People of the Fire
By Gear, Kathleen O'Neal
Copyright © 1991
Gear, Kathleen O'Neal
All right reserved.
The lodge trapped the heat of the night, warm and muggy despite the rustling dry wind shivering the smoke-browned hide cover. The cover had been drawn down tight, firmly pegged to the hard clay in order to form a seal so that none of the malicious Spirit Powers might wiggle beneath to steal in and find a home. The People did that during a birthing. Newborn children had no soul, and into that warm haven any manner of evil could creep. To further ward off harmful powers, sagebrush—the lifegiver—had been piled around, the purposely bruised leaves adding a rich pungency to the desiccating air.
From where the boy crouched outside in the darkness, a frayed seam had come unraveled enough to allow a peephole view of the interior.
A single fire of punky cottonwood smoldered and smoked, adding to the stifling heat in the lodge and giving light in the midst of so dark and windy a night. The warm, steamy air issuing from inside puffed on the boy’s eye. It brought the odors of tanned hide, smoke, and sage to his nose. Mixed with it were other smells of sweat, wood, and fear. The delicately bitter taint of herbs wafted out as he watched.
Dancing Doe cried out where she lay naked on sweat-soaked robes. The smooth planes of her young face twisted and contorted as her belly contracted, seeking to force the child within from the safe confines of her womb. Between her breasts lay a natal bundle, a figure in the shape of Turtle—the magical animal that never sickened. Turtle brought health and luck. He disappeared with the coming of the winter gales, crawling down into the Earth Mother, returning when Father Sun brought spring and life to the world. The fetish on Dancing Doe’s breast had been constructed of finely sewn antelope hide and stuffed with sage, bits of twigs, feathers, and other sorts of Power.
On her belly, a series of designs had been drawn to center the Spirit Power of birth. The most important, a bright yellow stripe, had been painted down from the natal bundle between her full breasts to end in a point in the mat of her black pubic hair. The Path of Light, it would lead the child on its way to the world.
The boy stared, feeling the Power of the women’s chant within. Though he feared discovery, he couldn’t force himself away from the fascinating events. He knew his mother would punish him—and Two Smokes would no doubt even now be looking for him, beginning to worry about his absence from his sleeping robes.
A night of heat, a night of pain. Across the mound of Dancing Doe’s swollen belly, two women—one young, one old—looked at each other, worry etching their tension-worn faces.
The old woman’s gray hair glinted in the light. Patterns of wrinkles were cast into a tracery of shadows across her withered face. The set of her mouth had gone grim as she continued her vigil over the struggling woman. Back curved from age, she hunched, upper body bared and sweaty in the heat. Long-dry breasts hung low and flat over the folds of her stomach. Lines of scars puckered the wrinkled skin of her shoulders, mute evidence of the number of times she’d offered bits of herself to the Spirit World. The people called her Choke-cherry, after the bittersweet plant that grew in the high lands.
The boy watched as his mother, Sage Root, crouched to help, her anxious eyes on Dancing Doe’s fevered body. He knew that strained look. Worry marked the faces of all the People. Lines, like arroyos on the land, etched deep into their faces. But the helpless concern his mother betrayed frightened him. When Dancing Doe cried again, his gut tightened like sun-dried sinew.
Poor Dancing Doe. Her husband, Long Runner, had gone to hunt the foothills of the Buffalo Mountains. He’d never returned.
Chokecherry took a breath, reaching into a neatly sewn sack to withdraw damp sage and sprinkle it on the red eyes of coals. The perfume of life roiled up on a mist of steam.
She chanted softly in a singsong, “Come, little one. Come to walk in life and bless the land and sun and plants and animals. Come to join us on the path to the Starweb which leads to all good things. Hear our song. Hear our joy. Come, little one. Come into this world and make us smile.”
Dancing Doe grunted again, tensing the muscles of her powerful brown legs. She sucked a frantic breath, exhaling sharply, eyes clamped tight, teeth bared in a rictus of effort. Beads of sweat traced irregular paths down her trembling flesh.
Sage Root gripped Dancing Doe’s fingers in her own. “Easy. Breathe easy. It won’t be long now.”
Dancing Doe relaxed as the spasms passed. She gasped and looked up at the old woman, who continued chanting. “It doesn’t always take so long. Chokecherry, is it all right? Am I dying?”
The old woman finished the litany and lifted a shoulder, smiling. “I’ve borne children more difficult than this. It’s your first time. Those muscles have to be stretched and they don’t know how yet. Nothing’s torn. All that’s come out is water—washing you, you see, making the way clean. That’s all.” She looked across, laughing reassuringly. “Just like Sage Root. She kept me and Horn Core up for almost a whole day.”
Sage Root smiled wistfully. “I remember. But my son was born strong.”
Only when Dancing Doe closed her eyes and nodded did Sage Root’s expression tighten. Tension hung in the air like winter mist, reflected in the set of her features and in Choke-cherry’s burning eyes. It drifted from the rent in the lodge to settle like a water-heavy green hide on the boy’s shoulders.
Chokecherry resumed singing under her breath, taking another handful of sage leaves from the pouch and sprinkling it over the fire to fill the lodge with a clinging steamy odor.
Dancing Doe cried out, anguish palpable as her belly tightened.
“Should we call Heavy Beaver?” Sage Root’s hard eyes leveled on Chokecherry’s.
From where he sat outside, the boy winced. Heavy Beaver, the Spirit Dreamer of the People, brought that kind of reaction. In his head, a voice whispered, “No.”
Like a shadow in the night, he eased back, parting the piled sagebrush with careful fingers and creeping from his peephole. Free of the brush, he sprinted across the camp on light feet, heedless of the barking dogs. Before him, on the packed clay, the lodges huddled, squat, the bottoms rolled up over the peeled poles to allow the night breeze to blow through and cool the occupants where they slept on grass-padded bedding. Here and there, the sanguine eye of a dying fire cast a sunrise sheen on boiling pouches hanging from tripods, black orbs of hearthstones dotting the glowing coals.
Cottonwoods rose against the night sky, silhouetted black; the ghostly image of clouds could be vaguely discerned against the exposed patches of stars. In the trees, an owl hooted cautiously.
“Wolf Bundle,” the voice in his head whispered.
Before he reached the lodge, he recognized Two Smokes’ figure hobbling across the camp. No one walked like Two Smokes. “Two Smokes?” He changed course, trotting up.
“There you are! I’ve been half-sick worrying about you. Here your father is gone to hunt, your mother is—”
“I need you. I think we need the Wolf Bundle.”
“The Wolf Bundle?” Two Smokes cocked his head, the familiar curious expression hidden by the shades of night. Tone softening and reserved, he asked in his Anit’ah-accented voice, “Why do we need the Wolf Bundle, Little Dancer?”
He hesitated. “I just … well, a voice told me.”
“A voice? The one that speaks in your head?”
“Yes. Please, bring the Bundle,” he pleaded. “Dancing Doe’s baby isn’t coming. Mother and Chokecherry are worried. Dancing Doe is afraid she’ll die. And Chokecherry didn’t say it, but I could feel. You know, what she didn’t say. The look in her eyes. I thought the Wolf Bundle…”
“You thought right. Come. Let’s see what we can do.”
Two Smokes pivoted on his good leg, heading off in his wobbling stride for their lodge, the fringed skirts of his dress swaying in time to his off-balanced pace.
The berdache had always been an enigma to Little Dancer’s mind. No other man among the People wore a dress. In response to his childish questions, Two Smokes had smiled wistfully and replied that he was berdache—between the worlds. A woman in a man’s body.
The berdache had lived with the People for as long as Little Dancer could remember, always staying in their lodge—a strange silent man who’d come to them from the Anit’ah. Patiently he endured, despite the jokes and gibes and the open ridicule of the People. Alone and aloof, Two Smokes helped Little Dancer’s mother with chores, scraping hides, cooking stew, accepting the duties a second wife would.
Little Dancer’s father, Hungry Bull, the greatest hunter among the People, remained civil to Two Smokes, his innate disapproval tempered by some other veiled concern the boy had never been able to penetrate. Mystery surrounded the berdache like the swirl of smoke from a rain-wet fire.
Not that Little Dancer cared. For all his eight summers, Two Smokes remained his best friend, listening intently when Little Dancer told him of the voices he often heard. When his mother or father scolded him, he ran to Two Smokes like other children ran to their grandparents.
“So you were hiding around the birthing lodge?”
Little Dancer stiffened. “I…”
“You know, men should never get close to a birthing lodge. That’s a place for women. What if you change the Power?”
Shamed, Little Dancer dropped his gaze to the ghostly clay they trod, heart sinking in his chest. “I’m not a man. I’m just a boy. I’m not a man until I’m named and have proven myself.”
“And you didn’t think that even a boy might make a difference?”
“The voice didn’t tell me I would. When I’m around Power, I usually know.”
Into the stretching silence, Little Dancer added, “It’s a feeling. Like…well, the silence before thunder. Only longer. Just a feeling, that’s all. And sometimes the voice.”
He stopped before his family’s lodge, waiting as Two Smokes ducked inside, hearing the shuffling as the berdache. Carefully unwrapped the Wolf Bundle from the heavy par-fleche that kept it safe.
Ducking through the low doorway, Two Smokes cradled the Bundle so carefully wrapped in a beautifully tanned wolf hide. The pelt gleamed gray in the faint starlight.
“If you don’t believe me, why did you come for the Bundle?” He pointed at the furry gray mass Two Smokes pressed to his heart. But the berdache simply brushed past, heading for the birthing lodge.
“Well? Why did you?”
The sigh from Two Smokes’ breath lingered. “One day, Little Dancer, I’ll tell you.”
“But I want to know now. I can’t see why—”
“You’ve seen the eagles nesting on the high cliffs. You’ve climbed up to look down on the newly hatched chicks.”
“Uh-huh, and Eagle’s a Power bird. I could feel that. I know what newly hatched chicks look like, all fuzzy and—”
“Would you push one of those fuzzy chicks out of the nest? Simply because he’s an eagle, would you expect him to fly because of it? Because of the Power in him?”
“Then don’t push yourself out of the nest until your feathers are ready to support you.”
Perplexed and confused, Little Dancer tried to make sense of it. Does that mean I, too, have Power? The question dazzled him, a warm glow forming under his heart. For the briefest moment, a tingling thread seemed to wind between him and the Bundle tucked so tightly against Two Smokes’ heart. The pattern snapped as neatly as a sage twig underfoot as Dancing Doe’s miserable cry penetrated the walls of the birthing lodge.
“Wait out here—and out of sight, if you please.” Then in a louder voice: “Sage Root? It’s Two Smokes. I have something to help.”
But Little Dancer had already raced for his peephole, ducking through the sage, hunching over the little opening.
He could see his mother’s anxious look at Chokecherry. In a subdued voice she said, “He’s berdache. He knows a great deal. Among his own people—”
“I know.” Chokecherry stroked her chin. “The Anit’ah say the berdache have Spirit Power. Myself, yes, I believe it.” She raised her voice. “Come, Two Smokes.” Then quietly, “By the Blessing Power, we could use any help we could get…besides Heavy Beaver.”
Two Smokes ducked into the dimly lit lodge, the Bundle still pressed to his-heart. “If you would, let me use the Wolf Bundle.” He extended it reverently, a plea in his gentle eyes.
“The Wolf Bundle?” Chokecherry cocked her head, still fingering her sagging chin. “Yes…perhaps.”
Dancing Doe looked up, a new fright in her eyes as she saw Two Smokes. “No! Not a man. Not here where—”
“Shhh!” Sage Root soothed. “He knows Power.”
“I want Heavy Beaver!” The fear in her eyes deepened.
“I’m berdache,” Two Smokes appealed. “I’ve done this before.”
“Trust him,” Chokecherry urged.
Dancing Doe didn’t have time to respond; another contraction racked her. Chokecherry nodded curtly to the berdache and backed to allow him room.
Two Smokes settled next to the whimpering woman, careful fingers undoing the wolf hide. He laid the hide out as a protective mat to keep the sacred bundle from contact with the earth. As he began to chant in the melodious tones of the Anit’ah, Little Dancer leaned forward, eye pressed to the peephole to see.
From the outside, the Wolf Bundle didn’t look like much, only a skin bag tightly bound and painted a deep red along the pointed end. The top had been left white, traced by lines that resembled veins. A heart! That’s what it was, a heart fetish!
Two Smokes took sage from the pouch he carried, dipped it in water where it hung from a tripod, and sprinkled it into the fire. Behind him, Chokecherry and Sage Root exchanged nervous glances.
“Here, this needs to be made into tea.” He extended a hand containing cleaned phlox. “She must drink some, the rest will be rubbed on her. Sage Root, wash her down there where the baby will come.”
Then he lifted the Wolf Bundle up to the smoke hole, singing in the language of the Anit’ah, eyes closed, face serene.
From where he sat, Little Dancer watched, and a sudden giddiness swelled within, raising his soul to the haunting tones. The familiar feeling of Power wrapped around him.
Reeling, he barely noticed when Two Smokes touched the Bundle to Dancing Doe’s perspiring forehead. The woman quieted, breathing easier. Two Smokes then touched the Bundle to her heart, just above the turtle effigy, then to her protruding navel and again to the swell of her pubis above the point of the yellow stripe.
Dancing Doe gasped, this time in relief.
The tea finished, Sage Root filled a buffalo-horn spoon, placing it to the woman’s lips. Dancing Doe drank, and grimaced.
Resting the Wolf Bundle on the protective hide, Two Smokes dipped his hands in the steaming water pouch, now full of tea. “This is the way my people have taught me. The phlox tea soothes the flesh.”
Hands dripping, he began to massage her heavy belly. At Two Smokes’ nod, Sage Root copied his motions, working down. Dancing Doe bit off a cry as another contraction pressed through her.
“Easy now,” Two Smokes cautioned, his fingers probing the woman’s shuddering body. “The pressure must be just so. Too much and the insides can tear. Bleeding can’t always be stopped.”
“We tried massage,” Chokecherry added. “It didn’t seem to work.”
Two Smokes nodded, eyes going to the Wolf Bundle. “Perhaps this will.” With that, he reached for the Bundle and touched it to Dancing Doe’s navel where it protruded like a knob.
Dancing Doe cried out, another contraction wrenching her.
“There.” Chokecherry nodded, crawling to get between Dancing Doe’s legs. She positioned herself. “We’ve got fluid. A little bit of blood.”
Two Smokes held the Bundle in place, eyes closed, still singing in his lilting tone.
“Child’s coming,” Chokecherry added.
Craning his head to see, Little Dancer didn’t hear the soft steps. He jerked as the flap lifted and Heavy Beaver ducked in, caught sight of Two Smokes and the Wolf Bundle, and stopped dead.
Shock registered for only a moment before a dull rage filled his black eyes and rearranged the planes of his flat face.
“So, this is what’s happening?”
Sage Root shot a look over her shoulder, a flickering of fright in her eyes. “The baby is coming.”
Two Smokes didn’t break stride in his chant.
“A little more,” Chokecherry coaxed, hands placed.
Where he crouched outside, the blackness twirled with the Power. Heavy Beaver! He could feel it, a subtle whiff of anger and hatred. The effect stung him like a sulfur breeze on a green meadow, grasses and flowers wilting and smothering. The Wolf Bundle remained a powerful brilliance in the miasma.
“Ah-ha! Bear down!” Chokecherry cried, reaching where Little Dancer couldn’t see. “That’s it.”
Dancing Doe shuddered as her belly flattened and Chokecherry lifted the infant, streaked and wet in her hands. The squalling cry of new life filled the lodge.
Two Smokes inhaled deeply and dropped his head, pulling the Wolf Bundle back to his breast, stroking it reverently as he whispered a prayer of thanks under his breath.
“It’s a girl,” Sage Root whispered, looking furtively toward Heavy Beaver.
“Why am I not surprised?” Heavy Beaver loomed, crouched under the low spread of the shelter. The look in his eyes tickled a cold shiver down Little Dancer’s spine.
“Another girl? And born under the influence of malignant Spirit Power?” Heavy Beaver crossed his arms. “A wondrous gift to the People.”
Dancing Doe worked her mouth dryly, too spent to do anything but stare with fright-wide eyes at the Spirit Dreamer.
In his accented speech, Two Smokes said softly, “The Wolf Bundle isn’t evil. It’s—”
“Just what I’d expect from Anit’ah—and from something the likes of you. What are you? A woman in a man’s body like you claim? Surely a curse if I’ve ever heard one. And yet you’d pollute the birthing lodge?”
Two Smokes closed his eyes, expression pained.
“Leave him alone.” Sage Root turned where she rested on her heels. “The Wolf Bundle freed the child.”
“Another girl. A mouth to feed while men go hungry.”
“So you say!” Sage Root colored. “You can’t keep blaming starvation on women. We’re the People! Why have you turned your hatred against us? What’s your purpose? To drive the People apart? Then you’re succeeding! We’re not animals.”
“Oh? And you think the Wise One Above hasn’t—”
“I think your Dreams are false.”
Stunned silence filled the lodge as Sage Root realized what she’d said.
Where he crouched in the night, Little Dancer started, gasping. Immediately eyes went his direction.
“Who?” Heavy Beaver wondered. “Another pollution?” He reached for the flap, and in that instant, Little Dancer jumped to his feet, vaulted the sage, and sped into the darkness.
Heart pounding, he crept around a lodge, hearing old Two Elks snoring softly. On silent feet, he circled, drawing near as Heavy Beaver reentered the lodge.
“Someone fast—or some thing. Tell me now that this Wolf Bundle isn’t evil.” The words carried as Little Dancer dropped on his belly to wiggle up next to a cottonwood bole. The flap hadn’t fallen back in place so he could see inside.
“It’s not evil. It’s the soul of—” Two Smokes stopped lamely.
“The Anit’ah?” Heavy Beaver probed, looming over the berdache.
“The Power works for all people, Spirit Man. You, of all men, should know that.…Wait! What are you doing?”
Heavy Beaver ripped the Bundle from Two Smokes’ grasp, stepping back to avoid clawing fingers. He ducked out as Two Smokes scrambled behind. With a vile curse, he threw the Bundle into the night. In the half-light of the fire, Little Dancer caught the horror on Two Smokes’ stricken face. In that moment, he felt the berdache’s soul cry. Two Smokes’ face masked a mind-rending terror as he reached a futile hand toward the night.
A soft plop sounded in the beaten grass beyond the camp. At that moment, Little Dancer’s soul twisted, a wretched sickness welling in his gut. He vomited before he could fight the urge.
As if from a distance, he heard Two Smokes’ horrified shout.
Voices of people awakened by Heavy Beaver’s curse called back and forth, unsure of themselves. Some of the younger men rushed out of their lodges, searching the darkness for Anit’ah, seeking the cause of the disturbance. The babble rose on the night, men and women grabbing robes before hurrying out.
Lifting his head, Little Dancer wiped at his mouth, terror eating at his insides. Two Smokes stared up where he’d stopped on all fours, disbelief in his eyes. People gaped, seeing Heavy Beaver’s bulk silhouetted in the birthing lodge’s fire.
“The infant must be destroyed.” Heavy Beaver turned, looking into the lodge. “Do you hear, Dancing Doe? This is your doing…all of you. The People are already polluted by foulness. They are polluted by women turning men’s medicine against them. This…this infant is polluted by Anit’ah witchcraft and whatever vile spirit of the night lurked outside the lodge when it was born. I condemn all of you as unclean!”
“No!” Dancing Doe cried from inside. “Not my child. Not my baby!”
“Kill it!” Heavy Beaver roared. “It’s your pollution.”
Sage Root ducked through the lodge entrance, standing up before him. “I wonder just where the pollution lies? I don’t feel polluted at all…except in your presence!”
“Don’t!” Chokecherry grabbed Sage Root’s arm, pulling her back. “He’s a Spirit Dreamer. Apologize.”
Little Dancer saw his mother start, anger draining from her tensed body. “I…forgive me.”
Heavy Beaver’s face worked, a curious mix of enjoyment and vindication. “The child must be destroyed.” At that he turned, lifting a foot and kicking Two Smokes down on his face in the dirt before striding off into the night.
A hushed mumble of voices rose from the spectators.
Stunned, Little Dancer shivered and blinked at the scene. Two Smokes raised his head, firelight tracing the tears streaking his face.
The wind had stopped, the air going heavy and stifling. In the sudden silence, Dancing Doe’s baby wailed.
* * *
In White Calf’s rock shelter high in the Buffalo Mountains, the Dream settled like morning dew lying lightly on her sleep. Like frost patterns, the Dream wove into her-mind, tightening its hold on her soul. Beyond, the stars continued the circle of the sky, oblivious to the silent shelter in the mountainside so far below. Coyotes yipped and chorused as they harried the carcass of a freshly killed elk calf. Unnoticed, owls drifted over the meadow on silent wings while mice rustled the umbel-richening grasses for growing seed.
The night world lived as White Calf Dreamed.…
* * *
In a land of glare, she walked, one tired step after another—the ancient ritual of travel. A wind, hot as the draft radiating from ember-cradled cooking stones, puffed at her face, desiccating her thin flesh. About her, the slumbering anima of the land waited, restless, drying, and dying.
“Didn’t used to be like this.” She grimaced at the rasping of her voice. The old stories talk of water, of buffalo so plentiful a strong man could cast his dart in any direction and kill. The old stories talk of grass up to a man’s waist. And now? Springs my grandfather’s grandfather drank from are no more than muddy seeps. Only the old ones know. Only the keepers of the legends.
But the legends are changing. People are changing. Even place names are changing. Everything…changing…
The old familiar ache stitched and throbbed in the joint of her right hip. Down deep inside the muscles of her age-worn legs, cramps of fatigue gnawed like big black ants in the infested heart of a deadfall pine. The hurt in her feet had grown, expanding, encompassing. Arches flat and complaining, she padded across the hot clay, toes stinging as burning, eburnating joints swelled.
“Too damn old for this,” she muttered. “Ought to have a fancy lodge…strong sons and daughters to bring me meat. Ought to be free to sit around and talk and make jokes. Tell the old stories so they’re remembered. Watch the young men and women act foolish trying to impress each other. That’s what.”
Except the vision had come. While she prayed and fasted on the high peaks of the Buffalo Mountains, something had happened to her. Four days she’d been without food or water, chilled by the cool night air, desiccated by the rays of the spring sun; she’d shivered and purged her soul.
Naked, she’d sat on the high point, seeking the source of the call mat had driven her all her life. Each time she had retreated, tried living like a human, the call had returned, imperative, driving her to abandon each of her husbands and the children they’d sired off her. Each time she’d returned to the high places to seek the source of Power.
So she had gone again, until, on the fourth day, a man’s image had formed in the clouds, his features lit by the blinding rays of the sun. A handsome man, tall, his Power had sung in silence, dwarfing the clouds, a presence of warmth and sunlight.
She’d watched in awe as he smiled at her, an arm rising to point southeast toward the plains where her native peoples had lived since the time of the First Man. As quickly as it had come, the image faded to be replaced by that of Wolf, eyes glowing yellow as sunbeams pierced the clouds.
She’d blinked then, heart racing in her chest, staring up in wonder at the puffy white formations of a giant thunderhead. Weakened and shaken, she’d climbed down, found her clothes, and eaten before setting off on the journey.
“Wolf Dreamer,” she mumbled. “He brought me here.”
She took a deep breath, shaking her head and slowing to a stop. Her tongue smacked, sticky in her dry mouth as she squinted into the white glare of the beating sun.
An old woman alone in the vastness and heat, she stood, back stooped from the tumpline holding a bulky pack on the fulcrum of her hips. She peered around in all directions, catching her breath. The distant bluffs shimmered like a Spirit Dream—jagged outlines wavering. Even the blue vault of sky above had dulled, faded and parched. Outside of the restless whisper of the bone-drying breeze, only a grasshopper clicked to the emptiness. Even the birdsong had stilled during the heat of the day.
The spirit of the land smelled of heat, of prostration. The odor of dust tingled pungently in her nostrils.
Years of sun had seared her face into a shriveled husk of burnt sienna. Each pain, hunger, sorrow, and triumph of her long life lay etched, mapped in the maze-work of wrinkles that draped from her broad-cheeked skull. Eyes, knowing and powerful, burned from behind the sagging folds of brown skin. An undershot jaw betrayed the loss of all but a few of her wear-polished yellow incisors. Gray wisps of hair strayed from her short braids.
Her chest rose and fell as she hawked the thirst-spit from her throat and spat onto the gray-white clay. Fingers of hot breeze pulled at her, tugging at the few fringes remaining on the grease-stained dress, fluttering the tatters, rumpling the seat worn so shiny thin under her gaunt buttocks. Around her shoulders, a section of buffalo gut looped, the curve hanging over her hip, taut with tepid water. She found the end, lifting the gut until she could trickle a stream of moisture between thin brown lips.
She made a smacking sound, eyes always on the irregular horizon where it danced and wavered in silvery patterns.
“But then I made my choice years ago, didn’t I?” She chuckled: the sound of sagebrush on leather. She shifted the pack on her back, easing the tumpline where it pulled at her forehead. Wearily she took up the march again. Beneath her tattered moccasins, bristly grass crunched—autumn brown even though the season had barely passed late spring.
To her right, a jagged arroyo cut die valley floor—a cracked wound in the dry breast of earth. The scaly sides of the vertical walls had patterned in desiccating fractures where the buried soils split, furred with exposed red roots. An impassable barrier, the gash dropped the height of two tall men to the gravel-traced channel bottom hidden in the noonday shadows. Across the dry flood plain to her left, rose a series of gray-white and buff buttes, sucked dry by the power of Father Sun.
“Maggot crawling luck,” she grunted, coming to a stop. Before her, a confluence yawned, another sheer-walled tributary meeting the main channel. She walked nearer to stare down into the gash. Once, in a time long past, she would have slung her pack across, taken a run and vaulted the narrow chasm. Now she could only sigh, and go the long way around on her ancient, rickety bones.
The hard white earth reflected, rolling heat over her as Father Sun burned balefully down. The more she sweated, the quicker the wind drank her moisture away.
“Ah!” She blinked in the glare, staring at the headland forming out of the shimmering air. A line of sandstone slabs jutted from the ridge top like awkward vertebrae to cast fragile shadows down the sagebrush-dotted slope. “I know where I am. Monster Bone Springs is up there. Ought to make it by evening. Used to be good water there.”
Back bent to her burden, she shuffled on.
Nearer the jutting ridge, she had to detour around other drainages sliced into the plain. Scrubby grass had receded to greasewood, some deflated until roots gripped tenuously at resistant hummocks of soil.
“Don’t remember greasewood in here. Don’t remember the arroyos so deep either. Changing…world’s changing…” She shook her head, muttering to herself, trusting her antique body to jump one of the narrow gashes.
“Too old to be wandering around like a kid on a Dream search. Too old for this.”
The sun had slanted to the west, her shadow lengthening as she plodded wearily along the tributary’s path. Before her, the rounded profiles of the ridges rose against the brassy sky.
She stopped, aware of a difference. No, no matter how long it had been, she would have remembered. The effect might have been the same if the Monster Children had incised the slopes when they battled for the world, cutting long parallel grooves down the soil in intricate patterns around the sagebrush. The hillside was washing away, turning to bad-lands as the plants that had once held the soils dried in the drought.
She cocked her head, looking at the washed ground she
walked on, noting the way the soil looked, how the pebbles remained on the surface.
“Used to be grassy,” she remembered, running an appraising gaze over the eroded slopes. Here, the greasewood in the flats looked to be strangling, partially buried by the soils eroding down the side of the hill.
She sniffed at her dry nose and hurried on. “Gonna be dark soon. Better get to Monster Bone Springs and make a camp. Get a good night’s sleep for once.”
Shadows lengthened, stark in the washed skeletons of long dry rivulets on the slopes around her. Looking closer, she could see much of the sagebrush on the rounded hills had died to become nothing more than fuzzy-looking gray skeletons. The dark arroyo remained a defiant obstacle beside her. Step after step, she entered the jaws of the canyon, plodding along the bottom, trying to remember how far it was to Monster Bone Springs as the worn, rounded hills rose about her.
She crabbed up the slope a ways to avoid the thick net of giant sage—and the ticks that would be waiting on the leaf tips—and turned the final bend, remembering the line of sandstone dipping down along the slopes to Monster Bone Springs. There, at the bottom, a thick stand of giant sagebrush waited, its blue-green color that of silvered spruce needles in the crystal afternoon light.
She exhaled slowly, taking one last sip from her gut water sack, and ambled forward on trembling legs. Monster Bone Springs lay before her, an ancient camping place of her People. Here, they’d killed the last of the huge beasts now known as monsters. From the legends, the animals had had two tails, one in front, one in back. And she’d seen the teeth, long, curved, taller than a man.
Here, she’d prowled around the eroded fire pits, seen the cracked bones, picked up the long stone dart points with fluted bases. Now it all seemed to be washed away. Faint stains of charcoal marked the old hearths, eroded soils slightly oxidized from the long-vanished fires. Flecks of charcoal had washed toward the arroyo. Fractured reddened fire stones had broken in irregular shapes to be scattered like scavenger-gnawed bone and kicked about. Even the thick concentrations of stone flakes—chipped waste from tool manufacturing—had washed away.
The shelter had been hidden from view. At first, she’d thought it another buff sandstone boulder. But as she neared she could see the flattened conical shape of the lodge nestled in the sagebrush. A shabby-looking thing, it barely looked big enough to keep two people from the rain—if it were ever to rain.
She slowed, biting her lip. Who? Anymore, that question could be worth a person’s life. Even hers. Not everyone knew who she was in these days of hunger and thirst.
“No one lives forever,” she grumbled. “Just feels that way sometimes.” She pushed on, looking curiously for the Monster Bones despite her wariness. One stuck out of the ground at an angle back in the sagebrush. The end—as big around as a strong man’s thigh—had splintered, drying like the rest of the world. Long flakes of bone lay scattered about in the dark-gray sage duff. A few more faint stains of charcoal blackened the soil, a slight reddish tinge of oxidation around them. These you could almost see the shape of. Fire hearths. Old, so old…and almost gone.
The world was changing.
“Hello!” she hollered through cupped hands. “Who’s there?”
Nothing moved. Something, a feeling, a wrongness, drifted through her thoughts like a bat in the night.
In the stillness, an infant cried.
* * *
The Dream wrenched her back again. White Calf started, blinking her eyes into the night gloom of her rock shelter. Her gut lurched, leaving her physically sick, as if something had been dislocated. She fought the need to vomit. Stillness settled on the night. What had happened? The feeling of sickness reeked of abused Power. But whose? Where?
Mouth dry, she reached for her water skin and sipped. Sitting up, she rubbed her old legs, feeling the night cramp of age-knotted muscles. Eight years had passed since Power had led her to the child and the berdache. What had gone wrong now?
Looking out through the hangings on her shelter, she traced the familiar outline of the peaks against the skyline. She searched the dark patterns of the clouds as the moon broke the eastern horizon again.
She stiffened as the moonbeams sliced the clouds, seeing him again. Moonlight played lightly over the mounded white. The young man of her Spirit Dreams formed out of the billowing cumulus. Half man, half wolf, the image spun from the clouds appeared to point off to the southeast—toward the land of her people.
* * *
In shock from Heavy Beaver’s desecration, the Wolf Bundle vibrated, wailing its anguish into the clefts and curves of time. The voices of the thousands who had touched it in awe and left part of their souls within the bindings whimpered and moaned.
The Power pulsated, remembering the defilement, withdrawing from the world of men, sucking down into a smoldering kernel of being.
“Remember, the Spiral…Circles within circles, joined, yet never touching. The time hasn’t come yet. But it will…it will.…”
And the Wolf Bundle waited.
Copyright © 1991 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear
Excerpted from People of the Fire
by Gear, Kathleen O'Neal
Copyright © 1991 by Gear, Kathleen O'Neal.
Excerpted by permission.
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