Damn these stupid shoes! Kristin Webster stumbled and nearly fell as a three-inch heel sank into a crack in the sidewalk. She looked down in disgust. If she’d been thinking better, she’d at least have taken a moment to change before leaving in such a hurry. And not just because of comfort. She must look absurd, she thought, nearly running down the street, dressed in a pencil skirt and high heels.
She’d just met with a new client, and her boss insisted she dress this way for such meetings. The idiot didn’t even seem embarrassed, that he’d almost let his tax extension expire. He seemed confident that she could sort through his sloppy bookkeeping in the eight short days that he had left. And on top of that, he had liked the skirt a little too much. The meeting ran long, so she got home just in time to leave in a rush, to go pick her daughter up from school.
Thursdays were the only days that she had to be home on time to do this, so her parents could go to their bridge club. She hoped Amber would be ready to go. She wanted to get home quickly, to start work on this new project. The school was only a few blocks away from the home Kristin shared with her parents, so one of them always walked Amber home.
She heard a flop and a swish as a woman dashed past her, moving easily in sandals. The sound contrasted sharply with the crisp tap tapping of Kristin’s own footwear. This woman’s legs were tattooed with symbols and delicate calligraphy. Her tattoos were blue and simple, but they reminded Kristin of the swirls and abstract blotches of color that once decorated that other woman’s legs, six years ago. Kristin would remember those tattoos forever, after the marathon days that changed her life.
She paused outside the school to take a yoga-style breath. To think clearly. To be in the present. Amber would have lots of stories to tell. Last night she talked about two new girls who she hoped to be friends with. What were their names? She said her new teacher had two cats. Kristin herself once attended this school. She willed herself to stop, and to see the world the way she did when she was a child. Instead, in a flash, she found herself back in that long ago sweat lodge, as happened so often, recently.
In the dim light cast by glowing coals, back then, Shepherd Ziggy stood tall in the doorway, dressed in leather with amulets and feathers. He thrust a staff hard into the ground with a clicking, swishing sound. At his feet, people bobbed and swayed, repeating the sounds he made in a musical language, running up and down a scale, accompanied by a drum.
Towards the back of the tent, Phoenix intoned the chant. She sat cross-legged and barefoot, wearing shorts and a tee shirt. She too was reaching deep. Searching for a larger truth.
The hypnotic rhythm didn’t change as Ziggy stepped past a bearded man in a loincloth and a blond woman in a sari, to add more water to the firestones in the pit. Phoenix’s peace was startled when she inhaled a wave of steam. She opened her eyes and quickly closed them again against the sharpness of too much sage and mint.
She tried to embrace the burning in her lungs, sinking back into the rhythm of the chant. She struggled to clear her mind and then she felt an excitement, as though something important was happening.
And it was.
To her right she heard gulps and gasps for air. Phoenix’s spiritual glow was interrupted by an animal odor of pain and just-right-next-to-her fear, until she couldn’t resist its pull. She opened her eyes.
Sitting next to her, a very young woman, a teenager, was struggling to breathe. Her bare legs were nearly covered in brightly colored tattoos and she wore a loosely woven tunic that couldn’t hide the bulge of a baby, soon to be born. This was none of her business. Phoenix didn’t even know the woman. It was not her place to intrude, but something had gone horribly wrong. Ziggy continued pounding the ground, the chanting rolled on, but so be it. Phoenix reached over and touched the girl’s arm. When she turned, the girl’s green eyes were wild, and Phoenix felt as though a cold wind had trespassed the heat of the lodge.
“Are you all right?”
The drum paused for just one moment and then Ziggy pounded his staff hard, with authority. The steady beat resumed, but Phoenix stood and lead the girl out of the tent, into the cool, clean air of the Catskill Mountains. The girl collapsed, shaking and sobbing.
That all happened a long time ago.
Outside of that long-ago sweat lodge, the only name the girl gave was Soldier, but she clung to Phoenix like a drowning cat clings to a branch, screaming, as her contractions grew stronger. A midwife was called, who knew chants and songs that were supposed to guide the baby’s spirit. The contractions became stronger, again and again, and the sounds never reached the girl’s ears.
By the second day, the ferocity of Soldier’s grip weakened, and Phoenix insisted they had to get help. Shepherd Ziggy was opposed, and everyone had a story of the abuses imposed at hospitals, but the girl’s hands had become cold as ice. When no one else would help her, it was Phoenix alone who put her in the back of her car and drove fifty miles to the nearest hospital. The doctors told her she was just in time. The girl was desperately in need of fluids, that they gave her through a tube into her arm. They said Kristin had saved the girl’s life. And the baby’s too.
Phoenix stayed with Soldier through the whole process. No one would believe they were strangers because after every contraction the girl’s first action was to look for Phoenix, and then to clutch on with all of her strength. When the delivery was finally over, and they wanted Soldier to nurse her baby, she would only tell them to give her to Phoenix. She refused to touch the baby, but she was clear. Almost defiant.
“Give her to Phoenix!”
After they took the baby, Phoenix finally collapsed into a sleep that was barely broken by dreams. When she awoke, Soldier was gone. She had left a note, with careful handwri