Authors: Kaitlyn Davis
She imagined him taller and broader than he had been as a boy, with muscles hardened from long hunts. The frame of a sixteen-year-old man. The frame of her twin as he would be if he were standing with her today.
After a minute, Jinji dropped her hands and let her eyes ease open. No matter how many times she wove the illusion, her heart stopped at the sight and a lump caught in her throat.
Janu. How I miss you.
Jinji rose and standing next to her, vivid as a real man but unnaturally still, was her brother. Her fingers brushed his, passing through his hand, as she knew they would. He was, after all, an illusion made of spirits. But still, she always tried to touch him, hoping to meet resistance just once.
Jinji could manipulate jinjiajanu, but no one could bring the dead back to life.
"Janu," she said softly, pleading. "What are you trying to tell me?"
But there was no answer. She could make his lips move, could make it look as though he were alive, but this wasn't her brother.
Jinji let the illusion fall and, in the blink of an eye, it had disappeared. The elemental spirits snapped back into their proper place, and their subtle glow faded out. She was alone once more with only the trees to keep her company.
A knot hardened in her stomach, a sense of fear she couldn't dislodge.
The last time she dreamed of the shadow, she had woken in a fright and turned to rouse her brother only to find him missing from their shared pallet. Immediately, she shook her father awake. Using his authority as chief, he woke the hunters and charged into the woods. But the minute she had turned to see Janu missing, Jinji knew that he was gone forever. When the hunters returned holding the carcass of a great bear followed by her father cradling a pouch that dripped with blood, she had fallen to the ground—devastated but not surprised. She heard her mother wail and felt the ground rumble as she dropped, but Jinji's eyes saw only a great shadow waiting to swallow her whole.
And now it had returned. On the day she was meant to be joined with Maniuk, to be named the future leaders of their people, the Arpapajo tribe—the last remaining oldworlders.
Dread rippled down her limbs.
What did it all mean?
"Jinji? Are you there?"
She turned to see her dearest friend, Leoa, push a tree branch aside and step into the clearing.
"I thought maybe…" Leoa trailed off, shaking her head and glancing at the ground before meeting Jinji's eyes again. Her friend's face warmed, nervous creases smoothed out, and a grin lifted the left side of her lip. "What are you doing?"
Jinji took a deep breath, trying to relax. "Thinking of Janu."
Leoa nodded, understanding dawning in her eyes. She stepped closer, placing her warm palm on Jinji's shoulder. "He would want you to be happy. Maniuk was his friend."
Maybe that was it. Maybe she was just nervous, just wishing for her brother on such an important day in her life, just afraid that the joining would give her another man to lose.
She sighed and her shoulders slumped as she pushed the shadow from her mind and glanced at her friend again. The knot in her stomach still curled uncomfortably tight, but there was no use in trying to untie it now.
"Are you here to take me back to my mother?" Jinji asked, already thinking of all she needed to do before the ceremony began, especially of her braid.
Leoa shifted and it was then that Jinji noticed the stark white skins on her friend's arm, almost as pure as jinjiajanu in color.
The edges had been tied into hundreds of knots decorated with dried berries. Feathers of all hues were woven through the fabric, shimmering in the sun, changing colors with each minute move of Leoa's arm. Twine had been specially dyed just so the ancient ceremonial patterns could be woven in, patterns Jinji didn't even truly understand.
She had seen her mother painstakingly work on every inch of the garment, had watched as she laid it on the drying rack to bleach in the sun every day and brought it inside to clean and embroider every night.
Everyone in their tribe would eventually wear exquisite leathers to their joining, but none would ever be as fine as the one Jinji's mother had prepared. Yet the sight of it just made the knot in Jinji's stomach tighten.
She looked up just in time to catch the concern in Leoa's eyes.
"What's wrong, Jinji?"
"Is it Maniuk? Did something happen?" She stepped closer, but Jinji moved away. It was ridiculous to be so concerned with a dream, absolutely ridiculous.
"No, of course not. He's a friend. He'll be a great leader."
"And so will you."
Jinji nodded absently. She had been born to lead her people; it was the only thing she knew how to do. No, that was not the cause of her anxiety.
"I know what's wrong," Leoa said with a smirk and stepped toward the edge of the clearing to lay Jinji's dress neatly on the grass. She held out her hands and cleared her throat. "You're going to miss me. That's what this is all about."
Jinji smiled. "Yes, Leoa, this is all about you."
"I knew it." She straightened her hands again, urging Jinji to take them. "But I know just the thing to help." She impatiently shook her fingertips one more time. Knowing not to disobey her friend, Jinji obliged and held on.
The smirk on Leoa's face widened. From years of experience, Jinji knew exactly what that look meant.
"One," Leoa said.
"Two," Jinji laughed, her mood already lifting.
"Three," they said in unison, completing the routine. And then they were off, spinning in circles like the center of a great storm. Jinji gripped Leoa's hands tighter and shuffled her feet to the left, trying not to fall. Their weight pulled them apart, but still they held on, straining to stay connected.
The world was a blur, rushing behind Leoa's face in a daze of colors that Jinji couldn't unwind. Her smile widened, pushing against her cheeks, straining her muscles so that they hurt in a good way—a way they hadn't in a while. And suddenly, the joining seemed far off. She was a child with her best friend, feeling girlish and untouched. The pressure of growing up had fallen from her shoulders, thrown off by the force of her sudden glee.
And then it was over.
In a heartbeat, Jinji's fingers slipped free of Leoa's, and she was thrown to the side, landing on the ground with an
But giggles invaded her senses before the pain took any toll, and she rolled to her side, shaking uncontrollably with an innocent joy that pushed itself out into the world because there was simply no way to contain it. So she let it go and unknowingly let her fears go with it.
"That was fun," Leoa said when the silence returned.
"It was," Jinji said, glancing over her shoulder with a contented sigh. Like always, Leoa had known exactly what she needed.
"Are you ready now?"
"I am," Jinji said and slowly sat up. She brought her hand to her hair, running her fingers through the long, ebony tresses, already missing them when she had reached the end. But before Jinji could make another move, her palm was slapped away.
"I'll do that," Leoa said, taking over the job of weeding out the knots, "just enjoy it. You're finally getting your braid." Her friend's voice was wistful, but to Jinji, this was the worst part of the joining.
She would miss the wind flowing through her hair, the way it moved with the spirits. She would miss the feel of it floating around her face when she dove deep down into a stream. But mostly, she would miss the feeling that it was hers alone, a part of her that belonged to no one else—not yet.
Her future belonged to her tribe. Her past belonged to her brother. Her essence belonged to the spirits. But her hair, as unimportant as it seemed, still belonged to her.
But soon it would belong to Maniuk, to their family, and to her people. No longer would it flow freely down her back, curling in soft tendrils down her spine. No, after sixteen years of freedom, it would be bound for the rest of her life. One strand for Maniuk, one strand for their future children, and one strand for the tribe—three parts braided together to show she had matured into adulthood and had left her carefree childhood behind. It would never be cut or undone, not unless it needed to be.
Jinji had only seen her mother unbraided once. When Janu passed, she had cut one strand of her braid off to be burned with his body, a symbol that their bond had been broken. She let her hair free until the cut strands had grown even with the other two portions and were ready to be braided again, a sign that her heart had healed.
Jinji touched the tips of her silky locks. No, if she was going to be braided, she hoped it would be forever.
"You're usually quiet," Leoa said, continuing to run her fingers through Jinji's untamable hair, "but usually I can tell what's going on in your head."
"I'm just thinking."
"I should be used to that by now. All this thinking you do, it always seems exhausting. More exhausting than all the talking I always do. I wonder what would happen if we changed places for once."
"I would grow hoarse, and you would grow bored."
Jinji was sure Leoa's pause was from rolling her eyes.
"Then I'll keep talking…" She tapped her fingers along Jinji's back, something Leoa always did when she was thinking, or more accurately, scheming.
"Hmm," she said after a minute—an idea had sparked to life, something Jinji probably wouldn't like. "Maniuk is so handsome, don't you think? Have you seen how far he can throw the spears? How easily he can wrestle the other men to the ground? So strong, a great warrior, and well," her voice dipped lower, "I'm sure a great lover, too."
"Leoa!" Jinji tried to turn, but her friend gripped her shoulders, keeping her straight so her hair remained still.
"Don't tell me you haven't thought about it, with the joining so close. I know he has. I've seen him watching you."
"We're friends," Jinji growled, her face burning.
"Well, soon you'll be a lot more than that, and I want to hear all about it, but for now, the braiding."
"Is my mother coming?" Jinji asked, surprised they were not returning to the village before beginning the preparations.
"She knew you wouldn't want everyone around to watch. That's why she sent me to find you."
Jinji smiled, sending her thank you to the spirits since her mother was not there to hear. The last thing she needed was the scrutiny of the elders, picking over her flaws, telling her how to sit and stand and walk and speak. No, it was much better this way.
"Me too. Now," Leoa started and then separated the first third of Jinji's hair, placing it gently over her right shoulder, "for your joined."
"Taikeno," Jinji whispered, repeating the word in their native language, the one that had been stolen from them hundreds of years ago when the newworlders had taken over the land. But still, there were some things that could only be said in Arpapajo words. Some things only the ancient words could really express.
Leoa took the next third and draped it over Jinji's left shoulder. "For your children."
"Ka'shasten," Jinji responded, closing her eyes and saying it like a prayer.
Leoa gathered the remaining locks, tugging gently on them while she said, "For your people."
"Arpapajona." Jinji bowed her head, bringing her palms together, trying to catch the words and fuse them into the spirits around her.
As she wove the three parts together, Leoa began to hum. Following the rhythm, Jinji let her hands dance, weaving the words and the spirits together in an invisible braid, copying her friend's movements in a personal prayer.
Jinji repeated the words again and again in her mind, turning them into a song. A song of hope for a future that was happier than her past.
And then it was done.
Leoa tightened the strands, tying a series of intricate knots at the base of Jinji's braid to keep it tight and strong.
Just like that, she was a woman.
Waiting one more breath, Jinji opened her eyes.
Jumping up and backing quickly away from the spot, she stumbled over Leoa's feet until they had both fallen to the ground again.
She had seen bright white eyes staring out of her shadow.
"We must go," Jinji urged, breathlessly struggling to stand on her feet. Was that a yell she heard off in the distance? Were cries riding on the wind? "Do you hear that?"
Leoa gripped her hands, keeping her steady. "What? There is nothing. You're scaring me."
Jinji paused, took a deep breath, and listened. She heard nothing. Leoa was right.
Looking down at her feet, Jinji let her eyes run over the edge of her shadow, looking deep into the depths for some sign of betrayal.
But it was all a dream. It must have been a trick of the light. An illusion she had woven without realizing it.
Everything was fine. Everything was as it should be.
Her breath slowed as she tried to relax.
Everything will be all right. The past is the past—I will not let it determine my future.
She would not let the shadows drive her crazy—she had moved beyond that, past the craze that Janu's death had left her in. She was better now. Stronger.
"Come here," Leoa said, holding up the dress.
Jinji stepped closer, turning around and slipping off the furs that she currently wore. They were brown, covered in dirt and grass stains, blending into the spot where they fell.
She raised her arms up, letting the fresh dress slide down over her body. It was still rough and unworn, scratchy against her skin. But it was beautiful. And it made her copper skin glow.
Leoa tugged on the strap around Jinji's waist securing it tightly before stepping back. Jinji turned, meeting her friend's smile with a weak one of her own.
"Let's go—" Leoa began.
But she never got the chance to finish, because the imagined scream Jinji had heard on the wind turned into a real one, piercing both of their ears like a dagger.