The soon-to-be-graduates of the initiation class had gathered at the lodge.
Back when he was still alive, my father had talked a lot about the day I’d be here. “Burke,” he’d say, “life is full of adventures. We don’t always understand that fact as we’re going through something, but then we look back, and think, WOW, what an adventure that was! The initiation won’t be like that. When you’re old enough, that’s an adventure you will not fail to recognize. It’s amazing. I can’t wait to see you off, when the time comes, and to talk to you when you return.” But he hadn’t been there to see me off, and he wouldn’t be talking to me on my return. He’d died two years ago. He’d been quite an adventurer himself, and had lost his footing on a climb, and had a bad fall. I missed him all the time, but today it was a sharper feeling.
It was spring. The dogwood trees were exploding in blossoms. While Elder Pine was talking to the group of us, my attention would slip sometimes for a moment, but I was trying to focus, just in case any of this would be important to know when I got to the past. Whenever and wherever that was going to be.
“This concept is as old as human culture,” he was saying. “When the boy reaches a certain age — the age has varied somewhat across time and place, but for us it is 16 — it is time to become a man. Of course, we progressed as a species, and this long ago quit being gender-specific. The point is to mark the transition when you’re moving out of childhood and into maturity, to do this with a ritual or accomplishment or experience. You break the frame that holds the picture of your life as a child, so that you can form a new picture, so you’ll own your own life, to think of yourselves as, and for others to accept you as, adults.”
I didn’t know if I’d ever think of myself as an adult. I’m the boy who is always lost in dreams and imagination, not the most analytical thinker, not the strongest, not the fastest. I’m the likeliest to see things in a weird way, to not be able to explain what I mean. Voted most likely to let my sentences trail off and then lapse into an awkward silence. The critics have spoken.
A hand went up. It was Lyric.
“Why was it just boys, in so many cultures, for so long?”
“Because the assumption for girls was that they’d be taken as wives and would have children. Having a baby was the ritual for them.”
There was some uncomfortable laughter. He continued.
“It was true for centuries, in many places, that fighting in a war, particularly killing another warrior, could serve as the ritual. But it has varied. For the Peyote Church of the Navajo, it was what they called a spirit walk, experiencing the world under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen. For a French villager in the Renaissance, it might have meant starting an apprenticeship. For an upper-class Brit in the 1800s, it could mean boarding school. For a 20th century suburban American, it meant a test to earn a license that would then allow you to pollute the atmosphere with a huge and dangerous motorized vehicle. From warfare to childbirth to mind-altering substances to privileges and tests, the core is the same: you return from the experience as someone with what the ancient Greeks called “arête,” meaning skillfulness and, importantly, the commitment to becoming skilled. Skill at a craft, skill at athletics, scholastics, the arts, skill at managing what life will throw at you … the important thing is the commitment to learn, to take responsibility for acquiring your own excellence. That foundation shows us that the true goal of developing arête is to become skilled in the art of living.”
I thought hard about all he’d said. He turned to look at the time circle, which had been lasered into a huge piece of granite. The earth had eroded away around it, so that it looked like a small rock dome that had risen from below ground. Like everything else in our lives, the time circle was powered by the sun, but there the similarity ended. None of our other tech collected energy from the sun at this magnitude, nor could it harness or release that energy in such an intense burst. Every year, a handful of our village’s boys and girls turned 16, and every year they each left on a Time Travel Vision Quest. It was the only thing the time travel technology could ever be used for. Every year, most of the boys and girls came back as men and women, having developed sufficient arête to return. But every year, one or two vanished, never to be heard from again. Maybe they liked it where they went, and decided to stay.
“This brings us to now, “ Elder Pine said. “I have assigned you each a time and place, which you will learn presently.” He smiled. “It will emerge. You will deduce. You have said your goodbyes. Moving on, then, the first traveler is … Burke.” They all looked at me. I nodded, and stepped onto the dome. Immediately, there was a flash of light and a silence more complete than I had ever experienced. I felt an urgent pressing on my chest, simultaneous to a lightness in my head, and then I lost consciousness.
When I woke, I was freezing cold, wearing only jeans, boots, and light shirt, in a forest I had never seen before. Dark was falling, as was sleet. The shadow of night enveloped all I could see. I could hear the howling of wolves not far away. I kept imagining that there were eyes watching me, and maybe there were. I didn’t know when or where I was. The ritual was underway. My Time Travel Vision Quest had begun.