by Andrew J. West
“But I’ve never been visited by the ancestral spirits. I was never initiated by Ioto as a shaman before he went to the other world,” Natar protests.
But the chief tells him, “You were chosen by him before he left for the other place. This journey to the underworld will be your initiation. You must bring back the Great Goddess who will bring back the bison for the hunt. Without the Great Goddess the bison will not appear and stark starvation will stalk us.”
With the elders in the lead, all gather in a clearing at the foot of the mountain. Theirs it was to witness the commencement of Natar’s journey. Turning to face Natar, they chant solemn words of encouragement which are somehow at the same time words of desperation.
Such a curse had befallen the tribe since the passing of Ioto that no bison or deer or game of any sort had been hunted, and the Earth bore few berries and roots for them to eat. It is as if the beasts had followed their dead master along the path home into a vast burrow.
But Natar can’t feel the Eagle God living inside him, as the elders say it does, just as he can’t feel the true shaman having possessed him. How will he search out the deepest cavern in the Land of the Dead, where the elders say he’ll find a sacred spike thrust by the gods into the heart of the underworld—from which he’s to carve the Great Goddess—if the great and powerful shaman Ioto and the Eagle God aren’t there to guide him?
Natar checks that the twine tying the hand-axe and flint-dagger to his torso is fastened tightly. The chief passes him a cloak of feathers and eagle’s beak, the garb of the shaman, which he reluctantly puts on. Lastly, the chief hands him a fire-stick.
“After the fire dies, it will be up to the shaman and the Eagle God to guide you,” says the chief.
“And if they won’t, I’ll remain with the ancestors forever,” adds Natar.
He is resigned either way, since his mother and father had both already gone to dwell in the Land of the Dead. He misses them dearly. Perhaps he will meet them again there. He hopes so. Even after the fire is dead, he at least knows he can rely on the sharpened axe and dagger to release the Goddess from her stone bondage. This is magic he knows well how to use.
He steps into the shadows. At first he’s blind, but soon is able to make out the walls of the cave flickering in the yellow and white firelight. He moves forward, slowly, step by step, only able to clearly see the ground just in front of him, making his way towards the darkest recesses at the back of the cave, where the passage leads underground. The further he goes the colder it becomes and as he heads into the passage it becomes colder still.
The passage winds downward with the ceiling just above his head, then it becomes a narrow tunnel and he has to creep along on all fours, before slithering like a snake, hitting his head on the hard rock ceiling. He moves cautiously forward holding the fire-stick in front, struggling to suck in the stifling air until, finally, he finds himself kneeling at the edge of a vast chamber.
This is the place the elders told him they and Ioto came to commune with the animal spirits of the hunt, where the shaman put spells on their prey by painting them in red ochre. Natar moves around the walls in awe as he observes one painted beast after another—mammoth, rhinoceros, bison, bear, horse, ox, reindeer and wolverine—the beasts they have always hunted, many spouting blood from spears and darts. He also finds the shrine usually occupied by the Great Goddess, a raised pedestal in the centre of a circle of stones. But the Goddess is gone, a reminder that he still has far to go, and he reluctantly heads towards the very bottom of the cave, where the shaman alone is allowed.
At the far end of the chamber he finds another narrow tunnel leading further downward. Creeping on hands and knees, he is barely able to wiggle inside. Soon, the fire goes out, leaving him adrift in the silence of the absolute and desolate nothingness.
He gropes around, moving little by little. The further he travels into the bottomless abyss, the further he feels he’s travelling into the unfathomable chambers buried deep within his own soul. He feels himself disintegrating into the despair and misery of this invisible void. Facing the fear of the underworld is to face the fear within his own heart, but the fear of death must be conquered if he’s to succeed in his quest.
He lies down flat on the stone floor. He doesn’t know how long he spends in this timeless, changeless place without the Sun, her husband, the Moon, and their offspring, the stars, to illuminate the visible world. Here in the underworld, the heavenly bodies are in perpetual eclipse, leaving him without a glimmer of hope. He must make himself continue on, but he’s become paralyzed. How will he ever find the way? he asks himself. Has he been forever entombed for having affronted the ancestral spirits who had decided to claim his life in punishment for the blasphemy of daring to appear in the garb of the shaman.
Or perhaps he is dead.
But he knows he’s alive because in this secret place where eyesight counts for nothing his other senses have been heightened. In the silence, his struggle to breathe and his heartbeat, pumping fast with fear, are louder than the trumpet of a mammoth.
Here in this black sea of shadows he stays completely still and silent, in mortal terror that the spirits of the dead will hear him, or the infernal spirits that lurk here will discover his trespass. After a while, he knows not how long, he feels himself beginning to drift, as though his body is being lifted up by the palpable blackness, or his mind has abandoned his lost body and now wanders by itself.
Perhaps he is asleep, caught in a nightmare. Or maybe the light of the external world has somehow penetrated as far as he into this prison. Possibly, worst of all, he has always been trapped in this cave, and his entire life has been nothing but a trick of dark shadows.
In the delirium he sees two gleaming points of light, a pair of fierce eyes staring directly into his horrified heart, ready to burst. He glimpses another pair of eyes that seem to peer through his soul from a distance, before hiding, waiting for the right moment to strike.
“Natar, my beloved son, it is I,” comes a feminine voice from the past which he could never forget.
“Mother? Is that you?”
Natar’s mother steps out from the veil of shadows in a burst of dazzling light.
Natar rushes to greet the mother he hasn’t seen since eight winters ago when an evil spirit had possessed her and she died of a dreadful illness, hugging her in happiness, sobbing. Suddenly, he feels a sharp pain in his back, then another through his shoulder, and watches in disbelief as his amputated arm drops to the floor.
He turns around in shock, stumbling backward.
It is his father, who had gone to be with his mother four summers ago after being trampled in a stampede of bison during the hunt—the animals’ blood vengeance against the tribe of hunters. Wielding a double-axe, he strikes Natar in the other shoulder joint, dismembering that arm too, slices across his stomach, disemboweling him, and strikes below the hips, amputating both legs in a single swing of the great axe, and finally decapitation.
“Mother,” mutters Natar as his severed head stares up into the shimmering eyes of his mother and father who, smiling maliciously, are the last thing he sees as he fades into oblivion.
Annihilation or infinity, Natar knows not.
When he awakes, he finds himself intact. To his surprise, he can feel that he still has two arms and legs. His head aches: he must have hit it. He gropes around in the dreaded dark. He is alone. The visitation of the spirits was nothing but a horrific nightmare from which he is uncertain if he has yet awoken.
His mouth and throat are dry as a bone and his stomach groans with hunger, but his fears are far greater than his needs. He is far from being free of the phantoms inhabiting this boundless place. He stares out into the dense wall of darkness for so long it becomes an obsidian mirror held up in front of him. He pictures his own fevered face pulled and contorted in terror as he swims in a tumultuous sea, eternally tormented.
He stands face to face with the danger residing within himself, the bison ghost haunting his innermost being. With a rending roar, out of the darkness rears the beast. Natar is trampled beneath hooves and pierced by horns, until all is abruptly illumined with an unimaginably bright light—terrifying the beast—sending it fleeing. Before him is Ioto as clearly seen as if strolling up in the midday Sun.
“Fear not, Natar, every man can see in the light, but only the shaman sees with the inward eye. You are a true shaman: evil spirits and the dead can do you no harm. You can see them but they can’t see you. It is you who is invisible. But you must summon the Eagle God to guide the way to the Great Goddess.”
“But how, master?” Natar replies.
“Breathe like the eagle, deep and silent. Speak in the sacred language of the Eagle God. He will lead you through the underworld.”
Ioto disappears as quickly as he had appeared, burying Natar again in dawning darkness, leaving him in solitude, struggling for breath in the suffocating cave. But Ioto’s visit has given him not only the knowledge to do what he must; the visitation has given him the courage he needs to do it.
A soul-breath enters him. He swallows it, holding it in until it becomes unbearable and then lets it out with an “eaw” sound rising up from his stomach in harmony with the breath. He is surprised when he hears the Eagle God answer him not singly, but over and over again receding away from him. He takes another deep breath, holding it until the pain becomes unbearable and then lets it out with another “eaw”. Again, the Eagle God says “eaw” back to him many times leading in a specific direction. To be sure he holds another breath as long he is able and exhales “eaw”, and, yet again, he can track the direction of the Eagle God as clearly as if he was visible. Natar quickly follows, crawling forward holding his breath and repeating “eaw”.
As he moves deeper into the inner reaches of the labyrinth, repeating the sacred breathing and language, “eaw”, “caw”, “ee”, the Eagle God tells him how far away the walls are, how high the ceiling is, and if there are any sudden drops in front of him. It is as though the Eagle God has given him a new way to “see”, perceiving shapes and forms in the blanket of darkness—and feel—as whenever the Eagle God speaks, Natar hears him not only with his ears, but with different parts of his body, sometimes in the head, other times the chest, and sometimes with his back.
Passing through another narrow tunnel, the ground becomes wet and slimy. He finds a shallow pool of water and laps doglike, stumbling upon a blind salamander which he eagerly consumes raw. Having found some relief from the agony of thirst and hunger, he continues his journey down the slopping shaft.
When the tunnel opens up, the Eagle God answers his calls in flutters, as though he has taken to the wing in a large hall and is perched high above him, settled at the top of the world. Natar sits in silence, holding his breath, listening. After only a few moments he hears a “shsh”, followed a few moments later by another, “shsh”. It’s not the Eagle God, but the Great Goddess herself whispering for him to come to her. He crawls forward, still holding his breath, across the slippery floor until finding himself kneeling before the source of the sound.
He is splashed with water. He reaches out and touches a smooth wet round surface jutting up from the floor. At once he lets out his breath with a “caw” and the Eagle God speaks from directly above. He has found the Great Goddess.
At once he unties the axe and begins chopping at the base of the rising shaft of tapered limestone. As he strikes the protuberance, the Goddess calls out louder and louder in a crescendo of ecstasy that fills the expanse. It is as though he is inside the womb of the Great Goddess herself.
Once she is free from the floor, he takes the dagger and allows his spirit to discover her shape in the rock, spontaneously carving her corpulent proportions by following the natural flow of the limestone’s grain. He sculpts her billowing breasts above her pregnant belly and ballooning buttocks and thighs, fluidly hewing the fine detail of the bison horn in her hand, until finally etching the swollen mons veneris and gouging out the deep hollow of the gorgeous fountain of her cosmic fertility, the source of the waters of life.
Having completed his task, Natar retraces his path, returning the way he came, again guided, as he had been on his journey in, by the Eagle God, carrying the carving of the Great Goddess. He passes back into the labyrinth, passing through the tunnel where his parents and Ioto appeared, through the chamber and back through the winding passage to the entrance, stepping out from the sanctuary of shadows into the blinding river of light pouring from the blazing Sun God.
It’s as if he had been gone for an eternity, but no more than ten days have passed. The whole tribe gathers around him carrying great bundles of bison meat and hides collected after the hunt that very morning.
He holds up the effigy for all to see and the tribe dances in a circle around the leaping flames of the hearth. They sing and feast while Natar drinks the blood of the bison from a magic horn, pouring it over his head and chest and smearing it on himself, before going with the elders into the gallery inside the cave. Once there, he places the rotund goddess in the centre of the shrine surrounded by stones and they celebrate the return of the giver of life.
As the elders sing spirit songs and beat drums, Ioto comes back from the Land of the Dead to teach Natar the sacred dance. Wrapping themselves in the animal’s shaggy hide, they hop on their heels like a bison—the beast that gives its life in unselfish love so the tribe may live—dancing in divine inebriation, giving thanks to the Great Goddess for bringing back the herd.
Editor’s Note on Great Goddess:
You can view a larger picture of the drawing for Great Goddess by clicking on the picture at the top or going to Vasan Sitthiket’s Great Goddess artwork.
Note on Author’s Work:
Great Goddess is not Andrew J. West’s first story in Eastlit. The following works have also been published in Eastlit:
- The Mansion was published in the June 2013 issue of Eastlit,
- Art of Evil appeared in the August 2013 issue
- The Puppet Tree was published in the October 2013 issue.
- The Student featured in the December 2103 issue.
- Self Portrait appeared in Eastlit February 2014.
- Three Worlds, the online photo-poetry exhibition was in Eastlit April 2014.
- Perfect Present was in Eastlit June 2014.
- City of Clay featured in Eastlit September 2014.