The village fires burned into the night, and the Young Boy sat, wide-eyed at the stars. His father, a violent man, with built arms and shoulders, paced left and right.
"You must not falter, son! Tonight is not just a test."
The ancestors breathed in heavily, silently watching from behind the world.
"Should you survive this-you will be a man, and you may join me in the hunt- at dawn."
The boy shook, his legs weak from trembling.
"Do you understand-my son?"
"Not a word then," said the father, lifting a jug and tossing water onto the fire. Steam and smoke bellowed up through the trees. A moment of silence passed, and the father stormed away, as a panther.
His son remained behind. He took one knee, and reached for his spear. Decorated in a head-dress, the ancient beads from the river, and the feathers of the wild-game in the forest, he walked on.
The forest seemed to lift its gaze from him, its heaviness subsiding for a while. He walked quietly as the path began to wind, and then eventually end. He over-stepped brush and fallen trees, wandering further.
His mind raced with what the elder shaman had told him, just an hour before.
"The mischievous spirits of this wood will test you- and you must show us how brave you can be. Your rite of passage is through the night, into dawn. Do not return to the billowed smoke until you have confronted these spirits. Beware, their powers are only trickery!"
Speaking before the village, the elder shaman cackled wittingly, putting on a form of a show for the people. They trembled every time this story was told, and huddled closer to the evening fires. Their world was vastly unseen by the eye, and forever captured by their minds; visions of spirits for good and for evil, and all in between, danced the forest into life.
The shaman beckoned the boy to come closer. He stepped forward, bowing his head.
"Remember, the water on the stream. What does it show you? You must remember this- or you will not return."
Smiling, he placed his hand on the boy, pushing him back to his father.
"Be strong," his father had stated. He was a man of few words.
The trees seemed to grow thicker here. Slowly he began to feel the prying eyes of spirits. Beings that were unseen, but could appear and disappear- they lived outside of time, and behind the layers of this world. They both played games and assisted the tribe in their survival- and destiny. His ancestors were among them, but so too were his enemies. The shaman had never made clear who he would be facing tonight- only that he must go through them in order to return to the safety of the village, and the pleasant taste of a warrior's meal that was awaiting him.
For now, he reached for some shrubbery, pulling some fruit and biting deep into it. He kneeled, resting for a moment while he ate.
The trees ached, and a presence had entered the forest. Eyes began to watch the boy, as he dropped his fruit and clutched the stick. "Who are you!" He asked. The forest remained quiet, but he knew it was anything but un-attentive. Something was watching him.
A creak from the west, he pointed his spear. "Wicked spirits? Do you challenge me?"
Another creak, the forest seemed to breathe in, and eerie silence followed. The crickets around him silenced themselves, as if bowing down to a stronger force.
Rising from the shrubs, a figure appeared- and lunged towards him.
The boy turned and ran, stumbling on his footing and tripping over thick vines, he leaped back onto his feet and hurled himself away from the area faster than he could think.
His heart pounded, and something inside him forced him to turn around.
Nothing was in sight. The forest returned to its chirping, dancing and breathing. A wind came over the place, and he looked around- a river was brimming over nearby. He moved towards it, towards the east.
Kneeling by the lake, he reached for his left shoulder- scratched up badly. It stung as he poured the cool water over it. "Curses," he whispered to himself. His mind wandered over what the entity could be- and what he should do.
"Coward," he could hear his father say.
For a moment, he imagined himself at a much younger age, seven or so- helping his father hunt for the game of the wood. A smaller pig had charged him, and he had screamed, running for his father. His father laughed at him, "My son! With a heart like that, your stomach will always be empty!"
The boy gripped a stone from the river and tossed it to the other side.
He stood up and faced the thick again. He marched, hesitantly back towards it. For a moment, the trees retained a pristine nature- quiet, swaying gently, shaking with the life of the night. Something shifted, as he parted the tall grass, stepping into the canopy. As if possessed, a terrible feeling began to enter his heart.
"What is this!" He shouted into the trees, raising his spear.
He marched, knees near buckling.
The forest became a deathly quiet, and the being rose again from the leaves. It did not move, it did not gesture. Like a living shadow, he thought. He raised his spear. It did not respond.
"Who are you!" He shouted at it. With all his might, he took another step forward.
It turned, slowly- at least he thought it did, and began to run silently through the trees, zipping through like a cloud or a wisp of smoke. The boy gritted his teeth and followed.
His eyes had become accustomed to the night, and although his heart pounded with fear, his legs began to carry him forward, briskly leaping over rock and stump- he could run through here blindfolded.
The entity had disappeared, but left a trail in the boy's mind- west, towards the very rocks where the sun could be last seen through the forest.
Charging forward, he darted through the trees, his sweat making it harder for him to grip his spear.
At last, he reached the opening, and the rocks. It was strangely quiet, the crickets had once again lost their song, and the night laid barren before him.
The stars were numerous and magical- but the moon was absent tonight. The boy kneeled, praying for his ancestors to watch over him.
"Come face me! Where do you run to, spirit!" He stabbed the blunt of the spear into the ground and stood attentively.
The rocks began to tumble, one by one, from the mount. The being reappeared, hovering over the ground. A tear streaked down the boys face.
It floated over the rocks, before hovering over to him at an unsettling speed. It's face was empty, but the boy was sure he could see a skull within the shadow.
He lifted his spear and pointed it weakly at the being. His stomach did flips, and he could barely hold his weapon pointed. The entity seemed to note this, and with what seemed to be a mere stroke of the wind, the spear was tossed to the ground.
The boy mumbled out the incantations of his ancestors, one by one, asking for protection, casting them against the creature. It moved closer.
He collapsed onto the ground, crawling away, his voice still sputtering out the incantations. The being persisted.
"Who are you!?" He shouted, demanding of it once again. It quietly approached him- reaching what seemed to be a long, thin arm to grab his leg. He kicked at it and it quickly backed away.
He turned to run once again, this way going south-east. The river would be closer this way.
"Remember the river," He thought- running as fast as he could. This was his last idea, and a very creeping inclination he had was that he would not see the dawn.
"Remember the river!" He shouted, seeing it through the wood.
The entity rose up in front of him. He slammed into its chest, and flew back into the dirt and sand.
It kneeled over him, breathing deeply. It grabbed for his neck.
The boy's instinct kicked in, and he grabbed for his spear, wrestling with the creature as it choked him with an inhuman grip.
Kicking and shouting, he jabbed the spear through it, and watched the entity tumble back into the shadows of the forest. He could see it crawl and slither, in wisps across the floor. It remained tangible, present, moving the vine and the leaves.
He darted for the water, his spear left behind. Throwing a rock into the thick, he shouted at it. "Finish me or I will finish you!" He shouted, his adrenaline pumping now.
The entity appeared to respond, floating out from the brush- this time much taller, appearing to have huge shoulders. It seemed overwhelmingly powerful. The boy raised his fists, awaiting its grip again.
It reached down for him, and he leaped into its grip- his arms swinging. He reached for its neck, and felt cold air, nearly freezing surround him. Wrestling it to the ground, he was tossed on the riverbank's sand. Air was punched out of his lungs, and looking up for a moment, noticed the stars again. His minded flooded with the images of his ancestors, watching over him- but they were not involving themselves. Why did they not help?
He was alone, at his last breath- and... He had to fight. Pushing up again from the ground his pulled the spirit into the river, but in the instant that it was about to hit the water - he noted its reflection. It wasn't there! Instead, he could distinctly see himself standing, not struggling or grimacing.
He fell into the water, the shadow figure becoming submerged.
Standing back- he realized it was not there.
He fell back, scrambling to regain his composure- what had just happened?
Looking around, he saw nothing. The water cleared, the ripples subsided, and all that remained was his reflection in the cool flowing river.
"Remember the river," he said, understanding now.
The Boy had traveled into the very depths of his heart, into the west, and the night, to come out at last to see this. He smiled into the reflection, and rested on the riverbank. For years he had tentatively catered for the garden in his mind, its various seeds had carried his imagination from one end of the world to the other, had given birth to both hopes and fears, and at last he could see that. "A master of the dream world sees himself clearly in the water's edge," said the shaman once to boy's father. "Your son must be tested, when the time comes- and we will see if he may take my staff, when the time comes."
The sun soon began to show in the east, and a morning fire burned gently. The feast was being prepared for The Man. Before returning, he quietly buried his garments by the river bank, leaving them behind.