Excerpt from People of the Moon by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear
Healers are of two kinds. There are Healers who strive day and night to keep dying people alive for as long as possible. And there are Healers who work as helpers, holding a lamp in the darkness, leading the way.
I have watched the first type of Healer very closely. I call them Deceivers, for they are very much like witches. They try to get the dying person to look the other way while they work their magic. Almost always their magic requires so many Spirit Plants that the sick person's afterlife soul drifts in and out of her body, either floating in a stupor, or shivering in a pain-racked body while she fights to bear the horror reflected in her loved ones' eyes. Most of those patients died in their beds like lost children, abandoned and alone.
My heart shrivels when I try to imagine what they must have been thinking and feeling.
I started out being the first kind of Healer. For many summers, I fought to keep people alive for as long as I could. Then I was called in to Heal an elderly woman that no one else dared to approach. Her name was Little Flower. She seemed to hate everyone. Whenever a Healer entered her house, she threw things at them and cursed them. No matter how much of her dwindling strength it took, she always managed to drive her Healers away.
I was called in at the very end. Her sobbing daughter came to me and begged me to try to Heal her. When I arrived, Little Flower knew it immediately. She began shouting for me to go away even before I entered her lodge. I was standing out in the village plaza when she apparently heard me speaking with her daughter and had a fit.
Nonetheless, I clutched my Healer's bag and ducked beneath her door curtain.
It was very difficult to feel compassion toward a woman who so obviously did not want to be Healed, but I was determined to try. The instant I saw her, however, I understood what her desperate family refused to see: that my efforts would be fruitless. Truly, she did not need a Healer, and Little Flower had known it all along.
As I approached, she gave me an evil look. Her wheezing filled the firelit darkness. But when I sat down beside her, I could tell the rage was a disguise for terror. It was a way of crying without tears, without evoking pity, which she obviously loathed.
"No. . . Spirit. . . Plants!" she gasped, and her death rattle grew louder. She thrashed weakly in her bed, rolling from side to side as though to stop the liquid from filling up in her lungs.
I nodded in sudden understanding. All of her "Healers" had accomplished but one thing: They had prevented her from participating in her own death, surely the most fundamental right of everything alive.
I said, "If you don't mind, I'd just like to sit with you for a time."
The anger in her eyes diminished, replaced by a kind of exhausted relief. She knew she was dying. She just wanted to be left in peace to be finished with it.
I took her hand, and very quietly said, "I once knew a great holy man named Wanderer who told me that a person's entire life could be read in the patterns of wrinkles on the backs of his hands." I smiled. "Of course he also believed it could be read in shriveled elderberries, on tortoise shells, and anything else with intricate patterns."
Little Flower gave me a faint grin.
As I began telling her what I saw in her wrinkles – a life of joys and travails, of many children, and even more grandchildren – her smile grew. Finally, she sagged against her bedding and closed her eyes.
I began Singing the Death Song, which is a very beautiful lilting melody. As she listened to my soft voice, her terror dissolved. In less than a few hundred heartbeats, her breathing stopped.
The weight of the silence that followed was crushing.
Since that moment, I have been the second kind of Healer. I do not deceive my patients into looking the other way. Instead, I encourage them to stare straight down the dark tunnel's throat. As a Helper, holding the lamp and walking as far as I can with them, I let them follow their own way into the darkness. I have never left them alone, but tried to keep vigil and protect them while they stepped inexorably forward…