A Shaman Mystery
A thunderous roar; a yellow arc flashes by his face. Must escape ... run ... run ... but his feet are rooted in place. There is a thin whistling sound ... a sudden, mind-numbing pain.
There is-- as the sage has rightly said-- an appointed time for a soul to come into the world ... and also a time to leave it. Before the first is an unremembered history; after the last, an eternal mystery. These are subjects best left to philosophers, mystics, and poets-and others so inclined to squander away precious hours pondering the unknowable. For those of a more practical nature, there is a quite interesting period nestled between birth and death-- where the most remarkable things are apt to happen.
No one has a more practical nature than Daisy Perika-- sly old soul who lives near the mouth of Canon del Espiritu. It comes from experience. The Ute woman is filled to the brim with bone-dry summers and marrow-chilling winters. Each of these seasons has salted her days with those ingredients that make a life palatable. Hard times. Unexpected blessings. Hunger that gnaws at the soul. Merry dancing and feasting. Solemn burials sanctified in mournful song ... shrill cries of those newly come into the dawn.
She has known the warm morning of youth, the cool twilight of old age. And now that darkest of dark nights draws near.
These should be days for rest and contemplation, the old woman knows. A time to prepare for her spirit for the journey into that eternal world ... where she will be forever young. But this present world-with its multitude of annoyances, problems, and difficulties-is a very great distraction. By way of example ...
Not having a telephone.
Arthritis in her knee joints.
The fact that her favorite nephew is still a bachelor.
Charlie Moon should be raising himself a family, bringing his children out to see her. Daisy Perika has made herself a most solemn promise. She will refuse to die until he marries himself a wife-- and that is that.
Once Charlie has a wife to worry about, maybe the Ute policeman will stop nagging her about moving into Ignacio. The Ute elder is quite content to spend her days here in the wilderness. Daisy is, in fact, quite snug in her small trailer. Her home, though it may seem modest, is a way station at the entrance to that great canyon where she hears haunting echoes of words yet unspoken. In this special place, she knows that comfortable security of one who belongs. And well she should. The shaman has plied her arcane craft here for seven decades. She gathers black-stemmed maidenhair fern from the cool depths of the Canyon of the Spirits; she plucks antelope horns from the arid wastelands-- but will not touch the dangerous jimson weed.
When her aching legs would carry her there, the old woman scours the windswept roof of Three Sisters Mesa for the purplish-blue flower of the cachana, which is also called Gayfeather and Rattlesnake Master. This hardy herb is useful for a variety of ailments-and as a talisman to protect Daisy's fearful clients from mal de ojo. The Ute elder-- though hardly a timid soul-- does not journey to the lofty crown of the mesa more often than is absolutely necessary. Apart from the difficulty of the ascent, this is a holy place, and therefore dangerous to mortals. Here, shimmering ghosts of the Old Ones walk even at noonday-- and the pine-scented west winds never cease their melancholy moanings. When the sun sets, there is a black elderberry bush that bursts into scarlet flame ... but is not consumed. Moreover, every living thing waits in rapt expectation for the signal that this world is about to end-that long rumble of thunder preceding the final, cleansing storm. A cluster of gnarled pinions lingers here as a stalwart congregation, patiently awaiting the arrival of One who will appear as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west ... when all of the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
And so the Ute shaman climbs the mesa but seldom ... and makes haste to depart before the bush is touched by fire.
From her store of pulpy roots and succulent leaves, those delicate petals of pearly pink blossoms, Daisy brews concoctions both practical and problematical. There are varied purposes for her prescriptions, ranging from the ordinary to the exalted. This sly old physician treats a whole host of common complaints, from nosebleed and menstrual cramp to bite of snake and sting of wasp. Any day of the week, the shaman can conjure away bumble wart or other unseemly blot of skin. With one hand tied behind her back Daisy Perika can ward off vengeful ghost, malicious water-baby ... or other such shadowy presence.
The Ute shaman is, of course, not without peers in her chosen field of work.
It is true that there are a few Navajo hand-tremblers and Apache mystics who wield similar powers. There is a very old black man in Pagosa who can mumble away warts from any part of your body. And there is the ninety-pound Cajun woman the locals call Fat Nelda. She plies her dark art in a rusting yellow school bus just south of Mancos, survives on a diet of green tea, pretzels, and Norwegian sardines. This remarkable bruja (so it is claimed) can conjure sturdy new teeth into the gums of old crones and fresh crops of hair onto the shiny heads of those unfortunate men who suffer from an excess of testosterone. She does this for a fat price, of course-and thus the skinny woman's name. Fat Nelda also sports a black eye of polished jet in her left socket, and claims to see tomorrow and even next week through this opaque orb. Other than these few eccentricities, she is an altogether uninteresting character.
Daisy Perika's enterprises extend beyond her medical practice . Because of the Ute blood that throbs in her mottled veins, another privilege is hers by birthright. The old shaman has frequent conversations with the pitukupf-- that mischievous dwarfspirit whose underground dwelling is not so far away. His home is an abandoned badger hole in the Canyon of the Spirits. Theirs is an uncomplicated arrangement. The first requirement is that the shaman must take the little man a gift. A small cotton sack of fragrant smoking tobacco. A few turquoise beads on a string. A pearl-handled pocketknife.
This is how it works ...
Leave the offering by the badger hole. Now sit down just over there ... under the old pinon. Lean your head against its rough bark. Take your rest. Sleep. And dream. The dwarf will slip into your visions ... and tell you such strange tales. Accounts of great adventures long past ... and of others yet to be. Of spirits who come disguised as whirlwinds. Of mysterious wanderers who come from unimaginably distant places.
Even the shaman does not understand everything the little man says. The pitukupf-- like other oracles-- tends to speak in sinuous riddles.
Long ago, the elders say-far longer than even the mountains can remember-the little man attached himself to the Utes. They are his adopted tribe; they nurture him in their hearts and in their campfire tales. He is a friend to the People, but he is also somewhat eccentric. Old Utes warn the uninitiated: never, never tether your horse near the dwarfs home. This goes double for your pinto pony. The little man detests horses ... especially spotted horses. If they are found near his badger-hole dwelling, he will most certainly kill them. If you don't believe it, ask Gorman Sweetwater, who lost a fine horse in Canon del Espiritu just four years ago ... strangled with vines. There are rumors that the Pitukupf is a thief, but this is not so.
It is true that now and then he borrows a little of this and some of that. And always forgets to return it.
Because lie has his needs. And is somewhat forgetful. He is what he is.
Now the Utes know very well that their dwarf has no dealings with Navajo or Shoshone or Cheyenne, much less the paleskinned matukach. Even so, there are persistent reports that the little man has shown himself to some who are not of the People. An elderly Hispanic woman over at Bondad (she has also seen angels) claims she spotted the dwarf standing on the banks of the Animas on All Saints' Day; he bowed impishly and tipped his hat to her! Five years ago, a white policeman told Daisy Perika how he followed tiny footsteps in the snow and had a brief glimpse of a child-sized creature who walked like a very old man. A Navajo follower of the Jesus Way has mentioned regular talks with the dwarf. They have-so the preacher sayssmoked the same pipe. And discussed many deep matters. To the traditional Ute, such reports from Hispanic and matukach and Navajo are foolishness-- silly talk best ignored. The dwarf would certainly have no dealings with those who were not of the People.
Quite aside from her communion with the dwarf-- and like all her shadowy ilk the world over-- Daisy Perika dreams many strange dreams. She has beheld horrific visions of blackened, frozen corpses floating above groaning skeleton-trees ... warm blood petting down like summer rain has stained her wrinkled face.
These dark dreams, these pale visions, these urgent communions with the pitukupf ... have provided warning of every sort of visitation.
Not the least premonition had hinted of what would accom,
pany this approach of night. The skin on her neck did not prickle, neither did shadowy sprite flit in the corner of the Shaman's dark eye ... no coiled serpent writhed a cold warning in her gut. On this particular evening, Daisy Perika had not the least inkling that a very peculiar someone was approaching. No, the shaman's usual resources had thus far failed to quicken her pulse.
And the unbidden visitor was already close at hand. Cloaked by the gossamer fabric of twilight was he ... sheathed by a dry skin of blue-gray clay. With the same timeless patience as the sandstone women who wait eternally on Three Sisters Mesa for the world to end, he also tarried at his lonely post. Caring not for ticking clock ... nor phase of moon ... nor falling aspen leaf that signaled summer's end.
The night visitor, moving in an odd, shuffling gait, comes near to the shaman's trailer home. He is weary and wanting rest. But he has important business to conduct here, and a man's work must be done before he can sleep.
The mouth of flame flickered blue and yellow tongues of fire licked at the bottom of the blackened iron pot. The thick brown broth responded with a cheerful bubbling and popping. Wielding a stained wooden spoon, Daisy Perika stirred the hearty stew. Rich vapors rose from the brew; they curled and writhed seductively. She sniffed. And was pleased. When the old woman was but a child, her mother had taught her how to prepare this meal.
Bittersweet memories of youth passed before her mind's eye; she sighed with deep yearning.
The Ute woman had lived within a mile of this lonely spot since the day of her birth. First in a house of pine logs with a pitched roof of rusted tin. Now, in a small trailer-home crafted of steel ribs and aluminum panels. Though she sometimes longed for the days of her childhood, Daisy grudgingly admitted
that hers was a far easier life than her mother's. She has electricity, a propane tank, a deep well with a Sears Roebuck pump that has not faltered for almost fifty years. She owns a good radio and a black-and-white television that works most of the time. Someday, she might even have a telephone. Someday.
But though a thousand summers have faded with the first frost, as many winters have draped the rounded shoulders of the mountains with shawls of woolly white, much about this land is the same as in her youth-and ever will be. Yes, the important things are unchanged. The brown earth is the same ... and the blue sky. Three Sisters Mesa still looms above her, as if the Pueblo women who were turned to stone watch over their Ute sister in the rugged valley below. The mischievous winds of autumn playfully fling handfuls of sand against the Ute woman's trailer. Swollen November clouds still carry the pregnant promise of heavy snows in the San Juans.
The night visitor cares not whether snows may cover him ... nor if the sun will ever shine again. He cannot concern himself with such small matters. His whole mind is focused on his consuming obsession.
Daisy Perika often reminds herself of this: though there are certain drawbacks to living in the solitude of the wilderness, there are advantages as well. Loneliness is more than compensated for by not having to put up with too many fools. Except for Cousin Gorman, of course. Gorman Sweetwater still stops by on his way to check his white-faced cattle who forage for bits of grass in the Canyon of the Spirits, but he is often mildly drunk and always thoroughly foolish.
There are a few visitors who are always welcome, Charlie Moon being chief among them. Daisy Perika feels fortunate to have a weekly visit from her nephew and wishes he would come more often. But a tribal policeman's life is a busy one. And he's a healthy young man whose mind is bound to be occupied by other matters. Like young women. Young men and young women, she reminds herself, should enjoy each other. Life's few pleasures pass us by soon enough.
Daisy Perika once enjoyed the company of men. She has endured three husbands. And buried them all. Now she is very old and enjoys few of life's pleasures. Except for food. Lately, she invests much thought into what she will have for her next meal. Lamb stew is good, that is true. Hamburgers are tasty too. And pinto beans cooked with onions. Boiled new potatoes and fried green tomatoes. Fat bacon snapping in the skillet with a heap of scrambled eggs.
But nothing ... nothing is as good as posole.
Especially if the green chiles are from the flat fields down at Hatch. And the pork is fresh from Fidel Sombra's pig farm up by Oxford. Of course, you must know how to fix it just right. A few pinches of salt. A half dozen good shakes of coarsely ground black pepper. And before the brew goes on the burner, two tablespoons of flour to thicken the broth.
She gave the iron pot a final stir, then twisted the knob to lower the flame for a bubbling simmer. A sudden gust of wind strained against the trailer's aluminum skin. The steel bones squeaked and groaned, but did not break. The sturdy little house was much like its occupant.
The winds blow like a fury around the night visitor, who squats under the tossing boughs of a fragrant juniper. But he does not feel the chill in it.
Satisfied with the fruit of her labors, Daisy ladled out a generous helping into a heavy crockery bowl and seated herself at the kitchen table. She smeared margarine over the last slab of black rye bread. The cupboard was getting a little bare. Her nephew would come by on Monday and drive her into Ignacio to shop for groceries. It was Charlie Moon's day off from his job at the Southern Ute Police Department, so he'd show up in his big pickup truck. She'd have preferred to ride in the SUPD Blazer the seat was easier on her back and you didn't have to step so high to get in.
Daisy helped herself to a spoonful of posole. Then, a bite of bread and margarine. A long drink of cold milk. The old woman closed her eyes in rapt pleasure. My ... such a feast.
Moreover, she was entertained as she supped.
The FM radio dial was tuned to KSUT, the tribe's radio station. And because it was Saturday evening, she listened to a program all the way from Minneapolis. Lots of good music ... and The Lives of the Cowboys, with Lefty and Rusty who had themselves a bath maybe once a year and were always chasing after some saloon gal. Like any woman in her right mind would want to snuggle up to a fellow who smelled worse'n his horse. But Daisy's favorite character on the show was the detective. Guy Somebody. She smiled and dipped up another spoonful of steaming posole. That Guy was always in some kinda scrape. Sometimes lie got shot full of holes by gangsters, but he must be a fast healer because he was always healthy enough for next week's show. And like them pitiful cowboys, he was always in love-but never got himself a woman. Maybe he didn't bathe neither.
When her meal was finished, Daisy stashed the leftover posole in the refrigerator, washed the bowl and spoon, and took a halfhearted swipe at the blackened iron pot. She glanced at the great sea of darkness rolling against her window, and yawned. Time for sleep. She switched off the kitchen light, and opened the door to the bedroom at the center of her trailer, home.
This day had been as ordinary as a day can be for a weary old woman who lives practically in the mouth of Canon del Espiritu. This night would-so Daisy thought-be like ten thousand others. As she switched off the lamp by her small bed, the realization came suddenly-much as a crooked finger of lightning illuminates a dark landscape. A chill shudder rattled the shaman's aged bones.
And she knew as only one of her kind can know. She was not alone.
Someone was there ... outside.
Cloaked in darkness.
Daisy moved warily to the window. She pulled the curtain aside, looked toward the dirt lane that led to the rutted gravel road. The stars were like glistening points of white fire. The cusp of half-moon was sailing high, bathing the earth in a creamy light. She squinted. The few pinons and junipers stood there, precisely where they should be, as familiar as old friends.
But something else stood there among the trees.
The old woman tensed. And regretted the fact that she didn't have a telephone to call for help. What about the doublebarreled twelve-gauge in the closet-was it loaded? Well, if it wasn't, there was a box of shotgun shells on the shelf above it. She flipped a switch, turning on the porch light. Maybe that would scare this prowler off.
It did not.
He moved several paces closer to the trailer; now his gaunt body was illuminated by the sixty-watt light bulb. The night visitor had piercing blue eyes, matted locks of straw-colored hair, an untrimmed beard. And he wore something that caught the shaman's eye. It was a pendant of polished wood, suspended on a cord around his neck. The ornament was long as a man's middle finger. Round on the top, pointed on the bottom. And curved ... like a bear claw.
The pendant was all he wore.
Except for an uneven coating of caked mud, the man was naked as the day he was born.
Well. This was not your run-of-the-mill prowler.
The winds whipped at tufts of rabbit grass, rattled the dry skeletons of Apache plume. But the frigid gusts did not seem to cause the nude man any discomfort. He merely stood there. And stared at the old woman in the window. He was apparently quite unconscious of his nakedness. Or his mud-caked skin.
The effect, though unnerving, was also mildly comical.
Daisy grinned. The old woman-- who was no stranger to either drunks or idiots-- opened the window. "Hey! What're you doing out there?"
He hesitated ... then raised his fingers. Touched his mouth.
What'd this yahoo want ... something to eat ? A cigarette?
Daisy noticed something on the side of his neck. Looked like a smear of dried blood. "You hurt or something?"
The visitor passed his hand over his head ... barely touching filthy, matted hair. He muttered something under his breath ... showed her his hand. It was no longer empty. On his grimy palm was something smooth and white. And spotlessly clean.
"A hen's egg," Daisy muttered. So the naked tramp could turn his hand to a trick or two. "What else you got up your sleeve? You gonna pull a jackrabbit outta your hat?" But, she reminded herself, this pitiful magician had neither sleeve nor hat. Nor britches.
He stretched out his hand.
Did this dirty fellow want to give her the egg? She waved the offer away. "No thanks, Houdini. I buy mine in town. By the dozen."
The Magician gave no indication that he understood. Nor did he offer a word to explain his presence.
But Daisy Perika felt no need for an explanation from this naked, mud-caked half-wit who was blessed with a small conjuring talent. What had happened was clear enough. This white man had wandered onto tribal lands without permission. Probably a college student on a hiking trip. He was either drunk or pumped up on some kind of drug-- only a boozer or a dopehead would shed his clothes on such a chilly night. And from the look of him, he'd stumbled into one of them black-mud bogs over in Snake Canyon. It was a record for Daisy Perika. Never in such a short space of time had the old woman made so many errors.
But just how he'd gotten himself into this fix was of no great interest to her. If this bug-brain didn't get some help, he'd freeze stiff as a board before morning. And she was the only help within a mile. So she had to do something. Daisy Perika-- who was a long way from being a fool-- was not about to let a crazy naked white man into her home. She pointed to indicate an easterly direction. "Go that way."
The Magician seemed perplexed by this simple instruction.
She shook her head in annoyance. Must be a foreigner. Having the innate good sense to know that if a person couldn't understand English, you had to speak louder, she yelled. "Head east-- down the dirt road. Toward the highway." Eventually, a passing motorist would spot this lunatic. And use their cell phone to call the tribal police. Let Charlie Moon and his bunch sort this out.
The stranger stood like he was planted in her yard, rooted to his tracks. His hand remained outstretched, displaying the object that looked like a egg. He stared at her. Expectantly.
She sighed. This jaybird wasn't going away. He seemed determined to test her sense of duty. "What is it? You want some clothes to wear?"
The Magician cocked his head inquisitively, like a puppy trying very hard to understand.
She raised her voice another decibel. "You wait right there. I'll go and get you some of my last husband's old clothes." He won't mind, seein' as he's been dead for twenty years.
Daisy opened the closet door and pushed aside wire hangers holding print dresses, woolen shawls, a man's wool overcoat. A faded pair of bib overalls was hanging on a hook above the shotgun. just the thing for a tramp. She found a scuffed pair of horsehide boots; a heavy pair of woolen socks was stuffed inside. The old woman muttered to herself. "I'll warn him to stay where he is, then pitch this stuff out on the porch. If the knucklehead has enough sense left to put these clothes on, then I'll make him a cheese-and-baloney sandwich and put that on the porch too. And send him on his way. Then I can go to bed with a clear conscience."
When the somewhat reluctant Good Samaritan returned to the window-ready to shout her instructions-the naked stranger was gone. Well, thank God and all His angels ... that's the last I'll see of that oddball. "Well," she said aloud so God would be sure to hear, "too bad he left in such a hurry ... I'd have liked to help that poor soul." It was with a sense of considerable relief that she closed the window. And stood there. Watching to make sure he was really gone. Daisy realized that she was breathing heavily, as if she'd climbed the long, rocky trail up the talus slope of Three Sisters Mesa.
The Ute shaman-- a member (in moderately good standing) of St. Ignatius Catholic Church-- sat down on her bed and said her prayers. She would have kneeled, but her knees were sore. Daisy prayed for some rain-- but not enough to flood the canyon. For a mild winter. For the health and prosperity of the People. And for other Native Americans. She prayed for Charlie Moon's safety. And-almost as an afterthought-- she prayed for Scott Parris, the chief of police up at Granite Creek. The white man was Charlie Moon's best friend. And the broad-shouldered matukach was her friend as well. Even though he had once blown a hole through her roof with a twelve-gauge shotgun-- a hole big enough to drop a goat through. With men and children, you learned to overlook such foolishness.
Daisy slid her feet under the covers and pulled the thick quilt to her chin; her head fell upon the pillow. This weary woman, imbued with the hardy spirit of her people-- and comforted by the sweet presence of Christ-- continued to whisper her prayers.
Our Father who is in heaven ... Great Mysterious One ... protect your people ... Hail Mary, full of grace ... watch over us ... He who speaks with words of thunder, hear my voice ... though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ... your rod and your staff they comfort me ... He who makes his home above the mountains, hear me ... 0 Lover of my soul ... my cup runneth over ... deliver us from evil . Oh yes ... help that crazy white man who's all splattered with mud.
And she added this observation and advice for the benefit of the omniscient One: "The way I figure it, he's either crazy or drunk. Or both. So when you send somebody to help him, it'd be best to tell 'em to be careful. At least that's what I think."
Finally, the rambling prayer ended.
As the moon drifted over Canon del Espiritu, Daisy's breathing became more regular.
On a windswept ridge above the shaman's trailer stands a desiccated corpse. She is a hideous, frightful thing to behold-- this aged dancer balanced awkwardly on a misshapen leg ... twisted arm raised in mute supplication to darkened heavens.
Depending upon one's perspective, she is ... a grotesque, twisted hag-standing where a living thing once stood ... a resinous pition snag-- chop her up for kindling wood.
On this night, the carcass has company. Of a sort.
Under the starlight shadow of the dead branches, the naked figure sits easily upon his haunches. He rolls the white "egg" in his hand The shaman has given him a name, and so he is the Magician. But he does not deal in common tricks and illusions.
When his silent song is ended, the mute singer does not stir. He will by no means depart from this place until the thing is done. And so he waits ... for someone who will surely come.
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