Authors: Rudolfo Anaya
“BendiciÃ³n, hijo. I'll call you tonight.”
Sonny offed the phone. He wiped his eyes. Damn, a tough PI shouldn't get soft, he thought. But his mother spoke the simple truth, a truth she had engraved in his heart when he was a child. It was part of the creencia of the Mexicanos, to be kind. Yes, being anywhere with Rita would be his happiness.
She obviously hadn't heard what was happening in the Jemez, where in the caldera of the mountain, the cradle of Valle Grande, a bomb was ticking away. In the city people were going about their business, paying no heed to the possibility of danger. Or maybe too many terrorist alerts had just numbed sensibilities.
Overhead the equinox sun traveled across the blue sky, creating in its journey the quadripartite day. Equal lengths of night on each side of the equator. Day of perfect balance.
The earth turned its face to the light, so degrees of time were born on the maps of argonauts, seasons marked by the solstices and the equinoxes. And in the center a vertical axis, a gold column to heaven, Jacob's ladder, the same tree of light seen by those who went through near-death experiences. The axis mundi connected the earth's plane to the gods, although some would say that axis was simply a revelation of the spinal cord and its seven seals. An experienced soul could climb to heaven on that ladder of bones, or plunge to the land of the dead below.
The universe, the ancients said, was delineated by four spaces. In the face of chaos, Homo sapiens had need to give form to his universe.
We seek unity, Sonny said. He coaxed the old man into storytelling.
That's the promise of the Zia Stone, the old man said. The glyph on the stone forms a quincunx. Let's say it's like four trees at each corner, and in the middle a fountain. Tree of Knowledge, Tree of Life, Tree of Hope, Tree of Sadness and Pain. Fountain of Eden's water. However you envision it, the quincunx is a symbol that unifies the universe. Four parts of the universe and the center. Four organs in man and his center, the soul. Four humors, the ancients said. Man corresponds to the cosmos. We are children of the universe. Stardust and earthdust. But in the beginning we also knew chaos. We are children of chaos, too. We need a center, a home, a place from where we can communicate with the gods. The ancients raised dolmens, temples, pyramids. The tops of pyramids, church spires, and mountains are closest to the spirit world. Raven wants that power. From there he rains destruction, pulls us all into the ancient sea, the chaos before the Light, before the Logos.
King of the mountain, Sonny said.
Yes, the old man said. Raven likes to play games. He's a trickster. Always remember that. Shape shifter.
What is he today?
He's gone high tech, the old man answered.
I don't get it.
The bomb is a hoax. He's playing at getting the politicians to play his game. You heard the mayor, there's already a press conference planned. In the meantime he's going to play with your head. He wants the Zia medallion.
What does he want from the politicians?
Power. But it's also a game with them. He doesn't give a damn about their power. Men used to put on the skin of animals or masks of animals to get the animal's power, to hunt the animal. Today it's the high-tech machines.
So that's where he is.
And the mountain?
It's the beginning of the game.
I see, Sonny said.
He drove slowly through Bernalillo. Once a quiet hamlet on the banks of the Rio Grande where Hispano families raised corn, beans, chile, and children, the place now buzzed with fallout from Rio Rancho. Up on the West Mesa, Rio Rancho was spreading like a fire out of control, covering the sandhills with brand-new homes, from the Rio Grande all the way to the Rio Puerco.
The aggressive Anglo world meeting the once bucolic Indo-his-pano world of the valley. A new conquest. Culture clash was real, even if the local chamber of commerce said otherwise.
The valley used to be full of vineyards and cornfields. People from Jemez, Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Sandia, Santo Domingo went to Bernalillo to trade. Camino del Pueblo buzzed with activity. After the war everything began to change. Work for wages replaced the old barter system; neighbors no longer worked together. They went to work for the almighty dollar. To assimilate a culture you don't go to war, you provide low interest rates. And you grab hold of city hall. Once the newcomers controlled city hall the old ways would go out the window. History records wars and conflicts, but the real colonization takes place by imposing law and language. The Americanos' law and language were swords cleaving the land. The land was lost and traditions crumbling.
Now the Nuevomexicanos have to build museums to teach the kids about their culture, Sonny thought as he crossed over the bridge. Below, the surging river was a sheen of light, a flood. Hundreds of acre-feet of water had been released from Cochiti Dam, and the water sang its freedom. Along the banks the bosque of bare cottonwoods had sprouted russet buds. Chica smelled the crisp air and barked.
Sonny smiled. To enter the river's presence was to enter a different time zone, where time turned into space. That was the magic of the land, spirit entering matter.
Sonny knew the river. He had grown up in the South Valley, and he and his boyhood friends had spent their summers along the river, fishing, roaming, swimming. The time of childhood was magical because the spirit entering the river was a presence they could feel. Sometimes it dazzled in the glory of bird wings, the color of the roiling water, the brilliant green of the alamos. Other times it was the cry of La Llorona, the wailing woman. She held a dagger in her gnarled hands, and she chased the boys home when dusk fell.
Every river is ruled by a god, the ancients believed.
The Spaniards called the Rio Grande el Rio Bravo, as brave as a thundering bull. Perhaps it was a bull, or an ancient Sumerian god delivering its life-giving waters, providing a home for the almost extinct silvery minnow. The toro sacrificing its life-giving blood so man might turn the water into his fields and grow his crops. And man the acolyte of the river.
Before the Cochiti dam was built the floods of spring arrived like a herd of brave bulls, a thundering whoosh of hooves roaring down the streambed to fertilize the cities with life-giving waters.
A presence imbued the river, an essence that was the spirit of the stream. When the dying day delivered its life to the shadows a change came over the bosque. The air grew cool and still. Night hawks, evening's graceful minions, swooped low along the water, their starred wings signaling the end of day. Then the shadows tumbled down the arms of the towering cottonwoods, and the smell of the earth rose from the rotting compost. The spirit of the river spoke, filled the dark paths, touched the shoulder of the wary.
Without the river the cities on its banks would wither away, so man built dams to control the flow, to take the water as his own. Men had come to believe that nature was not complete unto herself, that she should not be left alone.
The Rio Grande Conservancy controlled the flow of water, not the ancient god Enki. They had opened the gates at the Cochiti Dam, and for a few weeks the river would look as it did in the old days, before the dam was built, when the snow melted on the high peaks of Colorado and on the Sangre de Cristos of Taos and Santa Fe. Then the spring runoff came roaring down the valley, the rushing water cleaning out winter's stagnation, like an angioplasty opening clogged arteries, washing the winter plaque away.
The river was the alchemist of the valley. The water was the gold rush that swept away the compost, dissolved the leaden weight of winter, invigorated the natives with fresh oxygen and ozone, delivered nitrogen to the alamos, filled the acequias, irrigated fields and orchards. All the elements of spring met in the river, impregnating the slumbering earth. The river rocked and rolled in its emotional life, and the dance brought joy to the hearts of its sons and daughters.
Somnambulant man saw only the surface of the river. But beneath the skin of water lay the web of veins and arteries that fed the river, the underground water that could be felt but not seen. That was the secret of the desert rivers. The Rio Grande stretched its arms up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and drew down the hidden waters, tapped each small spring, every rivulet of melting snow, summer rains, morning dew, night mists, gathering every drop, creating the fingers and hands of mountain streams, strong arms that came tumbling down the arroyos and canyons into the basin, forming the shoulders and body of the great river.
Now the river was dying. Too many cities siphoning off the water. Too many needs for too little water. By the time it reached south Texas it was a dead river. The creatures of the river were also dying. Pollutants were clogging the heart and soul of the river. The dance was ending.
Sonny crossed the bridge and drove up the incline past Jackalope and the Coronado Monument, the place where Coronado had spent the winter of 1540. From here the adventurer and his scraggly crew had looked down on the frozen river and on thin columns of smoke rising from a thousand Pueblo Indian homes. AztlÃ¡n, the Chicanos said, land of the Hyperboreans, lost tribe of antiquity. Our home, said the Tiguex pueblos, fearful of the barbarians camped on the west side of the river.
It was winter, the time of storytelling. But time had been disrupted. White men with coarse hair flowing from their faces walked the earth, muttering in a strange tongue. These were not the kachinas who came to bless the villages, these were strange creatures who demanded buffalo blankets and corn. Men lusting for the warmth of women.
Sonny crested the rise and got his first view of the blue Jemez. The softly rounded volcanic peak wore a scarf of last night's snow. The equinox sun was entering the space of the mountain, the first quadrant of the day. Overhead a striated bank of clouds ribbed the blue sky, the remains of last night's storm, now streaking east toward Texas.
There were distinct parts of the road Sonny enjoyed. The drive to San Ysidro was breathtaking, a panorama of flesh-colored, sandy hills dotted with juniper and chamisa. To the north the long, flat blue mesa, to the south Cabezon Peak, in front of him the first view of White Mesa.
At San Ysidro he would turn into the red canyons that crawled like wrinkles down the face of the mountain. And dominating the landscape, the gentle Jemez Mountain, the ninety thousand acres at the top of the collapsed volcano known as the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Ages ago when the volcano blew its top it scattered ashes as far away as Kansas. The huge crater became a lake. Now it was a vast grassy meadow that fed the largest herd of elk in the state. Lucky visitors sometimes ran into the herds crossing Highway 4, a sight to inspire wonder.
The mountain was also home to mule deer, black bears, mountain lions, dozens of species of birds, and streams replete with trout. An animal paradise.
For the Jemez Pueblo people the mountain was a place of sacred sites. Some twelve thousand years ago groups of hunters and gatherers had walked on Redondo Peak, the second-highest peak of the mountain. In the mid-nineteenth century parcels of the mountain were granted to the Cabeza de Vaca family. Sheep roamed the meadows. A century later the mountain was heavily logged.
In the warm sunlight that filled the cab, Chica squealed, perhaps dreaming of August when the purple sage blossomed in the sandhills and frantic honeybees gathered the sweet sage nectar, refining it into a honey that old men from BelÃ©n sought as an aphrodisiac. Sonny had made the drive hundreds of times, and still the view filled him with peace. He belonged here. From the moment he bought the cabin he felt he had been here before, long ago. Transmigration? Did he believe? He had been reading a lot lately, trying to figure it out. Don Eliseo laughed at him.
It ain't in books, mijo, it's in front of your face.
A glisten of scales on the side of the road caught Sonny's vision. He pulled over and slowly backed up. Most of the traffic on 550 was flowing south, into Burque.
He got out and stood looking at the large rattler that lay crushed, writhing as it died, scales shining in the morning light.
“Damn,” Sonny muttered. He looked around, sniffing the air. The sharp metallic smell of death touched his nostrils. There was another scent, a feral scent.
A crow perched on a juniper called. Not good, Sonny thought. The snake had come out of hibernation to lie on the warmth of the asphalt and had been run over. Or it had been rushed out of its damp, underground home by someone's need. Whose?
There were no marks from scavengers on its body, but he knew he couldn't leave the snake on the side of the road. The crows would tear it apart; the snake spirit would become a burden.
Gotta take SeÃ±or VÃvora so he gets a proper burial, he thought. He took his leather gloves from the truck, carefully picked up the snake with the shovel, and placed it on the bed of the pickup.
A coyote trotted up the wide, sandy arroyo. It stopped to glance at Sonny, as if approving, then disappeared. Sonny got back in the truck and drove on.
At White Mesa the road curved, and he slowed down to enter San Ysidro. The village budget depended on ticketing speeders, and Sonny wasn't in a contributing mood. He turned north toward the pueblo, past the P.O., the village offices, the church.
San Ysidro had fallen on hard times. Every time Sonny and Rita drove through he caught sight of one fixer-upper or another, crumbling adobe homes or double-wides that needed repair.
Fixer-upper heaven. Yeah.
He slowed down as he approached the pueblo, matching his rhythm to a faraway drum beat. The old adobe houses seemed to melt into the earth. Sooner or later everyone and everything had to melt back into the arms of mother earth. That's why the new frame/stucco houses going up on the outskirts of the pueblo looked so incongruous. How do you dissolve wood frame, propanel roof, steel window frames?
The pueblo kept the seasons, each one distinct. Spring was for plowing, the cleaning of the ditches, the running of irrigation water, planting. The cycle of the seed corn described the cycle of man's life, the cycle of sun and moon. In summer the greening, the corn's male tassels drooped with male pollen, and the old men went about collecting the sanctifying dust.