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Bearna by Jamie Sears
Bearna waited outside the Norki's tent, knees in the dirt, back straight. The faint smell of marking-paint drifted towards him from the other side of the flap, and the after-taste of clan magic lay heavy and sharp in the back of his throat. Thoma was sitting by the spirit-fire inside, discovering his calling. When the Norki was finished with Thoma, it would be Bearna's turn. Bearna was the last; five friends had gone in before him.
Bearna had looked forward to this day for two years. Two years ago he'd become a man in the eyes of his People, and the Norki had begun watching him for the signs. He might emerge from that tent a healer, a farmer, maybe even a soldier. Only Norki knew what was to come. Bearna had done his best to do a bit of everything, but he knew what he liked best; he liked to make things. He made his Na's bracelet so it wouldn't fall off anymore. He made a better grinding stone, tied to a stick, so the women's arms didn't get so tired. Bearna couldn't guess what calling the Norki would choose for him. There was no such calling as "maker."
A pebble dug into Bearna's kneecap. He didn't dare shift. His Na and Da watched from under the western stone-tree. This day was the culmination of all their efforts with him, their proudest day, as long as Bearna brought them no shame. Bearna knew that his Da wanted him to be a fisherman, like himself. Being a fisherman would not be so bad. Bearna liked the cool feel of the water against his legs, the achievement of pulling in a net full of fish. But if he were marked as a fisherman, he would create some better tools.
The tent flap moved and Thoma walked out into the clearing. His narrow face showed the marks of a soldier. Bearna smiled; that was what Thoma had wanted. Thoma never stopped talking about the others downriver, how they had cheated during their last raid. Thoma longed to sneak up on the others the same way, take their nut stores and smash their cooking pots. And if there was fighting, well, so much the better. Thomas smiled at Bearna and moved to the side where his parents waited.
Bearna swallowed and stood. He walked toward the Norki's tent with even steps. Once marked, his future would be set. Suddenly he missed the last two years and their freedom and possibility. His stomach twisted inside him, but his feet were sure. He moved aside the flap painted with purple birds and brown toads. Inside, smoke rose lazily from a small fire. The Norki sat cross-legged, rocking back and forth, his head thrown back so far that his white hair brushed the dirt. He was speaking to the spirits; Bearna must not interrupt. He took his seat with as little noise as possible.
Enough time passed for a song, and yet the Norki continued to rock. Bearna wondered what the spirits said and how they said it. Bearna could only see what was there in front of him and hear what was plain to hear, though he'd seen signs of spirit-talk in Thoma. Thoma could tell when a storm was coming and where the snakes were in the jungle, but he was better with his spear. Bearna smiled again, remembering Thoma's soldier marks and his joyous face.
So much time passed that Bearna began to think of climbing the northern stone-tree and looking over tops of the trees. He thought of the clouds, and how they drifted across the mountain tops so far away. He wondered if there were truly a lake on the other side too big to cross. In truth he believed no lake too big to cross. The problem clearly lay with the water-crafts. People needed better rafts. If a raft could cut through the water as a spear cuts through the air, it would go faster.
The Norki stopped moving and stared into the fire, drawing Bearna away from his makings. Surely the Norki could see in him some possibility. Why had it taken so long?
At last the Norki shifted and looked up at Bearna. His eyes, light as gold, shone in the firelight. He raised one bony finger, still colored with red paint, and pointed. "No marks," he said.
Bearna sat and listened to the spirit-crackle between them. He didn't understand what the Norki had said.
"No marks," the Norki repeated, lowering his hand.
"I must have a calling," Bearna said, feeling childish for pointing out something so obvious.
"No calling," said the Norki. The wrinkles around his eyes deepened as he spoke, as if it made him sad.
"Then what shall I do?" Bearna felt the panic rising now, chilling his stomach and drawing tight around his throat. "What shall I tell my Na and Da?"
"That is for you to decide. I have spoken."
"I can't go back outside." Bearna's fingers dug into the skin of his legs. "Not without marks."
The Norki sighed now and lifted a clay pipe from a bed of leaves. "Share with me first, then." He lit his pipe with a straw. Earth-flavored smoke puffed around his mouth. As Bearna accepted the pipe he tried not to let his hands shake. This was simply a nightmare, a bad imagining. When he drew that harsh smoke into his lungs, he would wake on his hammock in his family’s tent.
He coughed. The acrid weed tickled Bearna's mind and buzzed in his ears, but still he sat inside the Norki's tent. Still he had no marks. He puffed on the pipe a second time, for courage. He remembered once, many years ago, a young man had left the tent with no marks. Eyes glassy, he'd stumbled directly into the jungle, never to be seen again. Bearna had been very young at the time, and whenever he had thought of it, he reckoned the young man had done something terrible and deserved his naked face.
"It is time," said the Norki. "Go to the place that has called you."
"You know where."
Bearna stood on shaky legs. He didn't want to shame himself by asking a second time, or worse, by begging for some marks to display. He thought of his friends and envied every one. They were proud members of the clan now, with jobs to do. Bearna moved toward the flap, his throat too tight to swallow. He pushed it aside and stepped out into the sunshine.
He heard someone gasp. As he took another step, he heard a whisper and running feet. He didn't look, instead turning toward his parents. They stood as they had before, under the stone-tree, their eyes now wide with alarm. Na's smooth golden hand covered her mouth. Da reached out and gathered Na close to him, speaking to her in a low voice. Na shook her head no, but Da kept talking, looking at Bearna's approach out of the corner of his eye. A tear slid down Na's cheek, but at last she nodded.
Bearna stopped in the shadow of the gray stone and breathed a sigh of relief. They would be able to tell him what to do. They would tell him where to go, and when he could come home again. But as he came to a stop, Da and Na turned their backs to him, facing the tree. Though Na's shoulders shook with sobs, they did not acknowledge him. He was not clan. Bearna felt like a wood-tree that had been eaten inside-out by ants, except for his heart. His heart was still there, heavy and wounded, filling up the empty space.
A rock hit Bearna's shoulder. He turned, not raising a hand to protect himself. He no longer cared about that, but he was curious who had hurt him.
Thoma stood ten paces away, another rock waiting in his hand. "Leave now, animal," he said. His dark eyes showed no compassion, no memory of life before the marks. The red paint on his face had dried. Tomorrow it would flake away, but the color would remain forever.
"Thoma, it's me."
Thoma sneered. "Does the animal speak?"
Bearna shrugged and shuffled to his family’s tent. There was nothing to say, no way to prove his worth, now that the Norki had sent him out with a naked face. He went to his hammock and gathered his things, paltry as they were. A few stone tools for small makings. A smooth, flat rock he'd found useful in the past. His knife and slingshot. Shells that he used to trade with the others, when there was no fighting. He wrapped it all up inside of a skin, grabbed his spear, and left.