Bare Hands and Imaginary Animals

Carl just got hungrier and hungrier. He wasn’t even quite sure whether or not he had already passed this particular tree before. They all looked the same to him, and he was most likely walking in random circles.

“So…hungry…” He moaned with a dry, raspy voice. It had been a while since he had anything to drink either. Carl wondered if he would die in these woods. No. They wouldn’t let that happen to me…right? They’re probably following me too, right? Making sure I don’t get eaten by a bear or something … Unless the bear was his totem and he was supposed to be eaten.  The thought gave him shivers, and his head began to spin. Carl touched the rough bark of the closest evergreen for support. It was sticky from the sap.

“And to think I could be playing Diablo right now.” He spoke in frustration. But he needed to press on. At least for another hour maybe…then he could go back and just lie about finding something. He was well beyond the point of exhaustion now. The sweat lodge had drained him of most of his energy hours beforehand. He could still recall the suffocating heat, and how it seemed to cling to every hair and skin cell on his body. His check also still remembered the embarrassing smack he received when he asked if they were getting stoned. How was he supposed to know that the leaves they were burning were just tobacco and sweet grass? He was from the city; all of his past nature experiences were televised.

He just couldn’t see the point. He didn’t understand how traipsing through a dangerous forest with little to no survival skills, was supposed to make him a man. Bowing to get into the sweat lodge, the pouring of the water, the burning of the grass…sure they were all supposed to be symbolic but who cares? This was why he didn’t like coming to his grandparent’s reserve. He felt so disconnected.


                “You are still just a child Carl.”

                “Grandpa.” Carl sighed and rubbed his temples. He had been arguing with his grandfather for a good half hour no and he had a headache.  “I’m 18 years old. Legally I’m an adult, and I can pretty much do what I want.”

                “Perhaps in the white man system you are, but Carl, you have not yet passed the test. You have not talked with the animals, you do not know yourself. Can you say you are ready to live so far away, all alone?” His grandfather was breathing heavily, and Carl felt a stab of guilt as they bickered. He knew in his gut that the older man didn’t have much time left. That was why his father had insisted he spend two weeks at the reserve. But Carl was bored. He missed the excitement of the city, and especially the nightlife that he was just beginning to experience.

                They were both so alike, Carl could clearly tell he got the same large eyes as his grandfather, yet the old man’s seemed so much more expressive and alive. He knew that his grandfather saw the world differently. And that created the chasm between them.

                “How the heck is talking with animals supposed to tell me who I am?”

                “They can help teach us many things if you are willing to try to understand.”His voice was so soothing, his tiny wrinkled arm reached out to sit lovingly on his shoulder. Carl looked away from his grandfather’s insistent gaze.

                “No offense, Grandpa, but I don’t see how a rabbit ghost can help me understand law exams, or how a bear can  give me relationship advice on what do about Anna. I live a different life than you. I’m sorry but this stuff is pretty much useless to me.” He felt like a jerk for saying it so bluntly, but after two weeks of coping in a place where he didn’t want to be, his patience was pretty much gone. He was tired of feeling the expectation. He knew his grandfather was disappointed in him and his lack of knowledge of his heritage and culture. Maybe if he was frank, his grandfather would stop pleading with him.

                “There are lesson’s you have not yet learned, child. The spirit walk will help you…”

                “Help me lose weight more likely.” Carl’s stomach growled painfully, he crunched low to the ground to wait for the pain to pass. He had never experienced hunger like this before. It had been two days since his last meal, which was before he began the spirit walk. Now the light between the trees was beginning to change. The day was slowly giving way to the night, and the sun was setting; he could tell by the golden rays shimmering against the underbrush. He was beginning to feel afraid. He had no survival skills. He didn’t know how to make a fire, or navigate by the stars… all he had were his bare hands, and a dizzy brain.

So Carl decided to move his feet a little faster. He stumbled, once, twice, his hands out in front so he wouldn’t hit his body among the trees. He was no longer looking for signs, or animals, or anything. He just decided to move. He had no plan, and he gave up on trying to understand the point of it all. It was no use. But his grandfather wanted him to find his Totem animal so badly, that he made it his dying request. His words still replayed over and over in his head.

What you do not know you will fear. It is fear that has the possibility to destroy you, and all that you might have worked for.

It was true that he was afraid, but he could also acknowledge that it wasn’t just a night in these woods that scared him. He was worried about his next move. That conversation with his grandfather was a bluff. Carl was only 18 after all, and he had never spent more than a few days away from his comfort zone and family. He wasn’t sure how he felt going so far away for university. Soon, Carl’s feet began to run. Everything seemed to be going downhill, but strangely, in his heart he knew that he was running in the right direction.

The wind whipped his hair back as he ran, the pine needles scratched his arms and legs, but still he wouldn’t stop. The faster he moved, the happier he became and he laughed. His mind emptied. His fears began to slowly fade into recess. All too soon Carl stumbled, his centre of balance shifted so suddenly he lost his breath and fell. Carl inhaled. The scent of dirt and dead leaves didn’t repulse him. It was fresh. Different. Something new he had never experienced before. The feel of nature on his fingertips… he felt weirdly connected. Yet there was a stabbing sensation in his gut. Carl reached underneath him and pulled out a rock, lobbing it to the side, rustling the ferns beside him. Then he finally rose to sit on his knees.

In front of him was a grave, Modest, freshly dug and filled, the narrow stone marker was still free from any wear or ruin. A bouquet of dying flowers lay in front of the stone, and a simple leather cord holding a carved wooden pendant draped over it.

“Grandfather,” Carl whispered. He crawled over the short distance and reached with a shaky hand to touch the cool stone. Such a simple burial inside the forest his grandfather had felt so in tuned with. He stared at the wooden carving. It was an otter, and he could almost feel the love and attention that had gone into carving such a trinket. Carl couldn’t remember a time when it wasn’t around his grandfather’s neck, and wondered why it still wasn’t with him under the earth.

“You had so much faith in me grandpa.” Carl spoke to the orange sky above him, to his grandfather’s spirit. “Maybe… maybe one day I will understand what you were trying to teach me. But until then, I’m going to try to have some faith in myself.”

A Totem animal is meant to be a guide, but Carl wondered if his guide needed to be an animal. He reached down, and took the necklace.


6 thoughts on “Bare Hands and Imaginary Animals

  1. I really enjoyed this one. So rich with descriptions of the setting, of emotions, of culture and a young man’s heritage. He may have viewed the ritual as old fashioned and a waste of time, but soon discovered that process helped him to begin finding himself. Apparently, grandfather was right. There really is something to the old ways. Excellent story.

  2. I enjoyed this topic – maybe because have always had an interest in First Nations mythology. Used some in my novels.
    I like the way you blended his present journey and his previous words with his grandfather. Didn’t expect him to be finding the grave, but makes sense that is was pulling at him. Hopefully he’ll go on to find a way to blend the old and new ways within himself.

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