The Shaman and the Drummer by Felicity Edwards

Lingering tendrils of purple clouds lay along the horizon, remnants of the sunset. A young man called Ivan stood in a farmyard watching his friend Vlad arrive in his cherished, beat-up truck. 

“Hi Vlad,” said Ivan. “Thanks for coming over this evening.” Vlad lovingly patted the roof of the cab. 

“Well, Ivan, I’m here, but it’s time you made it worth my while.” 

Ivan frowned while thrusting his hands in his pocket. He gulped before answering. “What do you want, Vlad? You know I’m as hard up as you.” 

Vlad laughed, saying, “You idiot, we’ve been friends long enough. You should know what I want.” 

The tension melted from Ivan’s face. “You gave me quite a scare there. Yes, I’ve got a tin of my mum’s cookies waiting in my room for you. First, I need you to do your drumming trick in the cave while I travel back in time.” 

Vlad smiled in agreement and went to the back of the pick-up. He pulled out a bag containing his drum of wood and stretched hide as he prepared to help his friend to make a remarkable journey. Over the past year, Ivan found he possessed the ability to enter a trance state induced by the beat of a shaman’s drum. And he made a startling discovery when he and Vlad used the drum in a prehistoric cave: he could travel in time, far back in time. And what he saw there changed his view of the past forever. 

As evening fell, they sorted out their space at the very back of the cave. A box for Vlad to sit as he drummed while Ivan stretched out on a plank, ready to take a shamanic journey. Vlad began the rhythmic beat matched by Ivan’s breathing. After a while, Ivan entered the shamanic state and arrived in this same cave, but thousands of years back in time. He was now an invisible observer like his other journeys. He recognised some people, especially the young shaman Guta and his wife, Kitam. 

While in his trance state, what Ivan saw was like a series of movie clips as he dipped in and out of these people’s lives. 

Each family had a designated living area. Ivan called them hearths, discovering the ones at the back of the cave were for higher status individuals, like the shaman and the clan leader. He thought it would be warmer in the bitter winter months away from the draughts, which could still sneak around the sides of the curtain made of auroch skin. The wild horse mares with tiny foals sheltered at the front of the cave, coming and going at will. Their presence added more warmth. After it dried out, the humans used the horse dung to fuel their fires. 

In time Kitam fell pregnant, and Guta was overjoyed. Although she appeared big, the pregnancy was normal. A few weeks before she was due, disaster struck. She started bleeding, and despite her lore, the old medicine woman could not stop it. After many  hours, Kitam gave birth to twins. Sadly the smallest, the boy, never breathed. The medicine woman was more interested in saving the mother’s life. 

Seeing Guta beside himself with grief at the loss of the baby boy saddened Ivan. The man needed to find a clan member to be a wet nurse for the little girl, and he was frantic about the real possibility of losing his beloved wife. Kitam lay still and pale for days. The medicine woman stewed mixtures of leaves and bark and dribbled some onto the girl’s lips. The swallowing reflex ensured she had some medicine. All the clan came to stand at the hearth entrance and offer condolences for losing the baby boy. They gazed at the still form of the mother. They were sure she, too, would soon join her babe. Guta sat beside her for hours, holding her hand and telling her she still had work to do here. She must not go to the spirit world yet. 

At last, his father, the head shaman, called Guta over. 

“The only way we can save your wife is to do the ritual for the baby and bring your wife’s power back from the Shadowlands.” 

Ivan watched the sad proceedings sharing in the emotional turmoil of Guta at the loss of their longed-for son and his anxiety about Kitam. He gazed in wonder as the medicine woman washed the tiny body before handing him to the two shamans. Gently they rubbed the frail little body with precious red ochre, then wrapped him in a sofi covering of white rabbit skin, but not before Guta had placed the tiny green stone bead from Kitam’s wedding bracelet in his son’s hand. They covered the furry bundle with thick rawhide and walked out of the cave. 

After burying the tiny body in its rawhide wrappings, the shamen returned. In silence, they went to the back of the cave and made their way through the narrow opening into the sacred chamber. There they lit a fire and sprinkled dried herbs into the flames. Aromatic smoke swirled upward to the roof of the cave. Their rhythmic clapping and singing, born of long practice, took them to the place they called the land of the spirits. 

As Ivan observed the two shamans moving into their altered states of consciousness, he understood the older man was busy singing to the spirits, telling them of the new arrival, and asking them to accept him into their world. The tempo changed as the two shamans sang in unison, begging the spirits to let go of Kitam and allow her to return. According to his knowledge of shamanic belief, Ivan knew they were in the lower world, searching for the missing part of Kitam’s soul. Seeing a spirit otter, not once but in three different poses, indicated the spirits had granted their request. Guta held the spirit animal close to his body as he and his father returned to their earth plane. 

The medicine woman watched as they approached Kitam carefully, knowing they had returned with the magic necessary to heal her. 

Guta blew through his hands onto her chest as the medicine woman nodded her head in approval. The spirit animal, the otter, Kitam’s guardian spirit, was now back with her, and she should recover soon. Ivan watched them stepping back and gazing down at the still woman. The little group sighed as her eyes slowly flickered before opening. She looked at Guta, really looked, her beautiful eyes bright. She had returned from the dead. 

In the present-day darkness of the cave, Vlad tapped his drum rapidly four times, the summoning call. Ivan took a deep breath and opened his eyes. 

Grinning, he broke the tension. 

“That was amazing. Thanks for your drumming.” 

Vlad gave a jerky laugh. “You had me worried there for a moment. Your eyes were closed but doing funny things, moving quickly from side to side. Is that normal?” 

“Yes, I think that shows the depth of the relaxation.” 

“Relaxation or not,” said Vlad, “It looked scary. Right now, I want to get back to the farmhouse and have a hot drink.” 

They needed to get their experience of life and death in perspective again. Coffee and cookies would go a long way. 

Published in  Issue #25

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