The  Secret of Healing

by Greta McGough



When she heard that the shaman was coming, Maia was afraid. He had been there before, but she did not remember that; she was too little. Now she was nearly grown, with her own jobs to do, but still young enough to play with the others, sometimes. The mention of him cast a long shadow over the day.


He arrived before dawn, and no-one saw him approach. That was his way. He accepted their hospitality, and stood alone, strange and beardless, casting his eyes over everyone. At last, his gaze fell upon Maia, and stopped.


She began to tremble.


“This one,” he said.


Nobody argued. The adults fell back before him, and the children fell silent. He walked towards her, and touched her shoulder. Mama began to weep, softly.


“Hsht.” Her father looked stern. “It is an honour.”


Maia did not want to go, but there was nothing for it. The shaman had chosen her. Childhood was at an end, and she would never marry, or have a family of her own. Gossip with other women at the washing hole. She would wait on the shaman, and if she did well, he might teach her something of his ways. His strange power and knowledge. He never seemed to age, although those he visited grew old and died.


It would be years before she saw her family again, and then the silences between them would be too long, too awkward. She will have become a stranger to them, and their lives.


Maia resigned herself to her fate.


They travelled into the desert lands and were often alone together for great lengths of time. At first Maia was afraid that waiting on the shaman might involve something more physical than tending the fire, cooking his food, and washing his clothes. But he was always softly spoken, and never tried to touch her. She began to relax, and he began to ask her what she understood of certain things. She did not realise until later that this had been the beginnings of her education.


She admitted that she would like to become a healer, and he nodded, as if he had known that. She learned of the uses for the plants they found, how to dry them and how to use them carefully and cautiously. At first, when they came to a village, he would have her wait in the shadows while he examined someone. He would say what he had found, as if talking to himself. But she listened, and he knew that. He would sleep under a strangely patterned canopy that he carried, for one night, and in the morning he would tell her what his dreams had told him. Then he would choose from their collection of dried leaves and flowers, and signal to her to mix a certain amount with a bit of water. Listening to him, she learned the chants that went with each. Sometimes she sang them to herself, as she kept the tent clean, just to make sure she could remember. When they left a village, the grateful headman honoured them with gifts of food for the journey.


After two summers together, they came to a high, rocky place, where the desert stopped. The stones before them made the shape of a man’s face, high against the sky, and for the first time, the shaman smiled.


The lips of the stone man’s face were parted, as if a small ledge gave way to a shelter within the stone. A little cave? Perhaps. It was hard to tell.


He pointed the gap out to her, but she had already seen it, and shivered.


“This is the Dreaming God. Tomorrow, you will climb up there, and find your way to that ledge.”

Her eyes grew wide, and she trembled.


“It is Time,” the shaman said.


That night, they ate well, and she was glad of it. When they fell asleep, her last thought was of the great face above her in the darkness, smiling.


In the morning she found that the shaman had risen before her, and she was ashamed not to have the fire ready for him. But he only smiled and spoke gently.


“Today you begin the second part of your education,” he said, and she was surprised to realise that she understood he had been teaching her. She did not answer.


“This is the dreaming rock,” he explained. “You will return here whenever in your life you need to re-charge your talent. You will fix your eyes on the mouth of the figure, and you will climb there. You will find shelter. You must fix your eyes on your goal before you set off, because you will not easily see where you need to be once you start to climb. You will stay there five days and nights.”


Maia started at that.


“You will dream,” he said gently, “and you will remember your dreams. I have made five parcels of food for you, one for each day. You must keep to this. At one side of the face is a deep crack in the cliff that you can use as a latrine.”


He smiled at her wondering look.


“Each night, you will dream,” he said. “If it helps you to remember your dreams, you may come out of the Dreaming God’s mouth and make a picture on the rocks. I have put a scratching stick in your bundle. After five nights you will return to me, and I shall make food for you that day. You will rest in the tent. Then you will make a canopy for yourself, to remind you of the pictures, so that wherever you go, you can sleep beneath it, when you need to dream an answer.”


Maia was silent for a moment.


“Thank you,” she said at last, finally understanding why he had chosen her. She took the bundle, studied the rocks, decided where she was aiming for, and began to climb.


The ledge that had seemed to form the God’s mouth was small when she arrived there. Was she in the right place? She was not sure. But it was certain that she would never get another chance at this. The shaman stood far below her, very still, his face too distant to read.


Is this the place? she asked the God and studied the rocks around her. Yes, that jutting boulder above her would form the nose. Shadowed recesses for his eyes. The cheeks fell away fairly equally on either side. She could see, if she stretched, where others before her had scratched images of people, animals, birds, hunting, village life. Patterns. Stars. Circles. Wavy lines that looked to Maia like a river. Marks that could have signified tents, with people among them.


So many people had been here before her, and left their mark. Maia settled down into the mouth of the God and considered how to pass the days. She decided to sing the chants, to remember them. The sun rose and fell.


She dreamed.


In the morning, the dream was still bright, and her head was clear. She moved herself carefully, so as not to find herself with muscles that would not move. The plateau was far below, and a fall would kill her. She moved to an empty space of rock and scratched an image that would help her remember her dream. Then she broke her fast.


The days passed more quickly than she had expected. She found that she could practice small movements through the day, which helped her to stay mobile. She sang the chants. The food was different every day, and she always kept some for the evening. She added to her picture each day, and was surprised to see that it told a sort of story. When she slept, she felt safe and loved, as if the God held her safely.


After the fifth night, she tidied up her space, and began her descent. Coming down was harder, and she was afraid for the first time. Going up, she had been able to focus on where she was heading to. Coming down had no such landmarks. Her feet felt less certain, and the rising sun made the rocks burn to her touch.


But at last she was down. The flat plateau was beneath her feet, and she stumbled, thinking for a moment that she would fall to her death. The shaman caught her as she staggered, and she straightened. They looked at each other in silence, then he led her to the shade of the tent, and began to cook for her.


Maia slept. But this time, she did not dream. The shaman cooked for her, and she woke to eat and drink, and slept again. When she awoke next, there was food, but he had also brought her weaving things from the bundles, and smiled.


“These may not be the things you need for your canopy,” he said, “but you can start with them, and add in whatever you need to make your dream pictures.  You won’t finish it all at once, but wherever we travel, you will find things that you can add in to make it more clearly your dreams.”


She nodded and began work.


The next day, they moved on. It was a while before they came to the next village, and Maia was surprised at how differently she felt about other people, now. More distant. As if her eyes could see more clearly. She was more truly the shaman’s assistant, now. Her education continued. She no longer felt any need for certain foods. Sometimes, she slept beneath her dream canopy, and in the morning they would compare the messages they had received.


It was another five summers before they turned back towards the place that Maia had been born. She wondered if anyone would remember her, and if she would recognise them. She doubted it, but was no longer sad.


Then, still at a distance before Maia’s village, the shaman became ill. It was quite sudden. His clear eyes clouded over, and his beardless cheeks sank. His hair became wispy. He took little food and drink.


“It is natural,” he explained. “What we do takes its toll. You have done well, Maia,” he whispered. “I can leave my things in your care with a calm heart. You must take my clothes and my bundles, and leave me wrapped only in my dream canopy, out on the rocks. I am ready to go on, and another dream is beginning for me.”


Maia’s eyes filled. The shaman put a shrunken hand upon her arm.


“Find an assistant, Maia. Pass the teachings on. You will dream, and the dream will lead you to the right person.”


She nodded, and he was gone. Sadly, she opened the tent flap, so that his soul could fly away, and began the death chant. She brought fresh water and began to strip the body. But when she saw his body for the first time, she fell back on her heels in shock.


The shaman was a woman. Flat, empty breasts, and no penis. Maia paused, and thought about that. Obviously, a shaman must pass as a man, in order to travel alone, unmolested.


Well, so be it. She took the robe and hung it reverently from the roof of the tent. She was not ready to wear it yet. But one day, before she came to the next village, she would. The people there had not seen the shaman for many years, and would recognise the robes, and accept the strange, beardless face as the one they had last seen.


She stretched canvas between two saplings, to pull the shaman to the final, chosen resting place. Here she sat for a while, and keened the last of the death chants. The buzzards circled overhead, but she did not wait to see them land. She walked away and never looked back.


In the tent, she took down the shaman’s robe and put it on. She packed away most of her belongings, but decided to stay another night. In her dream, the shaman appeared again. 


“Are you at peace?” she asked.


“I am. And I must tell you the final secret, before I move on.”


“The final secret?”


“The final secret of healing.”


She waited.


“It is this: everyone must die, at last. The final secret of healing is that everyone must die.”


Dreaming, she could feel the surprise on her face at this obvious fact.


“But – the real secret of healing is that death can be peaceful and dignified. An acceptance of the next stage in existence.”


She nodded, still uncertain. The shaman smiled and vanished.


When she woke, Maia was comfortable in the shaman’s robe. She felt taller. She began to pack. She took the old shaman’s name into her heart, as her own. She moved on towards the next village, and watched it for a while as she had been taught, appearing in the middle of the settlement some time before dawn.


They were glad to see her. There was someone in need of her skills, and after a long examination, she slept under her dream canopy, to find out what to do. A few days later, she left the village. The grateful headman honoured her with gifts of food for the journey. 


“Travel well,” he said, and she nodded.


“I go to find a helper,” she said. “I must find someone to take care of my tent.”


The village men nodded their understanding. Men must always be free, to concentrate on the life that the gods had given them.    


Maia travelled on, but the word had gone before her, spreading from village to village like bush fire. The shaman was coming, looking for an assistant to travel with him. It would be an honour for the girl he chose.


She slept under her dream canopy, and asked the question. Then in the morning she set off in the right direction.


She had seen the face of the person she would teach.




Greta McGough lives on the north west coast of England, where she works as a research nurse. She has also been a teacher in several universities, an artist, a midwife, a warden for the Society of Friends (Quakers) and taught water colour technique on cruise ships. Writing, painting and swimming are her passions, and she is working hard at growing old gracefully.