Shortly after returning from my research and personal healing journey from the rainforest of Ecuador, I began my next novel, book 5 of the Zak Bates Eco-adventure series with the working title of Rainforest Shaman. Here are now two scenes showcasing one of the main new characters, Iya. (If you’ve already read the first scene, just scroll down to the new one, and remember, they are both rough drafts. Still, I would enjoy your feedback on them.
Iya looked up from washing the cassava roots that would eventually become the chicha beverage of her people to glare at her grandmother.
“Do I have to go? I have plenty to do here, and grandfather doesn’t need me there to make his announcement.”
“He made it clear to me that you were to be there,” Maria replied. “He wants everyone in the village to be present.” Iya opened her mouth to protest, but Maria continued. “No exceptions.” The old woman walked over to Iya and caressed her jet-black hair lovingly. “In fact, he made me promise that you would be there. Don’t ask me why. He didn’t say. Now, put down the cassava. It’ll still be here upon your return.”
Along with all my other chores, Iya thought but decided it was best not to say. She dropped the thick root back into the basket with the others, wiped her hands on the front of her shirt, and followed her grandmother from their hut towards the meeting house. She watched as the rest of the people of her village strolled in the same direction. No one else seemed to question her grandfather’s request. After all, being the village’s shaman, his words carried weight. He was both the healer and spiritual guide for the hundred or so Achuar people. Being also one of the eldest shamans in the region, her grandfather was well respected far and wide.
As she approached the large structure composed of a thick thatched roof sitting on strong posts, she stopped to enjoy the view. She stood in a clearing less than twenty meters from the Capahauri river, surrounded by the lush green growth of hundreds of trees and shrubs of more varieties than she could count. While she might not be up for counting them all, she knew the vast majority by name and their uses. Ompa, her grandfather, and Maria had seen to that. From her earliest memory, they’d shared their wisdom of the world around them and especially the special relationship they had with the plants of the rainforest and their three most important and powerful spirits: Amasanga, the spirit of the rainforest, Sungui, the spirit of the water, and Nungui, the spirit of clay and soil.
Iya felt their presence now as she took a deep breath of the clear morning air and let out a soft sigh. Chores or no chores, she loved this vibrant and alive land. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, though she knew at some point in her life she would need to leave it at least for a time, for dark forces were also at play in this area of the rainforest — forces from the North that threatened not only their way of life but life itself.
“Come, girl,” Maria chided her as she walked past. “No more daydreaming.” Iya nodded and followed her.
As they approached, she saw Ompa sitting on the ceremonial chair carved in the shape of a turtle, his smile making it difficult to determine his age. However, she knew he was several years over seventy. He wore a bright blue long-sleeved shirt to protect his arm from the numerous biting insects adorned with crisscrossing strands made from an assortment of seeds and nuts. His legs were covered by a skirt in multiple stripes of blues, white and gray. Around his neck, Ompa wore his ceremonial necklace reserved for special occasions along with a hat of red and gold feathers.
So this must be a special occasion, Iya thought. It had been some time since she had seen him dressed in all his finery though he almost always wore the ceremonial face paint as he did this morning. Iya smiled, feeling proud to be his granddaughter and especially so when he nodded at her smiling lovingly before closing his eyes. He sat quietly as the meeting room filled up and then overflowed beyond the thatched roof. Fortunately, there was no sign of rain this morning, though Iya knew that could change quickly during this time of the year. Not that her people had many objections to getting wet, unlike the few strange people from the North she’d met who complained at the first signs of a storm.
As Iya gazed at the many familiar faces of her fellow villagers, she noticed Matita weaving his way through the crowd to get as close as possible to Ompa. She’d heard rumors that the young boy, who was only a few years older than her, might be their next shaman. Still, so far, Ompa had declined to answer any questions about who his eventual successor might be. Was that to be his announcement today? Iya wondered. After all, her grandfather was already beyond the age when most shamans had taken on an apprentice. Here was Matita wearing face paint and looking exceptionally handsome in a matching blue shirt and short pants suspiciously of a similar color to Ompa’s.
The muttering of the crowd lessened as Ompa opened his eyes. He raised his arms in greeting and smiled once again.
“Welcome to this beautiful morning,” he said in their native Shiwiar [??]. “The spirits have been kind to us, the people of the forest. Join me in quiet celebration.” He raised his arms higher, pointing them to the sky, then towards the river, and then to the surrounding woods.
“I know we all have our morning duties, so I will keep this short and to the point. Recently, I have been visited with dreams from my spirit animal, the jaguar. He has told me it is time for me to train the next shaman.”
This announcement grew several whispers from around him, and Iya noticed several people turn to glance at Matita, who simply smiled and nodded.
“I must confess I have resisted the dreams, but jaguar has been persistent and consistent in telling me who that person is to be, and so I have come to trust the dreams.” Ompa paused, then slowly rose from his chair and walked over to Matita. Placing his hands on the young man’s shoulders, he smiled, but it appeared to Iya that she could detect a sadness around the corners of the old man’s lips and eyes.
“Matita,” Ompa started, then paused. “Matita, you have been a faithful companion these last few years. I hold you in high esteem.” He stopped again, the sadness clearly showing now. “But jaguar guides me in a different direction.” He dropped his hands to his side and turned to gaze over the crowd of villagers. “These are unusual times. We have all felt the dark forces from the North. We know the message of the Eagle and the Condors. If we are to be the Condor who saves our home here and the greater home of Pachamama, we must be open to new ways ourselves.”
Ompa wove through the mass of villagers until he stood only a few feet from Iya. He raised his hands towards the heavens as a salutation to the sun. “Iya, my granddaughters whose name means sky, space, and universe. Jaguar has guided me to select you as our next shaman and our first with similar energy to Pachamama.”
The collective gasp from the hundred villagers seemed to suck the air from around Iya. She suddenly felt dizzy, with flashes of light blocking out Ompa’s face. This must be a dream, she thought. Surely it cannot be happening. She’s not meant to be a shaman. The most she could expect would be to become a master potter like Maria. Still, even that seemed highly unlikely given her lack of skills despite her grandmother’s efforts to teach her. But a shaman? No, that was not possible. Women were not permitted such a path.
Iya shook her head to clear it to find Ompa smiling down at her before turning around to face her people of the forest. “I have been guided to this unusual path by my dream and spirit animal. It is to be so. Iya’s training begins today.”
Iya watched as Ompa used a machete to hack away at the thick growth of vegetation in its many shades of green, clearing the path that had all but grown over since the last time anyone had used the trail. In the past few months, she had grown accustomed to watching the old man’s back as he strolled through the forest at a pace close to a trot despite his age challenging her to keep up. But today was more than a trip to identify new plants and learn of their many uses. Today they were to visit the sacred Kapok tree of their village.
She’d heard Ompa and Maria talk about it several times over the years but had never been allowed to visit it until today when Ompa had awoken her before daybreak with the news. “You will spend time with Amasanga today and perhaps the great spirit of the forest will bestow upon you your spirit animal who will serve as your guide through the dream world for today we visit the great Kapok, so arise my granddaughter. This is a special day for you.”
What he had failed to tell her was how far into the thick jungle they needed to travel before coming upon the four-hundred-year-old tree, but that did not surprise her. Her grandfather often left out such details in her training, leaving her to discover the next great challenge of being a shaman-in-training. Like the first time, they’d gone out to collect the roots and other vines needed to make natema, a sacred drink used by shamans to travel to the dream world of their ancestors. It had turned out to be a three-day excursion into some of the densest and primitive parts of the forest with little or no path to guide them, only Ompa’s assurance that they were going in the right direction.
Would today’s journey turn out to be similar? Would it be days before they arrived at the great Kapok tree? If so, she would regret not having eaten a more substantial breakfast as Maria had urged. But this time the journey lasted only another hour before Ompa slowed his pace and turned to her.
“We are almost there,” he said in a soft voice barely louder than a whisper. “From here on we are to be quiet with a minimum of talking. The great spirit of the forest, Amasanga, prefers quiet and we are to respect his wishes.”
Iya nodded, relieved to hear that they had arrived.
“Once there, take a few minutes to feel the energy of the great tree. Let the spirit of the tree guide you to a place where you can sit and connect more deeply. We will take part in the tobacco ceremony to further prepare your journey to the dream world. Prepare yourself.”
Iya nodded again, knowing what the last instruction meant. She quietly slipped away into the surrounding brush where she squatted down to relieve her bladder before returning to her grandfather’s side.
“Good,” Ompa whispered. “This way. Remember, in silence.” This time he did not use his machete to clear the path, but instead simply pushed the vegetation to one side or the other so Iya followed more closely on his heels ducking from time to time to avoid being slapped in the face by one of the branches.
Then Ompa paused and pointed up to the most majestic piece of nature Iya had ever seen. Towering hundreds of feet into the sky stood the majestic Kapok tree breaking through the canopy of the surrounding trees and continuing its journey to the heavens above. Iya felt her breath catch in her throat and felt the energy of the tree enter her heart. Such an extraordinary work of nature. As they slowly made their way forward, the base of the tree slowly came into view, its huge roots that started twenty or more feet from the trunk down to the ground making inviting coves around its perimeter. Reverently, they walked around the tree’s perimeter, stopping from time to time to take in the tree’s indescribable beauty.
She made her way around the tree twice before Iya felt called to one of the protective coves formed by the roots. She stopped and looked around to Ompa where he stood collecting a bouquet of plants in preparation for the ceremony. Ompa smiled and nodded. He joined her in the small area formed by the trunk and roots of the tree on three sides, then reached into the pouch around his neck and removed a small vial of liquid and some specially cured tobacco leaves. While the tobacco plants found in the rainforest were not as strong as the ingredients of natema, they still had special powers in guiding those who snorted the concentrated liquid to the world of their ancestors.
Iya had participated in the tobacco cleansing ceremony a few times before finding the process to be uncomfortable yet the results were often well worth the stinging and sneezing that often proceeded the journey. Now she stood with her back to the tree and closed her eyes, taking in several deep cleansing breaths as Ompa waved the bouquet of leaves over her body, chanting softly as he did so. As he did so, Iya felt a lightness of her spirit as she eased herself into the experience. After a minute or two, Ompa stopped, and Iya opened her eyes. She gazed into the gray eyes of her grandfather and felt his love for her. She watched as he mixed the tobacco with the liquid making a brownish slurry. She held out one hand with her palm up as he squeezed some of the liquid into it, then as she had been shown before, she lowered her head to snort the liquid first into one nostril and then into the other, taking a deep inhalation each time.
As before, she felt the plant energy course through her body while the stinging sensation of her nose made her eyes water. She took a second deep breath before sneezing violently expelling much of the liquid. She felt Ompa’s hands on her shoulders supporting and soothing her. She lowered her hands to her sides, palm outward, and gazed up towards the heavens and the broad expanse of leaves. She stood like that for several minutes as she connected with the living spirits all around her before finally sinking to the forest floor in a posture of meditation. She faintly heard Ompa resume his soft chanting, but it wasn’t long before she felt her spirit leaving her body floating among the trees. Her spirit soared upward following the massive trunk of the Kapok tree breaking through the forest canopy and into the bright sunlight of the day.
This must be what it feels like to fly like a bird, she thought, but even more freeing, for she wasn’t even encumbered by the limitations of a bird’s body. She floated freely like that without a sense of time or direction until she saw below her a small lagoon of water and in the center of it floated a small dark object. She wondered what it was and as she had the thought, she felt herself slowly descend to get a better look. Why it’s a Capybara swimming in the water experiencing its own form of freedom. Capybaras were common in this part of the rainforest and were often seen in small communities or families. Iya had always admired their social easy-going nature and had learned in her school that they were one of the largest rodents anywhere in the world. As she drew closer she could see its tiny ears flicking back and forth, and its blunt snout just barely above the water. Then it paused from swimming and just floated before raising its head in her direction. Was it smiling at her? Iya wondered. It sure looked like it, but then again, she knew Capybaras’ small eyes and rounded nose tended to make them look happy all the time. But still, he was looking at her. She could feel his spirit connecting with her own, then felt more than heard the words, “You are destined for great things in your community,” then after a short pause, “and beyond.”
Had the Capybara spoken to her or was that her imagination? Before she could answer that, the little critter lowered its head and disappeared under the water, and just as suddenly Iya felt her spirit flying back in the direction she’d come and within seconds she found herself back in her body at the foot of the Kapok tree. She opened her eyes to find her grandfather sitting cross-legged a few feet in front of her.
“Welcome back,” Ompa whispered. “You found your spirit animal.” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Yes, I think I did,” Iya replied. “I met a Capybara.”
Ompa nodded. Ahh, yes, Capybaras make powerful companions in the spirit world. It is a good match.”
“Really? Why do you say that?”
“Well, they are gentle, loving spirits as are you. Capybaras will also never let you forget your true self.”
It was Iya’s turn to nod. “He told me I would do great things within my community, but then he added, “and beyond.”
“Interesting,” Ompa replied then closed his eyes. The two of them sat there listening to the sounds of the forest for several minutes until Iya started to become antsy. They still had a long walk back to their village and it was getting late in the day. After a few more minutes, Ompa opened his eyes and stood up. “Come. It is time to return.” He brushed off his backside. “You have done well today, my child.”
Iya felt the words warm her heart and bring a smile to her face. High prize especially coming from her grandfather. It lifted her spirits. The long walk home didn’t feel so hard after all until Ompa spoke again.
“Lead the way, Iya.”
Surely she had mistaken his words. After all, they both continued to speak in hushed voices. But no. Her grandfather had stepped to one side and now motioned her forward.
“Me?” She asked. “You want me to lead?”
Ompa nodded. “Take a moment to get your bearings, then listen to the forest. I won’t let you stray too far off course.”
Iya gulped, then with a shrug of her shoulders did what he asked. She remembered feeling the heat of the sun on her back during their journey to the Kapok tree but that had been in the earlier part of the day. The sun had now traveled to the west so once again it should be behind them. She walked slowly around the Kapok tree until she saw a barely discernible path leading off in the generally right direction. She turned around to Ompa who followed a few yards behind her.
“This way?” She asked.
“Is it?” Came the reply.
She looked again in the direction she had pointed and could make out the large footprints of her grandfather. “Yes, this is the way,” she replied.
“Okay, lead on,” Ompa said, and off they went.
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