Ahote had killed before, but this was his first time dying. Beneath the ancient oak tree, surrounded by smoke and flame, he sat in the same place where his grandfather died and returned to this world more than a man. The two lives only overlapped for a short amount of time, before Ahote could ask about the brutal burns on the man’s hands or the blue feather that was the focal point of his headdress. In time, he heard stories from others that would also drive him to the fire: the legend of the Thunderbirds; the death ritual; the next world; and how it all resulted in a man who could kill with just a glance.
No one asked Ahote to partake in the ritual; it had been executed only twice since his grandfather. The first man, a member of a neighboring tribe, entered the circle and was burned so badly that, when the raging flames had been calmed, there was nothing left except bone. His spirit was stolen away by a Thunderbird and carried to the next world. Ahote’s own father, the second man, entered the circle years later but failed at dying. Much to the shame of his family, he crawled away, choking desperately, after less than a minute. Ahote refused to suffer the same embarrassment as his father.
Restrained only by his courage, Ahote did not move as the heat grew more intense. Even as the smoke seeped into his streaming eyes, even as the flames licked his weeping skin, Ahote did not breathe, he simply sat in the reverie of the moment that he waited for his whole life. He thought of the men and animals he killed for his tribe’s survival. He thought of them often, not out of regret, but with jealousy. They saw what lies behind the horizon of death. They had been greeted by the Thunderbirds and carried to the next world. They knew the great spirit whom he was about to face and he envied them for that, though he knew he was more than prepared.
Ahote spent his entire life preparing to die and face the winged proprietors of mortality. Unlike the men and animals he’d slain though, he would not be carried away to the next world. He was prepared to visit the kingdom of death and return to this world triumphant; no longer a mere mortal, but a champion of death just as his grandfather had been. His grandfather had stolen a mythical feather from a Thunderbird and, once he returned to Earth, used it to kill whomever he wished. That feather he then took with him in death to return to the creature he had stolen from. The corner of Ahote’s lips curled into a smile as he tightened his grip around his choice of weapons: a bow, six arrows, and knife.
Outside the circle, the three valley tribes gathered to witness the ceremony. Today, they respected him and tomorrow, if Ahote was successful, they would fear him. If he exited the circle, Ahote knew which men would be the first to die, he’d known for a long time. With that, he opened his mouth and accepted the smoke into his lungs. The choking was instantaneous. Ahote lurched forward losing control of himself. His body gasped for air, whimpered for help, and yet his mind held steady, Die. I must die. Before the flames were lit, he had locked eyes with his kin. His wife’s eyes spoke truths her mouth would never. The translucent brown gems gently whispered for him to end his foolish quest and attend to his family. His young son, on the other hand, shivered with excitement. Grinning ear to ear, he nodded confidently at his father.
He awoke on Earth beneath a blanket of stars. Ahote’s body had been pulled from the fires and showered in water from the natural spring that ran beneath the butte. The healer sucked the grey air from his lungs and drummed on his chest until the invisible wind was able to enter. Clutched between his fingers were two blue feathers, both as dark as midnight but as radiant as a glistening stream. He held them weakly above his head to the wonderment of the crowd. The searing pain of his severely burnt face was beginning to set.
Ahote looked into the eyes of the men he intended to kill and, for the first time, felt shame. He looked to the now quiet crowd and hoarsely whispered, “In the desert, death comes easy. Life…life is the bond that unites us all. Death is what divides. We are all one tribe. Nawhi.”
Ahote now knew what it was to die and found nothing honorable in it.