The Last Shaman

(408 words)

In 1952, after the Chinese Revolution the leaders of the Oroquen agreed to give up their superstitions and religious practices. Over three nights in July a special ritual was held by the whole community to drive away the spirits from the land.

He pierced his right palm with a shaft of bamboo, made the sign of mourning on his chest, and walked into the forest.

Without him, then, we placed the holy things in the circle, pointing outwards. Drums and gongs, beads and feathers, rattles and bells, swords and spears and pipes.  We rubbed ourselves with soil, placed salt upon our tongues, saliva on our eyelids. We covered ourselves with veils to protect our souls from hostile spirits and made smoke from bitter herbs.

Then the summoning began.

The four-legged the six -legged the eight-legged the winged ones the crawlers the people of the rocks and pools, oh my uncles, oh my brethren, come.

All that day we chanted, but they were hiding from us, watching.

Only when the sweat ran down our bodies and we fell speechless to the ground would they come to us.

The spirit that had entered me spread its wings, the bones of my ribs stretched apart as though they would break.  Then the muscles of my neck contracted as it left in a long cry that tore my throat.

The woman next to me howled like a wolf.

Through us they came: the grey wolf and the antelope, the leopard and the crane, the pheasant and the yak, the otter, weasel, deer and fox, the badger, goat and vole, spider, mongoose, snake, butterfly and water dragon, hare and snail, wutaqi, amaha…

Then the banishing began.

We banged the drums, shook the rattles and blew the pipes.   We wept and our tears turned to blood and the saliva ran from our mouths. 

Slowly they drew back.  Feather, bone and paw, silently withdrawing. It was as though the earth itself was moving.

We chanted harder, shook our swords and sticks, threw spears and stones.  They withdrew further, faster.

Scudding over the land like shoals of fish in the sea, like the shadows of clouds, or leaves from innumerable trees, they left.

And the world was empty.

None of us had known how big it was, how cold. The sun beat down hard enough to crack rock, yet it was cold.

 zhi hou wo xin xue cang

Then was my heart buried alive in snow.


Initially published in: The Anglophile