The oldest elder doesn’t have a name. No one in our tribe has a name. Rawl and I still call him Unk. We make up names and words for everybody and everything. Rawl is my friend. I made up his name. He’s always trying to convince me that Sam, Joe, Roc, or Hans would be a better name, but I will always call him Rawl. We have names for everyone in the tribe, but Rawl and I are the only ones who use them.
We make up so many names for things that we can’t remember them all. Sometimes we say “stone” and at other times we say ” rock”. When a rock or stone looks special we might call it “quartz” or “granite”. When we search for nuts, berries, or fibers for the cooks and weavers we use the words we make up to tell jokes about others in the tribe. Our little jokes caused the weavers to ban us from outside their circle many times. They don’t have to know our words to know we are making fun of them. Without the weavers, we go naked – something we learned the hard way with our jokes.
Rawl and I long to be hunters, but the hunters believe that our talk will bring danger to them. We can’t learn to hunt until we learn to be quiet.
Rawl and I are the same age. We were born under the same full moon. The tribe celebrated our 100th moon for an entire night. That night Rawl and I ate more than we ever had. The weavers surprised us with outfits that had a hundred fibers woven down and across. Our favorite pigments, which were gathered on our last walk from the Great North, are blended into bright-colored dyes for the fibers. At the end of each thread is a shell, reed cutting, or bead that we collected on our many journeys.
Rawl and I make up words and names for more than people and things. We invent words for our feelings and ideas, like joy, sorrow, bad, good, love, hate, more, less, forever, and grief. Grief is a word we reserve for the burial pond.
Of the few words the tribe does use, “Water of Youth,” is what they call the burial pond. Other tribes call it “Water of Death” because we submerse our dead there. The still waters of the pond preserve the bodies and garments of the dead. Unk believes that their lives will someday come back to them. He places bodies of our deceased into the water of the burial pond. They wear the clothes the weavers make for them to wear in their next lives.
Rawl and I call the elder who marks the trails we walk Rune. Rune is both a title and a name the tribe accepts. The scribe who inherits his work will also be Rune.
I want to grow up to be the Rune. So does Rawl. We know that the tribe will choose only one Rune and they may not choose either of us. Rune thinks our words are good and that we should make carvings for the ones that could help us find our way to and from the Great North.
Rawl and I are not the only ones who make up secret names. Some of the young couples who are in love make up secret names for each other and the things they do together.
I make up many words for my hatred of walking. Rawl has even more. In the fall, the tribe walks south every day for four months, stopping only four times for the Feast of the Full Moon. In the spring we walk northward for four months. We stop and trade with tribes of the Great North for two months and the tribes of the Water of Youth for two months in the winter.
We must carry things when we walk and are always adding more food to our packs than we can eat. When there is plenty to be gathered we put together sleds from tree branches.
Rawl and I hate dragging those sleds.
Rawl and I are the eldest gatherers. We teach younger ones how to select ripe berries that aren’t poisonous, how to dig the thickest and sweetest roots and how to select strong fibers for the weavers. We want to be hunters and often loiter close to the hunt, watching their every move. The weavers’ circle is for the eldest tribe members and being inducted is a great honor. Some sit outside the circle for many moons before they are called to join.
I like to gather bright, warm colors. Rawl collects colder greens and blues. Most of my pigments come from the mountains that we cross over midway between the Great North and the Water of Youth. The cracked faces of mountains ooze bronze, red, orange, and yellow minerals that the weavers make into dyes. Ralph collects the greens and blues from leaves and blossoms of plants he finds at the shores of the lakes and in the tropical jungles around the burial pond.
Winter follows us close behind us as we walk from the Great North. One cold winter approached us early and entrapped us in snow and ice. Rawl and I huddled inside animal skins close to the two young girls we liked most. The girls kept us warm. We now find places to walk with them that are farther and farther away from the tribe’s activities.
Two of the eldest weren’t so lucky that early winter. They froze to death and we dragged their bodies back to the burial pond on sleds. Every few miles an elder sprinkled water from the burial pond over the bodies to keep them ready for their next lives beneath the Water of Youth.
The two girls who kept Rawl and me warm that winter are planning a double-wedding ceremony for us. We don’t have any new words to say about that. We discovered the two girls have a secret vocabulary of their own.
We can’t wait to learn their words.
By Jerry Lee Osborne