Short Story | ‘New Word to the Pa-Ayello’ by Scott Livingston, Illustration by Stephanie Matos
Frigid winds howled across a surface of deerskin pelts stretched taught over skeletons of wooden rods, providing shelter for the people huddled within. The eastward migration of the Pa-ayello had come to a standstill as monumental sheets of ice and snow blocked their passage.
Even the great orb that was their guide made its appearance only briefly each day, having graced the shivering nomads with precious little light and even scarcer warmth. The Pa-ayello, translated simply the people, were perishing.
As with virtually all masks death would wear as he afflicted mankind, it was the youngest and eldest that first succumbed to his icy clutches. Palinka returned from his somber task of burying both young and old in one of many such ceremonies performed in these times of sorrow.
A meeting had been called, an assembly of elders, to determine the fate of this driven band. Palinka was not yet numbered among the three called chiefs though he was by custom, the next in line. As such, he had a place but no voice, for his father Maiya spoke for his clan within this tribe of one people.
Ducking and weaving through the maze of angled wooden uprights, he made haste to this most important gathering. Palinka it was who orchestrated the intricate construction, to retain precious heat and light. The tipi of old and of times after these would stand alone, but necessity moved him to gather the bones and create a singular creature, wrapping skins around all to protect them as one. With privacy absent, its greatest drawback in times as these was the torment of having to bear the plaintive cries of a mother’s anguish, walking one side to the other.
Approaching the meeting lodge, he encountered Metuay, recently ascended to the status of chief. His father before him was lost several months back when the Pa-ayello made the perilous crossing of the straits to the west.
“Let this be the day” he said with a troubled smile.
“Let it be” was Palinka’s response.
“Your father comes in moments Palinka; he grieves still with his sister and brother.”
The young heir nodded in understanding.
“Take your place and be seated, we await Maiya before any speaks” Metuay gestured to the arena of sons, the traditional gallery of the ascending.
Palinka crossed his legs then dropped to the floor into position in one swift motion. No sooner had greetings been made when Maiya appeared at the doorway, crestfallen but still determined. All bowed, averting eyes until the honored chief took his place among the other two notables.
El-ayon, the third of the three declared, “Let this be the day!”
“Let it be!!” returned the room in one voice.
As propriety dictated for this ancient community, it would be El-ayon first that should speak, being both chief and priest.
“We assemble in mourning for those lost of the people and are united by desire to hear word from the Mouth of the Most High. Let him speak to each heart so that all are in accord.”
“Let him speak,” they all answered. “Let him speak!”
“The people have walked many generations at the urging of the Mouth. All know that he does not change though seasons pass before and behind us. All have agreed that the ancestors heard wisely when the mouth sent them eastward in a quest for His hope. If it is believed that He does not change, then why would the word of this day differ from the last? Our father’s fathers set out in obedience to follow His hope, should we dishonor their hearing? Let us continue east as He rises in the morning and have faith that He’ll keep us in the hazards ahead.”
All bowed their heads to honor his words as another rose to speak. It was Maiya that stood, as was expected, an effort to plead for change. The hearts of all men were difficult to veil living in a community of such close proximity. His views were well known and shared by many and though Maiya was not priest, he too heard the voice of the one on high as any man faithful could hear.
“El-ayon speaks wisely in all that he says. He tells truth when he talks of the Mouth as unchanging, for we depend on Him to rise and settle each day. But consider that he does not remain unmoving nor does he speak the same to the people as he grants us seasons and times. In the spring he says growth, and the summer warmth…is there not a time for every season and a new word for each time and day? In the moon before he said life to my nephew but today he has declared death. The white mountains stand before us to block our path east, is he not speaking to us that hope is not the word for today?”
The men began to murmur among themselves. Maiya respectfully allowed the elders to ponder the words before continuing. An aged brother of Metuay’s clan petitioned Maiya to clarify. “Hope has driven the Pa-ayello for generations, tell us Maiya, has He given a new word that we may receive it with gladness?”
The sturdy chieftain bowed in reverence as he prepared his next sayings for release. He held out his hands, inviting the rest to join him as he revealed what the mouth spoke to him and to others.
“Again it is truth that hope has sustained us as we walked through the years planting nations. The mouth beckoned each morning that we arose, warming us through the day then settling behind with the promise of his return on the next. We left the green lands because of His calling and pursued Him to this point in the frozen waste. Now it is that we spend our days when we don’t see his face until midday. The morning light is hidden by the imposing whiteness, how are we to consider that so great a one as he…calls us from behind it?”
Many nodded in agreement.
“I propose that He speaks when he makes his presence known, face to face in His power at midday. I believe he now calls us to go south in his strength, for it is his power that beckons us this day!”
The Pa-ayello council were both stunned and intrigued as were onlookers gathered beyond the small room. El-ayon bowed as did the rest then invited Metuay to speak his say.
The man of gentle might and warm disposition rose to voice his understanding. He had watched the proceedings with a discerning eye and a mind unmatched in wisdom. Having no sure answer to the question posed, he did know one thing with surety.
“Many here know my heart on the matter and I see truth in both of my fellows’ wise words. I and those of like mind would that the Ancient grant us a land to dwell for the rest of our days, for though the journey brings strength, of what is it if the destination is never granted? This land offers only death for so great a company, and the white mountains threaten far more than invite. The only thing to be known for certain is that we cannot stay here and only His strength can conquer our great weakness.”
A unanimous cry in agreement rang out then other elders spoke their peace. Each present sighed when receiving the words of wise chiefs three and more. Having said by men what was heard from above and conveying to these down below, the council dismissed those gathered to determine the destiny of the Pa-ayello.
Palinka sat beyond the communal lodge, feverishly kneading a small slab of blubber, making it pliable and soft in the frosty air of mid-morning. Once performed, he rubbed the block of flesh along the soles and seams of his waxen mukluks. The winds had died and the clouds receded as the ice came alive with light reflected. Many days it had been since sky wore any color but gray. This day Palinka was startled by the glare as it grew bolder with each unfolding moment. The Mouth of the Ancient bellowed before him as it rose to beckon the people to His strength.
Maiya was wise as was his son below him for the son now heard the words spoken to his father from above. Palinka smiled. Soon he would be called to return to council but knew already the decision they would make.
Generations had been driven to traverse the land east toward the hope of another tomorrow, but today a new word will give solace to the heart, and freedom from ever wandering.
“You have long pursued me in your hope; now receive me in my strength.”
Illustration by: Stephanie Matos