Prayers in the Forest
The quiet of the woodlands was broken by the sharp, staccato alarm of a squirrel warning the other animals that a bobcat was prowling in the forest. Then the chattering stopped for a moment, but a moment only before the alarm was repeated, this time with news that the cat was chasing an old, graying rabbit.
From the safety of a tall aspen tree, the squirrel witnessed the rabbit leaping along, kicking up puffs of dust as she fled. Chasing swiftly after her was a young bobcat focused on making the aging rabbit his next meal. The rabbit veered sharply off to the side and darted along an almost invisible trail through a brushy thicket of wild roses. The sharp thorns on the rose branches clawed at the cat’s face and grabbed at his fur, slowing his progress which gave the rabbit a split second to get farther ahead. Above them, the squirrel chattered without letup.
Sensing the bobcat had been tricked by her maneuver, the rabbit looked for a hiding spot. She had eluded him up until now with her speed and quick jumps but she was tiring rapidly. Her legs and lungs ached and her heart drummed wildly.
Just ahead she spied a partially concealed hole dug in the side of a sandy hill. It looked abandoned. Tucking her ears back, she slipped her furry body past the debris that partially clogged the entrance. The burrow beyond was old. Weed roots had pushed their way through its walls. Luckily, the tunnel was wide enough for her to crawl forward, although in doing so, she knocked the dirt and sand off the roots. The dust got in her nose and made her sneeze. The old rabbit slowed, held her breath, relaxed and slowly crept along. The farther she crawled, the darker the burrow grew until it was to that point of being totally black. Although she knew she was safe here, she wondered if the cat could hear the drumming of her heart.
Meanwhile the bobcat chased the rabbit’s scent to the sandy burrow. He sniffed the entrance, got down on his belly and stuck his paw in as far as it would go. The rabbit was far beyond his reach. Then he stuck his head into tunnel and broke loose more dirt. He backed out sputtering, hissing and rubbing his eyes. The bobcat was too young and impatient to wait for her to come out so after shaking the dust from his coat, he claimed the burrow as part of his territory by spraying it with his urine.
By now the squirrel had grown bold and was hanging upside down on the trunk of a tall pine very close to the cat. His chattering annoyed the feline who rushed the base of the tree and took a swat at the furry nuisance. The squirrel retreated far into the treetop and began scolding with full fury.
Time passed. Inside the dark burrow, the rabbit had turned around and moved closer to the entrance, and although she could sense the bobcat was no longer near, she waited. It was evening before the tired rabbit ventured forth. The squirrel had returned to his signal tree and was quietly asleep.
A full moon had risen large and luminous above the sandy hillside. Slight evening breezes rustled shadowy branches creating eerie noises. . . noises which might scare those not accustomed to night sounds.
The rabbit carefully squeezed through the burrow entrance, struggling to push aside the dirt and sand dislodged by the bobcat’s scratchings. She hesitated briefly, rose on her hind legs and sniffed. The cat’s scent was still strong in the air. The rabbit pushed off and leaped towards a small stand of fir and cedar trees. The ground under them was strewn with generations of their rust-colored needles among which grew long-tailed wild ginger plants. She tucked her legs beneath her aging body, her chin resting on the spicy-scented ginger leaves. With ears alert and nose wrinkling, she settled herself for sleep.
As the rabbit drifted off, a haze of brightly twinkling stars formed about her. Although deep in sleep, her leg muscles twitched and sent the stars circling out like ripples on a pond. Within moments, the haze withdrew and the rabbit transformed into an elderly Indian woman. Beads sewn into her buckskin dress, reflected the moon’s shine. She awoke, stretched and shook out her long silver braids which were decorated with eagle feathers and rawhide twists.
Slung from her shoulder was a leather pouch decorated with porcupine quill work. From the pouch, the elder withdrew a long wooden pipe stem and a carved stone pipe bowl. She lifted them to the night sky offering a silent prayer; then joined the two, reached into the pouch again and took out some tobacco which she stuffed into the bowl. Bathed by the moon’s soft glow, she raised the pipe skyward and offered another prayer. Kneeling down, the elder lay the pipe on the soft ground, reached into her pouch a third time and drew out a small sheep horn container. Inside were glowing embers. She grasped a ginger leaf, padded her fingers with it, and placed a hot coal into the pipe’s bowl. Lifting the pipe to her lips, she inhaled and puffed prayer smoke to each of the four directions, the sky above, the earth below and to all her relations, thanking them all for sparing her life.
After the ceremony, she parted the pipe and carefully sprinkled the cool ashes onto the forest floor. She tucked everything into her pipe bag and bowed her head once more in a gesture of thanks giving before quietly walking away. The night sounds surrounded her in a language she understood and helped guide her safely home.
The next day as the early morning sun rose into the heavens, a slender beam of its light filtered through to the base of the fir trees. It shimmered on the spot where the pipe’s ashes had been spread. But instead of the ashes, a cluster of Indian Pipe stood–their white, translucence shining bright in the morning air, their heads bowed in silent prayer.