The Wailing Woman of the River
A Shamanic Tale of Power
by Victoria Marina-Tompkins

The river had long been our place of solace and refuge. She was a magnificent river, an old soul river, winding her way through the canyons as she made her way to the ocean. She was not an ordinary river and the stories that sprang up each time we came face to face with her were both life changing and as ancient as the moon. She mirrored to us what we each held inside of ourselves. Remarkably, the mirror was there year after year, never changing, but only shifting and reflecting our internal stories. It was in fact a reflection of our process that she offered to us and the chance to make a leap into the unknown. We came willingly, perhaps with some trepidation, knowing that what occurred during our time there would change us again, for indeed that was the one thing we could be assured of.

We spent the first day remembering her ways. Delighted as we were to be with her, there was a childlike exuberance as we negotiated our way down the trail to the water's edge. Some laughing, giggling, telling stories about what had happened the last year, and who was here and who wasn't, and what direction we would head first. It was pretty easy to decide. West or East and you would stay on the river. Everyone always agreed that this was the beginning point although there was also often talk of walking the road to the redwood grove. Usually that walk came later, for the pull to the lady river was so strong that those thoughts were certainly put aside.

The ritual was always the same. Reaching the river we would each find a quiet place to greet her, to begin to let her magic touch us. From an outsider's view it probably looked pretty ordinary. They would see a woman quietly sitting with maybe a toe or part of a foot dangling in the water. If they listened closely they might hear singing.

" During the following years we would remember this particular quest as the time of the wailing woman. That was really because we couldn't think of much else at the time, she appeared so suddenly. The year she came to us, it was the New Moon of the Vernal Equinox. Victoria had said that this new moon was in Libra and that the energies were very powerful. I had come to trust in her intuition about these things and had been gearing up for weeks for what proved to be a very profound experience. The weeks preceding the trip we had met in small groups and, after choosing partners, had made masks for the death ceremony."

" I was so delighted to be with the River again. In fact, I would say that it felt like a home coming to me. My 'ritual' consisted of bringing her a gift that I had created before the trip. This year it was a rock that I had painted with the story from the year before. Even though it was a small rock, they were all there: the white crane, the flock of birds at dusk, the fire circle. And they were all positioned around the central figure. This year I was staying at base camp in support of the questing women, so it was important to complete my personal ritual before the evening circle began."

" Sometimes I wonder if it wasn't during the death ceremony that the woman first noticed us. I mean, think about it: there we were, no one else around for miles, making such a commotion! We had built a small fire that would stay burning throughout the entire weekend, tended by those of us who stayed at camp. So there we were, drumming and chanting around the fire, and I have to think that she must have heard us. Even the sound of one drum could be heard resounding down the river, so imagine what all of us must have sounded like."

" We had come to the circle in silence as the darkness enveloped us. Just like during so many years before, the first night of the quest began by sitting in silence, honoring the direction of the West. Our purpose for coming to this circle was to let go of what we no longer needed. The masks were a symbol of what we wanted to let go of and so of course were all different. Some were images of the lost and wounded child, the dutiful daughter, the power that had been given away. The images swirled and danced in the darkness: snakes and crescent moons, goddesses and spiraling rivers, tears, anger, and sorrows. All of these being given to the fire as part of setting our intention for our work at the river the next 2 days."

" And so, on the evening went, the masks each danced and burned in turn. Every so often I would notice that there seemed to be an awful lot of spirit energy floating about. Actually, at one point early on, Victoria had been rattling in the directions while walking a spiral path around the fire. Every so often she would stop and listen. She was deep in trance, and ultra aware of even the smallest movement around her. She would turn and look, as if she heard footsteps or detected something outside of our circle. I have to admit it made me pretty jumpy and the other women said they felt the same. I had to tell myself that it was all part of working with spirits and that indeed the veil between worlds could become thin. It took it out of the abstract and into the tangible, into the possible. Regardless, it definitely felt like we were not alone that night."

The following day on the river itself was pretty calm. About half of the women had set out early in the morning with the intention of finding a place to camp for the night. Once they had found their places, they would each make a purpose circle. This circle would represent many people and experiences in their lives and would also serve as a protective wall against unwanted energies. They were free to move up and down the river during the day but once nightfall came, they would set the last rock in place and prepare for their medicine work. The work itself was very individual and really part of the sacred agreement between the Spirit and each of them.

The day had gone pretty smoothly with four of us back at camp, as our job was to essentially hold down the energy for the rest of the group. I had walked up and down the river myself earlier, checking out where each woman had camped just in the case of an emergency. I also checked to see if the women had left their markers for safety at a prearranged place. The river was beautiful, serene, and as always, a powerful teacher. I knew that everyone would experience whatever it was that they needed to for that was the way of the river and of spirit.

I returned to camp as nightfall approached. The fire was still burning although it was on the low side because we wanted to conserve wood for the all night drumming. Everyone was pretty hungry and we soon had a small meal of beans and tortillas cooked on the Coleman stove perched on top of an old rickety table near the east end of the campground. Within a short period of time the light was waning, and we prepared for the long evening ahead, clearing the table and putting everything away, so as not to attract the attention of the resident animals who might come prowling for food later in the night.

We drummed well into the evening, and the fire burned bright that night. As is our usual practice, we focused on each of the questors, including doing a journey for each of them to check in and see how we might best support them during their solo time out on the river. As the time approached midnight, we took a short break to walk around a bit and stretch our cramping legs and arms, and to take a much needed rest. It was during this break that one of my most experienced students began to ask about ways of perceiving energy and a lively, energetic conversation ensued, discussing ways in which they could open more to the perceptions of spirit and to the medicine work. We talked about journeying, dreaming, solo medicine work at the river, and stalking. The questions wove in and out of the answers, blending both what had been learned through study and what had been directly experienced.

Returning to the circle, we began to drum again, but it was different. As we focused our attention on Rachel, the final woman who was questing and who would be receiving our support that night, the beat slowed to a steady heart beat or 3/4 rhythm. The sound echoed throughout the canyon as the women drummed together, sounding more like a heartbeat than the usual steady beat of the drums. I started to hum and then to sing the words which flowed from me:
Mother, hear me callingMother, hear me nowMother, hear me calling for you.
Mother, hear me weepingMother, hear me cryMother, hear me singingSongs of sadness, songs of Joy.
Mother, mother, motherSongs of sadness, songs of Joy.

I was so lost in the song, that I didn't notice the sounds coming from the trees behind me, nor did I notice that the women in the circle were leaning away from me with frightened expressions on their faces! I was a bit puzzled and I put my drum down to ask what was going on. They pointed behind me toward the trees. There, floating in the branches, was the shape of a woman! She was faceless really, but the form was clearly female and it was fading in and out. I only saw her for a few seconds, and later I thought that this was because my drumming and interaction with the spirit world was contributing to the energetic presence, so when I stopped she was unable to maintain the physical form. Later my students would tell me that they had begun hearing her when I was drumming, first a soft whispering and then a slow crescendo to a more audible sound. She was singing! Her voice was other worldly, rather etheric, a cross somewhere between a moan and a howl. But it was clear that she was interacting with us as we sang and drummed.

The group moved to one corner of the circle, in fact, the farthest away from me and the tree. I thought, "This is like one of those early Carlos Casteneda stories with poor Carlos scared out of his wits out in the middle of the desert with the allies chasing him everywhere!". I put down my drum and stood up, turning to face the tree. At that point she was beginning to fade, the last notes trailing off into the night. Two of the women went over to the tree and tried to clear the energy. It wasn't until months later that we would really learn what the message was that the woman was bringing to us. And it would be different for each woman who was present when she began to sing with us.

During the months that followed the quest we worked intensely with our 'guest' from the other world, attempting to discover the meaning of the experience. In general the group agreed on one primary point. They had been asking about energy manifestation that night and got a very vivid demonstration! This was a wondrous example of the spirit world working in tandem with ordinary reality. She had come to us as a teacher, to show us that we could set our intentions and receive what we were asking to learn about. There was also the powerful connection to the words of the Mother Song I had spontaneously created that night (along with the assistance of my Spirit helpers). The woman we had been drumming for was in fact working on deep mother issues at the time of the quest, and the grief and sadness expressed through both the song and by the wailing woman were a mirror of her personal quest work. The Mother Song also tapped into a deep well within each of us, both for our own mothers, mothering, and for the mother earth as well.

Looking back on this remarkable event, I am also reminded that music is universal and is one language of the worlds beyond the veil.

© 1996 Victoria Marina-Tompkins

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