Authors: Tony Peluso
Archangel of Sedona
WARRIORS PUBLISHING GROUP
NORTH HILLS, CALIFORNIA
Fall Solstice, 1086 A.D.
Upper Verde River Valley
Two miles southeast of Oak Creek Canyon
Sinagua Sacred Ritual Site
Adorned in the ceremonial robe of the Antelope Clan, the old shaman struggled to lead his kinsmen along the rocky footpath to the forbidden site. The Toltec artisans who had fashioned the robe had woven multi-colored parrot feathers and bright cotton threads into the doeskin poncho, creating a mystical effect. While the priest often negotiated the long hike from the river with ease, the beautiful robe—so useful for the secret rites in the kivas along Beaver Creek—proved heavy and unwieldy on the trail.
The priest ignored his growing fatigue. In light of his important task, he bore the weight of the robe as a sign of respect, obedience, and devotion to the blessed Spirit.
Trips to the Sinagua ritual place were rare, and always marked an important celebration: an intertribal wedding, a noble birth, or a sacrifice for divine assistance in hunting, gathering, or harvesting. Time at the holy site was a sacred privilege.
The ritual place lay nestled in a spectacular basin surrounded by a high escarpment to the north and east covered in stunted green pines, needle-leaf junipers, and red-barked manzanitas. To the south and west, water and wind erosion had formed towering buttes of ancient sandstone—stained crimson by the mineral rust of 20,000 millennia. These magnificent pinnacles captured the scarlet, lavender, jade, and gold of the setting sun, focusing the celestial prism on the Sinaqua
Tonight the ceremony would vary from normal practice, as evidenced by the shaman’s robe and the presence of the unconscious northern Sinaqua maiden, carried on a litter by four of the stoutest Antelope clansmen. The shaman had a grim duty. As a result of recent celestial reprisals, many Sinaqua tribesmen had perished. The Spirit demanded a reckoning from the sinners before the Verde Valley could regain its fragile balance.
For ten summers, members of the tribe had ignored the taboos imposed by the servants. They’d left the safety of the upper valley and the pine forest’s camouflage to dwell in the canyon’s cool shadows near the creek that flowed from the escarpment. The servants, who had travelled to the Verde Valley in fiery canoes, had warned against this sacrilege. They’d prophesized that the Spirit would unleash a dreadful devastation, if the Sinaqua failed to heed their omens.
Six moons earlier, a force of unimaginable power had erupted from the earth a day’s run from the great rim. The Spirit created a new mountain that belched fire, molten rock, hot ash, noxious gases, and untold numbers of tiny glass stones that rained down on the Sinaqua settlements all the way to where the Verde and Salt Rivers joined.
The eruption devastated the northern Sinaqua. The villages, cornfields, and every member of the once-mighty Bear Clan vanished without a trace. The land’s elk, deer, antelope, bear, wolves, cougars, and javelina disappeared. Trout and bass died in the streams and lakes. The people north of the rim could find no edible plants to gather. In desperation, surviving members of the other northern clans descended into the upper Verde Valley to seek sanctuary with their cousins.
No rain had fallen on any Sinagua land since the eruption. All of the creeks, except the sacred stream in the narrow oak valley, had dried up. The Verde River generated a trickle. If they didn’t make amends with the Spirit, the surviving tribesmen would leave the safety of their lands and take their chances in the east, where their fierce enemies could destroy them. They could not go west, where an uninhabitable desert stretched to the shores of a limitless, salty, and undrinkable ocean.
The Sinagua had distilled their religious beliefs from the traditions, rituals, and practices of their trading partners: the Mogollon, Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mesoamerican tribes. They did not practice human sacrifice, like the Toltecs from Mesoamerica. Yet they knew that they had to do something radical to perform penance for their sins and to win back the Spirit’s favor.
As restitution, the elders selected the most beautiful maiden in all of their polity, a northern refugee of 15 summers. They would offer her to assuage the Spirit’s anger.
Unable to engage in the bloodletting of the Mesoamericans, the tribal elders drugged the maiden with mushrooms after numbing her with beer, brewed from the harvested corn. The shaman planned to lower the drugged girl to the bottom of the sacred sinkhole, adjacent to the ceremonial site, leaving her fate to the servants.
Fearing retribution, once they arrived at the site the clansmen hurried to lower the girl into the sinkhole, using a rope that their women had woven from strands of wild cotton plants. They tied the rope to a tall pine and allowed her to remain suspended ten feet above the floor of the sinkhole.
They begged the Spirit to accept the maiden as reparation. After the ceremony, they left, promising to honor the taboos and return to the holy site to preform those customs required by the servants of the Spirit.
All would have been well, but the maiden’s clan was northern Sinagua. After sunset, her father and two brothers, who had shadowed the procession, stole into the narrow draw that surrounded the sinkhole.
The father and brothers located the cotton rope tied to the pine tree. When they touched the rope, they knew something dreadful had occurred. The cotton line felt slack and weightless. No body hung from it. Pulling it up, they inspected the end by the light of a small torch that the brother held.
Something sharp had severed the line. The father had never seen a cleaner cut. No edged stone weapon could have made it. The cut end looked blackened and charred. It bore the odor of burned cloth.
The maiden’s father cursed the Spirit. Before the men could search the sinkhole, a shooting star shot across the sky from the north to the south—an evil omen. A moment later, the star stopped cold and turned from the south, sped north, then west, and then east at unimaginable speeds.
Nothing in the hunter-gatherer’s experience had prepared him. He and his sons froze in place like stalked deer. They watched in horror as the star turned toward them. It slowed down and stopped over the sinkhole. The star grew as it descended, casting a pale, white light on the three northern clansmen.
The father regretted his foolishness. To avoid the wrath of the servants, he and his sons ran from the ceremonial site. They fled southeast on a long slog toward the village.
The next day, the Spirit signaled His satisfaction. The rains began.
The shaman declared that the offering had brought the life-giving moisture to the valley once again. Over the next several years, steady rains and fertile ash from the new volcano turned the upper Verde Valley into a garden. The rains persisted for two generations.
God created the Grand Canyon, but He lives in Sedona.
September 2, 1966, 7:15 p.m.
Northern Courtyard, Chapel of the Holy Cross
South of Uptown Sedona, Arizona
Dan Ostergaard and I teetered on the stone bench facing west. We perched high on the retaining wall that formed the northernmost edge of the courtyard surrounding the chapel. Dangling our legs 50 feet above the next outcropping, we sipped beer and nibbled fried chicken, as we watched the magnificent light show develop on the other side of Scheurman
“Tony, you were right. This place is gorgeous. I thought you were full of shit when you said it was stunning. This is special. I had no idea,” Dan said, while focusing on the miracle above the mountains.
“I told you that you’d like it, dickhead.”
“Eat me,” Dan said, too distracted to engage in serious repartee.
“Blow me,” I said, in the adolescent custom that Dan and I had adopted over our years at Arizona State and Brophy Prep in Phoenix.
By the time Dan and I found ourselves drinking beer on the high butte’s cutting edge next to one of Sedona’s spectacular architectural marvels, I’d lived in Arizona for 13 years. My family had moved west in 1953. I’d grown up in Phoenix, as the town evolved from a desert oasis into a major metropolis.
My parents were working class. Mom labored as a tailor and dad drove trucks. Children of the Great Depression and World War Two, neither finished high school. Neither valued education as a ticket to greater opportunity. Anything beyond 12th grade was frivolous. No one in the Giordano family had ever gone to college—I was the first.
They were also devout Catholics. After they purchased our house near Camelback Road and Central Avenue, they installed my older sister and me in St. Francis Xavier Grammar School, so that the nuns could indoctrinate us. After eight years with the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as BVMs, I’d found common cause with the victims of the Spanish Inquisition.
In 1960, I contrived to leave all Catholic education in my wake. I’d attend Central High School and join the Army. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a soldier. I also thought about becoming a lawyer. In grammar school, I couldn’t reconcile the two goals.
I took the entrance exam into Brophy Prep because a priest at St. Francis predicted that I would fail. To show him, I took the test. I did well enough to get accepted. I don’t know how I ended up there in 1961. Chalk it up to a divine thread that’s woven through the tapestry of my life. I reject the concept of mere chance or serendipity. Everything happens for a reason.
Brophy turned out to be life-changing. Though separated by 100 yards of classrooms and playgrounds, the Jesuits proved to be the antithesis of the BVMs at St. Francis. The priests, scholastics, and brothers who taught at Brophy were smart, cool, motivated, dedicated, effective, and pious. I blossomed there.
The Jesuits took me most of the way from boy to man. Though I now have three degrees, the faculty at Brophy provided the best educational experience of my life.
Dan’s family migrated to Phoenix from Madison, Wisconsin in 1963. Dan’s dad was an eminent surgeon, who’d taught at the University of Wisconsin. I never learned what caused Dr. Ostergaard to pull up stakes and move to Phoenix to practice medicine.
I met Dan in Latin class junior year. Though he was new, he never sported the profile of a recent transfer. He seemed confident, funny, arrogant, quirky, and intelligent. Despite his modest physical stature and average looks, his main attribute proved to be his magnetism for members of the opposite sex.
At 16, I hung around with Dan because he always led an entourage of pretty girls from Central High School. His followers adopted a more flexible moral standard and were more cooperative than the girls at Xavier High, Brophy’s co-educational counterpart. After graduation, Dan and I attended Arizona State University, though we pledged different fraternities.
Dan’s parents understood the value of a college education. His dad paid his way and provided him with a liberal allowance. My family and I argued over college. They wanted me to learn a trade. They felt no duty to contribute to my quest for a degree.