Shouldn’t we just turn back? – A Shamanic Story

I am apparently some sort of shaman in this ancient land’s endscape. I can converse with fire, wind, and yes, the moon. But I cannot speak with the power of water. Of the black ocean ahead I am filled with doubts.



The Logical Cultural Memories:


Ber·ing, Vitus. 1681-1741. Danish navigator and explorer who in 1728 sailed through the Bering Strait, proving (though he did not realize it at the time) that Asia and North America are separate continents.

Bering Strait. A narrow stretch of water separating Alaska from Siberia and connecting the Arctic Ocean with the Bering Sea. It is believed that during prehistoric times the strait formed a land bridge by which the original inhabitants of North America arrived from Asia.

strait. n. Abbr. str., 1. Also straits. A narrow channel joining two larger bodies of water. 2. A position of difficulty, perplexity, distress, or need. Often used in the plural: in desperate straits.

strait adj. 1.a. Difficult; stressful. b. Having or marked by limited options or resources. 2. Archaic. a. Narrow. b. Affording little space or room; confined; leading to panic; exacting the most heroic of efforts 3. Shamanic. a. place of transcendence b. merger of ocean, earth and sky c. proving ground for the shaman.

Other Awakenings: On occasion, a waking dream is not like a dream at all. Then it can resemble a remote door left ajar. The slightest push will enable you to swing that door open. To step through that door you must deal directly with three constraints against any deep knowing – temerity* , solitarity* , and boredom* – that prevent you from crossing the threshold and moving beyond. I am sitting in a group of like-minded people who are ostensibly meditating on higher spiritual values just for fun. The day is a warm Sunday and the room is overly bright and cheerful, but sinking deep into relaxed breathing, a recurring vision swirls before my closed eyes. And I am afraid of what is to come…



This is a vision of terrifying black waters sliding icily over half-drowned sandbars blocking huge waves of an Arctic headland. The only salient question for our small band of fur-clad comrades – men, women, and children of all ages including a small pack of dogs – is when the low-slung milky sun will set? (leaving us in desperate darkness) and whether the surf licking at the soles of our seal-skin boots is rising or falling? These are our own “life and death” questions that someone must answer immediately as we come to a standstill at the known land’s end amid blocks of fractured ice and ominous glaciers in a frozen avalanche from the north. Ahead are a dark chain of islands nearly touching each other but remote, vanishing into incredible distances – horizon folding in on horizon as visual echoes. Most distressing of all, I am apparently some sort of shaman in this ancient land’s endscape. I can converse with fire, wind, and yes, the moon. But I cannot speak with the power of water. Of the black ocean ahead I am filled with doubts. Yet I am called here to lead these people through the deep waters between unknown islands – for I can teach how to shape the seal skin kayaks of the ancestors – long needle boats in which men may face storms and raging waves. For this I was taught by the wind, not the water – and these kayaks can fly while still remaining water-born. For days here – if not for my whole lifetime – I have apparently been awaiting some sign for further guidance from the water. Other men who once followed me are angry with indecision. Some say I have lost my finder powers. My confidence has eroded as have these tide-eaten beaches in the face of the vast waters eastward. “Shouldn’t we just turn back?” I ask myself as I defiantly attempt to ignore the same question from any of these others: friends, kinsmen, fellow travelers. Especially I do not want to talk with Smirèshek. His mate Salìka has just been killed by a stray bolt of lightning on this dark beach amid a thunderstorm, was it yesterday? Was she not laughing and singing for us that same day earlier? Beautiful she was with easy frequent laughter, full brown breasts unsuckled by children, earth-honoring hips. As beautiful as my own she-mate but rightly his alone. Yet I often charmed Salìka to come to me in morning dreams where I held her down in my tent and hotly smothered her laughter with my heavy hands. We are engulfed in mourning her death. As a spirit guide I must lead her soul back westward to the ancient once-homeland far behind us. There she will be born again without us – singing again for others we will never meet. Slowly I begin to remember and almost understand how we came to this desolate land’s end and why. I am Kùlykof – the spirit fighter, my joys and rages enflame the others into a willingness to risk this trek with me. Except for Smirèshek, the stumbler. His is of a small stature and viewpoint. He has been blinded on his every side by fear, self disgust, and winter pains. My true mate – Annalìl – remains fertile all these years and has born three children one after another with me: two men children, fair and fleet, and a girl child that makes me soften with kindness and joy whenever she nears. Hundreds of men and women marched all this late winter eastward across the forbidden mountains toward a hundred sunrises seeking springtime. This hundred number is numbing in our minds. We had no choice: the winter would not end. Our game had fled, our grain all ground and eaten. There were no new berries, herbs or even soft barks to gnaw. With empty growling stomachs as our advisors, we broke down the hide tents and sealed the lesser caves with shrine stones too heavy to carry and that no longer cared for us. We fled them in the early light in a blizzard of wet snow with flakes the size of our frozen hands. Not all who left with us are with us now. Hundreds are here but the vaster number is numbing in our minds. There are no larger counts we can understand or make some sense of. Who remembers more than the last 100 days unless they have become a shaman and may remember their own child-days and foresee their dying-days yet to come. The rest of them remember only the last season and guess at the next. Those seasons farther off are only legend. So summer is the legend of winter, spring is the legend of fall. We were stranded arriving at this last shoreline in fog where sun skittered down behind the black mountains – a range that reared up to shove us into the ocean to be swept away in the night. If only the full moon might rise to freeze the water into solid silver. Then we might hope to survive here or beyond. Is not death just this silvered ocean without a farther shore? We have been attracted by what we mistook to be midnight bonfires on this peninsula stretching east of us. But once we arrive we find no human hand has set these flames. Rather fires burst up from the earth from deep fissures and are extinguished by the tides with a horrible hissing of steam jets high into the sky as the tides return. Daily water pours into fire, then fire leaps again out of water. We have never understood such tides. Some say the land sinks and rises twice each day beneath our feet. We are not sure of anything at all here or what awaits to pounce on us ahead.



Suddenly Smirèshek appears at the mouth of the seacliff caves where the travelers have hidden against the storms of the shoreline. He blocks my way out of this smaller ledge over a rock crevasse where I have painted power charms and slept alone awaiting a teaching vision. “Now we are lost and you have led us here,” Smirèshek growls. “Salìka my woman is dead and you did not hold back the lightening storm to save her. Yet you watched her through your half-closed wolf-eyes and panted. I know you well,” Smirèshek spits on the ground. “I am holding all my powers ready for the great crossing,” I reply loudly to cover my own uncertainty. “I will tell all of you when to begin. I have already led Salìka back to the once-home with my drumming. She is at peace,” I told him as plainly as I could. “Lead the blind and drown at sea alone, old scarred fool. We are turning back.” he says. I stare at him coldly for so long that he backs away. But in leaving my ledge he scoops up a handful of sand and throws it at me, as he turns to run. I lunge after him enraged, then racing after him I become alarmed, then strangely calm as if at sea in deep black waters of doubt. I stand at the cave mouth in the icy wind. He has vanished. I have no sea anchor or paddle in my once anger. I slink back into the dark cave alone. All I have for guidance is my decision to transform my tribe, to somehow cross over. I beg the wind, the fire, the moon to let me relinquish ignorance, overwhelm uncertainty, strangle fear. It is with the ocean waters that I must speak, and that black water responds only with the crashing of angry waves to mock me.



Many of the hunters, seeing no game for the last hand count of days and eating only shore weeds and bird eggs, are bitter again and openly angry at me. They say we were lost and now are waiting here soon to die. What is this “soon to die”? To be torn apart under bear claws, to try and breathe under water more than three gasps, to have your hair catch fire when the furs cannot be cast aside, that is “soon to die”. But this? I call them together into our shared seacliff cave floored with wet sand where a fire has been somehow guarded. I begin to retell the story of Jharjhènschen “the Warrior within the Fire” as if it all happened long ago to no one present. In fact it happened to me at the hands of these same people. Ten years ago. But they remember only the hundred days past. What am I to say? I simply retell the story, over and over as if I had no part in it: A simple man of our tribe was once accused of stealing a flint knife from another man. He was tied to an ash tree in a violent storm and the lightening came and struck that tree. Fire crawled down the branches and enwrapped the man. His rope ties burned away and he stepped free. He then said in a loud voice “My name is Jharjhènschen. I am here to help and heal your wounds. Then I will lead you to a vast new country that will be your homeland forever. But I shall never arrive with you for you must learn to lead yourselves.” Finally the moon rises, vast, and not silver. Rather is it too big, burnt orange, and casts another shadow for those who leave the fire fissures. Setting sun shadows purple and black race ahead, dark clay earth shadows fall behind. Except for me. I cast no shadow in either direction. The others are afraid when Smirèshek tells them I have lost my shadow and am not a man anymore. I see they begin to encircle me in their fear, hunger, and lack of a path forward. I overhear their voices of cynicism, fatigue, envy.



In the light of the burning moon I walk alone and shadowless down the sandbar newly exposed by the lapsing tide. Looking back I can see the ill-assembled tribe sulking around small campfires where Smirèshek is telling no-time stories of others who were never hungry, cold, ill, or unhappy stories of wealthy times before I took it all away from them. I sit on the sand, my furs are soaking wet already. I stare at the crashing of waves, again and again, against this last landfall. Why did they come this far, I wonder, half-asleep? Suddenly I am fully alert again. I see deep beneath the heaving black waves an image – no, a man. I see that he is naked with a white streaming beard. Blue-green fire leaps from his head and shoulders, hands, pelvis and thighs beneath the waters. He is standing, not swimming, and afire, not burning. he moves slowly towards me become larger that I by far. He is a giant, laughing at me, fully twelve hands tall. He orders that I take off my parka, pants, boots and hand them over for him to wear. I do so slowly in the icy water and wind. As I pass off each old, worn fur, they become warm and dry furs fresh bleached into a pure white as when newly tanned. Now he is fully dressed in my clothes that stretched easily to fit this giant form. He stands on the beach awesome in dazzling white furs. He then demands my spear, my game bag, and my fire-flints. I give them also and stand naked and defenseless awaiting a finishing blow from my own spear. I mock myself with thinking “so this is ‘soon to die’ after all.” But instead, completely disarmed, he commands me to follow him into the shoreline hills where I am made to dig with bare hands three huge stones, black and strangely veined, patterned as are the backs of my hands. These I must carry on my shoulder, naked and cold, one by one back to the outermost dry land spit where first we met. The tide is returning and burying my boulders in sea foam. I collapse exhausted on wet sand in a mist-shrouded dawn. He suddenly strikes me with his full strength when I am lying down. He hits me again and again across my back and shoulders, neck and knees using the shaft of my own spear, I am paralyzed face down in the sand. Helpless now, he crosses my hands at the wrists bound with a cord over my head and presses them down into the sand with the heal of his foot. I am left unconscious, I dream a terrible dream of challenge, confusion and personal pain. When I awake, it is a cold noon on a desolate beach. I am alone. The giant is gone. The challenge dream, however, remains in my mind, circling, circling–a dream in which I remember: The whole tribe crossing safely seen from far above over the span of an entire summer sensed as a single day. As a bird flying I feel my wings far outstretched. The humans wade, walk, and stop to kill seals, cure skins and stretch them into kayaks that they build and rebuild from island to island. Sometimes the crossing is many in few boats weaving back and forth across the treacherous channels against the winds., Again it is many boats with few returns trips for those left behind the days before. But always below one man stays ahead of the tribe and it is he that is swept away in a hidden deep channel between shallow islands during the last six days of the journey to our new homelands. He leaves a oar staff vertically rammed into the channel edge perhaps to warn others, and then is swallowed up a in racing current that devours his kayak. I as an Arctic petrel circle the empty waters where he vanished. I fish now more. I keen his name to the winds. Enough of these dreams. Our time to wait has run out. We are starving here as elsewhere. The next moonrise will be full and lowest tides are ours at last. Perhaps we can build boats on the next island. Perhaps we can wade that far at dawn. Filled with my own doubts I will yet lead them all to act.



That night, our last night stranded here–this I knew–we gathered on the beach by the three veined boulders again exposed by the low tide. I asked that they drag down large fallen tree trunks washed up from the ocean and we lay them over the deepest steaming vent. The tide washed out, the steam and logs caught fire, flames leaped higher than three men standing on each others’ shoulders. We began a solemn circle dance, a few at first. As in the dream, I made them form a small circle facing outward. We were five–my mate Annalìl, my children, and myself. Several other hundreds held back in the darkness, staring. We first danced slowly and circling, from facing the re-risen moon, this night blue silver, not the fearful burnt orange of other nights. Circling, circling to look north into desolations of ice, west into the black once-homeward mountains, south into the foggy hills gone silver and purple under a warming wind. Our circle grew large as more joined in so that we expanded our dance outward, still holding hands. You cannot move forward in this hand-held dancing without more and more people joining in. And they did. They always will. An outward facing circle (increasingly expansive in our movements and our insights). I twist to look over my left shoulder to see the bonfire. There in the midst of the raging flames stands a man I recognize This is Jharjhènschen – the “Warrior from within the Fire” He is a young beardless giant. He is dressed in new, white furs, once mine. Water streams from his shoulders and hands within the towering flames. He does not burn but smiles at me briefly. “Why have you become a young man? Why did you take my clothes? Can we ever escape this place?” I call out to him but no one else can hear me. The sounds of their drumming and dancing have vanished and they are all standing frozen–unseeing and unhearing. There is no time passage for them. I hear him speak out above the suspended silence, “I am both old and young and always will be”. And so saying he turned around and yes his backside was not heels, buttocks, or broad shoulder as with everyday men. He was an old man on the backside now facing me, frowning. He turned again to show his young smiling side and said, “and so are you”. “How can we escape here,” I repeated, growing angry with desperation. “Follow the way the wind points,” he answers. Beginning to shimmer and fade as fire within fire. “How can a man see where the wind points?” I cried. reduced to begging. “All things except the wind cast a shadow, so try to watch what isn’t there,” he answers, but I am not answered with those words at all. He is gone back into the flames. Sparks fly away. Now sound, motion, singing, and drumming returns and we dance on as if nothing happened but the dance. Towards dawn I knew. I called for all of them to break from the circle and follow me to the fire bed. There we found a silver snow-petrel formed in the indented sands pointing east. I saw then how those the boulders I had struggled into place here on the beach were gone, melted. And a silver metal had poured out of the rocks and run into the sand pit where I had lain faced down all night my hands bound at the wrists over my head–like a dead man strung out be his enemies. The form of the silver snow-petrel was that of my own crossed and bound hands, now freed to fly. The petrel pointed east toward the glittering sun rise. It reflected that light in brilliant flakes of light, a white fire molded into the sand at our feet. Facing east across the unknowable chain of islands, across the racing waters. East. Ever east. Words are not enough to see this silver petrel. Look: [Editor’s note: The original document included images of an emblem, now lost] I bind the emblem to the upper staff of my spear and use the shaft to test for too deep waters ahead, and currents certain to only sweep us away. I make no more attacks with this once-spear, nor will I in those vast new lands ahead.



As we lifted up the silver cast snow-petrel from the sand I announced the intent to continue our journey eastward across the now exposed tidal flats, porting kayaks and sledges, expecting to make higher lands again by sunset. Half of our several hundred refused. They started back in anger and mistrust, but as we watch them dwindle back into the black once-homeward mountains a sharp cry went up from every human throat. We watch as each once-man was transformed into a lumbering black bear, the women become elk, and the children some still clinging to the furry backs of once-parents, fell back to land on four hooves as deer. Not one of them remained human and leaderless they scattered back into the black mountains as game and roving herds. Smirèshek looked back at us over his shaggy shoulder, gave out a loud bellow of a growl in anger and confusion, and lumbered off. We never saw his kin, kind or clan again. We took the silver snow-petrel casting as our talisman and those of us leading the march into across the tidal flats held it high when the fear caught up with us it gave us strength and assurance. It continued to point eastward, catching the morning light each dawn. By night I knew a snow-petrel flew just ahead of us to scout out the dangers of the coming day and flew back just at dawn to re-become the talisman we carried, filled with practical knowledge. I knew that the one-day crossing would stretch out to many, many days. At each island we would hunt and rest. Some would again say, “let us all stay here. This is far enough. We can be happy here.” But the petrel glittered in the sun and I knew only the snow petrel’s impatience to continue. I knew also that on one of nearly the last days, starving and exhausted from the endless slogging march I would attempt the fatal short cut across the seeming shallows and step into the treacherous channel to be swept away from my people. I knew they all will go on, warned by the walking staff left standing. It is more than enough that all but I crossed over into new, farthest lands. I was Kùlykof – the spirit fighter who speaks freely to the fire, the wind, and yes to the moon. But to this vast ocean I can speak not at all and when I was swept away, only the cry of the wave-scouring snow petrel marked my absence.



And for this reason I could never cast a shadow in any direction. This is the secret way of the wind – my true brother. I tell my story only to the him as he blows eastward. He will somehow keep my spirit for now and for always. Listen to the east-bound wind and hear me. Ask for my courage and it is yours.

The day is a too warm, some call it Sunday. The room is overly bright and cheerful but wrong and not quite real anymore. I open my eyes, exhilarated and exhausted. Who was this man they followed? I look around but there is no one in this room to whom I dare tell where else I have been. I cannot stand the breathless building anymore I must have open air to breathe. I burst into the yard and throw back my arms seeking a breath of wind in a summer morning. Some children see me and run up to me, arms outflung, laughing. The wind comes surely then. It blows eastward. We are all swept into joy.

The Constraints in Review:


* temerity – a trained and learned response of holding back from the new and unexplored, projecting old pain patterns onto the would-be experience, so as to preclude it from happening to you. Synonym: baseless fear.

* solitarity – illusion that you are alone and no one else will ever be concerned or affected by the outcome of an event. A realistic appraisal would enable you to realize that everyone and everything is about to be affected. Synonym: ego-based self-interest.

* boredom – the entropic state of energy that prevents perception of true details and emergent options, often as the net result of your temerity and solitarity. Example: Vitus Bering sailed by the intercontinental strait and entered the data routinely in his log, oblivious to the separation of two worlds unfolding around him.

FIELD NOTE: The shamanic journey may be undertaken with complete intentionality using time-tested techniques by the limitless journeyman. To journey there are specific, well-tried tools such as drums, rattles. Or, then again – unexpected and unbidden, the journey begins without your preparation and no warnings. So we grow stronger…

“The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, and the most important thing is – it must be something you cannot possibly do”
Henry Moore – British Sculptor

Created by the ShamanSouth Staff Last Updated January 15, 1998 © ShamanSouth, unlimited – all rights reserved, 1997, 1998


This story taken from the ShamanSouth homepage in 1998. The page no longer exists. The email address bounces messages.

If anyone knows what happened to this group and knows how to contact them, I would like to request their permission retrospectively.


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