This was the right place. It had to be. There was a peace here, a quietness unlike the rest of the jungle. It didn't look any different, except for all the statues. But he could feel it. He could feel the calm seeping into him, helping him to prepare for what he hoped would come. Maybe it was wrong to go after it like this, to want it so badly. Maybe he was supposed to wait for it to come to him. But he'd never gotten anything by waiting for it. He'd always had to go out and get whatever he wanted. He hadn't just waited for Jim to show up at his office three years ago; he'd gone to the hospital and told Jim to come. If he hadn't done that, his life would be completely different now. He sure as hell wouldn't be here, in the middle of the Sierra Verde rainforest, hoping for a defining shamanic vision.
This couldn't be wrong. A lot of shamans sought visions deliberately. And a lot of people who weren't shamans went on vision quests. Of course, they usually prepared for them with purification rituals, like bathing and fasting. He hadn't eaten much in the last few days, but he wasn't fasting either. And he was filthy. On top of that, shamans went through years of training. He'd had no training at all, unless you counted on-the-job experience. So maybe he wasn't supposed to be here.
No, that made no sense. Obviously, he was here. He'd found the place. If he wasn't meant to be here, he wouldn't be. Simple as that. So quit doubting yourself, Sandburg, and get on with what you came here to do. But a bath probably wouldn't hurt. Especially since all the dirt he'd smeared on his skin was starting to itch.
Might as well do this right. Blair removed his clothing--everything, including his boxers. It was always better to approach the spirits as humbly as possible, and you couldn't get much more humble than naked. He pulled the band from his hair--they were a bitch to get out when they got wet--and approached the water. Though the pond was small, its water was deep blue and inviting. He stuck a tentative toe in: cool, but not cold. Just the way it should be.
Blair waded into the water. He thought only briefly of drowning. There was no real fear of it in this place. Within a few steps, the water level had risen to his waist; a few more, and he was swimming, pulling toward the waterfall. It was usually best to purify yourself with running water. Besides, it would be fun.
Clear water foamed white when it struck the pond's surface. Around the fall, plants and vines hung, almost all of them flowering in tropical hues of scarlet, fuchsia, canary, and purple, their scents so strong that they seemed to perfume the water. Blair ducked under the cascade, his feet finding a ledge on which he could stand. He straightened into the flow. Water pounded on his skull, made his hair into curving snakes that clung to his face and neck, and sluiced the last of the dirt from his skin. Eyes closed, he stood under the clear flood until he knew himself cleansed.
Using the ledge as a diving platform, he plunged back into the blue water of the pond and made his way slowly to shore. It seemed forever since he'd felt so calm, and he didn't want to leave the water's influence. He floated for a while, gazing at patches of blue sky through the foliage of overarching trees, but he couldn't stay there all day. At last, he forced himself back to the land.
He had no clean clothes. For a minute, he debated the possible embarrassment of being caught naked, but he knew that wouldn't happen. No one would come here. If anyone did, the sentinel would stop them. Leaving his discarded clothes where they were, he sat down on the ground and arranged his body in half-lotus position. He touched thumbs to fingertips, laid his hands on his knees, and closed his eyes.
Deep breath. Hold it. Let it out through your mouth. Deep breath. Hold it. Let it out through your mouth. Blair felt his body settling, centering, finding its place with the earth. He let go of conscious thought, of conscious breath, and sank into himself. There was no urgency, no time, no world. There was .
Blair opened his eyes and saw himself. But not himself as he was now. This was himself as he'd been three years ago, the day Jim had first come to his office: white shirt, Guatemalan patchwork vest--Whatever happened to that?--torn jeans and all. With the addition of a gold star glowing in the center of his forehead.
"Funny," he said, nodding at the star.
"Hey, man, you asked for it," younger Blair replied.
"I was kidding."
His younger self just grinned. "You ready?"
"To go, man. Come on!"
His younger self took off through the trees. Blair scrambled to his feet and ran after him, keeping the bright patchwork in sight. He wanted to yell at himself to slow down, but he didn't waste his breath. Visions almost never did what you wanted them to. So he ran, following himself, trying to consider all the implications of what that might mean, and trying not to think about how much this was killing his bare feet or how much easier it would be if he were the wolf, which would not only be completely cool, but would also be more practical.
Thought/was and he ran now on four feet, his vision sharper, his hearing more acute. His younger self was gone, but he ran on, leaping fallen trees, dodging obstacles without ever slowing, curbed by no thoughts or fears, running for the joy and the rightness of it, needing no goal and no end.
TREE loomed, bigger than sequoia, its bark mottled grey and brown, massive branches spread far, farther than he could see, bearing leaves of many shapes and sizes. He lurched to a stop. Wolf split into three and was gone, leaving Blair facing his younger self, facing the TREE. His younger self was still grinning, the star still glowing on his forehead.
"Come on, man, what are you waiting for? Climb it!"
"You climb it."
Younger Blair laughed. "Are you kidding me? I am not in the mood to have my skull ventilated by some pissed-off magpie. "
"Neither am I."
Blair craned his neck. The TREE vanished into the night sky. He knew what it was: some sort of representation of the World Tree, the Tree of Life. It was a fixture in a lot of cultures, so it was no real surprise that it had shown up in his vision. But how far was he supposed to climb? And what was he supposed to do when he got there?
"Blair, man, not everything can be analyzed," his younger self said. "Just go with it."
He sighed. "Yeah, okay, you're--gone."
His younger self had disappeared. Blair shrugged. He had a feeling he'd see himself again later. Stepping closer to the TREE, he laid his hand against the smooth, grey-brown bark. It was warm to the touch, almost like skin. There was a rushing beneath the surface, and he knew that it was the TREE's lifeblood coursing from the roots to nourish the tips of the slenderest twigs.
Branches grew low to the ground. Blair hoisted himself onto the nearest, and began to climb. The ground soon became lost in darkness and he was grateful for that. He climbed, trying to keep his eyes fixed upward, not wanting to look down or even to the sides. The TREE bore fruit he didn't want to see. Sacs of pomegranate red hung like water balloons, seeming almost comical until whatever was inside moved, pushing at the elastic walls with what might be elbows or knees or talons. He didn't want to know. He'd read tales of what was in the sacs: shamans or their souls, demons, animals--they varied, but he didn't like the idea of any of them, didn't like thinking of the possibility of any part of him--body or soul--being imprisoned in one of those sacs. The sacs weren't prisons, really. Their contents were growing there as in a womb, but as far as he was concerned, one womb was enough for any lifetime and he wouldn't go back without a fight. So he climbed and didnt look and tried not to see, because he had the most godawful, irrational fear that if he looked too closely, he'd be able to see through the pomegranate walls and what he would see would be himself. And he couldn't--absolutely could not--deal with that.
Minutes, hours, days. He didn't know how long he climbed. Like the beanstalk, the TREE went up and up, but it had no end in a giant's castle, it had no end at all, unless it were the end of the world, and he didn't want to find that, so he climbed. Eventually, his fear faded, and the sacs became just one more part of the TREE, even when they moved, even when he glimpsed the outline of a face stretching one rubbery wall. It was, there was no point in fearing it.
"Hey, man. About time you got here."
His younger self stood off to the right, waving at him, surrounded by light so bright that Blair had to squint just to look at him. In contrast, the star on his forehead seemed subdued. He'd added a pair of sunglasses with rectangular frames and reddish lenses, but other than that, he looked exactly the same.
Blair walked a branch to its end. He could see no floor or ground to support him, just light, but his younger self showed no signs of falling, so he took it on faith and stepped off the branch. He didn't fall. He couldn't have said what it was he stood on, only that it was like nothing he'd ever touched before. His younger self waved an arm around.
"Pretty cool, huh?"
"It's kind of bright."
"Oh, right. Here." His younger self took off the sunglasses and handed them to Blair. "I don't really need them anyway."
Blair gazed at the lenses in mild disgust. "Rose-colored glasses?"
Younger Blair clapped him on the shoulder. "It's your head, my brother. You have no one to blame but yourself."
"I thought I was past this stuff."
"Is anyone?" Younger Blair grinned again. "That was profound, by the way. You might want to put it in your notes."
"Profound, my ass."
His younger self laughed. "Come on, man, they're waiting for you."
"Uh-uh. That would ruin the surprise."
Blair put the sunglasses on, and the world changed. It was still bright--the sky was yellow--but there was soft grass beneath his feet, and trees grew here and there, their leaves so green they seemed to glow with a light of their own. Water flowed nearby; he could hear the music of it. Flowers dotted the grass, sprouting in clumps between the roots of trees. Birds sang in branches and soared overhead. If he looked, he was afraid he'd see little woodland creatures gathering around him expecting a song, so he didn't look. Disney-cliché or not, he had to admit it was nice. He could spend some time here.
"Let's go, man!"
His younger self morphed into the wolf and trotted off, not too fast for once, so he didnt have to run. He followed along, enjoying the warmth, and the feel of the grass, and the light breeze that played across his skin. The wolf headed for a grove of trees, all different: oak, willow, elm, maple, pine, and others he couldn't identify. He caught glimpses of something colorful between the trunks, but couldn't tell what it was until they entered the grove.
A tent had been erected in the center of the clearing, its design native to no people he knew, walls and roof constructed of skins painted with various designs. Scarlet, blue, and viridian feathers fluttered from the tent poles. Garlands of flowers draped the walls. A square of embroidered silk hung in the doorway; above it, a polar bear's head looked down, its white-furred skin embracing the roof. Though the disparate elements made no sense to him at all, he knew it was right.
The wolf passed through the silk without disturbing it. Blair hesitated. He was supposed to go in, he knew that. This was what he'd wanted, what he'd come here for. So why was he afraid?
"Dammit, Sandburg, quit being such a wuss and get in there."
A few more deep breaths, and Blair pushed the silk aside, ducking into the tent.
Seven people awaited him, seated in a semi-circle on the other side of a fire. His younger self was first, on the far left, grinning at him as usual. Incacha sat beside him, dressed in his kilt and paint, red feathers dangling from his braids. Next to him, an old woman in skins sewn with metal plates and charms scowled at the world. Feathers and tufts of fur encircled her neck, and a rough cap covered her grey hair. Blair recognized the ceremonial costume as that of a Siberian shaman. Beside her was a Native American from one of the plains tribes--Cheyenne, maybe. His black hair trailed loose to the ground. Eagle feathers hung on one side of his head. He wore a hairpipe breastplate, leggings, and moccasins covered with beadwork. On his right was a brown-skinned woman of about forty. A yellow scarf covered her head, decorated with beads and mirrors. Others draped her body, and voluminous skirts in many colors spread out around her. Next was an Aboriginal man, as naked as Blair himself, his thin body painted with concentric circles and lizards made of tiny white dots. Last, to the extreme right, was a Chinese woman robed in silks the color of sky and sunset, her hair carefully dressed. His younger self kept the grin pasted on his face. The rest gazed at him impassively, except for the Siberian woman, who openly sneered. Okay, she didn't like him. One out of seven wasn't bad. Did he stand, to show respect? Or did he sit, so he wouldn't be above them? Or maybe he was supposed to turn around three times and then lie down.
His younger self laughed. Scarf-woman and Incacha smiled, but the expressions of the others didn't change. Okay, Sandburg, watch what you're thinking. The Siberian woman snorted.
"This one thinks well of himself. Wolf," she spat. "Wolf is weak, not worthy of our gathering."
"He is here," Incacha said.
"That proves nothing."
The Cheyenne turned his head to look at her, his expression unchanged. Behind him, on the wall of the tent, his shadow grew, nose and mouth lengthening to snarling muzzle. "Wolf is the brother of my spirit, as you well know," he said. "Do you call me weak? Not worthy to be here?"
Bear-shadow hunched behind the Siberian. "Mistakes can be made."
"We have discussed this," the Chinese woman said quietly. "It does you no credit to argue in the presence of the initiate."
Both shadows subsided, shrinking back to those of a man and a woman. Scarf-woman smiled at Blair. "You may sit."
Blair folded himself into a half-lotus, and waited to see what they'd do next, trying not to think or to be too aware of his nudity. They didn't keep him waiting long.
"Who are you?" his younger self asked.
"That's what I'm here to find out," Blair answered.
Younger self cocked his head and repeated his question slowly, as though he thought Blair might not have understood the first time. "Who...Are...You?"
"I don't know."
Younger self shook his head and sighed. He drew his knees up and put his head down on them, locking his hands around his ankles. Well, that was obviously the wrong answer. But he didn't have any others.
"What do you want?" Incacha asked.
Blair took a moment to gather his thoughts before answering. There didn't seem to be any hurry. "I want to know where I belong."
"The Great City no longer has need of you?"
"I'm not sure it ever did."
"And Enqueri? He no longer has need of you?"
"He needs someone. I just don't know if it's me."
"Why are you here?" the Siberian demanded.
"You tell me," Blair shot back.
She didn't ask again. She just waited, glaring at him, staring him down, staring into his soul.
"To find answers," he said.
"Go home, boy," she growled. "Wolf, go home. There are no answers for you here."
"I can't just go home. I need to know. Am I a shaman? Am I Jim's shaman?"
"What is your choice?" the Cheyenne asked.
Blair met dark eyes, but found no answers there. "I don't understand."
The Cheyenne smiled at him. "Wolf-brother. Must the teacher be taught?"
"Spirits guide; they do not command. Choose your own path."
"Where is your heart?" Scarf-woman asked gently.
Blair turned to her. Her brown eyes were kind, but there was a spark of humor in their depths that appealed to him. He had never seen her before, but there was something familiar about her, something he couldn't name. When she rested her gaze on him, he felt both more and less naked than he already had.
"I think it's lost," he said.
"No." She shook her head. The beads on her yellow scarf sparkled in the firelight, and the mirrors scattered reflections on the walls. "Oshun's love is with you. Son and brother, your heart can never be lost. Blair," she breathed, and he understood then why people had once guarded their names for fear of enchantment. "Where is your heart?"
"With you," he wanted to say, but he knew that wasn't true. Or at least, it wouldn't be when he was back in the real world. She knew, though, and smiled her understanding and her power. He tried to be honest, but his knowledge of himself was imperfect, and he could only tell her what he thought was true. "It's not--in one place. Some of it's with my mother, some with my friends. Some of it went with Maya. A lot of it used to be with my work. But that's gone now. There's--an empty place. Like there was when Maya left, but--bigger. Different, anyway."
"And the rest?" she prompted.
"The rest is with Jim." He smiled briefly. "I knew that. But, see, it's not what I want that matters here, it's what Jim needs. If I'm not the right shaman for him, I can't stay."
"He is here," she said.
"He's my friend."
"What do you dream?" the Aborigine asked.
"I used to dream all the time," Blair replied. "But my old dreams are gone. They couldn't come true without hurting--a lot of other people."
The lined face was unreadable. "What do you dream?"
"Of helping people. I guess that's not new. Of helping Jim, the way I used to. Of being a shaman. A real shaman. That last one's kind of selfish, but I dream it a lot. I just don't know what it means, exactly. I don't know how to make it real."
"The dream is real," the Aborigine said. "The dream is the making."
"What do you see?" the Chinese woman asked.
Blair glanced around the tent. "Only this."
"Close your eyes." Blair obeyed. "What do you see?"
Jim shoved him up against his office wall, fear and rage warring in icy blue eyes. Jim snatched the phone out of his hand, angry because he was thinking of going to Borneo, of leaving. He handed Blair a gun, "I'm glad you came," then turned and vanished into the jungle. Slick fingers slipped from his grasp, and Jim sank into the vat of oil. Jim clapped his hands, and the Golden Fire People slunk away, back into the darkness.
Incacha grabbed his arm and wouldn't let go, gripped him hard and spoke words he couldn't understand, words Jim translated haltingly, words that didn't make sense. He was scared, and he wanted Incacha to let go. Incacha's grip tightened; then the shaman was dead. His hand fell away, leaving a bloody print on Blair's arm, a print he could still see.
He fought with Jim, forced him to listen, to take back his sentinel abilities. There was no more after that, no more of shaman, but there was fighting, fighting over the diss, and fear, and betrayal, always betrayal. Jim didn't trust him. Jim packed his belongings in boxes and told him to get out; Jim told him he needed a partner he could trust. Alex came to his office, and she had a gun and couldn't let him live. Wolf, he ran in the forest, until the black jaguar called him back. He leaped, the jaguar leaped, and there was light and warmth and rightness. And then it was gone, and there was cold, wet grass and a mask over his face, and he lay in a hospital bed while Jim said, "I'm not ready to take that trip with you, Chief."
Not ready. But Alex was ready, and Jim was ready for Alex. He followed her, wanted her, kissed her on the beach, but he stopped her, he took the canister of nerve gas from her and held her while she fell into the abyss of her senses.
Everything was wrong, everything. Jim accused him of betrayal, of being in collusion with Sid Graham; Jim wouldn't talk to him, wouldn't work with him, wouldn't look at him, wouldn't believe him. He kept his eyes on his written statement while he told the world he was a fraud, kept his eyes on the floor while he told Jim it was only a book, and Jim said, "It was your life," as though that mattered to him, but he still couldn't look at him. Jim tossed him a badge, and he didn't know what to say, what to think. Jim slung an arm around his neck, and everyone was laughing, everything was all right, but it wasn't, was it? Because as much as he wanted to work with Jim, as much as he wanted to stay with him, he could still see Incacha's bloody handprint on his arm.
"Tell me something I don't know," he murmured.
Blood ran from the handprint down his arm, dripped onto his leg and spread, soaking his pants, pooling on the ground beneath him. Jim pinned him down and pressed a cloth over his mouth and nose, choking him, suffocating him. Jim apologized, over and over, but he couldn't breathe, and the world fell away.
Blood. There was blood everywhere. A young black woman, a bloody cross carved into her chest. A man with arms stretched as though crucified; another arranged with hands folded, a bunch of flowers placed on his chest. Blair shook his head, eyes squeezed tightly shut. No! No more blood!
Jim's fingers flew, talking to him in sign; he answered the same way. Dice tumbled across the green felt of a craps table. Jim aimed a crossbow and fired. Jim was dead weight in his arms, head lolling back as Blair struggled to drag him over the ground. Jim was gone. Jim was dead, and Simon put an arm around his shoulders, trying to comfort him, but he threw Simon's arm off and stood, shouting his denial. Jim wasn't dead, he couldn't be dead,