I stood shirtless in my own sweat and started to shiver.
I watched flecks of ash drift through a forest smudged by the curling heat waves of the fire at my feet before my lightheadedness and I sat down. My skin had only just stopped steaming and body was confused. I could hear the clatter of the crows bothering the osprey in the east, but the world sounded muffled, filtered through a helmet of nausea that mocked whatever relief the cool air and fifty cent water bottle contained.
As more ash collected on the stones in the fire, the smell of smoke and lavender dried with the earth’s grit to my skin and a manageable clarity returned in time for me to take my last drink, thank my lineage and crawl back into the lodge for another round of shared steam, darkness and humility.
When the door shuts, vision is left somewhere else in the world where distinction matters. It’s packed up in the men’s shed with old tools, weathered chairs and the steer skull in the rafters where the rats can’t get to it. Here in the lodge, my hair curls, perspiration slides down the ridge of my nose and light is shut out by secondhand blankets and thick black canvas. Sight is meaningless next to all that’s rendered speakable by burning lips.
Among the currents of breath, there is little the heat does not touch. It fills the blanketed willow frame from the top down, poring up from the superheated stones in wet sparks and cascades down my back until it pushes me and the memory of the cold completely to the earth. It’s here that I find some measure of peace at the edges of the blankets covering the ground. They are the ones that start to soak up the mixture of steam and sweat pouring off my body and around them are patches of muddy earth that resist the heat better than my soft flesh. I whisper to these patches of mud with pants of ever-increasing single-mindedness and with cooler echoes of my own words the ground touches my face, offering more comfort than I imagined I’d need.
Somewhere behind me and in the background of my thoughts, the others sing and chant in a different language. I suppose if you could sing, it would take your mind off the heat. Theo runs the sweats and his voice is the first and last you hear. “Try to breath slow.” He told me, “Otherwise, you heat up from the inside.” Theo has demeanour of a man who’s walked through a solar storm of ionizing radiation and come out the other side with a peacefulness and a taste for heat.
With Theo and Ken’s help, my brother and I spent an hour bending willow saplings that were dug into the ground into an eight-person tent frame that we secured together using a basic square lashing of ripped strips of one hundred percent neon green cotton. Theo told me he called the lashing an Easter knot. I’m not sure why I didn’t follow his obvious prompting, but I just nodded and continued to hold two perpendicular branches together. My naively staged conversational rebellion in failing to ask after the knot’s name wasn’t going to stop Theo from telling the story, however.
“Do you know why it’s called an ‘Easter knot’?” He asked me as he swung one of his four long braids of thick black hair over his shoulder. I didn’t know. Theo smiled and said, “John Easter started tying things with it, eh?” He and Ken both laughed.
Theo continued, “I said it’s called an Easter knot, after him. He said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Why not?’” Theo chuckled again and I smiled like a child among grownups.
When I first arrived, I introduced myself twice to a man named Sy and felt foolish. In the calm before the storm, Sy struck up a conversation and introduced himself more thoroughly. For eleven years, he’s worked at a shelter downtown. He’s proud of his position and unafraid to enforce their strict behaviour and entrance policies. He’s a man used to kindly reminding people of the rules. The first time the lodge door opened, Sy stopped my exit to let the ladies out first. As we sat during the first break, he stopped me from drinking water before offering some to the earth in ceremonial gratitude. They were kind reminders of rules that harken back to a tradition now mingling with invitations sent via global satellites and donuts that arrive in a box covered with images of more donuts.
The sweat was supposed to start at 2pm and last a few hours. With the remaining fire left to extinguish itself behind an oasis of trees, my brother and I waited at the edge of the small lot next to orange pylons and tufts of weedy grass for our ride just as the sun set around 9pm. Like so many other things, time means something else here. You wind through the trampled path to get to the clearing that holds the Grandfathers and you bring in little bits of your world. We carry in schedules, dinner appointments and clumsy expectations only to watch their importance scatter with each swipe of the pine tree brush on ash covered stones.
I stood flushed and happy in my own skin and shivered a bit with the wind.