I am free, I am happy. I am free, I am happy.
Akiowa repeated the words over and over as she walked along the ravine floor. She’d fallen into the habit to stop herself fretting about what being the Storyteller would mean – how could she live another person’s life? But a small treacherous voice wondered if it was also to convince herself it was entirely true.
Free she certainly was. Five days had passed since the old Storyteller had died; five days in which Akiowa had walked the land guided by the spear, meeting no one, free as any cottontail or prairie dog. Surely the very definition of happiness after years of slavery.
“I am free! I am happy!” she called. The rock walls threw back the words, but though “free” echoed joyfully, “happy” returned in mournful tones.
At the ravine’s end, a pool shone like a silver mirror. Akiowa set the spear down, took a breath to steady herself, then knelt to drink. The old woman’s face reflected in the water still upset her, but she no longer jerked away in horrified confusion. Only in the first moments of waking, when she saw gnarled hands and wrinkled skin, did the terror and shock of the transformation overwhelm her again.
She took a few sips of water, more because she thought she should occasionally drink, though she wasn’t thirsty, just as earlier she’d eaten some berries, though she hadn’t been hungry. She’d walked from dawn to dusk each day, yet didn’t feel weary; her body was visibly old, yet she suffered none of the aches and pains of age.
The spear’s doing, all of it. She’d debated what would happen if they were separated, and three times she’d set the spear down and walked away. Three times it was in her hand before she’d gone a dozen paces.
She picked up the spear and set off again. A stream flowed from the pool, but rather than follow it, she turned aside. A tingle ran up her arm, which she’d learnt was the spear telling her to take another path. Rebellion burned in her breast.
“I’m free,” she told it. “I choose where to go.”
The tingle continued, itching, irritating, and she wondered how much time would pass before the spear accepted her decision. Then abruptly, after a few hundred paces, everything changed. The spear shook in her hand, the tingle was replaced with a burning, stinging pain, increasing with every step, and alarm flooded her heart and mind. Determined to follow her own course, she ignored the fear and pain, and head bowed as if battling a headwind, she pressed on. Until a low growl stopped her.
A mountain lion stared at her from the ravine’s cliff. It crouched to leap, to bring her down.
The spear rose. Lightning flashed from its point, hitting the rock inches from the lion. The beast snarled, jumped back. Another lightning flash. The lion ran.
The spear let Akiowa’s arm fall. Heart thumping, legs trembling, she could still feel the lion’s eyes upon her, almost feel its teeth rending her. Without the spear, freedom to choose her own path would have meant freedom to be eaten.
“Thank you,” she whispered. Then, rebellion over, “Should I go back the other way?”
Gentle warmth seeped into her hand. Yes.
She turned and retraced her steps.
Akiowa followed the stream until in the distance a small, solitary dwelling appeared – half mudbrick, half deer-hide – in a field of maize and beans. Independence, but with order and comfort, and safety. Such freedom had to be true happiness, and she hurried to meet it.
But weeds flourished in the field, blue jays and ground squirrels gorged on the crops, and the dwelling was a ramshackle hovel, from which an old man emerged, sour-faced and hard, a tattered blanket around his meagre shoulders. He scowled at Akiowa, then turned and urinated against the mudbrick. She looked away.
“I suppose you’ll want feeding,” he said, his tone grudging.
Akiowa hesitated – where was the joy which always welcomed the Storyteller? – but the spear warmed her hand, telling her to agree. She nodded, not trusting her voice, and followed the old man inside.
Stench and filth greeted her. She sat on bare dirt, the spear across her knees, and she kept one hand on its shaft, needing its reassurance.
The old man spooned bean porridge from his bowl into a smaller one and passed it to her. Though no worse than meals she’d eaten as a slave, she could manage only a single mouthful. He wolfed his porridge down, snatched back her bowl and ate her share, then cut off a sliver of pemmican.
“I’ll have The Star That Quit the Sky,” he said, as he chewed. “That’ll pay for your dinner.”
Dread curdled Akiowa’s stomach. A story she didn’t know, that she’d never heard of. But the spear sent a thrill up her arm, through her body, into her mind and mouth, and the tale spilled from her: “Long ago when the world was young, before wolf ran and eagle flew, the sky was thick with stars. Yet one star wasn’t pleased …”
As the story unfolded – the star arguing with his neighbours, moving from one sky village to another, always at odds with everyone, finally leaving the heavens to be free and alone – the old man nodded and muttered to himself.
“Yes, that’s how it is,” he said when she’d finished. “Nothing but liars, cheats, bullies, shrews.”
Crushed by the old man’s bitterness, Akiowa said nothing, but though as a slave she’d been beaten and abused, shunned and despised, her heart knew he was wrong.
“I’m free of them,” he said. “Free to do what I want, go where I want. Free from any man’s order, all women’s whims.”
But free, also, of companionship and affection and laughter among friends. Free of help, succour, support. He would die alone, unmourned, just as she would have done as a slave.
“You’re free, but are you happy?” she asked.
He sneered, turned his back on her and lay down. Akiowa stood. Freedom wasn’t enough. Not if it led to this.
So she left the old man, and continued her walk to find happiness.