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Chapter 10

Eternal Passage

          Ki Que-Na had grown old. On this the completion of her 324th gyre of passages, the proud matriarch of the tribe Ki-Yu was already twice as old as the average rey lived to be. Yu had perished untold cycles before; he had simply disappeared during a storm, and his spirit returned to the male aspect of Being. Now a dull ache throbbed through Ki's body, and she knew she could no longer endure a great storm. The tribe had not even attempted a major storm run for the last few hundred cycles; it had not been necessary. But the manna had been inexorably thinning, and it was time to seek out new, more vigorous currents. Ki had promised herself when young that she would never be a burden to the tribe. To fulfill this pledge, she had announced at the last meeting of elders that this would be her final passage. She had also advised that the tribe take this opportunity to pursue a major storm, and attempt to pass over to a more reliable pattern of circulation.
          Ki looked out over her people, lazily descending in an expansive spiral formation, and was nearly overwhelmed with a sense of profound gratitude. The tribe had grown exponentially since its shaky start. They had been blessed with plentiful manna, robust currents, and inspiring storms. Ki herself had given birth to 12 young, nearly double the usual number, and was directly related to a majority of the reys around her. Only one of her children had failed to reach maturity. Poor Nagdi had been unusually intelligent, but his wings were not quite right. Serpents had claimed him only one cycle after his independence. Perhaps in another world, there would be a place for those like him; but not here, at least not yet.
          Ki spotted her great-great niece Olg on the opposite side of the formation, chattering with friends in a pod of pregnant females. After a 12-cycle term, she appeared over-ripe, and would likely give birth soon. Ki was saddened when she realized she would miss the child's independence ceremony, and was grateful for the distraction when a swarm of adults approached unexpectedly from below. The group was led by Pi Ki-Yu, the first-born of Ki and Yu. Though she had never admitted it to anyone else, including Yu, this son had always been her favorite.
          Pi addressed his mother warmly, though with a warble of his own sadness. "Blessed falling, dearest Mother of us all. These are volunteers, who would like to form an escort to see you off on your pending farewell."
          Ki beamed appreciation to all. "I am moved by your caring, though it would be unwise for such a large group to separate from the tribe in serpent territory. May I select three?"
          Pi, slated to replace Ki as Senior Elder, was obviously relieved by his mother's practicality. "Of course. Though you will leave many disappointed devotees."
          Ki addressed the assembly. "I would be honored to be accompanied by any one of you, but will choose individuals I feel would benefit the most from the experience." She paused, and surveyed the eager faces surrounding her. Several young adults with extra leadership potential caught her attention, along with a few impulsive adolescents. "I must warn you, to be separated from the tribe, even for a short time, may not be the thrill you imagine. The stories of our beginnings sound glorious, but the reality was also extremely difficult." She paused again. "I ask each of you to look deep inside, and ascertain if you are truly up to this undertaking. To panic at any time during the separation would jeopardize your entire party. There will be no shame, if any of you decide to withdraw your offer." As Ki patiently waited, a few of the youth reluctantly fell away. Ki then made her selection. Rather than call out names, she simply flashed bright pulses toward two childless females and one male. All three simply responded in kind. That was good, Ki thought – no obvious sign of gloating. "I thank you all! But now, if you would please excuse me, I have a birthing to attend." Ki hurried away, to witness the birth of Olg's first child.

          Ki contemplated her own mortality as she waited for the community chorus to commence. The tribe was planning a tribute to her, and Pi had ushered Ki to a special position at the front of the formation. Vapors swirled past, as she gazed forward into the shrouded future. The worst part of growing old, she thought, more even than the chronic physical pain, was the forgetting. Sometimes when she failed to recognize someone she obviously knew, Ki would try to flow with the experience, rather than fight it. She would let herself see the person anew, as if they had just met. Ki still usually recognized those closest to her, though on the previous cycle she had failed to identify Pi for several awkward moments. She wondered how difficult all this must be for her son.
          Shortly before the chorus began, Pi rejoined his mother. Ki slipped close to her son, and whispered. "Pi, you may not succeed at your first attempt to jump to a more favorable circulation pattern. If not, you must be persistent – learn from your mistakes, and try again. You will succeed eventually."
          "Yes, mooma – I know."
          "And it will probably be necessary within another generation for the tribe to split. This decision will be painful, but necessary."
          "Yes, mooma – I know. You have taught us well." Pi pivoted, to look directly into his mother's rounded eyes. "Mooma, now is the time for you to let go. Please try to relax, and enjoy the chorus your children have prepared. You leave the tribe on capable wings."
          The cantors launched into song. They recounted the story of the tribe's remarkable birth, starting with only three mating pairs. Ki was the last of the six founders, the lone living link with genesis times. The cantors sang of the tribe's growth, and of the challenges it now faced. The tribe had made the great passage to a new plume complex a few times before, but never without the guidance of a founder. Ki was confident they would succeed again, even if it took multiple attempts. She cooled her concerns, and let the classic rey rhythms and ethereal harmonies fill her soul. She was ready.

          The tribe approached the manna feeding ground at a steeper angle than usual, as the reys prepared to seek out major feeders to the regional plume complex. Ki and her escort broke rank and dove downward at an even steeper angle. Strange, she did not feel panicked at all. It seemed somehow so familiar. The honor guard accompanied Ki for a moderate duration in silence. Then, only a bit sooner than planned, the trio deferentially flashed wing tips in unison, and rose rapidly away to rejoin the safety of their tribe. Ki watched wistfully as the youngsters left. They were so innocent and impressionable – just as she had been. How would they fare with the upcoming storm and attempted crossing, and the multitude of other challenges the tribe now faced? She knew the stories surrounding her early life and the founding of the tribe would be altered and mythicized by future generations. How would her own teachings be twisted and perverted? For what shortsighted, self-serving purposes? At least Pi would replace her as senior elder. Ki shuddered as she thought back to his sire's birth tribe, and its self-righteous authoritarian structure. They chose to believe they knew everything, to avoid the painful truth that they knew nothing with certainty. Ki felt so heavy. Was it Maddee calling her back to the womb? She had done all she could.
          Ki sought the deep streams leading to the heart of a major river of fire. Summoning all her remaining strength, she would ride its circling currents upward, into the central maelstrom of water storms. If permitted, she would penetrate the great vortex that she imagined still raged there through the night. Then she would simply fold her wings, and dive into the waiting darkness. It would be easy to rupture her now-fragile buoyancy sacs. The ribbon serpents would not have her flesh. Ki would return her living substance directly to the manna that had sustained her so long. That which had given her life would now grant her death. She would at last rejoin her truest Love.