The sun lies dappled on the casual, drifting reuland leaves, a rare and beautiful sight, but all it does is make you lightheaded and sick. The leaves are bright green, poison-green, and shiny in the merciless light. Around you are the crackling of heavy footsteps through the brush, and singsongy, whispering Clan chants, and the occasional swish of a blade through the underbrush. Everyone’s feet move in silent, brushing Indian steps across the leaf-covered forest floor. Your father’s hand is on your shoulder, heavy and warm, and you want it to comfort you, but all it does is make you walk faster through the beady sunlight and weigh you down until you start to feel dizzy.
There are five other men, your father, and his daughter. You. All are dressed in lightweight grey tunics, long-sleeved and striped with lighter green to mimic the sun on the reuland leaves, ankle-length khaki pants, and hunting boots. Three of the men carry guns in holsters at their hips, two have bows slung across their backs and carry backpacks full of quivers, and your father wears a beltful of gleaming knives. You are carrying a jagged black-bladed knife with a silver framed handle. Your left hand is still smarting from yesterday’s branding; a rising red welt, in the shape of the holy six-pointed star, marks your hand.
The brand of honor. You gritted your teeth when the black-robed man came forth with the smoking iron but that didn’t stop a strangled gasp from being yanked between your teeth. You rub the mark and keep your eyes to the forest ahead of you.
All the men bear that mark. All the other Clan members, for that matter; everyone over sixteen. The six men are naturally dark-eyed and unnaturally dark-skinned, their skin stained brown and light green and black by a lifetime surviving in the woods with no one but the Clan and the killing of animals to get by. You look up at your father. His right cheek was damaged by a Fed’s club before you were born and now is red and partially collapsed. His eyes, one a natural brown, the other shocked blue by the scar on his cheek, are brighter than usual, as if he knows that what he’s about to put you through will cause trauma. But he doesn’t stop walking.
He looks down at you, winks with the blue eye, and returns to scouring the woods ahead, eyes squinted and hand cramped unconsciously on your shoulder. You look at your feet and turn the ritual blade around in your hands.
The biggest man stops and points with a hand that is missing three fingers. The dappled forest breaks into a clearing radiant with cool wind and orange afternoon sunlight. The forest floor, covered with autumn leaves, slopes into a bowl. At the bottom of the bowl is a heap of something furry, something asleep and snoring, something chained by the neck to a rusty metal pole.
Your father turns to you. He places both hands atop your head and gives you a quick smile before his face freezes into the blank ritual expression. “Dearest, independent, masterless heart,” he says. The other men move into a tight circle around us, blocking the pumpkin sun from my view with their brawny shoulders. “Fierce Clan child, servant to none, fighter for all. You were given to us at a time of grace for the Clan. Now it is time for us to release you. This is your chance to prove your strength, your grace in the face of blood and death. Succeed, and you are a woman in the Clan. Fail…”
He pauses expectantly. Dutifully, you lift your gaze from the ground and say, “I will not fail, Father.”
“Good. This is a skill that will save your life many times. You have never killed before, not even a minnow for fishing bait. This is first blood. This is a necessary skill for the Clan. Fail, and you are not the Clan. Fail, and you will die. Learn to kill and you learn to live. To kill is to live.”
“To kill is to live,” the five men say together, their deep voices rising in the fog.
“To kill is to live,” you repeat, your voice shrinking a little.
Your father takes the twisted black blade from you, kisses it, and hands it back, handle first. You take it, looking at his face for a sign of love, of compassion, of pity. You see nothing. His damaged eye looks straight above your head, staring at the sleeping beast that you must kill.
The five men push you away from them and down into the bowl of the valley. You stumble a little on the edge and regain your balance on the molting leaves. Carefully, your knees bending slightly, you edge down toward the sleeping beast. As you get closer, you start to move slower and quieter. You see that it is a bear. The animal is different every year, but you heard that your aunt Patricia’s killing was a grizzly, many years ago.
You look at the snout as you have been told to do, at the shuttered eyes and shaped belly and the texture and color of the fur. Your heart begins to beat a bit louder. You think to yourself that you probably could have handled a grizzly bear; after all, it was a grizzly that took a swipe at your leg as it chased you up a tree last winter. It was a grizzly that left you bleeding and whimpering and cold at the top of a tree for days, until it got bored and left. But this bear is fat and soft, its fur silky and black, mixed with a light sun-color. It is a honey bear.
You look at it and know in your heart that you cannot kill it. It turns in its drugged sleep and snuffles. You cannot kill a honey bear. Not a sweet soft bear that is gentle on the surface, quiet underneath, and courageous in its soul. You love the honey bears. This forest, after all, this place the Clan claims and defends for itself, is their natural habitat. It is the grizzlies that the Clan brings in once a year for either the ritual killing or the Luminaria feasts in midwinter. Sometimes both. You take another step and look over your shoulder.
Your father uncrosses his arms and his calm expression breaks into pointed fury as you take your gaze off the prey and make yourself vulnerable. You choke back a sob and turn back. You shift the knife in your palm and speak under your breath.
“Do it, you coward. There is no other option. Do it.”
You grit your teeth just like you did when the red-hot iron came close to your flesh yesterday. You raise the knife above your head. The sun sparkles on the back of your head, warm and refreshing. You press your lips together and bring the knife down toward the honey bear’s head. But you miss by just a little and only succeed in slicing off its left ear. Blood, fresh and thin, breaks free and starts to pour over the ground. You remember what the old lady Wishe told you during a story. Ears bleed a lot, even from little nicks. You know there’s little feeling in sections of the human ear but you have no idea about bear ears. Tears begin to cascade down your cheeks and thoughts pound through your head.
Why do I have to do this? I’m just a kid! I’m only sixteen, and barely! God, help me.
It is the mention of God that shakes you, and you raise the blade again. The bear only groans in its drug dreams and brings its paw up toward its face, chasing some eternal drop of honey in a soon-attainable bear heaven. It is not the bear you weep for. It is the life that runs through its veins and makes it want to chase that honey drop which makes you weep—in other words, the bear. The bear makes you weep. You swallow in your raw throat and think to yourself that you cannot be the one who cuts off this bear’s life.
Images flash in your mind in the space of seconds. Since you stumbled on the edge of the leafy valley bowl until just now, it has been precisely thirty seconds. Pictures of you, slashing the twisted knife down, of blood pouring out by the gallons, of a honey dream sliced off, flood through your brain. Of the blood on your hands and clothes, of the cheers and claps, of the sick ringing that you know will come. It is the thought of congratulations that shoves you back, makes you stumble and fall and scramble to your feet. Those six men behind you will come down, shout and clap you on your back, pick up the oozing carcass and carry it home to the Clan compound. They will grin and congratulate you on reaching womanhood and this evening you will have to eat the bear now sleeping sweetly in front of you.
You stand, trembling, and throw up. The vomit doesn’t hit the bear, just spreads a little on the leafy, mossy forest floor. You throw up and toss the blade down and start to cry. You run. You run past the men and your father, not looking up, not watching the ground, just blinded by the sun-spotted tears in your eyes and the taste of vomit in your mouth and the empty feeling in your stomach.
The wooden table is scarred and tainted deep green and red. It’s made from a fallen reuland tree with the top half shorn off; the resulting table is a halved trunk that stretches for a hundred feet across the middle of the Clan compound. You stand next to the roots, a dozen feet away from the nearest person, tears dripping from your cheeks to the mossy ground by your feet.
Killing is a skill. Quick slices to the throat versus a heavy pounding on the head. Every day groups of watchful-eyed young men and women go out and scour the Clan perimeter and bring back bloody carcasses for the old women to clean and cook. Hunters learn the value of a quick chase, an efficient slash, and the ways to build a fire when necessary. Hunters are the lifeblood of the Clan. They feed the Clan, give it life by killing other animals.
You grip a slippery salmon tail between your fingers, raise it over your head, and slam it down on the table. The tail is oddly green and so is the salmon. It’s half the size of your forearm and can feed two hungry people tonight. This is your job, the grace you have been given, and you can’t mess this up. The people sitting farther down the table eat a thin stew and try not to make eye contact. You’ve been given grace, but that doesn’t mean you are accepted or forgiven.
The salmon fastens a huge black eye on you. It pants, or maybe you’re imagining that. These fish were caught a quarter of an hour ago by your older brother; you’re just making sure they’re dead before you chop their heads off. You close your eyes and drive your fist into its brain, which squelches. You wince and do it again. You peek—it’s dead.
The tears fall fresher, fiercer, as you draw your knife and slice off the salmon’s head. It clunks to the ground on the other side of the table and you choke. You drop the mangled salmon body in a basket near you and pick up the next fish. By now you’re blinded, barely seeing what you’re doing. People come and go around you, sitting and eating and leaving. Doing their jobs. Some bring more baskets of half-dead fish and take away the baskets of halved fish that you’ve finished.
“Killing is life,” you whisper to yourself as tears fall onto the body of the lifeless salmon under your fingers. Learn to kill and you will learn to live. Kill, and you have your life back. “To kill is to live.”
But that makes no sense. You shove down a sob as your oldest brother, Mark, goes past, and are glad that your hair is hanging loose around your face to hide the tears. Here at the Clan, killing is the rite of adulthood and also how everyone learns how to survive. Killing is the most necessary skill of life, they say, and yet you can’t even look a half-dead salmon in the eye.
If, just before turning sixteen, you’re deemed a potential hunter, the Elders will allow you to face an undrugged beast. Succeed and kill it, and you’re a hero. Fail, and your family will bury the pieces of you out under the roots of a reuland tree. They won’t give you that honor at your grace chance, your grace killing, not if you demonstrate a thousand potential-hunter skills. You don’t want to be a hunter, anyway. You don’t want to be slitting animal throats for the rest of your life.
“To kill is to live,” you whisper again as you club another salmon and slash its head off with your knife. The old lady Wishe comes by, kneels on the other side of the tree trunk, and starts to pick up the fish heads in a basket. Fish head soup is Wishe’s specialty. “To—kill—is—to—live.”
This is your grace. You have been given this in order to prove your independent spirit, your determination to learn the skill of survival. If you can kill, you can live with the Clan. Succeed, and you have another chance, another afternoon in the bowl of the sun-dappled forest with another drugged animal. Fail…
You remember your response on that pumpkin afternoon and repeat it to yourself. I will not fail, Father.