‛Are you looking at where she died?’ Skipping asks Happy Dancer.
Happy Dancer looks from the sand and seashells, through the cave tunnel to the sea, up to the cleft and further to where the cliff meets the blue sky. ‛A bit of me died too.’ She pulls her deerskin tunic tighter, looks down at the twins, sees their tears forming, and crouches, gathering the four-year-olds into a hug.
Always Asking says, ‛We don’t want you to die. Not even bits.’
‛I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel sad,’ Happy Dancer says. ‛This is a place of joy too.’ She searches for something to distract them. ‘Look at all these shells. So many and so bright in the sun.’ She runs her fingers through a clatter and rustle of shells.
Always Asking picks some up, sand hissing between chubby fingers. ‘Some have holes in. You can see through them.’ He holds one to his eye. Skipping follows suit; they look at each other and giggle.
Happy Dancer stands, brushes long hair from her forehead and lets the sun warm her skin as she looks at the silhouettes of Little Hunter and Chatterbox scrambling high on a sheer rock.
Chatterbox chants a repetitive “Ai, Aiee”, and the whole group join in, adding new notes and rhythms.
Always Asking blows through the hole in his shell and takes a long step with each breath, shoes of hide crunching on the carpet of shells. Skipping watches wheeling seagulls through her shell and asks Happy Dancer, ‘Are we staying here tonight?’
‘If you like.’
‘And you’ll look after us? Will we need a hut?’
‘Not here, there’s the cave if it’s blowy and the cliff will reflect all the heat we need.’ As she speaks Skipping clatters away to join Always Asking who hangs shells on a spiky bush, threading them onto twigs.
Little Hunter thumps to the ground. Happy Dancer whirls round, gasping.
Little Hunter, hair held back in braids, says. ‘What’s wrong?’
Happy Dancer sees him half crouched, perfectly balanced and poised. She lets out a breath. ‘Nothing.’
He runs to her, his usually brooding dark eyes lit with concern. ‘You thought I’d fallen like…?’
Always Asking interrupts, ‘To me, to me!’
Skipping shouts, ‘We’ve got a new game.’
Chatterbox, eight years old and fearless, jumps from the rock spike. Her necklaces of bone beads rattling as she lands. ‘A game… What is it?’
Skipping calls, ‘You need shells with holes in.’
Little Hunter, almost as tall as Happy Dancer and soon to be a man, catches her arm. ‘I don’t think it’s good to keep looking at that spot.’
‘Evil spirits, yes…’
‘Not them. You just look so sad.’ There’s tenderness in his voice and touch.
Happy Dancer puts her hand over his as Chatterbox runs past to join the twins at the bush. ‘Oh, Little Hunter, I miss her so much.’
‘What do you miss most?’ He leads her towards the others.
‘Everything. Do you remember the way she used to have one side of her hair woven with white string?’
‘Ai! I will make white string for you today and weave it just like she did.’
‘Will you? That would be lovely.’
‘That means you have to put twenty shells on the bush and leave a drop of your sadness in each.’
Scrabbling for shells, Skipping says, ‘I can’t find any with holes in now. She would have helped.’
Happy Dancer kneels beside her. ‘Then I will help like she would.’ She tries to mimic the voice of her sister.
Always Asking jumps and says, ‘You sounded just like her. I liked the way she made clever patterns on people’s cheeks and wrists. She did a sparrow for me once.’
Chatterbox says, ‘Then I will peel some birch bark as thin as thin can be and cut a pattern of leaves. A big one, a small one and a tiny one all in a line. Then I will make ochre from the beach and put the pattern on your cheek.’ She pauses and adds, ‘But you will have to put ten shells on the bush and the spirit of a tear in each.’
Always Asking says, ‘Do you remember the way she used to put her cheek against yours sometimes? When she talked her lips tickled my skin.’
Skipping says, ‘She always leaned her head against mine when we sat by the fire. I liked that.’
Happy Dancer says, ‘She used to make that sound like, “Ah-ah” to get everyone singing. I can’t do it.’
‘I can!’ says, chatterbox. ‘Ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah … see? I’ve been practising.’
Skipping asks, ‘Will you do it tonight by the fire?’
‘And we’ll all sing. We’ll have to put lots of shells on the bush to make our voices just right.’
Happy Dancer says, ‘Let’s collect food and firewood when we’ve finished here.’
Little Hunter shields his eyes from the sun. ‘The tide is right. I’ll take my harpoon and net to the rock pools. I’ll light a fire when I get back.’
Happy Dancer grins. Little Hunter lit his first fire without help nine days ago. He’s fiercely proud and tries to do it every day but still needs help most of the time. She loves watching, seeing the muscles on his shoulders standing out like hard braids, beads of sweat shining.
Firelight flickers and waves over the white cliff, lights up the beach. The shell bush glows.
Skipping and Always Asking lean against each other, heads together. They’re mesmerised by the twisting flames. An owl, silent and spectral, glides into the firelight for a moment, foxes call, hedgehogs snort and crash through bracken and bramble.
Happy Dancer strokes the seaweed string woven into her hair.
Chatterbox has stencilled a line of leaves onto everyone’s left cheek. She sits back, hands in the sand and calls to the stars, ‘Ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah.’
The others join in.
A tear forms in Happy Dancer’s eye. Always Asking skirts the fire and whispers to her. ‘You don’t need to be sad any more.’
Happy Dancer smiles, lips pressed together, eyes closed and runs fingers through his hair.
He goes on, ‘Do you want to know why?’
Her eyes open sheened with tears. ‘Yes I do want to know.’
The singing washes round them as powerful as the blaze of driftwood. Always Asking presses his cheek against Happy Dancer’s and lets his lips move against her skin as he speaks. ‘She’s come into all of us.’
©Gary Bonn: 2013
The shell bush(es) can be found at Powillimount. Nobody knows how long this tradition has lasted.