Aphelion Issue 287, Volume 27
September 2023
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by Harrison Kim

Wisikewena is the black haired daughter of Pipikwan’s war chief, Sokapist. She’s narrow hipped, hard armed, a sixteen year old girl with the voice of a man. She walks tall and solo, yet her family’s shelter fire is ringed with her admirers. She will run the Ashnola Mountain race this year, as chosen by the elders.

Eons before the Pipikwan, Ashnola Mountain lived as a sentient being, its centre a massive snowy ring banding the summit, its heavy granite arms spread like a sleeping cougar’s paws above the Long Lake. Every ten thousand years, Pipikwan legend says Ashnola moves a complete circle, riding on an inner liquid that seeps among the rocks. Swallowing the liquid brings to the drinker the power of the mountain. The only place to drink it is at the summit spring. Each year, chosen Pipikwan youth, the future leaders of the tribe, race towards the peak, to test their bodies and spirits against Ashnola’s strength and power. The granite god can suck in your soul. Many have become absorbed, immortally bound to the mountain’s forces after being drawn into its illusions. The captured souls tumble infinitesimally slowly through inner mountain stones, turning in the magnetic ooze that binds them. At night, the Pipikwan often perceive outlines moving along the mountain’s slopes. The elders say these shadows of Ashnola are projections of captured souls, manifesting to work the surface, to keep the mountain thriving and alive. During the day, the outlines absorb back into the stone. Legend tells that thousands of lost Pipikwan labour through eternity for the granite god.

The Ashnola race has always been a way for the Pipikwan to strengthen the strong and weed out the weak. Wisikewena is very much looking forward to the challenge. She trains every day, running barefoot over the lower reaches of Ashnola, ignoring the calls of the mountain wombed entities underneath. Stopping to look, or help, may draw a person into the rocks, which will absorb he empathic soul. So it’s only the wind she chooses to hear, and the creaking of trees. She keeps her eye on the summit, her mind always focussed upwards. “The purpose of life is not to merge with the crowd, but to claim your unique destiny,” her father says. He stands apart, also, since Wisikewena’s mother’s absorption into Ashnola eight years ago. Sokopist is very careful about what he judges as real, or illusion. His daughter follows his path of detachment. Her most intense relationship is with the mountain. She craves to reach the summit and avenge her mother’s disappearance.

Years before, eight year old Wisikewena wandered lost in a thick fog with her mother, Otehimin, somewhere on Ashnola. Otehimin, afraid for her daughter, saw a hut in the side of a cliff and pulled Wisikewena towards it for shelter. The girl knew this was a mirage. Something so good, so sudden, could not be real. From early days, the skeptic girl questioned everything in the uncertain world of the Pipikwan. She tried to warn her mother about the mirage “it’s a lie to bring us into the rocks,” she pleaded. Otehimin moved to enter the hut, consumed with a need to protect her daughter Wisikewena forced herself from her mother’s hand and pushed her away. Otehimin fell into the stone, and became absorbed forever with the tumbling souls. Wisikewena wandered back through the mist, concentrating on the warm scent of the wind to guide her to the village. She questioned herself over and over “Did I push her in?” In those last moments with Otehimin, she cried “Please, let us go back,” Then she shoved her mother’s hand forward and freed her own. “Did I do enough to save her?” she wondered. Even then, Wisikewena knew she must drop this thought, for survival’s sake, and focus on finding her way back to the village. That concentration and the detachment from guilt saved her life. She’s been detached and free from connection to anyone ever since.

There is a boy, Kitokew, a slight youth with a massive black moon of rich dark hair rising like a halo round his narrow brown face. He sings songs down by the lake, under the mountain’s arms. Wisikewena tells herself it’s the singing that attracts her, not the boy. She stands in the shallow bay, her big feet sinking in the mud, as she listens to his voice. He has watched her hunt down feral deer, flip them onto their sides, and break their necks with supple hands. Such power, and such merciful, quick killing. He admires the beauty and strength in this hunting, and in her body as she moves. He sings for her, and about her. He knows his music is Wisikewena’s only weakness, and he knows she listens.

During the last winter, many suffered from near starvation. Wisikewena stayed stalwart as others weakened, despite feeling all the hunger around her. “I wish I could be strong for the crying children like Wisikewena,” sings Kitokew. That winter, she hunted far to find prey, to carry it back for her hungry people. This spring, there was no debate among the elders. They chose her unanimously as a participant in the summer mountain race.

All the chosen are focussed on the summit, the ultimate goal. No race participants have made it there for generations, but legend says that’s where the mountain’s liquid power may be transferred. The race is not to win, it is to experience. It is about knowing limits, of going as far as you can. Those who push past their own capabilities are swallowed up by the mountain. For the Pipikwan, courage is not useful when it becomes hubris. The race is a test of intelligence and character, as well as physical strength. Survival is itself a badge of honour.

Wisikiwena’s wants to conquer this mountain ever since her mother vanished. She yearns to reach the waters at the peak, to bathe in them and absorb Ashnola’s power for herself. Since she was eight and pushed free of Otehimin’s hand, she’s connected only with with Ashnola. She senses the mountain could be as aware of her as she is of it. Wisikiwena’s aggression seems almost sacrilegious to some. Her father Sokopist tells her that the mountain spirit may twist anger back in unexpected ways. “Take care during this race,” he says. “Reaching the summit waters is not the only goal.” Wisikiwena, though, wants to take the power from the mountain, and draw it into herself. She wants to have at least a tiny part of her mother inside her again. She wants to tell the mountain god that it cannot take everything, that she will dominate its reach and see through its mirages. She will remain free.

Sokapist blesses his daughter and commences the race with the eagle prayer. This blesses the ten chosen participants in the spirit of the predator bird that soars over Ashnola Mountain. Sokapist wishes everyone the unfettered vision of the eagle.

Wisikiwena does not sprint, she’s one of the last to leave. Endurance is key, and she saves her strength by working her way gradually to the lower slopes of Ashnola, letting all weak rumination about her mother, and the dangers of the race flow behind her. Such long and powerful dark legs, leaping over streams, where below her other eyes shimmer from flat stones, the trapped souls whispering “join us, join us in this beautiful place.” Wisikiwena does not waver. She hears only the sound of water over rocks. Kitokew’s songs run through her consciousness. She focusses on those, and on the summit ahead.

After several hours, she hikes carefully up steep slopes. Her thighs ache now, and her back feels like its twisted by a heavy load, though she carries nothing but her body and soul. The weight of being detached, of concentrating only on reality and the moment wears her down. She looks away from the jack pines ahead, which bend and form near human arms with their branches, and beseech her to come closer, “it’s restful, so peaceful here,” the spirit voices call. In her mind, Wsiikewena changes the chanting from the trees into the sound of the wind. She hears the wind blow hard, and moves sideways, not against it, but along its edges. She sweats and struggles to rise above the timberline, her legs scratched and bleeding from running through the heather. All her compatriots have turned back by now, or been fooled by mirages and soul absorbed. She sees no one else this far up.

A long lost voice sounds form one side. Wisikewena perceives the outline of her beloved mother in between two enormous boulders. The long black hair, the easily startled eyes. “Be with me again,” says the phantom. “You and I forever, my little one.” Wisikewina turns in Otehimin’s direction. She knows the outline is coming from her mother’s trapped soul. Her mother is pleading for her. She could be there in a second, with the one who only wanted to shelter her. Tumbling with Mother in the safe fastness of mountain rock. No more hunger or loneliness. Wisikewena stops for a moment. She’s trained years to resist the mirages, yet her mother appears so real, so beautiful. If she lets go and continues the race she will abandon Otehimin again. Waves of guilt and sorrow move through her mind. Otehimin’s shadow begins to chant “my daughter, my precious daughter come to me,” and for a moment Wisikewena wavers. Then cooling rain begins to fall upon her face. Every drop falls like a note from Kitokew’s voice. His music merges with Otehimin’s pleas, then supersedes them. It rains harder. Wisikewena lets herself absorb the music in each splash of wetness, turns and rushes towards the clouds, higher and higher, leaving her mother’s shadow behind, between the grey rocks.

Now, up into the snow, she hears the roar of an angry bear, Wisikewena lets the echo pass up into the sky ahead of her. Slits in the ground open up, steam pours from them, then molten lava. Wisikewena knows the mountain now wants to kill her. She’s getting too close to the source of its power. It’s hard to step now, when the entire surface of the ground appears to shift and sway. Even the earthquake is part phantom, for the mountain will shake, but not destroy itself for one soul. “You are my worst enemy, and best friend,” she calls to Ashnola, as she steps warily through the snow. A ghost avalanche falls away from her feet. She whispers to the mountain “Your illusions tone my mind, and your slopes strengthen my body.” She knows the cougar uses its supple and fluid body to attain what it needs, the eagle its eyes and wings, and the mountain its illusions. Wisikewena has used her mind to combat the foe, and she wonders “what more do I need to have victory?”

Kitokew cried when she began the race. He wondered “will I ever see you again?” Wisikewena asked him only to create a victory song for her, and to sing it upon her return. She wonders if his feelings for her are illusion, if he’s constructed a phantom to praise, from his own hope and need.

Her feelings for him are somewhere in a far away compartment of her mind, she suspects they are leaking out, as she approaches the summit. What is life without purpose, or love? And what will her purpose become, now that she’s so close to her goal?

She tops a rise and sees the hot springs pool. There is only steam between her and the mountain’s liquid essence. No one she knows or has ever heard of has reached this point. Sokopist talked of it only from legend. Wisikewena pushes herself up to the pool, one long black leg stretching in front of the other, but these legs are bone sore and aching. Her head throbs from all the calculations of movement and mind to avoid danger. She reaches the edge of the pool, slips in, and all her pains disappear. The mountain water absorbs into her. She feels Ashnola’s heat. She knows that she’s absorbing particles of soul. The strength of others creates the power in the liquid. Her skin shines brilliant like there’s a passing of gold over obsidian, as sunlight finds its way through the steam.

Going down the mountain is a peaceful dream. There are no forces against her, now that she has taken in their power. She’s allied with Ashnola, a deep soul connection. What’s part of the mountain is now part of her, but unbound and separate. She runs much faster, leaping all the way down in a few hours, back to Pipikwan.

She sees that Sokopist and the surviving competitors are out to greet her, she sees them as if they’re appearing at the end of a long tunnel. She approaches slowly, warily. She feels a great hunger as they call her. She hasn’t eaten all day, but this craving comes from an emptiness she’s never felt before. She’s reached her goal, and has the power, but what’s left? She feels an urge to become taller, wider, all encompassing. She wants to connect with everyone and everything, to take it all in, to understand. “Did you make it to the springs, Wisikewena?” says one of the approaching men. Wisikewena breaks into a trot and runs forward towards Kitokew, who calls out “I will sing your victory song.” He looks very surprised because she wants to hug him. She’s never been this friendly before, never had any inclination to touch anybody. Kitokew hesitates, then reaches out to her and falls right into her arms. Then he continues, dropping right through them and into her body. He disappears right inside her. Wisikewena feels his strength, his musical power merging with her own essence. The other Pipikwan leap away, the smarter ones run. Sokopist stands still despite the commotion around him. “You are an illusion!” he states. “You are not the real Wisikewena! You have become Ashnola!” She tries to hug him, too, but he steps quickly to one side, holding his hands up to protect himself. “I made it right to the summit!” She shouts. “I’m still the same. I am your daughter!” Sokopist turns, so she cannot see his face. He runs away towards the village.

Wisikiwena lopes up the side of the lake, her feet splashing through the shallow muddy water. She stops at a creek mouth, leans over a small pool and gazes down. Her face shimmers in the ripples. She sees Kitokew’s mouth opening up at one side of her own. The mouth does not form words, it chants. She reaches up to touch this new opening, but there’s nothing there. She looks back into the water, and there’s the illusion again. The singer is part of her now, inside. In the outer world, his outline manifests only as reflection. Wisikewena trembles, her heart pounds. For her, fear is a rare emotion. Adding to this is her dreaming for souls. She imagines swallowing a shaman, possessing a magician. She wants to consume Pipikwan itself. She finds herself shivering as she thinks of this as her purpose. She crouches there beside the pool for a long time. Finally, she pulls herself up. “I understand the reason for Ashnola’s hunger,” she says to herself. There is only one more being who means anything human to Wisikewena. Otehimin.

She turns and lopes towards Ashnola. Kitokew’s voice talks in her head, he says he always wanted to be part of her. He’s laughing. “Take me with you always,” his voice sings. Wisikewena hears that voice and turns it towards the sound of far away thunder now roiling over the mountaintop. She detaches yet again from connection.

Wisikewena hikes up Ashnola’s slopes, halts at the two rocks where the outline of her mother appeared. She sits and waits until nightfall. In the dusk, soul outlines seep out to do their work on the mountain. Wisikewena and Kitokew watch them rise, both gazing through one pair of eyes. Wisikewena tries to separate in thought from the singer. Her observations need to be clear and undistracted. She sees Otehimin’s outline appear from the rocks and begin floating towards the jack pines. “It’s not just the evening fog?” she hears Kitokew say. “Some may perceive this as mist,” Wisikewena answers, “but I know what is real.”

She’s completely immune now from the mountain’s illusions, for she carries the essence of that illusion within herself. She calls to her mother. The outline turns. “Come join me,” the phantom says.

“No. You must join us,” answers Wisikewena, coming closer. “It is your daughter, I have come to bring you home to Pipikwan.”

Wisikewena can see the soul cord that joins the outline with its spirit far inside the rocks.

“I like it here,”daughter,” says Otehimin. “I tumble through the soothing liquid with so many others. I am never alone.”

“You’ll be with us, with me and Father again,” Wisikewena tells her.

“You have famines, families fight and exile their own kind. You have wars.” Otehimin says. “You did not push me into the rocks, little Wisikewena, I came here of my own free will. I wanted you to go inside that shelter also, so you would not suffer.”

“But you’re a slave to the mountain!” Wisikewena protests. “I can absorb you now, within my own flesh. I have the mountain’s power now. Don’t you want to be free?”

Otehimin smiles sadly, Wisikewena can barely see her face, it fades in and out between the rocks.

“You living bodies contract sickness,” she says. “There is jealousy and anger. Bad comes forth as much as good. Within the mountain, I am safe. I never have to leave its womb. Will you join me, Wisikewena? Sometimes I am so lonely.”

Her daughter shakes her head. “You can always be with me,” she pleads, but the ghost fades back into the rocks, as Otehimin’s soul pulls the outline down to merge with it beneath the earth.

“Ashnola protects her,” says Kitokew.

“She is its slave,” Wisikewena responds.

“As I am yours,” Kitokew sings.

Wisikewena feels his presence as a weight inside her. Sorrow outweighs desire now. She no longer wants to possess anyone. She pushes her body further up the mountain. As she hikes and jogs, the singer continues to chant and make songs about their journey. Wisikewena passes the timberline and the snow ringing the summit. All the way she hears Kitokew’s poetry, the images of Ashnola cast into human words.

Ahead, the summit springs appear, Wisikewena is she is ready to absorb more of the mountain’s essence, for herself, and for Kitokew. As she slips into the water, she hears him sigh. She gasps as the warmth flows in to their bones. The essence bursts through, and their strength returns. Wisikewena feels Kitokew pushing within her, forced into his own power by the spirit of the mountain. She feels her own power too, pushing Kitokew out. A rush begins in her belly and snakes up her back and out the middle of her forehead, the third eye. Kitokew’s essence cascades from that eye in a shimmering gold light. His body begins to manifest itself in physical form before Wisikewena. All the energy within her strains and shoves him along and he becomes himself once again, lying there beside her in the waters. A man transformed by the liquid, set free by the mountain’s power.

At Ashnola’s summit, Wisikewena and Kitokew lie in each other’s arms, bathed in magnetic essence. Each soul exists within its own living shell, the two bodies touch each other skin to skin. The souls rest now, physically separate, joined by the commonality of the water.

“I will sing to you forever,” says Kitokew, running his hand along Wisikewena’s long shining thigh.

She responds in her low voice “You will be the high, I will be the deep.”

The mountain continues to turn imperceptibly slowly. In ten thousand years it will complete another round. Meanwhile, the immortal souls carry out their tasks, and stay protected within the rocks. Kitokew and Wisikewena create harmony with each other, their soul passions writhing and rising within a different circle, the future seeded from their merging, and from their independent love.

This story is what Pipikwan legends call the meaning of Wisikewena.


2019 Harrison Kim

Bio: Harrison Kim lives in Victoria, Canada with his wife and editor Sera T. His short stories have been published or are upcoming in magazines such as "Liquid Imagination," "Hobart Pulp," "Literally Stories," "Piker Press" "Bewildering Stories" and others. He grew up on a mysterious mountain sacred to the local indigenous people. That's where the idea of "Wisikewena" came from.

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