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Authors: Sandi Ault

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BOOK: Wild Inferno
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“How amazing!” I said, filled with wonder.

“It gets more intriguing the more you find out,” Morella continued. “We happen to know that a Lunar Standstill occurred the year that work first began on that Great House down below us. And another occurred the year a second phase of building occurred. The building's walls are aligned with astronomical events. I don't know if you happened to see the stone basin down below the narrow causeway leading up here to the high mesa area.” Morella held up a sheet of paper with a simply drawn map of the ruins atop the Chimney Rock cuesta. He pointed to the spot denoting the Stone Basin site.

“I did, in fact,” I said. “They were doing storytelling at that spot yesterday.” I studied the map, then looked at the ridge below us. From this vantage point, I could see down the back of the cuesta past the Great House Pueblo just yards from the fire tower, down the causeway to the Guard House site, then the Parking Lot site and the lot itself, and beyond it, at the far end of the meager mesa, the area known as the Great Kiva Loop Trail, where the path to the Stone Basin site led to another set of ruins, including one known as the Great Kiva.

“We now think that basin—which is carved right out of the bedrock there, and is just like similar basins found throughout the Chacoan empire—was used as a means to observe and survey the perfect alignment of the building's north wall with the sunrise at summer solstice, possibly using a stake or a lance with a branch or a fork to use as a sight. We also know—thanks to papers produced quite recently by astroarchaeologists—that the Taurus Supernova appeared in the night sky above these mountains in the year AD 1054. It would have been the third brightest object in the sky, after the sun and the moon, and was visible—even in daylight—for about three weeks. It rose right before the sun rose each day during that period. We have evidence that ancient cultures around the world observed it, and there is a pictograph at Chaco Canyon that seems to illustrate it. It's likely that one or more of the ancient watchers of the heavens was using the Stone Basin site to observe and mark this event, because the south wall of the Great House Pueblo is aligned with the point where the supernova would have appeared in the sky when observed from the stone basin. Since we know the Chacoans were masterful architects, and well capable of creating near-perfect square angles and other complex aspects in their buildings, this seems to be the only reasonable explanation for a building that is several degrees off square in a culture so architecturally advanced.”

I walked the entire perimeter of the deck, looking out across the landscapes this small fire lookout surveyed. Looking again back toward the way we came, I could see that the cuesta was shaped like a spear, with a long shaft that was the causeway. The wide base of the spear tip, directly below, was the Great House Pueblo with its two kivas, where the native Puebloans were doing ceremony. The fire lookout stood on the point of the spear, pointing at the two stone columns.

Elaine Oldham came up to me. “That pueblo below us is a machine, an astrological computer, a record of events. Their record is in their architecture.”

Just then, there was a clamor on the wooden steps. I walked around the deck to the top of them and saw Mountain bounding up the stairs toward me, missing steps, trying to leap up them. Momma Anna stood at the bottom, again wrapped in her tan blanket. She turned her palms up and shrugged, pressing her lips tightly together. “He want you,” she said.

“Mountain!” I said, as he rubbed his haunches against me on the deck of the fire lookout. I squatted down to place myself at his eye level. “Mountain, you have got to stay with Momma Anna. I have work to do.”

Elaine Oldham stood on the deck just past the glass doors. “Oh, how beautiful!” she exclaimed when she saw Mountain.

But Steve Morella looked wide-eyed through the opening of the sliding glass doors from the interior of the lookout. Mountain glanced in his direction and his ears went down, the hair on the ridge of his back raised.

“Mountain!” I commanded. “Down!” The wolf dropped to the floor, but his ears remained lowered, and he gave a little whimper. I looked back at the door to the one-room fire tower, trying to determine if Mountain had seen his own reflection in the glass doors or if he was startled to find someone in there. “I'm sorry,” I told the two scientists. “He's usually quite friendly, but strange surfaces, unusual shapes, anything unknown to him will often put him on the defensive.”

“Is that a wolf?” Morella asked, almost cringing.

“Yes, he's a wolf. His name's Mountain.”

Neither of them moved.

“He's actually quite gentle,” I said. “It's just that wolves are naturally shy of people. He's afraid right now, and that makes him defensive. Wolves aren't like dogs. They take a little extra effort to befriend.”

“I don't want to befriend him,” Morella said. “I want you to take him away.” His voice was getting louder. “I want you to take him away from the door so I can get out!”

Mountain alerted on this and the ridge on his back spiked again. I had hold of his collar, but he wrestled to get free. “No, Mountain, down!” I said, and the wolf dropped again, but this time his ears were up and his eyes were fixed on the doorway. “Just calm down, Dr. Morella,” I said to Steve. “Be quiet and be calm. If you show fear, he'll just pick up on it and become more anxious. Just breathe deep and let's all get calm, and I'll take Mountain back down.”

“You do that,” he said under his breath.

“I think he's beautiful,” Elaine Oldham said. “Can I touch him?”

Morella spoke up before I could answer. “You're not supposed to have animals here at Chimney Rock Archaeological Area.”

“He's here with the elders from Tanoah Pueblo,” I said, working to turn Mountain around on the narrow deck walkway, still clutching his collar and keeping my body between him and the door of the lookout.

“Oh,” Morella said, watching cautiously. “Well, I don't suppose we can tell them not to have him here. After all, we consider this their place. But I hope they're cleaning up after him. This is a very delicate ecosystem up here, you know.”

I fought Mountain all the way back down the steps. There were no stairs at my place, and he wasn't used to them. It was one thing to bound uphill on them, like climbing a mountain, but quite another to navigate his way down. He struggled to leap, and it took all my strength to control him and go slowly so neither of us would be hurt. Momma Anna was waiting below. She held up his bridle and lead, and I put them on him. “They not like wolf?” she asked, jutting her chin toward the top of the stairs.

“Well, one of them didn't. And Mountain didn't seem to like him either.”

“Smart wolf,” she said as she led Mountain away.

17
Unclean

Thursday, 0730 Hours

After I made sure Steve Morella was going to be all right, I took my leave of the two scientists and ran after Momma Anna. “Wait!” I said, but she didn't heed me. Mountain balked and struggled, turning to look back at me, but she hurried down the narrow causeway, tugging at the wolf on his lead and bridle, until I finally caught up with them at the Parking Lot site.

“What did you mean when you said ‘smart wolf'?” I asked.

She spun and frowned at me.

“I'm wondering if there is something I should know about that man—the scientist,” I said.

She gave a wry smile. “There thing you not know, all men.”

She resumed walking, and I joined in beside her, my hand on Mountain's back. I remained silent to see if she would go on with what she was saying, but she didn't. Finally, I said, “Speaking of men…”

She kept walking.

“That Bearfat guy. He's not a good choice to negotiate for the People. He was saying when I first talked to him that women on their per…women in their moon-time are unclean.”

My medicine teacher stopped, turned, and looked at me. She handed me the wolf's lead. “You are unclean. That maybe why he say that.”

My mouth fell open and I instinctively raised my hand to my breast. “I am unclean?”

“Yes,” she said, and she resumed walking in the direction of a large piñon tree on the rim of the cuesta.

“But…”

As she walked ahead of me, she reached her right hand up and waved it in the air as if to wag me away.

I felt as though I'd been struck. I was too stunned to know what to do next, so I took Mountain for a brief romp to let him do his business. After a few minutes, I returned to where I'd seen Anna Santana heading. She had made a little camp under a tree, where all her things were neatly laid out. She sat cross-legged in the middle of her blanket on the ground. She looked as if she were expecting me. She patted the blanket for me to sit beside her, but Mountain accepted the invitation instantly and beat me to the spot. He lay down beside Momma Anna and panted in the heat, his face happy and eager.

I squatted in the dirt opposite my teacher. I picked up a twig and began fingering it between my two hands.

“You look good,” she said. “Those boots. Look strong. It good, be strong.”

I snapped the twig. “I am not unclean. And I'm not even in my moon-time, even if that were unclean, which it's not.”

She shook her head. She made a little ticking sound with her tongue against her teeth, and the wolf perked up his ears at this. “Why you think we make story all time?”

“I don't know. To carry your culture and your memories to the next generation?”

At this she nodded. “Story do that.” She kept nodding. “And summon ancestor. Like drum. Sound of voice like drum, each one different.” She picked up the little round drum she always took with her to any important event. “This drum, my father make. I am little girl, he makes this drum, me. This drum, my father voice. Voice of love for daughter.”

I sensed I was about to receive a lesson from my medicine teacher, and so I brushed off a corner of the blanket and sat down, facing her.

“Each life a story. Your life a story.” She struck the drum once with the beater and pressed her lips into a thin smile. She blinked her eyes at me, and I saw compassion in her face. Or pity. I wasn't sure. She raised a finger and pointed it at me. “What make drum good?”

I thought of Momma Anna's father, Grandpa Nazario, who was once the head drummer at Tanoah Pueblo. Last winter, as I came and went from the pueblo in my duties, I watched as the ninety-seven-year-old elder taught his great-grandson the art of drum making. Nazario observed and coached as the boy hollowed out aspen logs, patiently chipping and rasping until the thick outer ring of wood was smooth inside and the center was empty. Then Grandpa demonstrated how to stretch a scraped and soaked piece of elk hide over the top of the drum, and another over the bottom. Using wet leather thong cut from the same skin, he showed the boy how to lace the two pieces of hide together over the log, tightening it slowly as the skins dried, pulling them taut, letting them dry, and then tightening them again until the drum was ready to play.

I looked at Momma Anna, who was waiting expectantly. “Patience?” I guessed.

“No!” she snapped. She pointed her finger at me once more, indicating I should try again. She struck the drum once more with the beater.

I closed my eyes and thought. In my mind's eye, I saw the boy scraping away at the logs—often working for days on the same piece of wood. One large log resisted all his efforts, and so, after the boy had carved and pared for days with little effect, Grandpa Nazario taught him how to burn the center of the log, then to use a little ax to chip away at the charred pulp inside it until it was clean and hollow. “The emptiness in the center?” I tried.

She raised her head up and pursed her lips. “Drum maker take away what keep drum from singing.” She set the instrument carefully down on the blanket beside her and laid the beater across the top.

I still didn't see what this had to do with me being unclean.

She pointed a finger at me again. “Your story not come through that…” She wiggled her hand up and down in front of me.

“That what?”

“You not clean tree.”

This was the frustrating part of having a medicine teacher from another culture. I usually had no idea what Momma Anna was trying to teach me. She spoke in riddles, gave strange instructions, and generally set me off on missions I didn't understand. As was often the case, I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, yet I sensed she expected me to act on the information she had just imparted. “I don't understand,” I admitted.

“You. Not clean.”

I took in a deep breath and then blew it out in a frustrated blast. “Okay, then. I'm still not getting it.” I moved to get up.

“You got it. Now.”

My irritation was mounting. “Got what?”

She snapped her fingers in front of my face. “What you feel?”

“What do I feel? You call me unclean? You defend a guy who says women are unclean when they're—”

She clapped her hands this time, loudly, right in front of my nose.

I drew back. Suddenly I realized what she was asking me. I closed my eyes. I felt my pulse racing. “Angry. I feel angry.”

“All time,” she said softly.

“Not all the time.” I argued, opening my eyes and engaging hers.

“All time,” she said. “You good hide anger. Even you not see it. Deep inside.”

“But that's…”

She held up a finger to stop me. She placed her hand on her chest. “Drum,” she said.

I wanted to argue, to ask more questions, to find a way to process what she had just told me, but she brushed at the air with her hand a few times, as if to sweep me away. “We talk more maybe next other time.”

I got up and dusted off my pants. Mountain got up to go with me. I leaned down and hugged his neck, and I felt a great, dull pain tugging at my chest—as if a stone were chained to my heart, pulling it down. It was a feeling of sadness and longing I had carried all my life but had worked hard to mask. As I rubbed the wolf's mane and felt him nuzzle my neck, I knew that Momma Anna had struck something deep in me, something old—as old and confounding as the sorrow I had been born into. Whatever I had used to keep the pain at bay was now useless and I felt naked. “Not now,” I told Mountain, wincing, choking back tears. “You stay here. I'll be back. I promise.”

As I struggled to compose myself, I approached my Jeep to find Bearfat sitting on the rear deck, shaded by the open hatch. He smiled at me.

I pushed my sunglasses on as I covered the last few yards. “Excuse me, but I've got to get back to Fire Camp.” I hoped he hadn't noticed the quaver in my voice.

“You missed the dawn up here. It was beautiful.”

“Yes, I imagine it was. The smoke from a wildfire usually intensifies it.”

“Not just the smoke. The cradle.”

“The cradle?”

He stood up. “Don't you know about the cradle that carries the emerging day like a newborn child?”

I could hardly wait to get in my Jeep and drive. I felt raw, every nerve tingling. Momma Anna had peeled back my protective covering and filleted me.

But Bearfat would not be deterred. “See, the moon is like a cradle, a deerskin sling like Indian mothers use to hold their babies.” He clasped his arms and swung them gently as if he were holding a baby. “The moon carries the dawn tenderly away from the night and up to the Sun Father so it can grow into a good day. But when there is no moon, the morning stars have to form a cradle and carry the newborn day into the light.”

“That's really lovely,” I said, nodding my head, trying not to appear too eager as I reached up to close the hatch.

“But when the dawn is not carried tenderly,” Bearfat said, stepping in front of me and taking hold of the hatch, “the new day, like a young child who has suffered, does not grow straight and tall. Those are not good days.” He gently lowered the hatch until it snapped shut, then turned and smiled at me.

“Really?” I said, anxious for him to get out of my way. “And was the dawn carried tenderly today?”

“What do you think?” he said.

“I think I have to get back to work. Thanks for the story.” I stepped around him and got in my Jeep and drove away before he could see the tear that had escaped and was rolling down my cheek.

On the way down the steep, curving road, I felt as if I were a small child again, watching my mother through the crack between the nearly closed bedroom door and the jamb.

“I see you there, Jamaica. It's all right. Mommy's not going anywhere. Take your thumb out of your mouth now, you're too big to suck your thumb, you're four years old.”

I pull my thumb from my mouth and reach to twirl my hair. I push the big, dark door and it swings open with a loud creaking sound that hurts my ears. Now I see the whole room with the big, high bed. It feels cold in there. I don't like it.

“Come on in, honey. I'm just playing a game. But it's a secret, so you can't tell anyone, okay? Want to help me play?”

I take two steps. I count them—one, two. That is enough.

I eye the door to make sure it stays open.

“I'm just playing a game here, pretending I'm going on a big adventure. I'm trying to see how many things I can fit in my suitcase. Want to help me? You can bring me my scarf from the dresser.”

I don't want to play this game. I don't move.

She comes to me and squats down in front of me. She has
tears in her eyes, but she is trying to be a big girl and not cry.

“Now when he comes in for lunch, don't tell Daddy about our game, okay?”

As I rounded the last curve near the bottom of the road, I realized my mind had stopped and was idling, empty. I drove through the parking lot at the visitors' center, feeling blessed numbness. I felt suspended in time, somewhere between the small child I had just been and the woman I now was. I tried to bring myself into the present, to focus.
You have a job to do,
I told myself.
You're on a fire, and there are people depending on you. Now, pull yourself together!
I forced my hands to loosen their fierce grip on the steering wheel.

But another memory overcame me. I was suddenly fourteen, lying in bed in my attic room in our lonely Kansas farmhouse, listening to my father swear and stagger downstairs, looking for another bottle, knocking things over, drunk and angry. I heard him cursing my mother's name even though it had been a decade since she'd left, cursing the piece of farm machinery that had taken one of his arms in an accident, and cursing me because I wouldn't come down and help him find more booze.

And because the older I got, the more I looked like my mother.

BOOK: Wild Inferno
10.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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