Coming Clean | By: Austen Brauker | | Category: Short Story - Spiritual Development Bookmark and Share

Coming Clean



    Jale floated down the river with Crane. He was in the front of the canoe and Crane guided it from the rear with no sound of a paddle splash. From the east there was a slight wind that blew through the leaves, revealing that they were hardening, just starting to dry up, getting ready to call for the winter. A guilty sensation of reality accompanied the sad rustle. Everything, even the forest itself reminded him of how he hurt those other humans, how he made them suffer.

    Jale saw the stick poking up through the water that he had pushed into the bank a day earlier for a marker. They were coming to the first trap. Something was moving. There was a beaver there, bitten in the leg by the steel. The traps weren’t designed to kill, so it was still alive, and it started thrashing as they approached. The beaver pulled at the deep stake to which it was tightly chained. Jale smashed it with one blow of his gig stick. It was a short wooden club, weighted with lead at one end. The beaver stopped moving after the single sharp strike. Jale looked back at Crane and they made eye contact for the first time since they hit the water.

    “I saw you there that day. “ Crane said directly.

    Jale turned away and removed the beaver from the trap, untangled the chain and reset the metal jaws. The maneuver was second nature to him now. He tossed the beaver into the center of the canoe and they floated silently to the next trap. Jale could feel the eyes on the back of his neck, but didn’t turn around in response to them. The next one held a muskrat. They checked the whole line without talking and then Jale finally spoke. He was looking forward, still too embarrassed to face Crane yet.

    “I thought it would make me feel better…I mean…I thought they deserved it…I don’t know…but I don’t feel good about it now.” It was a choppy, stammering confession.

    Jale looked at Crane before he continued.

    “When I heard them screaming and rolling around in pain…”

    He stopped, a tear formed in his eye. His voice broke.

    “I’m so sorry…I don’t know what to do…”

    “I do.” Said Crane, and they pulled the canoe to the shore.

    For four days, Crane made Jale do a sweat lodge ceremony. It began like this...

    The elder traced a circle on the ground and made him dig a hole, about two feet wide and a foot deep. It would be where the super heated rocks would eventually be placed during the ceremony; where the steam would rise from the offering of water. Around this center point, they constructed a framework of willows, bent in a dome, about four feet high. It had four horizontal rows tied to a series of vertical poles that formed arches. Each arch consisted of saplings pushed into the ground, then bent and tied together. From above, the eight poles made a pound sign, just like a domed, three dimensional tic-tac-toe board, with four more willow bent down, making an X over that. There was one doorway facing east, looking directly to where a larger pit was dug, about ten feet away from the lodge, for the fire.

    Crane told Jale to make a crescent with the dirt around the East Side of the fire pit, with just enough room for the fire-keeper to walk between it and the flames. It also served as a depository for the used rocks when the ceremony was over, providing a place of honor for their sacrificed selves. Crane called them grandfathers whenever he referred to the stones. He said they were the bones of Mother Earth and should be respected as elders, like ancient grandfathers.

    Jale picked a paper bag full of flat green cedar, at Crane’s request, careful to remember his tobacco offering whenever he took a gift from the woods. He did it just like he was shown.

    Crane used the dirt from the hole in the center of the lodge, which he called the navel, and made a mound between the doorway of the lodge and the fire pit. It looked about the size and shape of a pregnant woman’s belly. This was the altar. Blessings were bestowed upon items that were laid here. Things were spiritually cleansed. On it he sat his pipe, after asking permission for it to be joined together, alongside an Eagle wing fan. The pipe stem pointed upward to the sky at an angle, toward the direction of sunrise.

    Crane walked around the entire area, starting in the east and making a clockwise circle, spreading the cedar as he went, singing softly to himself, barely audible. The fire was roaring now. It crackled and popped in agreement to the song. Inside, the rocks were brilliant. The grandfathers were almost heated to the necessary orange hot glow. Crane took some coals in a shovel and threw cedar on them. A crackling sound erupted and took Jale by surprise with the amount of energy that was held within the green sprigs.

    It smoked upward in a sweet clean cloud, in which Crane made Jale immerse himself, to wash him down, just as if it were water. The old man lifted the back of the boy’s hair and even made him do the soles of his feet. Crane showed him how to cup his hands and move the smoke across his face and belly. Then Crane smoked down the altar, the lodge and himself as well. He walked the perimeter, circling the area once and then he threw what was left in the fire. It flared up with a sparkling ignition. Crane made a fresh cedar line from the fire to the navel.

    “This is our lifeline, our umbilical cord as we enter the womb, our path of life, it will keep us connected to this world when we have left it to go on our cleansing journey, our rebirth.”

    He threw some tobacco in the fire and it was a minute before he spoke again.

    “We will go in, pray, and crawl out as newborns, shedding our skins of the bad medicine from this world, of the bad stuff we have created for ourselves. This negativity cannot coexist when we do these things and it will leave us. The lodge will clean your spirit and guide you to a better path. Listen to your heart and don’t be afraid.”

    Crane walked to the altar and picked up his pipe. A formidable aura radiated around the tool. It was made of a red carved stone with a spiraled sumac stem. An Eagle feather hung from the beaded leather strap that was tied to the wood with a piece of sinew. Crane filled it with tobacco, holding each small pinch up to the four directions, down toward the mother Earth and then gesturing in an all encompassing motion for the Creator. He turned the entire pipe in a clockwise circle between each prayer, like the punctuation of a sentence. He left the filled pipe leaning at the altar pointing east again. Jale wondered when they would smoke.

    “We will smoke halfway through, after the second door.” Crane answered, as if sensing Jale’s thoughts.

    “You will bring the Grandfathers in with the pitch fork.” He motioned to the short handled device with a slight lift of both arms. “You must be very careful. Treat them with respect, like you were talking to a human elder. Announce their presence at the door by saying ‘Our Grandfather wishes to enter.’ I will greet them with words of welcome and a bit of powdered cedar as they come through the door. Everything in the lodge must move to the left, around the navel. Clockwise is the sacred flow of energy in this hemisphere, always move with this flow. When we get out at the end, walk once around the lodge in this direction, but stop at the western door to shout your warriors cry.”

    He sidetracked for a second to clarify this point.

    “It is not a cry of war like you might think, but a cry of appreciation for life, for all that the Creator gives us, and to our past-aways waiting for us in the west.”

    It was a lot of information but Jale did his best to remember everything. The simplicity made up for the sheer volume, so it all seemed to naturally fall together without effort, like common sense that he had just never thought about. This was the first time he had ever seen this side of Crane. Jale thought he was merely an expert herbalist and hunter with a lot of stories. He had no idea Crane was such a spiritually minded man.

    Time stopped and started with each breath that Jale took, feeding himself just like the fire. Flame and air energy filled the rocks. All of the tobacco and prayers that went into the fire were awakening within them. The stones were bones, old ones from the Earth itself. Every once in a while they could be heard moving around and saying invocations of their own. A human joined them. Crane spoke with a simple intensity, which made Jale realize the seriousness of what they were doing. This was not a game or a novelty. Something powerful was going to happen.

    “Its time.” Said Crane after a long silence.

    They stripped down and wrapped themselves at the waist with towels. Crane lit a braid of sweet grass and took it in with him. The coal gave off a beautiful trail of soothing smoke. It curled around the unfurled locks that Jale had never seen down before, long and grey. Crane said his name and clan at the door before he entered and then went to the left, all the way around the lodge, until he sat just next to the door.

    “Our Grandfather wishes to enter!” said Jale with one of the glowing stones carefully balanced on the pitch fork tines.

    “Boozhu Mishomis!” greeted Crane and guided it to the center of the lodge, where he used a deer antler to help settle it gently into the hole.

    There was a loud crackling and a surprised sound from Crane as if a visitor had just come from a long way without warning. He issued this greeting each time, getting happier sounding as they kept coming. Jale handed in seven Grandfathers and then followed them in with his name.

    Crane closed the door-flap.

    The world outside was gone. It was immediately dark, except for the tinkling glow of the rocks. Jale could still see once his eyes adjusted. Crane used a bundle of sage as a dipper, almost like a sponge to administer the water. The sprigs were tied together at their bases with twine, which acted as a handle. Jale heard him adjusting the five-gallon bucket, the handle made a slight metal sound, bumping on the plastic, and then he heard the rippling of water. The darkness came on for real.

    Crane began to pray and all at once, a rushing warmth of steam swarmed from the navel to broil them spiritually. All of the elements erupted in a chorus. It was an amazing sound, the instant sputter of leaping medicine. The Grandfathers turned instantly black wherever a droplet of water landed. The high-pitched singing from the cooling stones filled the air, overpowering Crane’s voice. The words were forceful, rhythmic and immediately hypnotic. Crane went fast, changing his pitch with the speed. He kept talking in Indian, doing his invitation prayers to the spirits in the four directions.

    Jale heard the sound of a rattle and Crane’s voice burst into a powerful, loud honor song. The seam of worlds was ripping. Jale felt himself melt into the heat. He could see nothing now but a spiral of hollow infinity that was the same whether his eyes were open or closed. The rhythm of Crane’s voice became the sound track for a swirling of beautiful colors. The singularity in front of him exploded and reconstituted with a timeless expansion and retraction, reaching further into the void with each pulsing beat. Wings were flapping black. Jale was a wisp of thought. He felt his body slipping away and felt as light as air. 

    Crane stopped singing and suddenly spoke in English. He sounded mad at first but then Jale realized he was speaking from a different position in his being. It needed to be actively assembled with the force of his personal volition. The intensity of his voice made the sentences tread the thin surface of dimensional membranes. Jale didn’t know how he knew that, but it was an intuition that he felt to be unquestionably true, though he couldn’t explain it if he tried.

    “At one time our people would have a sweat lodge outside the camp to greet warriors returning from battle. They were cleansed of the spirit sickness caused from warfare, before they returned to their families. They washed the negative energy from their bodies and kept it from returning with them to their loved ones. When we make war, we have to act as warriors, sometimes we are called to kill. The same man who must kill for his people must also be a father to his children and a lover to his wife. He must become a different person for war, it must be a facet of his being used only in certain times, and then the persona must be shed to return as the regular man known by his family and the community.”

    An agreement rang from the stones.

    “You have taken on this kind of a sickness by declaring war on those boys. Death and suffering are magnets. They draw their kind to be with them. You have been polarized. The act is done, for good or bad, but you must be cleansed of its negative power, so it will not slowly devour you for the rest of your life.” He added more medicine to the Grandfathers. The heat was almost unbearable and then his words boomed with sudden force.

    “Now you must pray, Jale, ask for forgiveness and humble yourself before the creator.

I offer this medicine for my brother Jale!”

    Crane was calling out at the top of his lungs. He wet the sage and put more steam to the air.

    “Let him speak his heart and hear his words! Help this little brother on his path!”

    Crane was silent and Jale knew it was his time. He could feel the world shining at him like a spotlight in an empty auditorium. The unfilled seats made him feel so alone that he started to fade away, then he caught himself and stared up at a pinpoint of brightness that was floating above his head. It began to spin and sparkle, pulling air across the vocal cords in neck until he felt it take auditory shape.

    Jale began to speak, his throat was filled with sobs and he began a deep, ugly cry. The acid in his stomach wanted to burn him to ash from the inside. Thoughts churned and flashed like the rabid teeth of attacking animals. They all looked at him with his own eyes. He was barely able to catch his breath. The sight of his human self was nauseating. He spilled his world, remembering everything he had ever done wrong throughout his entire life. It was awful. Things he thought were long forgotten came back in full regalia, more powerful than ever, as if they had been biding their time, working out and eating emotional steroids.

    He went on speaking, listening to his own words like they were coming from someone else. A little boy was crying. He sat across from his own body and watched the blackness release from his mid-section. The boy was scared, but knew it was for his own good. It pooled in his belly and then flowed out his back like molasses. The streak of black was like a gigantic flower stem. Light shot in from his left and right, then from the ceiling and floor. A ball of golden pollen flashed through the eastern door and hit him in the abdomen, combining with the others and pulling the blackness right through his body and away to the west, out from the base of his spine. It made a wraithlike bellow and then was sucked out the back of the lodge in a huge gust of wind. The white petals of light disappeared as it all vanished in a sizzle of sparks.

    Crane opened the door flap and Jale was back in his body. The cold air coming in from outside brought him right back. Bolts of electricity were streaking across the sky. He could see the fire flickering as the steam cloud rushed out of the open door. Someone was out there laughing. They were talking about an embarrassing moment that he had when he was a kid, but in a kind way that made him feel okay about it. The voices were familiar. He thought he saw the legs of people standing around the fire and then he recognized his own boots. Crane closed the door again.

    Everything went black.

    Crane dosed the medicine liberally, shouting out “ahhaao” as the heat regained. It seemed even hotter than before. Jale heard the sound of the rattle. It was joined by dozens of rattles from all around. Jale reached out his hand. He couldn’t tell where it was. His physical being was eluding him, lost in its merger with the wet heat. It became painful at points. The Grandfathers sizzled in a boiling bowl of herbal water. Jale couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or closed when he saw a movement in front of him. The image sharpened acutely and Jale watched a scene unfold, like a movie.

    He knew he was on the Aral road by Otter creek.

    Seagulls flew overhead. It was where the hanging tree was located. The very branch of notoriety had only recently fallen, in a wind storm a few years back. Jale had read the story on a plaque at the Benzie County Sheriff’s Office when he returned the K-9 dog after a routine check up from Shelly’s clinic. They had strung up an Indian worker instead of his boss, the man they were really after, for not paying taxes. The Indian had helped the tax evader escape to South Manitou and upon his return was hung at the legendary tree on his benefactor’s behalf. The Indian, however, was a lost victim of circumstance, and his death was necessarily forgotten, save for the gnarled tree. They named a local road in honor of the heroic Sheriff.

    A brown boy ran by him so fast that the wind turned the leaves on the nearby trees as if they were limp from expecting rain. He was panting. The footsteps sounded like crushed cornstalks. Jale watched the scene play out in the front of his awareness. Someone else was there too, chuckling from the belly. He heard the violent shouts as the men chased the boy down and threw him to the ground. He heard the log hand profess his innocence, and then watched his innocent neck break while the men cheered at his shaking legs. Jale saw himself among the vigilantes, screaming along with the crowd. The dead chicken dance rippled up and down the dead boy’s body with a cruel trick of nerves. Jale felt like a fish in the concussion blast of an underwater dynamite charge, floating silver side up toward a funny little dome. The sweat lodge door opened and Crane yelled out into the night. The canvas sounded like bat’s wings.

    “Take this away from us! Cleanse us and take this negativity away!” He waved it out.  

    There were black leaves floating away in the night like burnt glossy magazine pages freeing themselves from the glue and staples of the spine. The steam escaped in a sucking breath of rolling plumes. Jale stared out at the fire, which had dwindled, but still had flames. It would have taken hours for it to burn down that much. Jale made sure it was heavily fueled before he went inside. They must have been in the lodge for a long time.  

    Crane crawled from the door and grabbed the pitchfork. Jale watched him guide the Grandfathers in and then sit them gently upon the others in the navel. Crane finished by re-stoking the fire and grabbing his pipe. He handed it in to Jale with a lit braid of sweetgrass and told him to smoke it. Jale finished the tobacco and handed the pipe back out, after turning it clockwise the way Crane had done. Crane sat the pipe on the altar and walked around the fire. He crawled in, past Jale, and back to his position by the door.

    The third round began.

    Jale felt the ground start to vibrate underneath his legs. The flap closed but instead of darkness, the new glowing Grandfathers lit the dome above his head with sunset colors. The light got stronger. Crane put none of the medicine on them yet, instead singing a soft song under his breath. The light became white and soon everything was brightly illuminated. Jale had to squint because it was starting to hurt. The rows of bent saplings that framed the canvas covering of skin began to pulse with life. The whole lodge seemed to get bigger and smaller in gyrating spasms. It reminded him of a ride at the fair, the tundra tornado. An outdated dynamo hummed in digital sympathy with the slight smell of flux and copper. Tesla was playing an acoustic guitar. A wiggle of golden light broke the disconnected thoughts and congealed something in the corner of his eye.

    Jale looked across the pile of Grandfathers, something was moving over there. It was like the center of an egg or a balled up husk. He tried to focus but the sweat blinded his eyes. Some kind of entity, a creature of some sort was in the southern portion of the lodge. He could hear it breathing. It was as big as he was. The animal was familiar but he still couldn’t place it. He could see Crane next to the white plastic bucket and he was looking in the same direction.

    Between them a shape took form and turned its head.

    The blazing green eyes froze Jale as soon as the recognition took place. He was transfixed by the hypnotic binding stare of a large cougar. Its gold coat glowed with light and was the reason for the sudden brightness. The fur radiated a pleasant hue over them. They were pelted by it. Crane reached in the bucket again with the bundle of sage and doused the orange orbs in the center.

    Steam sang upward in pain and love. A darkness swept them with the barely bearable wave of heat. Muscles bolted. Wind blew past Jale’s ears as he was propelled with great speed along the imaginary boundary between Earth and Sky. The cougar was running across a battlefield and Jale was carried along with it at full speed. Shells were exploding as it zigzagged between the blasts.

    Crane opened the door.

    The firelight swarmed in like an oceanic sculpture of bees. The visions broke apart and filed out with the steamed colony of prayers. The buzzing was still fresh in his ears. Jale could see Crane again through the fog. He was lost in thoughts of honey and comfortable pockets of hexagonal wax. Jale recognized him again. His long hair hung free from braids and was touching the ground. Jale had never seen its true length. It was always tied back in his clothing.

    “Okay?” was all Crane said, before he brought in the last of the grandfathers and shut the door again.

    “I think so.” Jale finally mustered, when the flap closed.

    Crane laughed and Jale felt at ease again. The cool air brought him a bit closer to his body, though it vibrated and felt like a fake suit. He had never sweated so much in his life. The rivulets cascaded from his withered frame. He understood what was meant by spiritual suffering and knew in his heart that it was a healing thing, and good for him. This was exactly what he needed.

    “Here.” Crane said and offered him a shell filled with the medicine from the bucket.

    “Just take a bit. It will make you sick if you cool off too fast.”

    Jale took a sip from the abalone shell. He couldn’t help himself and nearly drained it all. The medicine tasted so good. He felt it course through his body. His head throbbed a bit before he quit swallowing.

    “Whoah.” said Crane “Not too much.”

    “Did you s…”

    “Yes. I saw him.” Crane cut Jale off and shut the door.

    The ground was warm now. Jale was covered with pieces of green cedar. He was salted with mud and sweat. He cleared his throat and coughed up a huge chunk of brown and clear marbled phlegm.

    “Just spit it out behind you, out of the way. You need to get it out.”

    Jale spat the chunk onto the floor, off to the side. He coughed again which made him fart. It was juicy from his wet cheeks. He felt terrible, like he’d desecrated the ceremony.

    “It’s alright. Just get it out.” Jale thought he almost heard Crane holding back a laugh. “It has to come out sometime.” He was, but it was all part of the cleansing, out with the bad and on with the good.

    Crane began to pray once more, offering up the medicine for the final round of suffering. He sang again and brought the lodge to full heat. It was worse than any time before, searing Jale’s lips as he inhaled. His skin was falling from his body. Blistering clouds invisibly enveloped him in the darkness. Wave upon wave of medicine was offered and still Crane remained silent. Jale wanted to crawl through the side of the canvas, but instead, breathed through his nearly mud soaked towel.

     Crane spoke again in Indian, and then switched in the middle to a different language. It took a few lines for him to figure out what it was and then Jale realized it was in German. Crane spoke the language efficiently, so well that Jale was able to understand its meaning as if he’d spoken it his entire life. He heard the German words but understood them as if they were English. The German went on and on until Jale began to see a series of pictures accompanying the tongue. The meaning was obvious. It was a prayer for a lost love.

    The scene started moving in fast motion until it became a blur. Everything became unity until all places and all things were touched at once. There was a big Pow-wow going on somewhere, a gathering of many nations. Jale heard the sound of drums and wanted to get up and join them in the dance. Then he realized it was his own heartbeat and that the dance was happening within. People of all kinds moved around the circle. As above, so below. As without, so within. It all made profound sense and then he was lost in utter confusion.

    Jale was sitting outside the lodge staring at the fire when he returned to his normal limited awareness. Crane sat across from him, splashing him with water from the medicine bucket. The sage wand splashed him two or three more times with hot herb water, that to him felt cool, before he fully realized his surroundings. His arms and legs were like boiled rubber, more like flippers. He had no feelings of toes or fingers.

    “There you are!” Crane said reassuringly, but then it faded.

    Jale heard huge crashing sounds of branches breaking all around him. He was alone again. Oaks and maples were uprooted like weeds. Something huge and terrible was ravaging the tree line and then it all stopped. There was an opening leading into the woods like a small black cave. Jale shook, horrified. Some kind of demon waited there in the dark hole, some evil golem. It was the thing the cougar had attacked in his vision. He could smell it. It charged from its place and came at him. Its face was horrible and fear consumed the boy from the base of his neck and shook at him like the teeth of a feeding animal.

    Something else was trying to fight against it.

    Another wave of paralysis gripped him and then the image of the monster started to fade. Color returned before anything else and then simple shapes. He saw Crane speaking but heard no voice. He splashed the medicine on Jale’s face. Then came the deafening return of sound. The forest around Jale erupted with a hurricane of ferocity and growled in one last offense.

    Jale heard Crane’s voice, and felt his way toward his own body like it was foreign literature. The process took forever. His joints were filled with festered glue.


    Crane dumped what remained in the water bucket over the new man’s head. The boy was gone. Jale had transformed. The chrysalis of the open lodge was all that remained as evidence of what he had once been.

    The homunculus was inches from his throat when a giant sea green moth whispered in Jale’s ear, giving him a new name that was for the two of them alone. This new identity confused the pouncing monster. The dreaming body escaped certain death and the creature was left with nothing but a thin foil wrapper.

    Jale jolted back to the world as Crane drenched him with a fresh bucket of cold water from the river.

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