My feet hurt. We had been walking for many days now, and my thin antelope hide shoes already had holes in them. I shifted my heavy sack on my back, and looked up at the other men. I had fallen behind them, again. I knew this was a rite of passage, a journey into my manhood. Yet I was tired, and I was afraid. I was afraid of the journey ahead, afraid that I couldn’t be a strong leader someday. For three generations, my family had been the leaders of our tribe. People looked up at my father, asked him for advice and relied on him to find safety, shelter, food, and peace for our people. I wasn’t nearly as strong or tall as him, and I barely knew anything about the world around me. But I was thirteen now, and after our long summer journey across the sea, I would be the leader of our tribe. “Hurry up!” My father called from the front of the line. I ran up to him, skirting the men carrying the wooden canoes we had made shortly before the trip. Every year, the men in our village went on a journey to meet with the tribe on the other side of the sea who we had made a peace treaty with years ago. I was now old enough to go along, and at first I had been relieved that I wasn’t the only young man. However, I soon learned that I was the smallest and weakest of all. It was already miserable, and I knew that it could only get worse. “Klarg, are you thirsty?” Asked Glern, a boy my age. He showed me his leather water pouch, and I noticed that it was full. I had finished mine hours ago. Grateful, I reached for the pouch, but he quickly pulled it away from me, splashing most of it on the ground. He took a big sip, finishing it off, and I noticed some friends of his snickering. “Ah. Isn’t it nice to have some cool water on such a hot, exhausting day?” “It sure is. It sure is.” said another boy, struggling to keep from laughing. I glared at him and walked over to the men with canoes so I wouldn’t be seen.
“Klarg,” Father said, as I sat down in his deerskin tent that night. “I saw what happened with those boys today.” I looked up at his face, covered in the spiritual markings of a leader. He was a kind and fair man, but he scared me now, as he always had. “You have to be brave, son. Your childhood will be over before you know it and you will have to rule our-” He paused. “Your people.” “Yes, father,” I said. “I will be a brave and strong ruler.” He nodded, and I left for my own tent. But as I lay awake that night, I thought about what he had told me my whole life. The things he told me I needed to be, I knew were not possible. “It will be a hard year, son.” He had told me on my thirteenth birthday. “And the next many years will be even harder. But you must be brave. Be strong. Be wise, and be kind. Be humble, and most importantly, care for your people as they care for you.” “But father, no one likes me,” I had started. Tears began to well up in my eyes. “They will learn to trust you, son. Do not worry. But first, you must trust yourself.” I tried hard not to think about it, but his words echoed in my head, all night long.
It was two days’ time until we reached the sea. One of the men had gotten lucky and hunted a buffalo, so we had plenty of meat for two meals apiece each day. When we got to the sea, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had seen forests, desserts, mountains, and dry grasslands, but nothing could compare to the ocean. Water, an abundance of water, crashing at the rocky shore. Beyond that, water, even more water, as far as the eye could see. “Blob,” Glern said, pointing to a friend of his, “let’s go get a drink from the sea!” “What a good idea!” Blob exclaimed. How stupid was I, why didn’t I think of this before? I rushed to the water before Glern could get there and knelt down with my mouth open wide. Water gushed into my mouth, and I quickly gulped it down. “Uh! Cleh!” I burst into a fit of coughing, a horrible taste in my mouth. That was when I noticed Glern and Blob laughing. “It’s saltwater, son!” My father said, his head in his hands. I sat down on a rock, feeling defeated. There was no way I could ever be a good leader. “Well, we better get rest.” My father told us all. “Tomorrow we must cross the sea. It will be a long day.”
I was filled with dread as we prepared our canoes for the journey. All I had to do was cross this water, and I would be a man. All I had to do was this simple task, and I would take on so much unbearable responsibility. “Let’s go.” Apprehensively, I forced my shaking legs to one of the canoes. My father’s words were always orders. “I know your scared, but it’s all going to be okay,” said someone behind me, mockingly. I turned around, and Glern was sitting there. This was going to be a long, long day. “Start!” My father shouted over the noise of the roaring sea. In an amazingly fast motion, all our canoes pushed away from the rocks, the land, all comfort and safety, to the wide, open sea.
My hands were sore by the end of the day. We had reached a small cluster of land in the middle of the sea where we had rested for the night. According to my father, this was the only land before we got to the other tribe, so tomorrow would be even more exhausting. Glern had tipped me into the water three times that day, and sand from the island was stuck to my wet body. I was tired and my body ached, my eyelids drooped and my head and body yearned for rest, but my mind was spinning. All my thirteen years, I had known that someday I would lead our tribe, yet I never really thought about it. Now, it was a reality, and it would only be a few months until I would have the most respected position in our tribe. Everyone, even the elders, would look up to me, just a picked-on, shy, afraid child. “You must trust yourself.” The words still echoed in my memory, haunting my thoughts. It was the last thing on my mind as the soft sound of the ocean crashing on rocks lulled me to sleep.
“Wake up! We have a long day ahead of us!” My father shook me. I opened my eyes. The sun had no risen yet. It was dark. “Why must we go this early?” I asked him, tired and annoyed. “We will reach the other side of the sea by shortly after sunset. Otherwise, we would be rowing until midnight.” He stood up. I wish that I didn’t have to follow my father’s command for once in my life. Obediently, I got in a canoe and started out for the long day ahead.
“Over here! Over here!” Called the tribal leader. If it wasn’t for his ornate feather head piece, he wouldn’t be visible from this far out in the ocean. “Faster! Faster!” My father called, relieved at the sight of the man he knew so well. It was dark, but the starlit sky and glowing moon were bright enough to lead our canoes safely to the land. One by one, the chief greeted us. All I wanted to do was lie down and rest, but my father made me stay up and listen to his talk with the leader. “Next year you will be here.” He told me. “Watch and listen carefully so you know what to do.” I wasn’t happy, but I had to do it. So I sat in the large cave, life-size elk painted on the walls, listening to my father communicate to the chief. I could barely understand what the other leader was saying, and it wasn’t long before I lazily rolled off into slumber.
“Klarg!” Father called, shaking me. I opened my eyes. The leader of the other tribe looked at me disapprovingly. “How disrespectful!” My father whispered in my ear. “How dare you fall asleep in front of such an important man!” I sat up, and hit a clay bottle filled with paint for the cave, which fell over, shattering on the ground. The blue liquid covered the floor, and a little got on my father’s shoe. I turned to the leader, his face red. “I-I’m sorry.” I said. He looked at me, then at the floor, and at me again. “Go to your tent. Goodnight.” He said, trying to remain calm. I walked outside of the cave, but paused at the sound of my father and the leader yelling. “And you expect me to continue a peace treaty with that child next year?” The chief asked, fury in his voice. “He will become a good leader. Trust me.” My father responded. “Isn’t there someone else? Another young man to take your place?”
“There has to be,”
“But he’s so irresponsible,”
“My son will learn.”
“You must face the truth,”
“I know the truth, and I know that Klarg will be an excellent leader!”
But the leader was right. I started to walk back to my tent, feeling defeated. Father said I would learn, but when would there be time? It would only be a few weeks until I would lead our nation. I could not grow up in this short amount of time. Twenty-one days wouldn’t change me enough. Even as a leader, I would still be small. I would still be weak and shy. And I couldn’t change that. No one could.
I opened my eyes. The hole at the top of my tent showed that it was still dark, but I saw a vague burst of light through the thin deer hide walls. I heard voices, shouting. I heard feet, pounding, running. I heard my father’s loud voice, then suddenly fading. I didn’t know what was going on. Was there danger? I wanted to run out of my tent. I wanted to help in any way I could. But I was just a useless, irresponsible child, as the leader had said.
A bird chirped, and I awoke. It was light out, and I could tell by the sun’s direction that it was later than my father usually woke me up. I crawled out of the tent. Everything was black. Trees, fallen branches, and rocks on the ground were black. As the wind blew, little black specks swirled around me. Our camp, the many simple tents, had disappeared. Even my father’s special tent, made with multiple layers of deerskin, had disappeared. Gone. Did they leave me? No. They couldn’t have! My father knew I was too young to be left alone! Didn’t he? I breathed in, and the little black particles went into my nose. It smelled like fire. Suddenly, everything made sense. “Father!” I ran as fast as I could around the area, desperate. I finally came to the chief’s cave. To my relief, the chief was sitting there, but my father was nowhere to be found. “Where’s my father?” I asked, barely aware of what I was saying. “He died, Klarg.” “What?” I asked. “The fire, it killed him.” He added calmly. “You are now a leader. Rule your people wisely.” My mind was racing. Me? A leader? So soon? My hands were sweaty, and I froze in shock at the surprising, horribly frightening truth. I was no longer a child. My life would never be the same again. I was different than the rest of our tribe. My whole life, I imagined that when this day came, I would be hit with a sudden burst of strength, and my confidence would increase. But now, now that this was actually happening, I was scared. My family, I owed it to them to be a good leader. But how could I be one? For a moment, just less than a blink of an eye, I was angry. Angry at my father for making me go on this journey. Angry at him for putting me in such a hard situation. I was angry at my grandfather. He had passed on many years ago, but it was he who had forced me to be a leader. I was only five when he, upon his deathbed, ordered me to take care of the tribe. “You must be a responsible leader.” He had said. “But Grandfather, I don’t want to lead our tribe.” He had shaken his head. “But you must, my boy. You must.” I was angry, and I was scared. I was worried, feeling small, sad, and lonely. After all, I was just an underachieving duplicate of my ancestors. It was too much to bear. I was the only one, the only son of my father, the only grandson and great-grandson of my ancestors before him. There was no other, no ‘just in case’, no replacement if something happened to the leader. It was just me. The chief from the other tribe looked at me. I was now just like him. I was now his equal, not below him. He was waiting for an answer. He wanted me to say, “Yes. I am ready to rule!” But of course, I was not the kind of person who did that. I was the kind of person who just,…ran away. So that is what I did.
“There you are, Chief Klarg!” Said someone from behind me, sounding relieved. Apparently, the large boulder had not been enough to fully conceal me. “We must get you back to the tribe for the ceremony, Chief Klarg. We are starting to gather materials for your spiritual leader markings. I was panicking on the inside, but let the man lead me over to a small patch of ash-covered land where my tribe was gathered. They all cheered at the sight of me. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to run again. I wanted to leave and run across the land until I could run no more and my knees sunk to the ground, but something inside of me told me to stay.
The long day was coming to a close. I sat on the ground, the men of my tribe gathered around me, dancing and singing to honor their new leader. I was still afraid, still young, with plenty to learn. I would make mistakes, I knew I would, and I couldn’t be perfect, not now, not ever. But it didn’t matter. Because even Glern and his friends respected me now. And as I stared into the setting sky, swirled with orange and purple, ash sticking to the new markings on my forehead, symbolizing my position, I knew that I would never let my people down. I felt it inside of me, that strength I didn’t even know I had. “Tomorrow, we sail home.” I told them.