Page 4

 Neal Shusterman

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The old man starts to laugh-cough again.
“Uh . . . maybe I should wait outside.” Lev starts to get up, ready to make his escape, but Una stops him.
“You’ll do no such thing. It’s refreshing to hear an outsider’s view. Isn’t it, Wil?”
Wil considers it. “We can learn things from the outside, just as they can learn things from us. And if an old tradition ends your life before its time, then what good is it?” Then he turns to Lev, making him the mediator once more. “Not many mountain lions on the rez anymore, Lev. But there are plenty of pigs, mustangs, and sheep. It makes no sense to insist on a part from his animal spirit-guide. Choosing a different animal is simple logic. Shouldn’t a flush of logic beat a straight of tradition?”
Lev has no idea how to answer—and then he realizes he can fake his way out of this. “Neither,” he says. “In games of chance nobody wins but the house.”
A beat of silence, and Una throws her head back and laughs. “Definitely an owl,” she says.
Tocho locks his eyes on Wil. “I will hear you play tomorrow,” he says. “You will smooth the path of dying for me. You shame me by refusing. You shame yourself.”
“I will play for your healing only, Grandfather,” Wil says. “After you have a new heart.”
The old man stares stonily at his grandson, his earlier good humor gone. He turns toward the window, shutting them out. The visit is over.
“While your people focused on the business and science of unwinding, the tribal nations’ scientists worked on perfecting animal-to-human transplant technology,” Wil tells Lev on the way back to Wil’s cliff-side home. Una left Wil with a halfhearted kiss on the cheek and returned to the luthier workshop. Wil waited until she was gone before he retrieved his guitar. “We overcame organ rejection and other problems caused by interspecies transplant. The only thing we can’t use is animal brain tissue. Animals don’t think the way we do, and it just doesn’t take.”
“How come you didn’t share with our scientists?” Lev asks.
Wil looks at him as if it’s a stupid question. Maybe it is.
“We did. They weren’t interested,” Wil tells him. “In fact, your people condemned it as unethical, immoral, and just plain sick.”
Lev has to admit that a part of him—the part that was indoctrinated into a world where tithing and unwinding were accepted—agrees. Funny how morality, which always seems so black and white, can be influenced so completely by what you were raised to believe.
“Anyway,” Wil continues, “our legal powerhouse crafted an intricate set of laws, based on traditional belief systems, for using this technology. When ChanceFolk come of age, they take a vision quest and discover their spirit-guide, which can be anything from a bird to an insect to a larger animal. Of course, after the Council transplant laws came down, it was amazing how many kids, coached by their parents, came up with pig guides.”
Lev doesn’t quite get it until Wil explains that, aside from primates, pigs are biologically closest to humans. “Mountain lion is a worse case,” Wil says. “Endangered, vastly different biology than humans, and on top of it carnivores weren’t created to last as long as plant eaters so the hearts give out quickly.”
“So what’s your spirit-guide?” Lev asks.
Wil laughs. “I’m even more screwed if ever I need an organ. It was a crow that spoke to me.” And then he becomes silent for a moment. Pensive. The way he gets when he plays. “They call my music a gift but treat it like an obligation. I am shameful if I don’t use it the way they see fit.” He spits, leaving a dark spot on a boulder as they pass. “I would never accept a human part, little brother . . . but there are many things your world has to offer that I would take.”
“Like a cheering crowd?”
Wil considers it. “Like . . . being appreciated.”
4 - Wil
Wil knows he’s opened up too much to Lev. An AWOL is supposed to open up to them, to find solace in their acceptance, not the other way around. He vows to shutter his heart a little more securely.
The next day, Wil’s spooning out breakfast porridge for Lev and himself when his father calls. Ma takes the call in the study, expecting bad news, but then comes out to put it on speaker because it turns out to be the kind of news everyone should hear.
“We bagged a mountain lion a half hour out in today’s hunt,” Wil hears his father say. “Pivane is already harvesting his heart.”
Intense relief reverberates through the house. Even Lev, who met Grandfather only once, seems overjoyed.
“Wil, go now and tell your grandfather,” Ma says. “And be quick about it. For once, good news will travel faster than bad.”
Wil grabs his guitar and asks Lev to come along. He even takes Lev in the elevator rather than making him struggle down the ropes.
“You’re a stubborn man, Grandfather, but you finally got your lion heart!” he says, swinging his guitar around, ready to play some healing tunes even before the transplant.
“Stubbornness is a family trait,” the old man says flatly. Wil notices that his grandfather is looking at Lev, not because he’s giving Lev his attention but because he’s avoiding eye contact with Wil. It makes Wil uneasy.
“What’s wrong, Grandfather? I thought you’d be happy.”
“I would be, if the heart were mine.”
“Excuse me?”
Grandfather twitches a finger at the crowd around the other patient’s bed. Wil barely noticed them when he came in, so intent was he on giving Grandfather the news—but apparently the news had already reached him. The woman in the other bed is in her late twenties or early thirties. The family around her seems very happy in spite of her dire condition.
“The heart is to be hers,” Grandfather says. “I’ve already decided.”
Wil stands up so quickly that the chair crashes backward. “What are you saying?”
“I’m a poor risk, Chowilawu. Too old for it to make sense when there’s someone younger with a better chance of survival. Her spirit-guide is the lion too.”
“It was found by your family,” Wil fiercely announces, loud enough for the woman to hear. Good. He wants them to know. “It was found by your family, which means it is meant to be yours and no one else’s.”
His grandfather’s gaze drifts again to Lev, and that makes Wil angry. “Don’t look at him. He’s not one of us.”
“An outsider is objective. His will be the clearest opinion.”
Lev takes a step backward, clearly not wanting to be a part of this any more than Wil wants him to be.
“It’s your heart” is all Lev says.
Wil is about to relax, relieved to have Lev on his side, until Grandfather says, “You see? The boy agrees with me.”
“What?” both Wil and Lev say in unison.
“It’s my heart,” Grandfather explains. “Which means I have full legal right to decide what happens to it. And I chose to gift it to the young woman over there. I will hear no further discussion.”
Fury and grief nearly overwhelm Wil. He storms out of the cardiology lodge—but there is no escaping this. Word of Grandfather’s decision reaches the rest of the family quickly. Within the hour, while Wil still stews and storms outside, ignoring Lev’s attempts to calm him, his family begins to arrive: his parents, then Uncle Pivane and his family. He sees Grandfather’s closest friends arrive. He sees Una. They’ve all been called to give the old man their good-byes. They’ve come for the final vigil.
“Do it for him,” Ma says gently as she enters the cardiology lodge. “Please, Wil, do it.”
He waits outside until everyone has gone in, even Lev. Then he takes the long walk down the hallway toward the round room at the end. The blue-lipped woman is wheeled past him, followed by her family. She is already prepped for surgery.
Inside the room his family sits on chairs and on the floor. Lev has held a chair for Wil. His grandfather’s weary eyes are fixed on him as he takes his spot. He begins to play. At first he plays healing songs, but the tempo is too fast. He’s playing them too desperately. No one stops him. Then, in time, the songs evolve into traveling threnodies: tunes meant to ease one’s passage from this world to the next.
Over the next few hours Wil melts so completely into the music that his family ignores his presence. He hardly listens as they all say their good-byes, or as his grandfather speaks about the spirit’s journey from its failing temple to other realms. He ignores Lev, who appears more out of place than ever with the family. Una crouches next to Lev near the window, listening to Wil play, but he won’t look at her. Wil catches a glimpse of his dad’s face, etched with sorrow. His father still wears his hunting gear, as does Uncle Pivane, although his uncle is stained with the animal’s blood. There is the smell of a bonfire coming from outside the lodge, the giving of thanks, the exuberant singing of the young woman’s family.
As the day wears on toward twilight, Tocho almost seems to dissolve before them, giving in to the call from beyond. Then, very near the end, he reaches out to stop Wil from playing, motioning him closer.
He has one last request for Wil, and he whispers it with long spaces between the words. Wil agrees, because he hasn’t the strength to argue about tomorrow, because his grandfather has only today.
The promise made, Wil loses himself in the music again, faintly aware of his ma in her hospital whites solemnly taking his grandfather’s vitals and shaking her head. Wil plays as his grandfather’s breathing slows. Wil plays as his uncle Pivane quietly weeps. Wil plays, the music of his guitar covering everything, until it carries his grandfather’s soul to a place Wil cannot see. And when Wil finally lifts his fingers from his instrument, there is nothing but overwhelming silence.
5 - Lev
In the very center of the rez, miles from its many villages, sprawl the ChanceFolk burial grounds. Many families have adopted the Western use of caskets, more traditional ones bury their dead wrapped in a blanket, and some still invoke the most ancient ritual of all. Although levels of tradition in Wil’s family are very mixed, his grandfather was as old-school as they come. His funeral is of the ancient kind.
Tocho is placed on a high platform made of cottonwood and heaped with boughs of juniper. Reed baskets, decorated with lion teeth, are filled with food for the afterlife and hung from poles. A fire is lit, and smoke leaps into the wind. Lev watches carefully, storing the memory.
“Our ancestors believed that the breath of the dead moves to the Lower World,” Una explains to him.
Lev is shocked. “Lower World?”
“Not hell,” Una says, understanding what he’s thinking. “It’s the place where spirits dwell. Down or up—neither of those directions has much meaning in the afterlife.”
Lev can’t help but notice Wil standing apart from everyone else, as if he’s suddenly the outsider. “Why isn’t Wil taking part in the ceremony?” Lev asks Una.