A Sweat Lodge Virgin

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When he was done, the Shaman motioned to Axel to come into the lodge as well, entering in a clockwise direction as he’d been told to.

He bowed his head and entered the dark lodge, finding a spot on the cold earth. The group sat in a circle in the semi-darkness around a central pit that was still empty. When all were seated, the medicine man entered behind them and took his place at the top of the circle, facing the door.
‘Welcome to the Inipi, my dear friends,’ he said, looking around the circle and smiling at each one in turn. ‘This is a tradition I carry from my Hopi ancestors. But I invite my MicMac ancestors to also join me here, and hope that all the ancestors of this land, which is now my home, will also warm their hands at our fire today. We honor all lineages here, no matter how near or far we may come from. There is only one Source.’  He smiled and nodded at Axel, then called for the first stones to be brought in.

The young fire-tender appeared and knelt at the entrance to the lodge, asking permission to enter. In front of him, on what looked like moose antlers, he carried a glowing red rock, which he rolled skilfully into the central pit. It hissed as it hit the dampness of the earth, and Axel felt a wave of warmth. The same procedure was repeated several times over until the lodge had heated up significantly and the medicine man called a halt. Then the blankets over the door were brought down and the inside plunged into total darkness, lit only by the glowing rocks in the central pit.

Axel tried to see into the darkness, but even as his eyes adjusted, he could make nothing out. It felt wonderfully liberating to be so invisible. Part of him wanted to pull silly faces simply because no-one would see. But instead, he leaned back on his arms and stretched, gazing upwards to where he knew the roof was. He liked this – the warmth, the darkness, the sense of being invisible. Instead of feeling slightly claustrophobic, as he’d thought it might, the lodge actually felt as if it stretched into infinity, as if there was no roof above his head but the vastness of the universe.

The medicine man started his prayers in a language that Axel didn’t understand, but assumed came from either his Hopi or MicMac connections. Then he changed to English, welcoming the ancestors, the four directions, mother earth and father sky, giving thanks to the spirits for being present in the Inipi with them. He finished by saying ‘Aho’ and pouring some water over the rocks, sending a wave of steam through the darkness. Then Axel heard a female voice start to speak in a much lower tone.

‘Thank you for the gift of good health that you have given my mother, after my last prayers to you. Please give me the strength to be there for her as long as she needs me. Aho.’

Some more water was poured on the rocks, then a male voice took over, and the wave of prayers, some silent some not, gradually made its way around the lodge. Axel gauged his turn by the proximity of the previous voice. Praying wasn’t something he was used to, and he also felt a little uncomfortable at the open expression of private matters, so he kept it simple.

‘Thank you for watching over my family while I’m away.’

What else could he say? He didn’t even know how to formulate a request that would address his concerns.

When the prayers had completed their full round, John called for more rocks to be brought in. The blankets at the door were lifted, temporarily blinding Axel who happened to be looking in that direction as the light poured back in. As the next round of rocks arrived, the heat increased dramatically. One or two of the rocks split open as they rolled into the pit, sending small sparks shooting upwards as they did so.

‘The rocks are releasing their wisdom,’ the medicine man announced in a satisfied voice.

The blankets came down over the door again returning everyone to the a darkness that was becoming increasingly hot. The medicine man started another round of prayers, and this time Axel noticed that the air he was breathing felt uncomfortably hot inside his nostrils as he inhaled, with each pouring of water on the rocks making it even hotter. His skin started to prickle with sweat and he breathed slowly and deeply, trying to adjust to the increased temperature.

As the prayers made their way round again, there was a noticeable shift in emotion, as if the heat had been turned up internally as well as externally. Axel felt a growing annoyance well up inside himself, building to an inexplicable anger towards those present and a strong desire to stand up and storm out of the lodge. Why on earth had he agreed to this?

When his time to pray came, he muttered a quick ‘silent prayer’, then ‘Aho’, and allowed the round to move on. He had no interest in offering any more prayers all of a sudden. He sat back a little from the rocks, struggling with the heat and lack of space, trying to detach from the mood that had washed over him. But the anger just got stronger, fueled by every prayer that was offered around the circle. The more those around him seemed to be opening up to the energy of the lodge, the more he felt himself withdraw into seething anger.

Eventually the second round came to a close, and the door opened for more rocks to come in. Axel seriously wondered about making an escape, but there seemed no way of doing so without creating a fuss. The fire tender brought in the rocks and the door closed over again, with John introducing the third round.  The heat, by now, was well beyond what was comfortable for Axel. He tried to breathe through his mouth to avoid the feeling of having his nostrils singed by the hot vapor that hissed from the rocks as the medicine man continued to pour water on them after each prayer.

‘Why don’t you just stop with the water!’ Axel thought to himself angrily. ‘Can’t you see it’s hot enough already?’
Then, without warning, he found himself crying, a mixture of anger and hurt welling up inside and pouring down his face along with the sweat. Feelings of frustration and powerlessness swept over him from somewhere deep inside. He felt like a little boy all of a sudden, lost and scared at having no control.

‘It’s just enough!’ he found himself ranting silently. ‘I’m fed up having other people making all the decisions for me, deciding what’s best for me. It’s like I’ve no power in my life. I can’t take it anymore – something’s got to change! I don’t know whose life I’m really living!’

The frustration and fear gave way to sadness, and he simply sat crying quietly, feeling vaguely embarrassed by the unfamiliar surge of emotion, as the third round of prayers passed him by.

When the door opened for the final round of rocks to be brought in, the emotion had cleared and Axel felt nothing but a deep stillness, like the calm that follows a storm’s passing. But he was none to sure about where he’d landed. In the beam of light that came in through the doorway, he saw the other faces around the circle, shining with sweat and an open-hearted friendliness that sprang naturally from sharing such a space. Kirsten smiled across at him, hair disheveled and stuck round her neck, eyes bright.

The heat for the final round was so strong that Axel lay back on the earth to escape the worst of it. The ground was cool and damp, and he surrendered his body to its support. It felt good to completely let go. He had no energy left to struggle, and he simply lay there, breathing in and breathing out, listening to the prayers as they made their way round. When it came to his turn, he made the effort to sit up to offer a final one.

‘Thank you for showing me today that I haven’t been happy with how I’ve been living. Help me to start to live as the man I know I can be. Aho.’

He stretched back on the ground, feeling all the muscles along his spine relaxing from the heat and from the grounding energy of the earth. When the final prayer had been offered, the medicine man thanked the spirits and the directions, and allowed a few moments of silence for everyone to settle. Then the door was opened. Axel stayed where he was for a while, eyes readjusting to the light coming in, looking at the crisscross of the branches that formed the domed roof above him and at the layers of different colored blankets.  His mind wandered back over the emotions that had come to the surface. There was no sign of them now and all he felt was a quiet inner strength along with the sense of having physically exerted himself. Something had obviously cleared from him with the tears and emotion, though he wasn’t too sure what. All he knew was that he felt different. He smiled as he remembered how angry he’d been.

‘And look at me now,’ he thought, ‘so serene I wouldn’t hurt a spider if it crawled over me.’

(Extract from Axel’ Summer, the second volume of the ‘A Heart to Share’ trilogy).

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