He heard a faint crunching of leaves in the forest. He listened but did not move a muscle. It was not an animal. The rustling sound was human footsteps. Who would be out here this late? The leaves rustled again. He shifted only his eyes toward the sound, and witnessed a figure emerging from the woods, cloaked in black, hunched, shuffling to the center of the field. Chiksa thought it must be the old medicine woman, but he wasn’t sure. After watching for a few minutes, he realized the medicine woman moved much more slowly than this person. No one he knew looked like that…at least he didn’t think so. It was hard to tell in the darkness. Chiksa remained motionless and barely breathed.
When the figure reached the center of the field, it stood up straight, as if being pulled upright by a string on the top of its head. As it uncurled, its hands extended to the sides with its palms facing upward, and it grew from what looked like an old hag to a healthy person. As if picked up by the same string, it rose straight up into the air. Chiksa’s eyes widened as the figure floated above the earth. A breeze caught the figure’s cloak and the edges swirled. A wind intensified, blowing around the figure, slowly spinning it in circles, but there had been no breeze a moment ago. A cloudy vortex formed around the figure, resembling tight circles of light gray smoke from a fire, extending from the ground into the clear heavens above. Even though he was known to be a mighty warrior, Chiksa’s hands began to sweat and his heart beat wildly, pounding in his ears. He had seen many things in his lifetime, but never anything like this. What kind of creature was this? When the figure hovered about four feet off the ground, the black cape dropped from its shoulders, floating to the ground like a fall leaf, revealing a woman. A young and beautiful woman. Her skin glowed under the stars as if she were the moon itself, coated in shimmering gold. Chiksa gasped and jumped to his feet.
The figure heard him and instantly returned to the ground. The vortex stopped so quickly, he wondered if he had imagined it. The woman retrieved her cloak, covered her nakedness, and walked toward him.
He couldn’t move from his spot. There was no sense in running.
She covered her head with her hood as she neared him. “Why are you here?” she asked in a cracking voice.
“I came to visit with my father,” he said in not much more than a whisper.
She cocked her head. “Your father?” She gestured around with both hands, indicating no one else was there.
He pointed to the mounds. “My father died a short time…”
She held her hand in front of his lips as if to silence him. Her fingers were long and bony, covered in deep wrinkles. Her nails were yellowed claws. This was not the beautiful young form he had witnessed only moments ago.
“There is great pain in this place,” she said.
“My people have recently lost their chief.”
“No. No people. Pain in you.” She pointed to his heart, her finger only inches from his chest.
He said nothing.
“Sa…lee…Salina?” she said slowly, her head cocked as if listening to something only she could hear.
“A great blackness has taken her.”
“She will die.”
He shook his head. “She can’t.”
“She can.” She paused and narrowed her eyes at him. “But she can be healed.” The old woman looked up at the sky and her cracked lips parted. Small black gaps between what looked like fangs emitted a foul stench that wrapped around Chiksa. Her yellowed eyes twinkled and she nodded toward the sky.
Chiksa didn’t move. He didn’t know if this creature had put a hex on him or if he was frozen in fear. It didn’t matter. She said Salina could be healed. That’s all he focused on.
“You can heal her?”
She was still staring at the sky.
He didn’t dare ask again. He didn’t want to anger her.
After a moment, she looked back at him. “Yes, yes, I can, but all things come at a price. I will decide the price and will be here again on the full moon. You come. Bring her.”
She turned away and moved toward the woods. He couldn’t say she walked; it was more like gliding, as if she floated just over the ground’s surface.
“What is your name?” he called when she reached the edge of the dark forest.