The Testing

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Exhibition
Amanda Marlowe


Damiol smothered the fire, and removed his fur cloak. He stood naked, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the faint starlight. A chill wind whipped around his slender body as he stared toward the west, waiting for the moon to sink below the horizon. There. Not even a glimmer of light on the snow. It was time for the berries. Time to become a man.

“When you reach the peak of the mountain, you will find a ledge. The bush is there.” Elder Morrion’s instructions ran in an endless stream through his mind.

His hand sought in the dark among the thorns of the sepelia bush. When he had found five of the precious berries, he yanked his hand and allowed the thorns to rake his palm. Both blood and berries mingled black in the starlight. Damiol crushed them together, then dipped his fingers into his palm. He shook the paste into his mouth, then smeared what remained in streaks across his face. Dip. Swallow. Smear. Dip. Swallow. Smear. The last of the juice he rubbed over his chest.

“Once you have performed the purification with the sepelia berries, seek the bonfire, and watch. You will know when you must offer your entire self.” And that was all. There was nothing more to do but watch and wait.

He turned to seek the dim flicker of light, and stood watching it dance, letting the wind whip his hair in any direction it chose. He refused to shiver. If he shivered, he might fail. He focused on the bonfire below until it whipped about in his mind, dancing up closer, closer, up the mountainside, up above the ledge he was on, up into the sky to join the stars. To be one with the Goddess.

Damiol flung himself backward onto the ground, arms flung out, and continued to watch the fire as it danced among the stars. He would study the dance until the Goddess came to take her sacrifice, and speak the phrase that would guide his adult life.

A kaleidoscope of explosions flickered through his brain. The patterns were becoming clearer, the path of the Goddess on the fringe of his understanding. His body was still, but his eyes traced the circles within circles of the heavens.

Then understanding fled, replaced by terror as the Goddess herself appeared before him, shimmering and translucent as water. And then he was up, dancing to music that made him weep, and yet, too, he was flat on his back, spread out under the stars. And the Goddess was water, and air, and fire, and earth, and she danced with him, and on him, and in him. But the Goddess never spoke a word.

She returned him to his body, and wrapped herself around him. When he cried out as she accepted his sacrifice, she made no noise. When he bit back the cry as she branded him with the mark of her favor, she was silent. And as the glow of dawn spread throughout the mountaintop, she vanished. And still, she had not left him the phrase that would guide him to his life’s path. Had he failed? Impossible.

Damiol remained staring at the sky until late morning. When the sun edged into his direct vision, he arose and wrapped himself in his cloak. Then he started on the long trek home.

His mother and Erril were waiting at the gate, but though their eyes asked many questions, their mouths were closed as custom demanded. Damiol, too, spoke to no one as he strode through the village. His first words must be to the council of Elders.

He entered the longhouse, where the five Elders were assembled.

“Damiol of Erona, drop your cloak and show us the Goddess has declared you a child no longer.”

The fur cloak slithered to the floor. The blood had welled around the deep gouges on his chest, and the Elders nodded at the sign of the Goddess’s favor. “It will scar well.” Morrion smiled. “You must have pleased her.” Damiol looked at the floor, his eyes tracing the circle his cloak formed about his feet.

Elder Cormat spoke. “We have your medallion prepared, Damiol. Tell us, what words did the Goddess leave with you, that we may engrave them in the ancient tongue and set you on your path in life?”

At this Damiol raised his head, and looked Cormat in the eye. The Elder’s eyes were bright, and his smile large. Damiol shook his head. “She said nothing.” He watched the smile falter and the forehead furrow.

“You jest with us, Damiol. It is unlucky to speak of anything before you speak The Phrase.” Morrion’s voice seemed overloud as he spoke to be heard over the murmur of the council.

“Would I jest? You know my history, Elder. I have never lied. She said nothing. She came, She marked me, and She was silent.”

Morrion glanced at the rest of the council. “We must discuss this. Such a thing has never happened before. Yes, the Goddess has rejected boys who were not ready to be men, but never has she accepted and not offered guidance. Cloak yourself and wait outside.”

His mother Leera was waiting for him. Leera’s eyes widened as she saw him still in his cloak, and she traced the pattern on her palm repeatedly. Damiol bit his lip; he knew this was her habit when she was frightened.

Erril appeared, making faces at him. But he too was silent as he saw the fur cloak. Damiol managed a small smile for his friend, though his eyes strayed often to the closed door of the longhouse.

After an eternity, Morrion opened the door, and motioned Damiol back in. “We have decided to give you your medallion, for you have obviously earned your place among the men of the village. But we must leave it blank. If the Goddess said nothing, you are free to pick your own path through life.”

Cormat spoke up. “Your path does not lie with us, though you are always welcome here. Shed your cloak now, take your medallion, and dress as a man dresses.”

Damiol bowed to each Elder in turn as they withdrew, then dressed in his new clothes. He slipped out of the longhouse.

“Erril, my friend, you know better than to ask me.” He punched the lad’s shoulder. Erril wasn’t to take his testing until springtime, and was all curiosity.

“And you know better than to answer even if I do, worse luck.” Erril punched him back. “So, what’s it to be? I was hoping you’d be carpenter and join us as my father’s apprentice.”

“I don’t know yet. I must talk with my mother, Erril. I promise I’ll tell you what I can about it later if you’ll leave us be for a while.”

Erril grinned, and clasped Damiol’s hand. “I’ll hold you to that.” Then he dashed down the street.

Damiol turned to his mother, opened his shirt and showed the blank medallion. “Mother, does the Goddess hate me, that she leaves me with no words to guide me?”

“Son, How can I know what the gods have planned for you? You should have been God marked at birth, like me, yet you weren’t. You should have been Goddess marked last night, yet you weren’t. I just don’t know.” She traced the lines of blood on his chest. “I will be glad to see this when it scars. If it scars.”

Damiol shrugged. “If it scars, or if it doesn’t, I am Goddess marked. And if She chooses to be silent, that does not mean I can’t be guided by her wisdom.”

Leera smiled, “I call you ‘my boy’ for the last time. For those are surely the words of a man.”

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Amanda (a.k.a Jam), Toasted Cheese’s resident tech-whiz and keeper of the stars (both the heavenly and Hollywood kind), can be reached at bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com.

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