the yearly renewal that is the reason we are all here. The dancers have been embracing the sky and talking to the stars for three days and night so that we can have this moment. They lead a life that I can only imagine from the little pieces of stories of them that my parents tell. One of my aunts is a dancer, but I have never seen her. I hear my father talk about his sister now and then. Her name is Agranona, and she is well-known for her beauty and power.
At least that is what my father says. His face shines when he speaks of here and I can see that he is very proud to have her in our family. I imagine that one of the rough, exhausted breathing sounds I hear in the darkness is her. I am 9 years old. I know that she has been dancing in the temple longer than I have been alive.
To me, dancing is an exciting and wonderful thing that I do whenever I can. To have a temple dancer as an aunt is something I am very proud of too. They are the ones who give their entire lives to preparing for these dark, cold mornings so that all of us who live in the cluster of homes in the valley below can have lives full of blessings. The other children who do not have relatives living in the cave temple here on the mountain also know about my aunt. I am small for my age, but sometimes they treat my like I am big because my aunt Agranona is a dancer here under the stars.
I know from stories that I have heard from the older children who are about to become men and women that what my aunt does is very dangerous. They never tell me the details, but I can see in their faces that something scares them a little when they speak of the dancers.
I listen to the sound of the Medicine Mistress’s feet as she passes by me. Her footfalls are careful and measured as her bare toes touch the stones. I hear the rustle of her skirts as she turns and heads towards one of the dancers behind me. Maybe she is going to bring the healing drink that will start the process of restoring my aunt from her difficult ritual. I have heard that sometimes the dancers do not get up after the ritual we are waiting for begins. I wonder if they are carried away on a bed made out of trees like my very oldest grandmother was.
Though I do not know her and have never seen her, I want my aunt to get up again, healthy and strong so that she can dance the future into our lives again next year and I can be proud of her for another year. I decide that because she is so beautiful and full of power, that the Medicine Mistress will definitely bring her the drink herself. That means that she will not have to worry about getting up, because everyone knows the Medicine Mistress is a great healer. Soon I hear the sound of the dancers taking the drinks from the Medicine Mistress and her helpers. Some of them cough and spit as they take the first sip. Others murmur quiet words of gratitude. I hear the sound of the women bringing the drinks helping some of the dancers raise themselves up from the ground. A tiny hint of the deepest blue creeps into the sky. The family to my right is complaining about the cold. They live three houses away from my family, and they are always complaining about something. If my aunt can dance for three days and three nights, I can stand in the cold for a few more minutes. I do not complain.
Instead, I focus my attention on the mountain in front of us. We are standing on a small plane that leads up to the opening of a cave. Large, flat stones cover most of the space. There are some small areas between some of them where the short grasses and a few other plants are growing. My left foot is on something slightly scratchy and my right foot is on a cool, smooth stone. The areas covered entirely by stones are used by the dancers. All of us stand to the sides of where they have been dancing. Some of us stand on stones, some on grass and some have feet on both at the same time. We are out at the edge, up close to the front near the mouth of the cave that I can’t see because it is dark. The blue in the sky is spreading, and I am starting to see steam rising up from the people closest to me as they breathe. It sparkles in a way where I am not quite sure that I am seeing anything at all.
There are small buildings outside the cave that have something to do with the temple. I see the women of the temple coming and going from them sometimes when I have been up in the mountains with my father when we go looking for the stones that we fashion into tools. He is an expert flint knapper, and I am beginning to learn. We often travel far from our home to find the best stones. The main path out of our village goes near the cave temple. I am very curious when we are in site of it because we only visit it once a year and I want to know what happens there when we are not waiting in the dark for the door in the mountain to open. The last time I walked the path I saw that the door was covered with the skins of three different animals. There were two women walking downhill from it carrying baskets. One of them was tall and slender. The other was short and broad-shouldered like my mother. They were smiling and laughing. Right now I can’t see the door at all. I know where it is because I know that we are all facing it. Soon I start to hear the deep, echoing sound of throaty chanting. One of the mysteries about this ritual is that every year I hear the chanting and every year I do not find out whose voice it comes from. The sounds seem to rumble out through the stones below me. There is no way any of the women I have met or heard speak could make such a low sound. Perhaps the temple women are different than regular women, but I don’t think even they could make a sound like this. I question whether even my father could make it. He is taller than most and his voice is very deep, but I don’t think it can rumble a stone. At least I have never heard him make a sound that caused what was under my feet to shiver like this.
Sometimes I ask after the ritual if anyone knows who was chanting. They all say something different. Some people laugh at me at as if they think I am a silly little kid. Others act like they didn’t hear me and suddenly become busy with tying a knot or folding a piece of cloth. A few of them give me an answer. All of the answers include some kind of admonition never to look behind me when I am waiting in the dark and I hear the chanting. The people who answer look deep into my eyes, and I see things in their face that I don’t understand. Even the people who won’t answer me have some of the same things in their faces before they laugh or turn away. Now I feel the chanting through the soles of my feet. I feel like I am inside a giant throat that is humming. It makes the little hairs on my arms stand up. I do not look back or move as I stare intently at the darkness in front of me. I catch slight glimpses of something happening just outside of my peripheral vision. I start to think about turning my head to see what it is.
Then I hear my parents start to sing. My fathers big, deep voice sounds like a bear roaring gently. My mothers high, climbing voice reminds me of swallows calling. I love it when they sing together because it feels like the whole forest is happy when they do it. Soon all of the people standing with us outside the cave are singing too. It is a song made of words that we don’t use in everyday life. Even though I have heard it every year since I was born, the words do not stay with me. I look around and see that the other children are also silent.
All of us know that this song is something we will learn when we become men and women, but not before that time. It is part of the magic of living long enough the be able to start families of our own. Instead we begin to sway back and forth as our parents sing their song. I love the words even though I do not understand them. Some of them sound almost like words I know. Others sound more like the words animals use to speak to each other.
A long blast that sounds like a hunting horn, but much bigger rings out across the song. I look up and notice that the sky has a pale pink edge to it now. My back is towards the two hills. The same is true for everyone else in the flat area in front of the cave. We won’t see the source of the light that is coming, only the results of its arrival.
After the horn blast, all the voices fall silent. We hear a sound coming from the cave, behind the skin-covered opening. It is the music of feet rhythmically stamping in an intricate dance step. Layered over the steps are the delicate sounds of bells ringing. I can hear from the way both of them are in perfect rhythm that the dancers in the cave must be wearing the bells. The beat starts out slow, almost too slow to bear. It is complex, but woven within its complexity there is a tiny double-step that reminds me of the first time I heard my sister’s heart beat when I held her after she was born. I heard a tiny sound that I didn’t understand and I looked down into her impossibly small face. She looked back at me with wide eyes the color of the sky. We stayed that way for longer than I could count, just looking at each other. Now I become aware of the tempo rising. It isn’t the sudden change of the rhythm that our circle dances sometimes use when one of us is about to jump or twirl. Instead, it is a gradual change that seems to push us forward like a wave pushes at the beach. At first it is hard to tell there has been a change. Then you are suddenly awash in the new sensation up to your neck because the change was much bigger than you were aware of.
The rhythm is so fast it feels like my heart can’t keep up. It echoes in the cave. Ripples of sound layer over and over themselves like the path a snake makes when swimming through water. It is all I can do not to jump and dance. My body cries out for movement. But I know that we are all standing in the courtyard to witness a change, not to make one ourselves. Our part in this dance is to give our attention and presence to what is about to happen. We must stay still because this is something that is bigger than anything we can bring into being with the magic of our individual movements. It is even bigger than anything we could do while working together.
At the moment the rhythm becomes absolutely unbearable and I know that I will have to dance anyway, even if it is forbidden, the circle of skins falls away from the door in the mountain. A blast of light shoots out of the cave. The dancing music stops and a voice of incomparable beauty flows out of the space behind the light. One single, haunting note that is too powerful for a human to sing washes over us and I burst into tears. Every year I try not to cry so that I can see what is happening, and every year I am overcome by the wonder of the moment that I am part of.
The note of the song holds itself in the air around us as other notes join it. They are bursting out of the mouth of the cave like a flock of birds at dawn. I know in the deepest places of my heart that the song coming from the light inside the cave is an answer to the song all of the parents were singing. It is the best answer, and answer more wonderful than anything we could have made ourselves. Light is streaming over our heads from behind us. 4-year-old me knows that his is because the two hills have decided to let it into the valley. They have made a gateway for the sun to rise and join us this morning. I know that if I turned around, I would see it. But I don’t turn around.
I stay facing the cave because there is light and song together coming from its mouth. This is what the dancers work for all of their lives, and this is what we stand in the dark to wait for every year. It is the moment where we join the light as it enters the gave and gives birth once again to the Mother of Light who is the reason we can move faster than a stone and speak sometimes with the voices of the Gods.
As long as we continue to be present here to sing our songs, do our dances, and give our attention where it is needed, she will come out from this cave on this day and give us the gift of her song that is within the light. The sun will rise between the two hills whether or not we are waiting in the courtyard, but the song of light will not be sung here in this cave unless we prepare for it and are present to hear it. It is our people’s duty to come here each year and participate in this mystery so that the song can be sung and the blessings can flow from it out into the valley below. They are blessings that are shared by all who live near this cave, whether they have soft skin and long hair like us, or feathers and fur like the birds and goats. When I hear the song, I know that we have done one of the most important things that we do in the world. I wipe the tears from my face. Crying is a gift because it lets me know I am truly here in the moment with the song. But it also gets in the way of seeing what is outside of me.
Once my face is dry enough that I can look around, I see that the faces of my parents, my sister, and even the family who complains are also damp. The song in the cave comes to an end, the valley is full of light, and I can see a trickle of water making its way out of the mouth of the cave. The Mother of Light has gone, but her gifts fill the world around me.
The Medicine Mistress and the dancers are gone from the courtyard. Temple women come out of the buildings at the mouth of the cave. They are carrying baskets just like the ones I saw two fo the carrying when I was walking the path with my father. The tall one motions for us to come to them. As we move forward, I catch a new set of odors. These are smells that I recognize even better than the scent of the healing drink. They are coming from smoked meats, goats’ milk cheese and pitchers of water with mint in it. There are probably sections of flat bread baked yesterday just before the night fell and maybe even some honey. I suddenly realize that I am very hungry.