Sun Cycle of the Great Horned Owl
The Buffalo Pawing Moon
STRANGE QUIET POSSESSES THE DESERT AS TWILIGHT
settles over the land.
The sound of my sandals striking the long-abandoned road fills the night. Breathy. Urgent. Like the panting of a dying animal.
Tall and muscular, I can run all day. But I have been running for two days with almost no sleep. Exhaustion weights my limbs.
I trot to the edge of the sandstone rim and survey the canyon below. The color of the sheer cliffs has faded, changing from molten gold to a deep, dark crimson. A light dusting of snow frosts the ledges and coats the crumbling stone palaces that fill the valley.
My souls ache at the sight.
Once plastered with white clay and painted with the stunning images of the gods, the legendary towns now lay in ruins, their roofs collapsed, their glory as dead as their makers.
I prop my hands on my hips and grant myself a few moments of rest. A ragged landscape spreads around me. Eroded drainages slice the uplands, meander down to the plains, and cut twisting canyons through the bottomlands. Here and there, wind-sculpted buttes rise into the sky like blunt fists.
“We share a purpose,” I whisper. “We both wish to punch holes in the bellies of the gods.”
The evil Spirit child, Wind Baby, toys with my long black hair, fluttering it before my eyes, trying to distract me from my duty.
I head east along the canyon rim.
Birds perch in the brush. They do not blink as I pass, but their eyes follow me, knowing instinctively that they dare not move until I am gone.
I reach the place overlooking the remains of Talon Town, and kneel.
A woman runs the road in the distance, her red cape blazing. She is alone. Long black hair sways around her slender body.
A whisper of wind climbs the canyon, and I hear her Singing—a beautiful, wrenching song.
I tip my face to the heavens, and Sing my own Power song, lending her my strength. The melody is the howl of a wolf on a blood trail; it echoes across the canyon, calling to the threads of Power that sleep in the drifting clouds and towering cliffs.
When the echo dies, I listen.
I wonder if Shadow is here. If, even now, she is hiding among the fallen stones, waiting for me.
Shadows live on light.
I am the Light. The source of her life.
She is the one who speaks with terror.
The woman on the road looks up, scanning the canyon.
She shouts my name.
I feel it like a hot torrent flooding my bones.
“Blessed daughter, my daughter,” I whisper.
Then. Behind me.
She is nothingness, an empty place for the gods to fill. Writhing. Violent.
I breathe in the scent of the stone and night.
“Do not follow me,” I order. “I do not wish you there.”
Her laughter is wind through the brush.
I walk away.
I do not hear her.
“TWO HEARTS?” ASH GIRL CRIED.
A tall woman, Ash Girl had seen twenty-two summers. As she hurried along the narrow trail, her red cape flapped like wings, and long black hair whipped around her oval face.
The sheer canyon wall rose two hundred hands high in front of her. Shadows filled the rocky crevices, and snow glistened on every lip of stone. Ash Girl broke into a run, pushing herself harder.
Sister Moon hung above the jagged rim like a bright shining eye. Her gleam had chased away all but the strongest Evening People.
When Ash Girl reached the base of the cliff, she stopped. The brittle scents of dry winter grasses filled her heaving lungs. High above, a dead pine leaned over the rim. Its limbs had been blasted away by a lightning bolt, leaving only a rounded hump of trunk, and twisted roots that stretched over the cliff like spindly legs. She shivered and held the collar of her cape closed beneath her pointed chin.
The path led to the right, into a tumbled heap of boulders, and stunted juniper trees. Many of the boulders stood three times her height.
“Hello! Are you here?”
Her cry echoed from the canyon.
“Please? I must speak with you!”
She spun when she heard a whisper from the boulders, low and muted, like the deep-throated groan of a waking Earth Spirit.
Ash Girl pulled up the long hem of her cape, and ran up the trail into the rocks. Juniper branches slapped at her shoulders as she sped by them, her feet crunching the frozen snow that lined the path. Moonlight sheathed the tops of the boulders, turning them a pale blue, but as she pushed deeper, the path at her feet grew darker, until the shadows devoured all light.
She blinked, letting her eyes adjust. The entry to the cavern could not be more than ten or fifteen body lengths away, but she could not see it. She nervously dried her palms on her turkey-feather cape.
The boulders tilted over the trail ahead. Ancient paintings covered the rocks, but tonight she could see only the largest. Near the sharp tips of the boulders three white spirals shone. Zigzagging lines—like lightning bolts—radiated out from the spirals, warning all who approached that Power lived and breathed in this place.
Ash Girl could feel it, like sticky ant feet on her skin. She reached beneath her cape, and touched the sharp chert knife tied to her belt.
She had discovered the cavern by accident six moons ago. Thirsty
and tired after a long day of harvesting the cornfields, she had come to sit in the shade of these boulders. Her nostrils had caught the gentle, caressing smell of water. She had followed the scent to a large pile of brush. When she’d removed it, shafts of sunlight had streamed into the cavern. She had returned frequently to sit by the pool in the rear of the cavern, and think about the many troubles her people faced.
She toyed with the smooth wooden handle of her knife, listening. Wind Baby whistled through the boulders, his voice shrill, desperate.
Ash Girl searched the darkness. She took two more steps.
Over one hundred sun cycles ago, the Straight Path Nation had fractured, and the different factions had fallen upon each other like ravening wolves. Three summers ago, a new faction had arisen. Calling themselves the Katsinas’ People, they had proclaimed they were searching for the legendary white palaces of the First People. Ash Girl had listened raptly to their stories. The Blessed prophet, Poor Singer, had foretold that one day their people would return to the most holy place on earth, the First People’s kiva—a magnificent subterranean ceremonial chamber—and restore it to its original glory. He had prophesied that when they had completed that task, a sacred doorway to the underworlds would open, and their people would be able to go to their Blessed ancestors, and ask them to bring the world back into harmony. The leader of the Katsinas’ People, an old woman named Flame Carrier, claimed that her mother had known Poor Singer personally. Flame Carrier said that restoring the kiva would bring the wars to an end, and vanquish the evil Spirits that roamed the land.
Ash Girl had lost her mother in a raid four summers before. She ached for the prophecy to be true. She had shouted and ridiculed her husband, Browser, until he had agreed to join the Katsinas’ People. He hadn’t wished to. He would have been happy to live out his life in Green Mesa Village. Nevertheless, he had packed their few belongings, settled his newborn son into the little cedar cradle-board, and followed her to join the migration.
Since that time, things had been difficult between them. As the moons turned into sun cycles, and the prophecy failed to come true, Browser grew bitter and reclusive. He went on war walks that
lasted three moons, and returned home with a sullen expression. He walked the cliffs at night, just to be free of her. The only thing in life that seemed to bring him joy was their son, Grass Moon.
Ash Girl believed Flame Carrier’s teachings with all her heart, but even she had wearied of the old woman’s promises. They had been traveling a long time. No one knew which great kiva had been the original First People’s kiva. Two summers ago they’d rebuilt the magnificent kiva at Flowing Waters Town in the north, and last summer they’d rebuilt one of the kivas in Straight Path Canyon. They began work on another large kiva just last moon, hauling out fallen roof timbers, cleaning up the debris from collapsed walls. One of the village Elders had dreamed the town was Talon Town. Ash Girl carried away hundreds of baskets of crumbled plaster, shattered mortar, exquisitely fitted pieces of sandstone, and decayed wood. The entire time she prayed that old Wading Bird’s dream had been true, that they were indeed working on Talon Town, and the First People’s cherished kiva, and that their labors would bring the people peace.
Instead the warfare had intensified. Raiders visited the canyon constantly, stealing women and children, killing and burning. They brought evil with them. Many of the Katsinas’ People had Spirits feeding in their lungs.
“Including my son.”
At this very instant, Browser would be washing Grass Moon’s hot face, and wondering where she was, why she had left him. She had vowed she would not return to Hillside Village until she’d found her Spirit Helper, and that might take days. By then Browser would be wild with fear, and angry enough to strike her.
Ash Girl braced a hand on the nearest boulder and edged through the darkness until she smelled the mingled fragrances of water and moss and saw the rounded outline of the cavern entry.
“Hello?” she called. “Are you here? Please, answer me!”
The trail sloped downward. She placed her feet by memory, cautiously descending through the entry.
The floor flattened out, and Ash Girl turned around in a slow circle. How terribly black it was. Light might never have penetrated such a dark hole. She could not see the walls or ceiling, but she knew the cave spread around her like a dark womb, one hundred
fifty hands across and fifty high. Water dripped steadily in the rear of the cave, splashing into the pool.
“Please?” she called again. “My son is sick. My people are sick. You
you would help me. I need your help!”
When she still received no answer, she shouted, “You’re my Spirit Helper! Where are you? I have done everything you’ve asked. I fasted for four days and nights. I ran all the way here. I need you more than I have ever needed you!”
The darkness closed in around her, pressing on her eyes and ear drums. The splashing water gave a lonely voice to the quiet.
“Two Hearts?” Ash Girl cried. “Please. What have I done? Why will you not speak with me?”
He had come to her the first night she’d slept in this cavern. She’d thought she was dreaming when she heard those familiar steps, like long-dead echoes seeping from her memories, and saw him. He stood tall and thin in the crimson glow of the dying fire; the light sheathed his sacred mask, and struck terror into her heart. A katsina! The Blessed katsinas did not visit people like her. She had nothing, no power, no possessions. Yet, there he stood: part man, part wolf. One of the sky gods fallen to earth.
Since that time, she had seen him almost every night in her dreams, and twice at dawn, wandering along the canyon rim above her village. He frequently asked her odd questions. Questions about little girls and dark forest trails, and snakes with human eyes. Questions that had no meaning. When she’d told him this, his huge bottomless black eyes had flared as though lit by an inner fire. But he had only laughed.
“Two Hearts?” she shouted into the clinging darkness. “I think my son is dying. Please. I beg you. Hear me?”
A gust of wind penetrated the cave, and tousled Ash Girl’s long hair. When it calmed, the silence deepened.
She sank to the floor.
“Why won’t you come? Did you hear me? My son is dying! You told me you would help me! You are supposed to be my Spirit Helper. Where are you?”
The words boomed around the cavern.
Ash Girl stretched out on her side on the cool stone and fingered the bracelet that encircled her right wrist. Made from the
blackest jet, it had been carved into the shape of a slithering snake. Browser had given it to her on their joining day. He’d been happy, smiling.