What once was, is, and always will be…
The old woman lay on her bed of sheepskins in front of her hearth, a strand of amber beads cradled in her hand, others laying in front of her. She fingered the beads, one by one, slowly, lovingly. They were of all colors, from a deep, rich, cognac, through the many shades of honey, a yellow like captured sunshine, and a few treasured beads of white streaked with butterscotch or speckled with gray-green, the remains of moss that lived so long ago that people didn’t exist.
The strands of amber and loose stones were her cherished companions, as life slowly faded from her frail body. Too slowly, she thought. She was ready to move on from that life, to rest and heal and forget the years of pain and loneliness. And finally, to be born again. There was only one task left to her: to sort the stones into strands for each of her daughters and her granddaughter.
Gazing into the fire, watching the reflection of the flames in the glowing stones, she recalled how each piece had come to her, the hours spent on each one, slowly and gently shaping and polishing it. They were beloved friends and allies now, each with its own personality. She could remember what had been bartered for each stone, and which had been handed down from her mother, grandmother, and all the women of her line, deep into time. The sea they came from was so far away, she had only made the long trip once.
She thought about the message hidden in the amber that only she fully remembered. She had told her family, her village, and they knew. They had lost interest in the old woman who lived on the mountain, now, though. Some even called her a witch, though in times past, when she was younger, strong and healthy, they called her a healer, medicine woman, seer, shamaness. Each and every one wore an amber bead around their throat, though, a sign of the pact they held with the Spirits of the Earth and Amber, so all was not lost.
A rustling at the door, and her only granddaughter came through, bringing her the day’s pot of soup. “I had to make it today. Mama is sick. She has the cough and burns with fever.”
“I know, Ryabina. The sickness blazes bright in the village. I can see it all the way from here.”
“What should I do, grandma? Will mama die?”
The old woman gazed into the fire, eyes unfocused and searching for changes to what she had seen. She reassured her granddaughter that her mother would be all right, in time. She reached for her herb bag, the blend made just for this, long foreseen, illness. She scooped a cupful of the hot herb brew out of the pot at the edge of the fire , and handed it to the girl, demanding she drink. She sprinkled more herbs into the pot, added water, and picked up the second, larger, bag of herbs that was ready and waiting for this visit.
The girl wrinkled her nose at the taste, but sipped it as her grandmother demanded.
“You will take these herbs to her, and make sure she drinks a cup, as often as she can. She should drink it hot, Ryabina. Do you understand? And you must drink, too. You will not be sick if you do. Boil it strong.”
“Now, I must tell you the story of Amber, again, beloved. Once more, and you must listen very careful, so you may tell your daughter one day. I will tell you more than you have ever been told, even at Solstice.”
“Long ago, when the nights were long and the days were deep, there were no people living yet. The land was covered by evergreen forests that stretched as far as the eye could see. The trees were bigger than any you have ever seen.”
“They reached their branches to the blue sky, the bright Sun shown down upon them, and the rain, snow and ice fell.”
“Spirits lived in these trees, the Dukh, the Guardian Spirits of the Earth. The most powerful among them had lived in every type of life that there could be. They had been every type of tree, every tiny insect, even fish and animals that no longer live. When they had sampled the life of every being, they came to rest among the biggest and tallest of the trees, in a place long gone.
“But the Dukh could come out of their trees, could move around the Land, and they could speak to each other. They could also look into the future, very very far. One day, they came together and used all their strength and power to see further than they ever had before.
“What they saw was terrible – a land where people lived, but cut down the trees, burned the land, dug deep into Mother Earth’s body and broke Her bones. The sky became full of sick grey and yellow clouds, like a stream does when you stir up the mud, until they could barely see any stars. They built things upon the bare dirt, things like our cabins, but these towered taller than any tree. The ground was covered in a black tar, and even grass struggled to grow in many places.
“The Dukh watched as time unrolled outward, and they saw these people change our Mother Earth, until many, many, beings died and were no more. They even saw a time when huge fires swept over the land, but these fires were not natural, and they destroyed everything they touched, leaving only ashes behind.
“The land, that was once clean and pure, was fouled and dirty.
“The Dukh could not let this be, so one among them offered to take up a life among these strange people. She had life after life as many types of animals and trees, and finally people appeared. She had many lives as a human, all over the Earth, for many generations. Finally, she came to the terrible time that the Dukh had foreseen, and, remembering herself, she was horrified.
“When she had seen, had learned, all she could about this time and these people, the Dukh called to her spirit, and she was pulled back through time, to stand before them. She gazed at the huge trees around her, the towering spirits, and they helped her remember that she had once been one of them. They asked her how the terrible times had come to be, and what could change that from ever happening. She answered as best she could.
“‘Those people forgot their connection with the Earth, Her animals, the wisdom of the trees,’ she answered.
“The Dukh decided to send a message down through time, and so they began to bleed from their bark, the sticky resin we see on some trees now.
“They saw to it that some of this hardened and became the sacred Amber. So the people would see the magic within, and know this was a message from the trees, they made it so it became a stone, but one that would float upon the sea, and sink in plain water. They made some capture bright sunlight inside, and some captured the colors of sunset. Inside some, they set ants and other bugs, or bits of moss and bark.
“With time now changed, when people came into the Earth, they found the sacred Amber, and there have always been those among them who have remembered the message in Amber.
“Every one of our people now wears a piece of the sacred stone, a reminder of the message of the Dukh, and when they die, it is passed back to their tribe’s seer, always a woman. And we decide which piece will be given to which child as it is born, and tell the story of the Dukh and amber’s message every Solstice.”
“Why have you told me so much more, Grandma, and how do you know so much?”
The old woman smiled gently, and said, simply, “Because I remember it, child. Some day you will tell this story to your daughter, and she will remember it, too. She will remember it all. It is the blessing of our line.”
Gesturing at the amber, spread out, the light from the open door glowing within, the old woman asked her granddaughter which piece spoke to her the most. She took off her own most loved piece, which she had worn since the remembering came upon her, and placed it with the rest.
Ryabina touched it gently, reverently. She had held it often, as a baby and then a child, as her grandmother cradled and carried her. “This one,” she whispered.
“So shall it be,” the old woman said. “This is a hagstone – see the holes you can peer through? You can see spirits through them, and they will catch any evil or ill-wish that comes your way, and destroy it. Never forget that.”
“I will remember,” said Ryabina, softly.
“Remember it all, Ryabina. It is important. Now, run and brew the herbs for your mother, and don’t forget to drink as much as you, can, too. I love you, Rya.”
As the girl slipped out the door, her grandmother reflected on the long life she’d had, this time around. She sat about sorting the amber stones and beads, a small smile upon her lips. It was almost time to rest, and she longed for it. She knew Ryabina would be a good shamaness after her, and with that knowledge, came peace.
Chanting softly, she gazed into the amber, and remembered all the lives she’d lived… even the one where the land was polluted and dirty. She was glad that had only come to pass for herself, and that all others had been spared, when the Dukh changed the course of time.
Now, the people lived like they should, and the Earth was clean and pure, again and forever more.
(…for Rowan, whenever she may be.)