“There are many worlds Beyond this one we live in” said the old man as he tamped tobacco into his long ceremonial pipe. He looked into her eyes as he lit the tobacco and drew a maguey thorn from its place in a long rectangle of cloth containing neat rows of small objects such as roots, twigs, feathers and other less familiar things that lay on one side of the table at which he and a young girl were seated.
“Where are they?” Asked the child solemnly.
“They are everywhere” said the old man in a matter of fact voice. “And they are as many as the stars in the sky. So, to find the one we are looking for” he held up the wicked looking thorn “we must ask directions.”
Both man and child bore acutely Native American looks. He was as brown as a walnut with a face that bore so many wrinkles that when he smiled his eyes seemed to disappear. Long braids of white hair lay on his shoulders tied at intervals with bits of leather and colored cloth. The girl, not yet eight years of age, had skin that looked like hazelnut cream and had striking asiatic features. Her hair was thick, long and unbound. Where ever sunlight touched it her hair gave off deep hues of blue. She looked around the empty kitchen as if someone might be hiding behind the refrigerator or concealed in a shadow.
“When we seek something from another world we do not ask directions of people” said the old man. “People are blind to all but that which we can see or touch or hear” his full lips were the only part of him that moved as he spoke. He drew on the pipe and, holding the thorn before his face he expelled a thin stream of smoke along its length. “You must close your eyes now and think hard of the answer you seek”. His voice had sunk lower with these words, and to the girl his disembodied words seemed like things of another world themselves. “Remove all from your mind but that which you seek”. His words floated through the darkness behind her eyelids; to her they seemed to be lightly dancing spheres of light. Following his words deeper into the darkness she faintly heard his voice say “Only what you seek; our thoughts are like flies that distract us.”
The last words were from so far away they might have been an echo. The girl stood in the darkness looking for the shapes of light which had disappeared. A small seed of panic bloomed in her suddenly as she felt the darkness becoming solid. Arching her back she saw a single glimmer of light far above her like sunlight reaching far into the depths of a green pond. She struggled upward toward the light unwilling to take a breath lest she breath in the thickening darkness. Just as she broke through the surface into the light she caught a glimpse of her mother and father and she saw too herself, they were not as they were now, but older. Her mother seemed bent with worry and sorrow, her father was obviously sick with t’o di hi, or black water illness as her people called alcoholism. She herself seemed to be running in place as a black shadow crept inexorably closer to her. She might have been beautiful if not for the lines of bitterness etched on her face, and the dumb look of a person who is trying to evade a terrible fate by ignoring it.
The vision shocked her. Then the kitchen table, the chairs in which she and the old man sat, the room itself slammed into her consciousness, forcing itself into her until the darkness was gone so completely it might not have been there at all. Taking a small bowl from his pack the old man set it between them and filled it with water from a leather flask.
“This is powerful ‘al’i’il” he said, using the Navajo word for magic. “I took the water from the side of needle mountain on the night of the new moon, up high near the top, in a pool of rainwater and the reflection of snake is still trapped in it.” He shifted toward her holding the thorn between them pointing toward the ceiling.
Gazing at her he said “You ask snake where to look for that which you seek, and that is knowledge. When you deal with the spirits you must bring trade, otherwise they will take from you what they will.”
The girl looked at the thorn and its evil looking black tip. She knew that the pain would last a while because of the poison the thorn bore. Biting down on her lower lip she pressed her pointer finger down onto the spike until it burst through her skin and a fat drop of blood fell into the water. Color threaded into the water and slowly formed itself into the familiar shape of the same snake that burned in the summer sky at night. Then the old man placed the thorn gently onto the surface of the water and they both watched as it rotated first right and then left finally pointing steadily toward the kitchen window. Slowly the old man and the young girl rose wordlessly and walked to the window gazing toward the mesas that marched steadily westward until they were lost from sight.
“There is your answer granddaughter. You must find your answer there.” As mother moon rode high that night her light revealed a small wavering shadow which flitted from crevice to boulder. The dusty ground looked yellow and bleached compared to the deep gloom of the shadows that seemed to spread outward from the squat boulders and forbidding outcrops like inky pools of water. Even the smaller stones appeared to be locating on their own small Stygian ponds. Unwilling to take a more direct route the girl, with a question she thought, made her way circuitously toward the top of Huerfano mesa, the sacred mountain of the Navajo.
On her back she carried a backpack with a rabbit she had taken from a raven earlier that day. A fresh kill she had seen the bird make not twenty feet from her place of concealment. The girl had meant the kill to be her own, but the raven had struck much faster than she. At first it seemed that the blue black killer, nearly as large as a hawk was inclined to dispute ownership of the unfortunate gah but the club she had brought for the task proved the more worthy argument, outweighing mere cawing and flapping of wings, however large.
Eventually the raven had given up and flown away. If her father had known of this he would have beaten her for wasting meat. Her father’s beatings were never cruel, after all he wanted her to learn not suffer, but lately he looked at her differently when he spanked her. Her mother would have beaten her too, not for the gah, but for being out on the desert at night alone.
The girl knew her mother would be right for teaching that lesson, for children in the villages on the reservation knew the dangers that awaited all lone humans day or night in the lonely desert. Now, ascending a cut in a sloping side of the table rock, the pack felt heavy, for the gah, really a gahtso, or jack rabbit, weighed her down and the pack bumped regularly against her thighs, threatening to trip her at times. Adjusting the pack, careful not to chafe her sore finger, she moved over the top of the mesa dragging the dead rabbit the last few feet. Sitting on the ground to rest, uncaring of the dust, the girl’s gaze was drawn upward. Despite the intense moonlight, the stars shone brightly in their millions, as if trying to outshine the moon herself. Directly above, snake glittered like a broken strand of impossibly brilliant diamonds.
For a time the girl just watched and wondered at what might imagine, much less create such a thing as the heavens. As the girl’s thoughts traveled far, and the glamour deepened something far less fanciful had drawn closer. A soft sound broke her reverie. Slowly, almost as if she were dreaming she saw them; a pack of seven coyotes. They were huge and lean, moving with the lithe grace of their kind, and looking at her with eyes that burned with hunger, their mouths open in foolish doggie grins, long tongues lolling over gleaming white fangs about which nothing was foolish.
The girl wanted to scream. She wanted to jump up an run. She wanted to do anything, but her body did nothing to obey her except issue forth a small hoarse croak. Another coyote larger by far than the others appeared from behind her to stand only inches away. He was enormous; the size of a a timber wolf. His fur was a gleaming white rendered almost blinding in the moonlight, and a thick ruff of fur like that of a lion.
“What is this?” It asked in an amused voice. “An offering? For me? You shouldn’t have. Really you shouldn’t have.”
These last words became more guttural, and he sounded more the beast than the creature that could have formed those words. The little girl stared at the beast in shock, unable to speak, thinking, “Well, what do you know about that! A talking dog!”
“Sssssspeak girl or lose your life and perhaps more” sounded a voice from overhead and far away. Dimly the child knew this was the voice of snake, but she simply could not break the bonds of terror. In a gravelly voice the coyote thing asked “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?” He spoke as a white man. Sarcastic. Demeaning. Feeding on her fear.
Suddenly the shackles of fear shattered and the girl lept to her feet with blinding speed, a rock had appeared in her hand as if by magic. Some small part of the girl, still terrified, still trapped, marveling at what was happening. Who, what was this beast? And more than that, who was she? With her face contorted in rage she spat out “In truth, he has! This offering is for the spirit of Mosi, and to tell more truth” her body relaxed a bit as she leaned forward “I was surprised to see a talking dog.”
The great beast stiffened “You dare!” it growled “You DARE!” It screamed in a sound like boulders grinding together. As the other beasts tensed for violence their faces took on human features of cruelty. And then, complete silence. It was as if time itself stood still. One beat, two, then three, and the top of the mesa exploded in a cacophony of yowls that sounded like women in torment screaming. Nashdoitso, cougars!
The girl knew their calls well for the One Walks Around You clan had adopted them as their protector in the time before time, but the girl had never heard so many, nor had she heard them sound like this. The coyotes had frozen, their faces masks of mingled fright and excitement. Their tongues were back in their mouths now, and wrinkled muzzles displayed white dagger like teeth. The white beast crouched low, Ready to spring. When the sound had reached an ear splitting crescendo a huge basso roar sounded three times and all was silent again.
A huge shape padded forward; it shimmered and wavered in a way that gave the impression of an impossibly large cat, perhaps eight feet tall and twelve feet in length. The girl clearly saw what lay on the other side though as if the clearest spring in the world was running over the shape of an enormous cat. It was indisputably solid though, for it left tracks the size of dinner platters in the moon painted dust as it slouched easily toward her and the coyotes. Easily twice the size of the white monster that had frozen the girl it stopped a pounce away from it and said “Run naaldlooshii. Run for your life, and take your mongrels with you.”
The skinwalker ground its teeth so hard that the girl thought the sound would cause her ears to burst. But more shapes, these quite distinct appeared walking slowly out of the shadows. Vulpine cougars looking eager for a fight. Eager for dinner. Without a sound the white giant bounded toward the edge of the mesa and was gone in a moment. The other coyotes scampered fearfully after it picking their way down the trail the girl had just come up, looking backward with dread as they went. The girl looked upon the wavering image of the transparent cat and felt her legs become rubbery.
After a moment the cat asked “Well, are you going to throw that rock at me?” She looked dumbly at the rock, and in a moment it fell from nerveless fingers. The cat continued. “It is not yet time for our trade brave one, yet as snake reminds me, a debt is owed.”
Reaching out a paw that could have easily taken the girls head off, he gently pulled the pack from the child’s trembling hands. Sniffing it, he looked over at the other cats gathered in a semicircle a few feet away. “Gahtso.” He informed them. “Thank you brave one. When the time for our trade arrives, be sure that I will find you, but for now I offer you a gift in return for this fine meal.” Sitting in a most cat like way he bathed his whiskers, or at least where she supposed his whiskers should be.
“In a few years you shall receive your woman’s name. He paused, the said “You have your birth name, but I will now give you a name that will serve you better than either when you leave this world.”
At this his form started to solidify, short yellow hair appeared and began to spread rapidly. A massive head took on the density if reality, and ice blue eyes looked into the last corner of her soul. “I name you Mandi. Your people will not like it anymore than the whites like the name given you by your people, but I promise you, it is a gift that will prove it’s value many times.”
“Mandi” she whispered.
The mesa became indistinct. A feeling of unreality overcame her. “Mandi” hissed snake overhead. A hole opened before the girl and as she tumbled into it she heard the name over and over as if the panoply of glittering stars were chanting it in unison. “Mandi!”
And in the silence which followed, Mandi knew no more.
Bill the Butcher