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Susanne Beck, T. Novan and Okasha - The Growing...docx
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I wonder. . . .

Abruptly Koda comes to a decision. Kirsten reaches out to stop her as she opens the driver’s door, a frown creasing her brow. “Dakota—“

She grins in answer. “I’m going to try something. It could go wrong, but I think-- Look in the glove compartment and hand me that pistol, would you?” Kirsten complies, and Koda deftly slips a small tranquilizer dart into it. “—I think I know how to defuse this situation. Come back and give me a hand, will you?”

Kirsten follows her out the left-hand door, her puzzled disapproval an almost palpable pressure between Koda’s shoulders. At the back bumper, Koda lowers the tailgate and pulls Coyote’s cage forward. His mouth hangs open in a doofus-dog grin, tongue lolling. He yips again. “Okay, boy” she says, “I get it. I think.” Tacoma spares her a swift glance, also grinning, then returns to keeping a bead on either the badger or their cousin.

Koda is not quite sure which. Igmú has made herself small in the corner of her carrier, her eyes wide with stress. Another reason to get this over with.

Kirsten helps Koda to maneuver Coyote forward, then lift the cage down. Another series of yips punctuates the rapid swing of his abbreviated tail, its syncopoated rhythm rattling the heavy wire mesh to either side of him. Scooting the carrier along the tarmac and around the double wheels on the passenger side, Koda commands, “Manny, step back. Now.”

Manny shoots a glance at her over his shoulder, a glint coming into his eye as he realizes what she’s about. Carefully he takes a step backward and to the side, then another, until the hood of the truck bulks large between him and the badger. With one hand, Koda takes the trank-loaded pistol from her belt. “Tacoma, keep him in your sights,” she says. “Just in case this goes wrong. I’ll cover Coyote.”

“I’m on it.”

”Okay. Here goes.”

With her free hand, Koda slips the latch of the carrier, flinging the door wide. Coyote is out onto the road with a bound, making for the badger at a stiff-legged trot, stubby tail down, head tilted to one side. He whines, low in his throat.

Without warning, the badger seems to shrink. His haunches go down and his head comes up, black button nose snuffling the breeze. He cants his head, small ears cupped forward. He grunts.

“They know each other!” Kirsten whispers, her eyes wide. “You knew!”

“I guessed,” Koda corrects her with a smile. “Watch.”

At the grunt, Coyote raises his head. He yips, twice, and walks straight up to the badger. Still grunting, Badger lifts his muzzle for a mutual sniff. Coyote’s tail resumes its swing, and he stretches, leaning on his extended forelegs, rump high in the air. His tongue lolls from his open mouth. Springing to one side, then, he yelps and prances a few steps down the road beyond the cattle guard. With a last suspicious look backward, Badger lumbers around, and they disappear into the tall grass together.

“Aww,” says Manny. “Off into the sunset. Ain’t that sweet?”

Koda swats at him as she climbs back into the driver’s seat. “It’s sunrise, cuz. Get back in. We’ve still got to drop Igmú off someplace safe.”

Back on the road, Kirsten takes another mouthful of the coffee, offering it to Dakota. “It’s still warm.” Then, “How did you know to let the coyote go there? Couldn’t they have gotten into a fight?” Koda drinks, then sets the mug down again. “They could have, if they hadn’t known each other. That’s why we kept the trank guns on them.” She shrugs. “Nobody knows why, but sometimes badgers and coyotes form what can only be called friendships. They become hunting partners; one flushes the prey, the other catches it. When Coyote kept making ‘I’m home’ noises, well—“

“Can you talk to them?” Kirsten asks abruptly. “To the animals?”

Dakota studies her for a moment. Kirsten’s face is open and earnest. Carefully she says, “Not exactly. Sometimes I can communicate with a particular four-foot, but it’s not usually with words. Why?”

Visibly gathering her courage, Kirsten says, “When we let the bobcat loose down by the stream can you tell her—” She pauses a moment, then finishes in a rush, “Can you tell her I’d appreciate it if she didn’t eat any raccoons?”

Koda allows the question to swirl around in her brain for a long moment, hoping it will settle and make sense. When it does not oblige her, she says, “I think I’m missing something here. You want to tell me what it is?”

“No,” Kirsten says, firmly. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

A quick glance away from the road tells Koda that Kirsten is serious. With a twist of the steering wheel, she pulls the truck over to the side of the tarmac and brakes. Turning to face the other woman, she says, “Canteskuye, I know you’re not crazy. You’re a scientist. You’re probably the most rational person I know. Now, what does releasing Igmú have to do with raccoons?”

Kirsten stares down at her hands, clenched in her lap. Pale sun sidelights her face, outlining her profile in a thin ribbon of light. She raises her eyes for an instant, drops her gaze again. “I had a dream,” she says. “There in the woods. A couple weeks ago or so.”

“A dream,” Koda echoes. “About raccoons?”

“A raccoon. He-- That is, we had a conversation.”

A fist thumps on the top of the cab. “You okay up front? Is there a problem?”

“We’re fine, Manny” she calls, not elaborating, then turns back to Kirsten. “Okay. You had a conversation.”

“With a raccoon. I had a conversation with a raccoon. In a dream.”

“And?”

Abruptly Kirsten turns to face her. Her expression is almost pleading. “I was sitting under a tree with Asi. There was a raccoon by the stream, there on the rock where I found you—later. When he’d caught a fish, he came over to me and talked to me.” A small grimace passes across her mouth, is gone. “I don’t know when I fell asleep. I don’t really know if I fell asleep. But when he left and I woke up”--her hands describe small, aimless circles in the air “—came to, whatever—there were tracks in the snow. Those were real.”

“Do you want to tell me what he said?” Dakota reaches out and captures one of Kirsten’s hands, surprisingly strong for all its small size. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to, you know, or if there was anything that’s not my business.”

“No, it’s okay. He said his name was Wika Tega—Tegasomething.”

”Wika Tegalega,” Koda supplies. “It’s our Lakota word for ‘raccoon.’”

“He said it means ‘magical masked one’ or something like that. But he told me to call him Tega. He offered me some of his fish, but—“

“Not into sushi, huh?”

“No. Anyway, he said time was like a Moebius strip, always going around in the same circle, things repeating themselves. He said he was my spirit animal, and he said to go to you when I woke up. That you needed me.” She pauses, taking a deep breath, looking up to meet Dakota’s eyes. “And I went to you. And you did. Even if I was—hallucinating.”

Koda squeezes Kirsten’s hand, raising it to her lips to place a kiss on the palm. “And I was grateful that you came.” She allows a small silence to stretch between them. Then she says, “How much Lakota do you know?”

Kirsten’s eyes widen in startlement. “Lakota? Just a few words—things I’ve heard you say once or twice. Like Wiyo’s name. Or your dad’s. ‘Yes.’ ‘Hello.’ That kind of thing. Why?”

“Have you ever heard the Lakota name for raccoon before? Could you just dream it up out of nowhere?”

“I—no. But—“

“You had a vision. You can call it dream if you like, or an altered state, but a spirit came to you as your teacher and friend. It’s a good thing. A good thing.”

Kirsten leans her temple against the back of her seat, never letting go of Koda’s hand. “It’s so much. It’s all new, all strange. I don’t know if I can get my head around it.”

Dakota raises her other hand, runs it gently through Kirsten’s hair. The sun slips through it like molten silver between her fingers. “I know you can. It’s a good head. It’s just that the world has changed more for you in some ways than it has for Tacoma, or Ate, or me. We’re still tied to the old ways your ancestors gave up hundreds of years ago. That’s all.”

“All,” Kirsten repeats with a small laugh. “Sure. That’s all.”

“Not much, huh?”

Another small laugh answers her, and Dakota grins. “And you don’t want Igmú to eat your new friend or any of his nation, is that it?”

“Yeah. Silly, huh? I don’t suppose she could eat a spirit creature.”

“Not really. She wouldn’t be inclined to eat a flesh-and-blood raccoon, either. A big boar can weigh almost fifty pounds, and even a small female would put up too much of a fight to be worth it. Predators don’t like to work that hard for their dinner. It’s not cost-effective.”

“Thank you,” Kirsten says softly.

”For what?”

”For not thinking I’m nuts. For having patience while I learn.”

There is a catch in her voice, and it comes to Dakota that her lover does not mean only spirit animals and language. She says softly, “Wastelake, there is all the time you need. Have patience with yourself.”

“I love you.”

“Cante mitawa,” Koda answers. “Now and always.”

* * *

An hour later, Tacoma and Manny between them carry the wire cage containing Igmu into the small glen in the woods. Morning sun dapples the ground, green with moss, shimmers on the water that purls over the smooth stones of the streambed. High in a sycamore, a gray jay whistles softly.

“Here we are, girl,” Tacoma says, setting the carrier down in the open space. “Home.”

At his voice, she butts her head against the mesh, a purr rumbling in her throat. He bends to scratch her ears, long fingers trailing through the thick winter fur. Dakota says, “Whenever you’re ready.”

Tacoma swings open the door, and for a moment Igmú poises just inside it, one forepaw on the carpet of moss, dotted with minuscule star-shaped flowers. Then she gathers her long legs under her and is gone, streaking across the open space in a heartbeat, to herself onto the limestone ledge and from there over the narrow water in one great bound. A third leap carries her into the undergrowth and out of sight.

For a long moment the four of them stand silent. Koda feels the peace of the land and water and light, a thing almost palpable. Then she turns once again to Tacoma and Manny, Kirsten’s hand in hers. “Let’s go home,” she says.

* * *

Taking a step out into the cool, spring afternoon, Kristen draws in a deep breath to settle the butterflies in her belly. The fragrant breeze caresses her skin and she shivers a little. In shorts and a tank top—Dakota’s tank top, to be perfectly honest—she’s a little underdressed for the weather, but the clothing choice wasn’t exactly her idea, and she’s determined to follow her instructions to the letter.

Another deep breath calms her somewhat, and she starts across the lawn with determined strides. To her surprise, she fields several appreciative glances, including one from a military-type who is so busy scanning her from toe to head that when he gets to her face—and realizes, subsequently, who she is—his own face crumples into a mask of utter mortification.

His quickly doffed cap twists in his hands as he stares at the ground, red-faced as a beet. “S-sorry, um…Ma’am…um…Ms. President, Ma’am….I’m…um….”

Laughing softly, Kirsten takes pity on the man. “It’s alright—.” a quick glance at his immaculately polished nametag—“Edmonds. You didn’t offend me.”

“B-but, Ma’am! Y-you’re the P-P-President!”

“Last time I checked,” she replies, setting a gentle hand on his shoulder, “I was also human.” She quirks a smile at him, pleased to see the fiery blush begin to fade from his cheeks. “Besides, I don’t think my first order of business will be to make ‘ogling the President’ a capital offense, so you’re pretty much off the hook, okay?”

Edmonds straightens to rigid attention. “Y-yes, Ma’am, Ms. President, Ma’am! Thank you, Ma’am!”

“You’re welcome, Edmonds,” she answers, returning the young man’s stiff salute with a straight a face as she can manage. “Carry on.”

“Yes, Ma’am! Thank you, Ms. President, Ma’am!”

As the relieved airman trots off double-speed, Kirsten’s features crack into a wide grin. Shaking her head and chuckling to herself, she continues her trek toward the Base’s gate, and beyond.

* * *

At the Base gate, Kirsten is held up by a young guard so green he could be a shoot of new spring grass. “Excuse me, Ma’am,” he states in a high, wavering voice. “I’m under strict orders not to let you outside of the base without a full guard.”

She rounds on the man, but cuts short her sharp retort when she sees his obvious youth coupled with the look of abject terror in his eyes. She settles instead for a smile, though it doesn’t seem to quell the nervous sweat beading at the young man’s temple and hairless upper lip. “Well, I can certainly appreciate the concern for my safety, Private Mitchell, and I do, believe me. But since I was able to infiltrate the base at Minot without detection, I think I’m pretty capable of walking a few hundred yards past the gate without getting myself killed, don’t you?”

Mitchell’s panicked eyes search fruitlessly the faces of his comrades, all of whom are as stiffly at attention as he. Finally, he looks back to her. “I…s-suppose so, Ma’am.”

Kirsten’s smile brightens. “Good! I’m glad we got this cleared up, Private.” She reaches for the gate, only to be stopped by a hand to her shoulder. She glances down at the hand, then cuts her eyes back to the man who put it there.

Mitchell yanks his hand away as though she were the sun itself. “S-sorry, Ma’am, but I have my orders. From General Hart himself, Ma’am!”

Turning slowly, Kirsten loses her smile and pins the man with her eyes. “I see.” Her voice, though soft, fairly crackles with authority. “And General Hart is the Base Commander, is he?”

“Well…yes, Ma’am!”

“Mm. And who gives the General his orders, Private?”

“Ma’am?”

Kirsten purses her lips. “It’s a simple question, Private Mitchell. If the General commands the base, who commands the General?” She clears her throat as silence answers her question. “Who is his Commander-in-Chief, Private?”

Mitchell looks distinctly ill as the clue finally strikes across his head with the force of a semi. “Y-you are, Ma’am.”

Kirsten’s smile returns. “Got it in three. Now…if there are no further objections…?”

If any were about to be uttered, they are stopped in utero by a deep, steady voice just outside of the gate. “It’s alright, Private,” Tacoma remarks, walking up to the barred entrance. “I’ll make sure our Supreme Commander doesn’t come to a bad end.”

Looking up into dark eyes sparkling with amusement, Kirsten gives a soft chuckle as an MP hurries to open the gate for her. Stepping through, she laughingly curls her hand through the gallant elbow cocked for her.

“Your chariot awaits, Madame,” Tacoma intones as he leads her to one of the Base’s newest toys, an electric powered golf cart purloined from one of the myriad of country clubs that dot the area around the base. Powered by batteries charged by the few wind-fans they’ve managed to install, the carts are perfect for short drives, enabling the rapidly diminishing supply of gasoline to be conserved for emergency use.

As Kirsten slides into the molded white bench seat, she gazes over at Tacoma as he slips his large bulk into the vehicle and puts it in ‘drive’. He looks different out of uniform, she decides; his cargo shorts displaying long, bronzed and muscled legs. His deep black hair is parted in the middle, carefully oiled, and split into two identical braids that are wrapped in rawhide and some type of fur she can’t identify. He is wearing a long-sleeved, baggy pullover type shirt that hides the rest of his body from view, but once again, she marvels at how deeply he resembles his sister.

The drive is a short one, through a small wooded area and into a narrow clearing. Tacoma brings the cart to a halt just inside this clearing. Stepping out of the vehicle, Kirsten eyes her surroundings, noticing the small, domed hut covered in patchwork hide and standing only slightly taller than her own height. A bit closer to her is a large, round fire-pit with a jumble of stones sitting atop a well laid bed of glowing coals. Her mouth goes dry as the nervousness returns full force, filling her belly with crawling, fluttering insects.

She almost jumps at Tacoma’s gentle touch to her arm and she looks at him, wide eyed. He gives her an easy, tender smile. “It’s gonna be alright, Kirsten,” he says softly. “You’ll see.” He tilts his head toward the hut in invitation, gaze warm upon her. “C’mon.”

Just outside of the hut, he stops and strips off his shirt, leaving his torso bare. Kirsten gazes at him, struck yet again by the resemblance—aside from the obvious anatomical difference—to the woman she loves. She notes the twin thick scars set into his chest inches above his nipples, pushing down a surprising, and unwanted, flash of xenophobia. “Dakota mentioned that you were a Sun Dancer,” she finally says.

“I am,” he remarks in a smooth, even voice. He has noticed the flash in her eyes, but takes no offense at it.

“I…um…thought that Sun Dancing was illegal.”

“It was. But when we reclaimed our lands, we overturned the washichu’s laws.” He smiles. “It is a part of who we are.” With a brief nod, he motions her to stay where she is as he walks to the fire pit and picks up a small herb bundle, lighting it from the coals.

Sweet scented smoke teases her nostrils as he returns and she stands stock still as he begins a soft chant, drawing the bundle and its attendant smoke in complex patterns over her body. The ritual completed, he returns the bundle to its place by the fire ring, then comes to stand before her once again. “Ready?”

After a moment, Kirsten nods and summons up a brief smile. “As I’ll ever be, I guess.”

Tacoma chuckles. “You’ll do fine. Just remember this isn’t a competition. If it gets to be too much for you, just step outside. No one will think any less of you, alright?”

His sincerity is almost palpable and Kirsten nods again, somewhat calmed. “Alright.”

“Great. Let’s go inside, then.”

Tacoma opens the hide flap, and Kirsten’s senses are immediately assaulted by a blast of herb-scented steam. Fat beads of sweat immediately pop up from wide-open pores and she stills for a moment, willing her body to quickly acclimate to the abrupt change in temperature and humidity. After a short time, her breathing eases and she ducks beneath the low overhang and into the sweat hut. Steam paints the scene in a gauzy haze, and she blinks several times as she scans the interior. Manny and Wanblee Wapka sit cross-legged next to one another to her left. Directly before her is another, smaller, stone ring with dozens of fist-sized stones steaming on a bed of glowing coals. And, to her right, Dakota and Maggie sit, heads bowed closely together as they speak to one another in low tones. Maggie laughs, a low and somehow sexy sound, and Kirsten battles a flare of jealousy at the easy intimacy the scene conveys; a jealousy that is washed away the very second both women turn their eyes to her. From Maggie, there is abiding affection and a warm welcome as she eases over, creating a space beside Dakota.

And from Dakota—Kirsten finds herself all but drowning in the soft, loving blue that envelops her, drawing her effortlessly to her lover’s side, where she lowers herself to the ground and smiles in greeting. Unlike the others, Koda is sitting on her heels, her hands resting, relaxed, on strong thighs. Dressed in simple white cotton shorts and a white breast band, with vast amounts of her bronzed skin glimmering with sweat, she is, to Kirsten, magnificence personified.

For her part, Dakota can’t quite seem to stop her eyes from roving over Kirsten’s body; the vision she presents in a damp and clinging tank-top and flushed, rosy flesh sends a wave of arousal crashing through the tall woman so strongly that for a moment, she is almost overwhelmed by the sudden intensity. Breathing deep, she reaches out and threads her fingers through Kirsten’s as the sharp spike of arousal softens and a wash of love takes its place. “I’m glad you came,” she rasps, her eyes bright and full.

“So am I,” Kirsten replies, gently squeezing the large hand that holds her own.

The flap closes as Tacoma eases his large bulk inside and sits beside his father, mimicking the older man’s posture to perfection.

Wanblee Wapka's gaze runs around the small space, making the circuit of those present. "All here? Washte, we can begin." From the smalldeerhide bundle on the floor beside him, he takes out a braid of sweetgrass and tightly tied bundles of sage. "Kirsten," he says, glancing across the fire pit at her. "Maggie. This is your first sweat lodge, and you may see and hear things that you don't expect. You may see swarms of blue and green lights. Or you may hear voices. Don't worry; that's normal."

"That's normal," Kirsten repeats, her lips shaping the words soundlessly. It cannot be any stranger than a talking raccoon. “Normal.”

She feels rather than sees Wanblee Wapka's smile, and knows that her thought has been heard, if not her words. Koda squeezes her hand again in reassurance, and she settles her mind to quiet.

Pouring a dipperful of water over the hot rocks, Wanblee Wapka says, "This water is from the four quarters of the world, carried by our Father the Sky. He is with us when we pray in peace, asking knowledge, wisdom and healing. Ina Maka, has given this water from her own body. She, too, is with us. When Inyan made the world, he gave his life to his creation, and became stone. He is here also." As the steam fades upward, he pours water over the stones three more times.

Kirsten swallows hard as the freshly released heat sets upon her like a living thing. She’s seen her share of saunas, courtesy of semi-regular trips to the gym, but this is a sauna taken to the nth degree, and her body is slow to adjust. She startles when Dakota’s hand withdraws from hers, and she turns to look at her lover.

Dakota appears completely relaxed; her chest moves in a very slow, very steady rhythm, her hands rest, palms upward, against her thighs, fingers slightly curled. A small smile plays across her lips and her eyes are gently closed.

Across the hut, the three men appear much the same, though Wanblee Wapka’s eyes are open, but unfocused.

Finally looking to her left, Kirsten finds Maggie smiling at her. Leaning slightly over, the Colonel whispers in her ear, “Relax. If nothing else, it’ll be good for the skin, right?”

With a whispering laugh, Kirsten nods and forces herself to relax. Though the head is intense, it truly isn’t as bad as she thought it would be. After a moment, her eyes begin to drift closed, and she lets them, clearing her mind as much as she is able.

Some unknown time later, Kirsten breaks sharply free of a light doze, like a swimmer finally breaking the surface of a choppy ocean, and gasps, her heart pounding hard and urgent in her chest. She blinks her eyes quickly, clearing the stinging sweat, as her panicked mind tries to decipher the insistent summons her body seems to be sending her. All seems peaceful and quiet.

A quick check on Maggie shows the Colonel sitting comfortably, eyes closed and breathing in an easy rhythm. The three men across from her are likewise still and calm in their meditation.

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