An Anasazi Village, 1250
Passing time meant nothing. Ta-Kuat sat silent, letting the darkness and the kiva fire speak. All-times-in-this-place wove together in the spirit-bowl of the young shaman’s belly—familiar, clear, strong. From him, the winding paths to all-places-in-this- time led outward into the sacred darkness. When he was ready, Chiyuskanek would speak, and Ta-Kuat would listen.
The little fire burned low. Chiyuskanek bent forward to place two more sticks on it, and the flickering light reshaped the craggy furrows of his face with shadows as he moved. “I have journeyed far into tomorrow,” he said, eyes fixed on the fire, “to see a time when the rains will return to us, and have not found it. Instead, I have seen the houses of our people empty, empty as bird nests in winter, all along the cliffs of our valley. Silent. Barren.”
The old man paused, as if to rest from carrying the burden of his vision. “No sign at all of our people remained but the empty husks of our living—our village had become a dead place. This will come to pass unless I find another way for our people, a door to a different tomorrow. This is not an easy thing.”
Ta-Kuat honored his mentor’s vision with strong silence. He knew Chiyuskanek was not finished, so he held a still space for him, filling the whole kiva with his listening.
“In the Great Time,” Chiyuskanek continued, “the time when the dwellings of our ancestors glowed with the beauty of their singing, when people and animals spoke only one language, in that time our people could change yesterday and set tomorrow as they chose. They moved from tomorrow to yesterday, and from mountain to valley, as if walking from one house to another.”
Chiyuskanek looked up from the flames and fixed Ta-Kuat with eyes full of their ancestors’ spirits. “Though all the doors tothat time have been closed to us, a powerful stone, charged with the knowledge of the wise ones of that time, still exists. It holds the power to shape things, events, even in the spirit-world. This Door-Stone lies sleeping in some time-place I have not found yet.”
Again Chiyuskanek’s gaze dropped to the fire. “My old enemy has worked his magic to seal the doors to many time-places against my passage. How he has done this, I do not know, and I cannot undo his curse, even to save our people.” Chiyuskanek sighed and looked up, staring at his apprentice, his successor. “The time for me to join the ancestors draws near. My deepest wish is to give our people this gift, a changed tomorrow full of plenty, before I die.”
Ta-Kuat met his mentor’s gaze and acknowledged his speaking. He already knew. Less than a moon ago he had looked with spirit-vision upon Chiyuskanek and seen a dark cloud that sat like a storm in his belly. Death had entered him, and would soon take him. Chiyuskanek would have known this long ago, but he had not said anything of his crossing until now.
But there was much in what Chiyuskanek had said that Ta- Kuat did not understand. Seldom had he mentioned this enemy that prevented him from traveling as he once had. That must have been a fierce struggle if a great shaman like his teacher had lost to such a foe. Perhaps he himself had never encountered such an enemy because Chiyuskanek had always protected him, sitting as guardian as he’d traveled. If so, he was grateful. An enemy capable of sealing paths in the spirit-world before him might also be able to seal those paths behind him. It would be a terrible thing to be trapped in the spirit world, unable to return to his body, to the people he served.
He had, it seemed, felt the burn of pride in his mentor’s words, although perhaps he was mistaken. It was true their people suffered, and he too prayed for their relief. He too had done everything he knew how to do to bring the rains. But the rain had not come to them, and their people suffered still.
It was not wrong if Chiyuskanek wanted to gift his people with rain. Even if pride did sit in his mentor’s heart, what he wanted was a great blessing for his people. Long before Ta-Kuat had been born he had served their tribe for many harvests. Now his mentor, his spirit-father, was asking him to travel in a way that he himself could not. It was an honor. Besides, Ta-Kuat had no knowledge of this Door-Stone or how to use it. But Chiyuskanek did. He made peace with his uncertainty and waited.
Chiyuskanek spoke in the tone of a command. “This Door- Stone lies in a time-place closed to me—a place full of rain, my spirit guide tells. You must find it and bring it to me. With the stone my powers will be restored, and I will be able to travel freely again. I will open a door to a tomorrow full of plenty for our people, that will let us prosper in our valley.”
The old man fell silent. Ta-Kuat waited, making space, until his listening had come to rest and he himself was ready to speak. “Send me as you will, Chiyuskanek.” Fragrant smoke caressed the young shaman’s face, purifying, strengthening him. “Your enemy does not know me. I will travel for you, and bring you the Door-Stone, for the sake of our people.”
Vancouver, BC, Current Time
Edna Halliday seemed out of sorts today. Not really irritable, but curt, distracted. Approaching death could have that effect on anyone—Ian had seen far worse. He smiled his encouragement as he placed the thermometer under her tongue. In the month she’d been his client he’d grown genuinely fond of her. She had—spine. She was concluding her journey with dignity, and not a trace of self-pity.
He would ask again later if anything was bothering her, see if he could get a deeper answer this time. The cyclic swirl of the anniversary clock’s pendulum under its glass dome on the dresser caught his eye. It was hypnotic, the effect intensified in the thick stillness of the room as it measured her waiting.
The thermometer’s beep pulled Ian’s attention back to the woman in the bed in front of him. Mrs. Halliday had drifted off with it in her mouth. He drew it out gently, trying not to disturb his client, and recorded the temp. He took the pulse from the slack arm resting on the flannel sheet and made his entry on the chart. Opening the prescription pain meds on the lace-covered nightstand, he counted the remaining tablets. Good. Not too few or too many—on schedule.
“You seem so young to be spending your days with dying old people,” came her firm voice from the bed.
“Some of my clients have been younger than me, Mrs. H.” Ian turned to face the frail shell of a woman who once had been a commanding presence by any standard—he’d seen the framed pictures in the other room. The broad forehead was heavily wrinkled now, and the ice-blue eyes partially covered by drooping lids. What hair she had left, dull and white, sprouted in short wispy patches, thanks to the chemo that had ended weeks ago, along with any hope of recovery. The high cheekbones were more prominent and less beautiful now, but the chin—that defiant little bump of a chin, so stubborn, determined—that hadn’t lost anything at all to age or to cancer. Edna Halliday had been a powerful and charismatic woman. She still was, in the important ways, even at a less than healthy weight. “Has your bowel and bladder function been okay?”
“You ask me that every time,” she said, frowning. “Yes, just like last week, they’re both working fine, thank you very much.” She paused. “Why do you do this?”
Ian stopped writing, surprised. “Why? I don’t get asked that very often.”
“I’m sure most of your patients are much better behaved than I ever will be,” she sniffed, “but I offer no apology whatever.” She drew the collar of her flowered nightgown flat with knobby fingers. “I expect most are just grateful that someone comes around to take care of them while they die. But I want to know.” She pursed her lips. “I have my reasons.”
“I like the work, and I meet people like you.”
“Don’t you patronize me, Ian McCandless,” she snapped. “That’s just insulting. Why do you do this work? Hospice. And death.” Her voice hardened into one accustomed to obedience. “I want a real answer, so don’t weasel.”
Embarrassed he hadn’t realized how serious she was, he pulled the armchair from the foot of the bed to sit closer. “I’m sorry, Mrs. H.—believe me, I’m not patronizing you. It was a bad attempt at humor, which isn’t my strong suit.” He met her gaze and held it. “I confess, though, to some caution. We’re trained to support people in their experience, especially to avoid saying something that might challenge a client’s beliefs, even inadvertently.” He paused. “I’m pretty careful about personal disclosure for that reason. I expect my beliefs are very different from yours.”
“Personal disclosure?” Her lips squeezed together into a thin line. “Young man, you just asked an eighty-one year old woman if her bladder and bowels are working properly. Don’t you think that counts as personal? Besides,” she continued, “my beliefs are not the subject of discussion at the moment. I’m quite sure they can withstand the shock of exposure to your reasons for wanting to help me.” She folded her hands on her lap. “So—now it’s your turn for some personal disclosure.”
Ian laughed, conceding. This was going to take longer than he had scheduled, but maybe this had something to do with her restlessness. “Fair enough.” He rested his hand on the bed beside her. “This is really important work to me. I think it’s a beautiful thing to surround people with care, understanding, as they prepare to leave this world and enter the next.” He paused to select his words. “I also think that the ways the spirit and physical worlds interact are more important to us than anything else.”
“The spirit world. You’re not Christian, are you?” She coughed—shallow, dry. He knew that cough would only get worse.
“Not anymore, Mrs. H. I hope that doesn’t bother you.”
“My missionary work ended long ago, young man. I have no investment in your conversion.” She stared at him, brows knit. “There’s something unusual about you.”
He wanted to steer the conversation to something safer. “I’m just a nurse, Mrs. H. Not all that different, really.”
“No, I can tell. Something…you’ve brought me the kind of comfort that I would have expected from my minister—my old one, before that young stuffed shirt took over last year.” She looked as if she wanted to spit, but had decided against it. “He’s so full of righteousness he has no room at all left for compassion.”
Ian patted her hand as he stood up, then poured a small glass of water from the bedside pitcher. “I’ll bet you’re ready to take your pain meds now.” He shook out the dosage from the orange plastic bottle into a china saucer covered in hand-painted violets.
She took the saucer from him but held on to his wrist. “Ian— ” Her gaze, clear and unflinching, held his. “Would you ever consider helping someone who is dying to…to choose the time of their exit? If they…if they were very clear about what they wanted, and asked you?”
So that was it! He would never have guessed. He sat on the edge of the bed, putting the saucer on the nightstand without letting go of her hand. She was serious. This was delicate. He needed more from her. “I don’t have to ask if you’ve given this a lot of thought, do I?”
Her eyes bored into him. “It’s not that I’m afraid of the pain. I know what suffering feels like. What I hate is the incapacity. I don’t want to lie around drugged stupid and helpless, being barely more than dead. So much less than alive. It’s so…useless.”
That would be a very bad word for Edna Halliday, “useless”. He thought for a moment, reaching for what was underneath her words. “Are you afraid of needing that much care from your family? Caring for you might become hard at times, but I’m sure it isn’t a burden to them, even if it might feel that way to you.”
She shook her head as if he’d missed the point. “No, no, it’s not that.” She looked thoughtful. “When you go on a trip, you make arrangements. You know the date you’re leaving. You can plan—do things right. You pack, put your affairs in order, you say your good-byes, and you leave for the airport.” She squeezed his hand. “Well, I’m just about packed.” Her jaw pushed out, tough, determined. “What I don’t want is to have finished up, said all my good-byes, and then sit by the phone with my bag, so to speak, waiting weeks for my taxi.”
“Does your family know you’re thinking of this?”
“Absolutely not. My daughter would never agree, and you mustn’t say a word to her. She’s too…set in her beliefs, bless her heart. It would be completely unacceptable to her.”
Ian nodded, understanding. “But not unacceptable to you.”
Mrs. Halliday’s shrug was tiny but eloquent. “Until a year ago, I think it probably would have been. From a distance, death looks uncomplicated.” She gave him a wan smile. “You might say I’ve seen the light.”
He grinned, acknowledging the joke but still feeling cautious. “Say more about that.”
“Make no mistake, I’m completely at peace in my faith.” She tilted her head, as if bracing against an argument. “But I see no virtue in hanging on to breath when one’s life is already over. I’m going to die in the next two or three months. I’ll come to a point when leaving on my own terms is—appropriate. Both sensible and dignified.”
He nodded. “I understand. As a nurse, there’s nothing I can do, especially if your family doesn’t support your intention. You must know—”
“Thank you for your legal disclaimer.” She sniffed, cutting him off. “But whether you help me or not I’m going to pick my time, and I’ll find a way. You must know a way. So, now. What about it?” Her eyes, at once strong and vulnerable, held him.
This was precarious, with risk no matter what he did. He took a breath, let it out. The answer came—better to offend her with disclosure about his other work than to come across cold and uncaring. “Before we go farther, Mrs. H., I have to tell you something.” He stopped and grinned. “Personal disclosure, right?” The words were slow to form, but they came. “I’m learning to become a shaman. The work is more important to me even than nursing.” He paused. “It’s my spiritual path.”
Mrs. Halliday didn’t blink. “I knew there was something else about you, Ian. Other dimensions.”
He tried to hide his surprise. “You’re okay with that?”
She patted his hand. “More than okay. I’m relieved. It means you understand.”
Ian rubbed his forehead, not sure he did. “Actually, it’s not that clear to me. I’ll have to ask my teacher what I can do. I have two codes of ethics, and they’ve never clashed before.”
“I’m in no rush. I’ll still be here next week.”
“It might be longer than that, I’m afraid. I’m trying to avoid it, but I might have to go back to visit my family in Halifax for the holiday, and I’d be away—”
“For Easter? You said you weren’t a Christian anymore, and now I understand why. I assume they are.”
“Very. Devout RC.”
“Well, when you come back, then. As I say, I’m in no rush.” Edna cocked her head to one side, smiling. “So you’re the red- haired black sheep of the family, eh, Ian? I knew there was a reason I liked you so much. Still, I’m sure it will be a lovely time.”
He felt his smile weaken and twist, pulled down by bitterness. “No guarantees there, Mrs. H. My trips home haven’t been all that lovely for quite a while, but I’ll certainly try for that.” Love forced him to be fair. “They’ll try, too. As best they can.”
Mrs. Halliday frowned, looking off into the distance. It was a while before she spoke, her voice soft and wistful. “Well, I can tell you from personal experience, no matter what happens when you’re there, your parents will be grateful you came.”
Surprised, Ian realized she was right, but he didn’t really want to think about Halifax any more. “Your daughter’s still coming over twice a day, isn’t she?”
Bright and brisk again, Mrs. Halliday folded her hands on her lap. “Like clockwork, God bless her. She’ll be here with some food in a while. She makes me eat a little something even if I’m not very hungry. She calls, too, at least once during the day.”
“Good.” Ian stood up. “We’ll talk more about…exits next time, okay?”
“My mind’s already made up, young man. You won’t change it.”
He hesitated, wanting to help but unsure of what to say. “You know it’s not just leaving this world, but also entering the next.”
Edna Halliday stuck out her little chin as if it were the prow of a naval icebreaker. “I know where I’m headed, Ian McCandless. Don’t you worry about that.”
What an amazing woman she was. He nodded vigorous agreement. “I have no doubt you do, Mrs. H.” He’d ask Ang what he might do for her.