Lame Elk, who had just passed his 14th year, had taken on the family responsibility of his father, Standing Elk. His father and mother had both been killed several months before in an attack on the village by a nomadic hostile tribe. He was fulfilling all his father's and mother's duties of providing food, shelter and nurturing for his younger brother and two younger sisters.
He was proud of himself, even though it was harder to do than he let on. A widowed aunt who lived with her children in the next tepee helped look after them some, but Lame Elk shouldered most of the parental duties for his siblings. That meant hunting for food, carrying the water from the stream, tending the fires and even the cooking. And that didn't even count the arrow and arrowhead making, tanning hides, repairing the tepee and tribal duties as well.
Lame Elk was determined to keep the family together and not have his siblings split up among the other families of the tribes. Besides, almost all the tepees had suffered their own losses due to the attack. There was much sadness and suffering in the village. Many of the elders had been killed or disabled and there were others his age having to do the same as he was doing. The normal ways of sharing and co-operation had also suffered as everyone was trying to hold their own because the chief had been slain a well. And even after all this time, there was still turmoil over who his successor would be. The tribe was in a grieving limbo without leadership.
Lame Elk, called Little Elk when he was younger, had earned his new name because he was granted permission to keep and wear his late father's moccasins. However the moccasins were too big and he walked with a very slight limping gait because of it. But the moccasins were his father's and his mother had just made them for him before they were slain. The beadwork was extraordinary and the deerskin was soft and supple. His aunt offered to refashion them so they fit better but Lame Elk refused. The name had started out as a friendly kidding by boyhood friends. He had tied leather strips around the moccasins to keep them from slipping so much but they just made them more uncomfortable. So the name stuck but he didn't mind too much. The name brought some levity into the dire circumstances that they were experiencing.
A few months prior to his parents' deaths he had been called by a vision to apprentice to the tribe's Shaman, Red Eagle, to learn the Medicine Ways of the Many Trails. However, his new responsibilities had now put constraints on his spiritual evolvement, but he vowed to continue with his lessons. It was his calling by the Creator.
Red Eagle had become not only a teacher to Lame Elk but also a fatherly figure as well.
The soft spoken but firm shaman was as important, if not more so, to Lame Elk as the lessons that he was teaching him.
Red Eagle knew of Lame Elk's quandary and so he wisely worked around his new role as head of the family. He arranged the lessons on days when there was plenty of food and hunting was not required or at night when the moon was just right. After all, his commitment to his shamanic journey would be never-ending.
The Medicine Ways of the Many Trails was very important to Lame Elk, but he was trying so hard to be father, mother and brother as well as shaman apprentice that it was more and more difficult for him to recoup his energy each day. There was an underlying sadness, resentment and sometimes anger to his demeanor that he masked.
However, today, Lame Elk was excited. He and Red Eagle were going to take a new trail called The Trail of Balance. He knew that it would be an arduous trek as it was up into the mountains on a hidden, winding and treacherous path that few had traveled before. The trip would take two days or more, but he had brought home enough meat to share with other families who in turn would take care of his family while he was gone.
Lame Elk's father had taught him well in the art of the hunt. Red Eagle had taught him to ask the animals for permission to hunt them for food during his nightly meditations. He always thanked the animals for their sacrifice. Thus, he was a very successful hunter even though there were times that the moccasins caused him to lose a good shot due to his shuffling or from a sudden pain from a stone or stick that had made its way into one of them.
In the early morning, as they started up the trail, the sun was bright and there were a few wispy clouds that seemed to be painted on the sky by the Creator. The canvas was occasionally enhanced by the silhouette of a soaring eagle or hawk overhead. The air was, both, cool and warm, at the same time.
The trail was as Lame Elk had imagined. It was steep and, in many spots, too narrow for them to walk alongside one another. Sometimes the edge of one side of the trail disappeared into a silent abyss. It was cluttered with rocks and fallen limbs that proved its disuse. Thorny vines pulled at their leather garments as they walked. Sometimes the sounds of a faint, hidden rattling broke the momentary silence of the trail. But to Lame Eagle it provided an adventure of an undaunted daring and, at the same time, a catharsis for his spirit. The occasional growl of a distant bear or the scream of a lonely puma made it even more exhilarating, surging his hunter instincts.
As they walked side by side on the wider part of the trail, Red Eagle showed him the plants that made good medicine and what they were used for and how to prepare them. He was very detailed in his telling so that Lame Elk would remember the lessons.
They continued on their walk while Red Eagle talked to the plants, trees, rocks and animals along the way. He was teaching Lame Elk how to read the energy signatures of each. He was also teaching him to be spiritually balanced with all things around him. He wanted Lame Elk to respect that all things are alive with spirit and to know, that by listening beyond his ears, he could hear them communicating with him.
"We are connected in spirit to all things in this universe and all things are connected to us and we are all connected to the Creator as One," Red Eagle told Lame Elk. "We are all a part of the Creator's Web of Life that stretches beyond the stars," he continued. "Before you go on your Vision Quest, I will take you on a mutual vision to the Top of the World where you can see its vastness."
However as they walked, he noticed that Lame Elk was limping more than usual. He said nothing, as it was up to his apprentice to speak of it first.
As they traveled upward toward the summit and talked about all the things that Lame Elk had learned this first day, Red Eagle noticed that his limp was becoming even more pronounced than before. He still said nothing. Instead, he pointed to a line of ants on the ground. He drew Lame Elk's attention to how they shared the work and seemed to go about their duties as of one mind, carrying the heavier crumbs together.
"One of the major lessons on the Trail of Balance", said Red Eagle, "is that one has to be balanced at all times with Nature, Mother Earth and especially within oneself. Balance is imperative in all that you do in this lifetime as a warrior, as a hunter and as a shaman. As long as you are balanced, you can achieve wonders, even against many odds," Red Elk told him. "Balance is also necessary in your personal and family life as well as in your spiritual aspect."
Lame Elk hung on every word that Red Eagle spoke even though, at times, he seemed somewhat distracted to his teacher.
After they reached the summit, they made a campfire and got ready to settle in for the night while the lessons continued.
As they sat quietly in front of the fire dining on smoked deer jerky, Lame Elk began rubbing his feet through his moccasins and wincing as he did. Finally, Lame Elk broke the silence. "My feet are really hurting. The pain runs all the way up to my head."
"Why don't you take off your moccasins?" asked Red Eagle.
Lame Elk reluctantly complied. A dozen or more small stones fell out of each moccasin as he took he took them off.
"Why didn't you say anything? Why didn't you get rid of the stones earlier?" queried Red Eagle in a puzzled tone.
"I felt that I had to do what was expected of me and not complain on this special trail that we are on," answered Lame Elk. "Besides, my moccasins are so big that even if I dumped out the stones I would have just gotten more. At least this way, no more could get in them. I thought that I was getting use to them, but I guess I wasn't."
Red Eagle chuckled out loud but not so loudly as to offend the young student.
"Why have you not let your aunt remake the moccasins for you so that they fit", asked Red Eagle.
"I don't want to offend my mother by altering what she had made for my father and I don't want to dishonor my father by changing what was his," answered Lame Elk. "Besides, I will grow into them."
Red Eagle looked at the young brave with compassion but maintained his teacher composure.
"Lame Elk, since your parents' deaths you have sacrificed much for your family just as do the animals that make their own sacrifices so your hunt will be successful. You sacrifice your own poise by wearing moccasins that gather even more burdens for you to carry on your walk. Before you grow into them, they will have been worn away by the stones and uneven wear."
"What can I do?" asked Lame Elk with frustration.
"You are not on this journey alone, my young apprentice. As with the other families in the village you must make changes. You and the others in the village must adapt to the losses that you have suffered," answered Red Eagle. "You must look for new ways of balance."
"First of all, now that you have rid your moccasins of the stones, do as I suggest. Take the stones and throw them as far as you can. Release their hold on you. They are no more in your life. Then take your moccasins over to the stream and soak them thoroughly."
"But that will ruin them. They will crack and become hard. My mother took great pains in making them soft and comfortable," replied Lame Elk with deep concern.
"If you do as I suggest, they will be as soft as before. After you have soaked them put them back on your feet and let them dry by our fire. Then as they are just about dry and shrinking to your feet, rub this oil all over them and let them finish drying. The oils will also keep them from cracking when they get wet in the future." Red Eagle said.
To Lame Elk's amazement, after the moccasins had completely dried, they fit his feet perfectly and because of the oils they were just as soft as before. They were just as his mother had made them except they were smaller. At first, he walked. Then he ran around the campsite, making high pitched whooping calls. He no longer had any limp at all. Lame Elk felt reborn.
"Maybe we should change your name to Running Elk now," laughed Red Eagle.
"No I will keep my name. It has helped lead me to this truth" Lame Elk stated with pride.
"And what truth is that?" asked Red Eagle.
"That there are other ways to do things without changing the essence of what is already.
You showed me how to fix my moccasins without altering what my mother had made as they would have been had my aunt reworked them to fit me."
"And how does that relate to balance?" asked Red Eagle.
"Now that I am able to walk more freely I can do things without having to think about my moccasins. So now I can concentrate my attention on more important things. And I won't be collecting any more stones. I won't feel so fettered and frustrated," gleefully shouted Lame Elk.
"How can you make similar changes in your family life? How can you become more balanced and lighten some more of your load?" Red Eagle questioned.
"My brother and sisters are getting older, so I can teach them how to do some of the chores that I have been doing by myself. They can help fetch the water, keep the campfire going, collect the wood, pick berries, and tan hides. I will even teach my sisters to cook. And I can share that with the other young men of the tribe who are doing the same thing. We can work together to share the work just like the ants. Without the chief, we have all seemed lost in our ways," replied Lame Elk with a more controlled voice.
"Sounds like you are beginning to understand. But, Lame Elk, I would let your aunt teach your sisters how to cook. I have tasted your cooking," laughed Red Eagle.
And how will all of this help in balance?" questioned Red Eagle.
"I will be able to devote more time to my lessons, meditations, tribal duties and honing my hunting skills," answered Lame Elk. "I will be happier without feeling so resentful and stronger with less fatigue."
"You are beginning to learn your lessons," remarked Red Eagle. "But we have many lessons in balance yet to go. These lessons have just touched on the ways of balance in the various aspects of who you are. You must keep your body strong, your mind sharp and alert, your emotions fluid and your spirit soaring."
"Tomorrow we will make our way back down the other side of the trail and I will teach you more about balance, Red Eagle said with his eyes twinkling. We have a long, narrow rock bridge over a deep, deep crevasse to cross."