Sun Cycle of the Great Horned Owl / The Falling River Moon
FETID BREATH CARESSES
my cheek as Death, the Blue God, leans over my shoulder to peer into my eyes.
I turn away to stare at this place where they have carried me. I lie in a rock-capped overhang where wind and water have undercut the dirty brown sandstone. To my right, against the wall, I see the piled litter of an old pack rat nest. Firelight flickers across the rough surface of the rock. Shadows leap. Shadows live on light.
The Blue God watches me, waiting, a hunger keening in her souls.
Five figures, wrapped in split-turkey-feather blankets, lie in a semicircle as if to protect me from the night and the bone-chilling wind.
The Blue God shifts, and I feel her need. Her craving flows through my bones and muscles like the tingling charge of a rubbed fur blanket. With each painful breath I take, she hunches like a starving coyote, waiting to leap on my breath-heart soul when it slips ever so lightly from my body.
The Blue God draws an expectant breath, and fear draws patterns along my age-withered muscles. I wait for her with anticipation; my loins tingle, the expectation of her caress as she devours me is like that of sexual release.
But I fear what comes after: the journey down the Trail of Sorrows where Spider Woman waits. There, beside her eternal fire, her nimble feet dance on the
ashes of evil … of those who have gone before me.
My hand still burns with the feel of the turquoise wolf—the Spirit amulet. He was my salvation. He would have led me through the maze, past the monsters, and down the correct trails to the Land of the Dead. The War Chief, Browser, tore the wolf from my hand. I searched for many sun cycles before I found the precious wolf and removed him from the dead Night Sun’s mummified neck. May her soul mix with those tortured ashes under Spider Woman’s feet. She brought the First People to this: Ruin. Pain. Death. She was the last great ruler of the Straight Path Nation. She gave up everything to marry one of the Made People: a lowly War Chief.
Her legacy to me should have been leadership of the Straight Path Nation. Instead all that she left me was hatred of all that was … and is. Most of all, hatred of myself and this world.
I have fought the new gods, the hideous half-human and half-animal katsinas. For that, Spider Woman should thank me, but her gratitude is as fickle as Wind Baby’s when he sucks the last moisture from a parched cornfield.
Unlike Spider Woman, the Blue God cares not a whit for my actions. The Blue God, like me, is driven by an unwholesome appetite. She takes, sucking down the souls of the dying in an endless orgy of gluttony. I understand her desperate craving, for I have had my own.
The War Chief, Browser, asked, “How could you do it?” He does not know the ecstasy that thrilled every bone, muscle, and tissue, as I shot my hot seed into the flesh of my flesh. The gods, jealous as they are, forbid incest because it smacks of the immortal. Through it, a man can live forever.
I cough, and pain dances in my chest on feathery feet. Bright red blood seeps into my wounded lungs as broken ribs grate against each other.
The Blue God extends her muzzle, sniffing at my bloody mouth.
Is it time?
I struggle to maintain the hold on my breath-heart soul. I am drawn, lured forward by my wish to feel the Blue God’s teeth, to know that ecstasy of release as I slide down her silky throat to the warmth of her stomach. I, too, have eaten souls, swallowed their meat, fusing their flesh with mine.
A tear forms on my eyelid, silvering the firelight and blurring my vision. Gods, I want this so much!
But the fear is stronger. Before I can experience that burst of relief, I must have the sacred turquoise wolf to lead me to salvation. He knows the way of the First People, when, after death, the breath-heart soul meets that forked trail. To the left lies the Sun Trail that leads to the Land of the Dead. There, I can spend eternity with my ancestors: the First People who climbed from the underworlds during the Age of Emergence and followed the Great North Road to the sunlight.
Without the turquoise wolf to guide me, I will be tricked into turning right, down the Trail of Sorrows. The smoke that I see—thinking it that of my ancestors’ hearths—will rise from Spider Woman’s piñon pine fire. As I approach, she will ensnare me and burn me into the ash she dances upon.
A wavering form detaches from the darkness beyond the sheltering rock. The Blue God moans in frustration as my daughter walks gracefully into the light of the fire. She stops, the wind teasing her long black hair. Wind Baby presses the yellow fabric of her dress against those full breasts and accents the sensual curve of her hip. As her eyes meet mine I see the question, the longing. She, too, is intimate with the Blue God. Is that the excitement I see reflected in her large dark eyes? Are they entwined like lovers in rapturous anticipation of my death?
I wet my bloody lips and say, “I will not die today.”
I see her carefully masked disappointment. Unlike me, she has never learned to curb her appetite. Her need frightens me. For all that I am, she is more, haunted, the sister of the Blue God. My daughter runs her tongue over her full red lips, wetting them sensually.
She says nothing as she steps gracefully to my side and lowers herself. I catch her scent, smoky, hot from running through the night to reach me. I close my eyes against the pain in my chest. Her breath is warm on my cheek; her tongue tickles my lips as she licks the clotted blood away.
The warmth of her body next to mine is a tonic.
It reminds me … there is much to live for.
THEY CAME FROM the south, dressed in blue cotton tunics with red waist sashes. Eleven of them. Nine men and two women. They ran the old Great North Road. Years of sun had browned their lean bodies. They wore their hair in tight buns pinned with sharpened rabbit bone. All but one carried a bow and quiver slung over their left shoulders next to a ceramic canteen painted in geometric designs. Their right shoulders strained against the weight of thick packs woven from yucca leaves. In their hands, they held carefully crafted war clubs, stone-headed, with wooden, use-polished handles. They scanned their surroundings, eyes like obsidian beads, wary of ambush or the signs of passing warriors.
Onward they went, northward, their feet shuffling in
the distance-eating gait of practiced runners. Only one of them flagged from time to time, the old man who followed behind.
Unlike the others—who might have seen twenty-five sun cycles at most—he was old, an ancient man whose tunic looked more like a rag. He tended to bob and weave on his feet, his whip-thin legs like stalks, his withered arms sticklike under a skin that had the texture of old leather. He alone carried no weapons or pack. His brittle white hair had come loose from the bun, and haloed his old head in sun-graced wisps. His face was long, sharp, the gods having left him most of his teeth so that his lips didn’t pucker over bare gums. Of them all, only the old man didn’t cast wary glances to either side; he devoted his entire attention to the road.
They veered wide when they came upon stumbling parties of refugees: broken men, women, and children with threadbare packs on their backs who trudged disconsolately southward toward who knew what distant goal. At night, the eleven camped a half-hand’s journey from the road, taking the high places, heedless of water or shelter from the prevailing winds.
Relentlessly, they pursued their way down from the timbered slopes of the mountains, past the ruined outposts of the Straight Path Nation and onto the Great South Road. They crossed the dune-stippled desert, barely glancing at the abandoned towers, the crumbling shrines, and the narrow earthworks that marked the roadway. They gave cursory inspection to South House where it hulked in ruin. Their feet whispered on the stone steps of the Corner Canyon stairway, and they spent the night beside the sagging remains of Corner Canyon kiva. The next morning they crossed the dry course of Straight Path Wash and followed the road between the ruins of Kettle Town and Talon Town. To their left they could see the rain-washed vacant doorways of Hillside village. One by one, taking their time
to help the old man, they climbed up the dilapidated stairway where the Matrons of old had led glorious processions of the First People. They hardly glanced at Center Place Town. Broken potsherds crumbled under their feet as they trotted past the huge mounds of soul pots. Ancient priests had smashed the pots to release captured souls onto the Great North Road, where they could run to the sacred lake and the Land of the Dead.
Their pace never wavered as they trotted across the scrub sage and dune flats. At high sun, on the sixth day since passing Center Place, they wearily followed the trail down the bluffs, splashed across the shallow brown waters of the River of Souls, and passed the burned-out hulk of Northern Town. This time, tomorrow, they would reach their destination.
The future would be decided then. One way, or another.
I SLIDE ACROSS the sandstone on my belly and sniff their tracks.
The hole in their leader’s sandal left a thumb-sized space in the middle of the weave. When he passed by me earlier, his eyes gleamed with an unearthly light, as though he had seen the faces of the gods, and could no longer see this world. I touch the space and wonder at his foolishness.
A chill breath blows my long hair as I gaze out at the dark hills.
“Mother, is Grandfather dying?” she asks.
I hear her in the rocks behind me, but I do not turn. Piper’s Song has seen eight summers. She does not understand.
As Father Sun climbs into the morning sky, lavender
light spills across the land, chasing the Shadow People away. They hide in the crevices and beneath the ledges, trembling, thinning themselves to nothingness, hoping he will not see them.
“Is he dying, Mother?”
I do not answer.
I am one of the Shadow People, afraid of the light, of things seen too clearly. It is only at night, when the sharp edges of life blur and go quiet, that I can think.
“What’s the matter with Grandfather, Mother?”
She slithers forward and twines her dirty fists in my red sleeve. I am surprised by all this talking. More and more, of late, she is a mute. A child with no voice at all.
“His heart is hurt.”
When I look at her, there’s no one inside those eyes. They are black empty wells. She always looks past people, as though she’s concentrating hard on some secret voice that only she can hear, and it occupies all of her attention.
“Can’t we fix it?”
“You’ve seen cloth that’s been cut up? That’s what Grandfather’s heart looks like.”
“Because that man bashed him with a stone-headed war club?”
That man. That War Chief.
I flatten out on the ground again and sniff the tracks, but all I smell is old blood.
Strange. No matter how far I run, I smell his blood. It has an intoxicating taint, as though already rotten when it bubbles from Father’s mouth. After he was first injured, I found myself sitting at his side for hands of time, just holding the scent in my lungs, like a starving wolf, waiting for the chance to feed.
Piper rolls to her back as though preparing to sit up.
“Stay down,” I order. “Be quiet.”
When I was younger than Piper, five summers, my clan abandoned me. They moved and left me behind. I was half mad when Father found me and took me into his arms.
How can I live without him? His blood is my blood and my daughter’s blood. I fear we will die if he dies.
Yet I long for him to be dead. I hate him for what he did to me, to my sisters, to my daughter.
She cups a hand and whispers in my ear. “I have some thread in my pack. Maybe we could sew the cuts back together, like we do cloth?” She fingers the rips in her own red-and-black cape as she says this.
“No, Piper. He needs a new heart.”
Piper suddenly goes still. Her eyes are wide open, but they are looking inside, not out. For several long moments she stares as if frozen; then in a ferocious whisper she says, “Please, Mother, not my heart!”
She buries her face in my sleeve and I feel her warm breath on my arms. Her voice is muffled, but I know what she’s saying, “Not my heart, not my heart.”
I look out at the waking gray hills and murmur, “Not your heart. There is another.”
POWERED BY OCCASIONAL floods and spring runoff, Dry Creek had cut its slow way into the buff and gray uplands. As it neared the Spirit River, the valley widened out, leaving a broad floodplain nestled between cobble-strewn terraces. To either side lay broken hills stippled with juniper and piñon pine.
Stone Ghost followed a faint path across the greasewood-spotted flats. Wispy white hair clung to the aged skin of his brown scalp. His features seemed too large for the lean frame of his face: the nose a little
too long and hooked, the mouth a bit too wide. Three spirals, faded now by age, had been tattooed on his chin. The sky reflected in the dark wells of his eyes. A battered turkey-feather cape hung from his thin, hunched shoulders. He stepped carefully in the darkening shadows, picking his way around the spiny branches of greasewood. Before him, sunset silhouetted the eroded terrace above the floodplain. Here and there rounded cobbles had rolled down the slopes to lodge in the sagebrush and clog the little rivulets that infrequent rains had etched into the hard gray dirt.
Stone Ghost watched the shadows as if they might be alive. He pressed a gnarled hand against the soft fabric of his tan shirt. The garment had been a gift, given to him by Rock Dove, Matron of Dry Creek village, to replace his old worn cotton shirt. Why the Matron had taken pity on him was beyond his understanding, but kindness always seemed more common when people were afraid.
He placed a sandaled foot into the shadows, felt carefully for purchase, and began to climb up the sloping terrace above the floodplain. What had his ancestors done to so turn the gods against them? He blinked up at the frayed clouds glowing against the silvered haze of sunset.
A man has lived too long when he has lived to see the end of sanity.
Too many revelations had been plucked from the safe warp and weft of lies spun about the last days of the First People and the fall of the Straight Path Nation. Now it was coming unraveled, and with it, his own complicity.
During the Age of Emergence, the First People had bravely climbed through a series of dark underworlds to get to this world of light. On the second day, the Creator decided the First People were too few and needed help to build the world, so he turned a variety of animals into humans: badgers, bears, buffaloes, ants,
wolves, and other creatures. Hence they were Made People. The First People had always considered the Made People to be inferior—human on the outside but with animal souls and minds. They had enslaved and tortured the Made People. Fortunately, First People only married other First People and their blood weakened over time. When their Power began to wane, the Made People rose up and made war on the First People. One hundred sun cycles ago, the Made People hunted them down, and killed every last man, woman, and child. Or so they had believed until recently … when a group of White Moccasins had been seen roaming the forests of the northern mesas.
One hundred and ten sun cycles ago, Night Sun, the great Matron of Talon Town, abandoned her people to marry one of the Made People, her former War Chief, Ironwood. The aftermath of Night Sun’s abdication of Power was disastrous. Night Sun and Ironwood fled Straight Path Canyon with their daughter, Cornsilk, and the man who would become Cornsilk’s husband, and the greatest prophet in their history, the Blessed Poor Singer.
In the final scramble for power in a dying nation, the First People had grown suspicious of each other. They started hiring assassins to take each other’s lives. They called them White Moccasins and considered them to be sacred warriors. The rulers selected their best warriors, groups of no more than ten, and sent them out to destroy anyone who might threaten them. They paid these assassins too handsomely to believe, showering them with baskets of coral, jet, turquoise, and rare seashells from the distant oceans. The fools did not realize what would happen next. When you give men such unrestrained power and wealth, it is like a Spirit plant in the veins. The assassins quickly amassed enough wealth so that they could adopt their own rules for who should live and who should die. Few escaped their wrath.
As Stone Ghost walked, a young man’s face peered out from his memory. The ghostly eyes watched, unblinking, large and black, trying to measure his soul.
Is that what had happened twenty sun cycles ago? Stone Ghost had been fighting White Moccasins and hadn’t known it?
Stone Ghost ignored the phantom’s gaze and climbed step after step, feeling tightness in his withered leg muscles. The sandals on his age-thickened feet looked more like dark blobs against the ground. He had seen the like on the paintings his people did on sandstone cliffs.
I am nothing more. A thin drawing. Colors dabbed on the stone face of life.
He could feel parts of himself flaking away, fading; just as paint made from flowers, fat, and charcoal did after too many searing suns.
The face in his memory nodded, the eyes large with sad anger.
“Forgive me, I was as arrogant as my ancestors,”
he whispered to the hovering apparition. “
Two Hearts set the trap, but I was the weapon he wielded.”
What difference would it have made if Ocher—yes, that was the young warrior’s name—had lived and sired children? With the coughing disease, the constant raids, with clans turning against their own, and drought, famine, and holy war broken loose in the land, would Ocher’s life have meant anything? Or would he and his just be more moldering bodies lying in the bottom of some burned kiva? Had his death been such a tragedy, or only the difference of a couple of sun cycles?
Stone Ghost stepped over the crest of the terrace and gazed out at the sunset; it lay bruised against an indigo horizon of flat-topped buttes. To his right a pile of stones lay in a jumble: one of the First People’s shrines, abandoned and collapsed.