A Shaman Mystery
It is the final day.
Almost the eleventh hour.
Far overhead ... unseen by mortal eye... the hawk circles slowly. And waits.
On the parched plain below, encircled in a dry embrace of willow bones, is the annual ritual... the acceptance of pain.
Here are men with numb, heavy legs... blistered, bleeding feet padding on sun baked earth... swollen tongues whisper prayers for heating... for the flesh... for the soul.
In this place... men launch quests for visions.
Some... make fatal decisions.
It is the Sun Dance.
In the center of the enchanted circle stands the sacred tree.
With patient monotony, the Cheyenne drummers thump the taut rawhide.
The crippled Paiute singer wails his tales of times when animals walked and talked like men.
On the first day, there were sixteen enthusiastic dancers. Now, a trio of weary men shuffle their feet and sweat... and bleed.
Joseph Mark his brothers of the Blue Corn Clan call him the Sparrow is the last Shoshone still able to stand before the consecrated tree.
Only these dancers remain with the Sparrow: the hatchetfaced Sioux and the skinny white man.
The other Shoshones have spent all the strength that was in them.. . . and then borrowed. Their debt is a heavy one.
And others have given it up. A glum Blackfoot reclines on a blue cotton blanket, his knees drawn close to his chest as if he would withdraw into the womb of the earth. A dusky Bannock sits in the dust, a hollow look in his yellowed eye... muttering incoherently . . . shivering as if he were cold. Even the brash young Ute from the land beyond the southern mountains is finally too exhausted to stand in the sun. Though his head is unbowed, he is now a spectator... though of a more exalted tank than the scattering of visitors who sit along the north wall of the brush corral.
But the lone Shoshone has not retreated from his quest.
The Sparrow's coarse black braids are streaked with gray; his eyes are like slits cut in leather. The Shoshone dancer wears a single garment soft deerskin breeches decorated with a shim, mering fringe of porcupine quills. His lean body is unadorned except for this: from wrist to shoulder, his arms Are painted a garish blue. A cord of braided horsehair is looped around his neck; suspended from this is a whistle fashioned from the hollow bone of an eagle's leg. Fixed to the whistle with twists of dried sinew are two small plumes from the same bird.
His parched lips are cracked like the bed of a dry pond, his swollen tongue might be a lump of sandstone in his mouth. The soles of the dancer's feet are padded with stinging blisters; a doughy mixture of blood and dust is caked between his toes. The insatiable sun has roasted his lean body... and basted him in a salty broth of tears and sweat. Now he feels hungry tongues of fire lick at his face... and his fingers... the flames taste him. Will he be swallowed up?
A part of the Sparrow's mind whispers urgently to him: Withdraw now... you have played the man... take your rest...
But he is a stubborn pilgrim.
And so close to his heart's desire.
The lone hawk leans into the wind... and circles lower. And watches.
A spectator winds the coiled steel spring in a cherished pocket watch. Tiny segments of time... links in an infinite cosmic chain... are pulled along by minuscule toothed wheels. As the tiny gears' teeth bite and swallow the seconds, thin metallic hands rotate on the ivory face of the timepiece. They can only revolve clockwise, of course toward the future. Minutes thus digested can never be tasted again. Not in Middle World.
Like all genuine revelations, it comes suddenly... without warning. Without expectation.
The blue armed dancer's agony is set aside into some remote partition of himself. The Shoshone has almost ceased to exist in this exhausted body... even in this world. Now the Sparrow dances in another world. It is a place of astonishing, unnamed colors. There are fleeting shapes of shaggy homed beast and rumbling cloud spirit, rolling streams of crystalline waters. Voices of ancestors and spirit winds sing together among the peaks of snowy mountains.
In Middle World, the spectators, the other dancers... these mortals hear only the incessant thumping on the rawhide drums and the monotone, nasal voice of the aged Paiute singer. It is a familiar song called Flathead Woman Who Took Grizzly Bear for a Husband.
But for the isolated dancer, perceptions are of another kind. Though the pain has remained in Middle World with his physical body, all his senses shaped and honed by the suffering of the vision quest are exquisitely sharp. And oddly inverted. Except for the sacred tree and this symbol stands ever before him the familiar landscape of Middle World is reversed. All is backward. Upside down. Inside out. The midday sky is a shimmering orange pool beneath his feet, the crude brush corral an enormous golden wreath floating above his head like a victor's crown. The frigid black sunlight makes his skin glisten with intricate patterns of frost. The other dancers, the drummers, the spectators... are naked, transparent... he can see their articulated bones and stretched tendons... all of their innermost parts.
The Sparrow must strain to hear the drum's hollow call. The old man's comic song about Flathead Woman's children by Grizzly Bear comes from impossibly far away... from another world. But in this new place, the smallest sounds are easy to hear. In his altered state of consciousness, the drone of a distant horsefly is a humming whirlwind in his head... he hears the labored breath of another dancer... even the pop snap as the eyelids of a spectator close and open.
And he hears his heart pumping the blood of life.
Thu whump. Thu whump. Thu whump.
And now... now he hears many hearts beating... many hollow drums drumming.
One heart drums much faster than the others.
The anomaly shrieks at him but this warning he does not hear.
The Paiute elder ends his song.
The Shoshone puts the eagle bone whistle to his raw lips; he blows one long, shrill note, then another. He dances forwardjust three halting steps. He reaches forth with the tip of his finger. To touch the sacred tree!
The white man, who understands that the blue armed Shoshone is reaching a climactic point, dances backward to the edge of the corral. He squats and leans his bare back against the rough weave of willow branches that make a coarse wall behind him. The weary Sioux dancer, also sensing the approach of the Power, retreats respectfully toward the rim of the circular enclosure and dances in place. He watches the visionary... and attempts to swallow the lump of envy that is lodged in his throat. Aside from the Shoshone, the Sioux, and the white man, a dozen exhausted dancers are gathered around the inner wall of the makeshift corral. Some are huddled in dusty blankets. A few sleep fitfully, fever, ishly they dream of cool water to drink. Now, one man nudges another; some are awakened from their uneasy slumbers. There is an urgent whispering in the brush corral, a perceptible gathering of tension. The drummers, at a nod from the Sun Dance chief, cease their drumming and lay aside the leather padded sticks. The chief of the dance nods again at the Cheyenne drummers. The eldest of the trio begins... in a slow rhythm... to drop the palm of his hand upon the taut rawhide. It is like the muffled boom of distant thunder. Participants and spectators alike lean forward in anticipation; they squint at the solitary dancer.
The Sparrow raises his arms before the tree, which has neither leaf nor limb, bark nor root. It is, to the eye of the uninformed, little more than a twelve foot post with a fork at the top. It is decorated with painted stripes and satin ribbons whose significance is obscure to the scattering of curious tourists who have come to spend an hour gawking at the Sun Dancers.
The supplicant's lips move. In silent prayer, perhaps. Even he does not understand these words he utters, this archaic language he speaks.
Someone flips open the golden cover on an antique timepiece. The black hands sweep across its eyeless, ivory face. And the little clock ticks... and ticks... and ticks. The blue armed warrior has passed through the nested circles of fire... that shimmering tunnel between worlds. Now, the Sparrow stands before the Tree. Not the imitation, not the symbolic version that has been ceremonially "shot" by a flint tipped arrow. Not the cottonwood post that has been "planted" by Shoshone elders in the center of the crude brush corral that stands within sight of Crowheart Butte.
He stands before the eternal Tree. Even as he watches, its emerald branches bloom with flowers of scarlet, indigo, and gold. The blossoms are alive, and each flower has an eye and can see into the spirit of the man. And through their eyes, he also sees himself. Transparent, he is... a man not of flesh, but of a bluish white fluid. Like molten glass. His heart is a flickering flame, his brain a burning ember, his bones like the supple shafts of the red willow. He marvels at the zigzag line connecting his head to his heart.
A sweet, resonant voice tells him this:
Before time was, this path was made by the Creator.
He is about to glimpse... the infinite mysteries of Wakantanka.
If he will only ask, he will be heated of his afflictions.
He strains to hear the voice of his Beloved. It is a whisper... it fades away...
But his ears hear something else. Something back in Middle World.
The timepiece ticks.
Once. Twice. Three times.
And then, it is the eleventh hour. Too late, it is.
In the Shoshone's ear, each tick of the chronometer is the sharp crack of a bullwhip. And now there is an odor... the dancer pauses and sniffs the air. This is a very bad thing... it should not be in this sacred place. The Sparrow tells himself that this smell is only his imagination. It is not real. He wants to believe this. But he knows. Something that should not be... is here. In this sacred lodge of the sun.
For a few heartbeats, a suffocating fear covers the dancerbut this must be overcome. Deny the fear or the Power will vanish like smoke in the wind. Even his life may be taken away. He raises the whistle to his lips... and blows a shrill, wavering note to frighten the demon away.
It is not enough.
Now the sun's rays are sharp... many small blades cutting his flesh. The drumbeat is louder now; it synchronizes with his faltering pulse and throbs in his head. The world is no longer upside down. The familiar yellow dust is under his bleeding feet, the pale blue sky far above his head. And he cannot swallow... his thirst is almost unbearable.
Even the tourists can see that something has gone wrong... they murmur uneasily among themselves. An aged Shoshone woman sits at the entrance to the Sun Dance Lodge; she vigorously shakes a willow branch to encourage the faltering dancer. "Shu shu," she calls, "shu shu."
He lifts his head to the tree. Yes... yes... the Power is surely not far away. With dogged determination, the blue armed Shoshone accepts the pain. He resumes the dance and waits longingly for that somber voice from the mountains.
It is not to be.
Once again, he smells the dreadful odor. He would run, but where can a man hide from such evil as this? The blue armed warrior makes his decision. He must face this assault. He opens his eyes.
Another face stares back at the dancer. These eyes are at once eager ... hungry... desperate... almost pleading. The hands... the fingers... they move just so on the thing... the gesture is an unspeakable obscenity.
Surely, this is also an illusion.
The Shoshone turns his back on this dreadful abomination, his head swimming. No, such a thing cannot happen. It is like the bad smell . . . a thing in his mind... not real.
But his fears overwhelm him. The sickness comes suddenly, like a rumble of thunder in his belly. He bends at his waist... clenches his fists... and shudders like a man suffering the final chills of a deadly fever.
The blue armed warrior has but one hope... that the end will come soon.
The Sparrow hears the whuff whuff of great wings cutting the air ... and the mournful call of that solitary spirit who nests in the darkness of Lower World and feeds among the deep shadows of Middle World.
Now, it calls to him.
By his very name, it summons him.
And then... he feels the sting of death in his flesh.
From the deep pit, with the stink of death upon his wings, cometh the ravenous owl.
To devour the wandering soul.
From heaven's light, the hawk's feathers gleam like burnished brass. He folds his crimson tipped wings... and falls to earth.
His eye is on the sparrow.
One Week Later
It was a long walk to this place; his journey began while there were stars in the sky. Now it was hot enough to keep the bluetail lizards content.
Only a few thousand years ago, this had been a lush land of knee-high grasses and small lakes lined with reedy marshes.There had been mammoth and giant bison in this place, even camels and pygmy horses. And men with short spears and throwing sticks. All were gone. Now this was a sun-baked desert. Dotted with forlorn clumps of mesquite, greasewood, and tumbleweeds that rolled before the winds. And the occasional stunted pinon or juniper, like deformed children cast out from their tribe.
He paused from his labors and straightened his back, grateful for the late afternoon shade under the anvil-shaped sandstone overhang. He blinked at the crude sketches etched into the stone over his head. A meandering snake with a diamond shaped head. Twin zigzags of lightning. Nested circles that were the shaman's tunnel to other worlds. Stick figures of dancing men and fourlegged animals that might have represented deer. The thirsty laborer took a long drink of tepid water from an aluminum canteen. He opened a small can and speared a Vienna Sausage with the blade of his pocket knife. As he enjoyed his modest meal, he thought about how it was good to live on the earth. He also thought about his prospects. All day he'd dug in the rocky soil. And what did he have to show for it? Nothing. But it was here.
He could feel it. In the tingling of his fingers.
After a short respite, he was on his knees again. Prying at slabs of reddish brown sandstone, scooping up handfuls of grainy soil. He did not move the earth with pick or shovel. His tool was an archaic one a sturdy oak staff, its sharpened end hardened in the hot ashes of a campfire. He worked slowly. Deliberately. With the patient determination of one who knows what he wants. Many drops of perspiration fell from his face into the oblong hole.
Wait... here was something..
He removed a glossy sliver of stone and held it up to the light, turning it over this way and that. He rubbed off the dust of ages with his thumb. A thin flake of gray flint. It had been carried to this place; it showed signs of having been worked by the hand of man. There was delicate chipping along one edge. Probably used for skinning rabbits, he thought. Nothing to brag about. But still, it was a sign. He dropped it into his shirt pocket.
Only minutes later, under a broad slab of stone, he found the earthenware jar. The ceramic vessel was resting on its side. It had a long neck and was painted in bold black and white stripes. He removed the artifact and inspected it with some interest. Yes. This was pretty old stuff. Anasazi. Inside, there might be remnants of an offering. Corn pollen to be returned to the Thunder Gods. Or food for that long journey into the land of shadows. He placed the artifact on a heap of rubble near the small excavation.
Using his folding knife, he began a careful excavation around the place where he'd unearthed the ceramic vessel.
It was as he expected the bones were beneath the place where he'd found the long necked jar. The skeleton was an adult, knees pulled up near the chest. The skull rested on its side, the lower jaw separated in a garish grin. Half of the teeth were missing, the others worn to the dentine by consumption of flinty blue corn ground into gritty meal on granite metates. The ribs were soft, the pelvis crumbling. The finger bones were in pretty good shape. The feet, which had been intercepted by the hole of a burrowing rodent, were little more than splintered flakes. The long bones, though yellowed with age, were in excellent condition. He tapped a femur with his knuckle. Hard as rock.
A large oyster shell lay beneath the jawbone on a section of vertebrae. This ornament had a pair of holes drilled in it. He marveled... this had been brought all the way. from the Gulf of Mexico... or the Pacific coast. Either way, a long walk. The shell pendant reminded him that these were the remains of a person who had lived and breathed... and died. He spoke to the Old One. "Who were you, Grandfather... what was your name?"
As if in answer, a hesitant stutter of thunder spilled over the barren wastelands. He paused from his work, raising his head to squint at the source of the sound. A half dozen miles to the northwest, there was a heavy cloud. Attempting to speak... to water the earth... but this precious moisture would evaporate before reaching the ground. Long, pointed gray wisps hung from the broad chin of the thunderhead.
"Cloud Whiskers," he muttered with a glance at the yellowed skeleton. "So that was what you were called. Yes... a good name."
There were flashes of blue white light so intense that he instinctively raised his hands to shield his eyes. Now the storm seemed to be a living thing. For a moment, the approaching cloud stood on trembling legs of lightning... shuddering like an old gray horse about to collapse. And then it bellowed thunder... terrible, elemental sounds... like great mountains tumbling down.
The intruder had no doubt that this was the protesting spirit of the Old One whose rest he had disturbed. It was a natural thing that Cloud Whiskers wanted him to go away, leave these bones in peace. But the trespasser would not depart from this sacred place. Could not until he had accomplished his grim task. He set his jaw and turned once more to his work.
It was almost dark when he turned his back on the ancient burial site and trudged away toward that place where a faint smudge of scarlet stained the western horizon. This man who had worked so hard had taken nothing to sell to those wealthy collectors of ancient artifacts. He had returned the valuable ceramic water jar to its resting place in the dust of ages. The remarkable shell gorget remained upon the crumbling vertebrae of the Old One. After carefully refilling the hole, he had brushed a juniper branch over the ground to disguise any remaining evidence of his diggings.
Weary from his labors... and satisfied... he longed for home.
But his work had only begun. The Following Summer Yellow Jacket Canyon, Colorado The Tree
It was barely past dawn in the rugged country. Aside from Poker Martinez the Ute Mountain Sun Dance chief there were about thirty men in the crew. Because of the sacred nature of their duty, all were either Sun Dancers or men approved by the chief. Stone Pipe, the hard eyed Sioux, was here. Even the white Sun Dancer, the thin matukach who calls himself Steele, had been permitted to participate. The chief couldn't remember the pale man's first name. Didn't matter. All white men's names sounded much alike. Aside from a half dozen "Southerns" from Ignacio who were trusted relatives, the rest of the crew were men of the Ute Mountain tribe. Most of these lived within ten miles of tribal headquarters at Towaoc.
Many of the men were leaning against dusty four wheel drive pickup trucks and battered jeeps. They talked quietly about how bad this pitiful excuse for a road was, about what the Denver Broncos might accomplish next season, about tribal politics. And, of course, about women. Most drank steaming coffee from vacuum bottles or plastic cups. The younger men munched on bologna or cheese sandwiches. For dessert they had little store bought cakes with chocolate icing and white cream filling. The older men gnawed on beef jerky seasoned with black pepper and red chili, or they smoked cigarettes. All tried not to breathe the alkali dust whipped up by the capricious winds of early July.
The Sun Dance chief noticed that the white man munched a granola bar and drank distilled water from a plastic bottle. He was peculiar like all the matukach. But not a bad sort.
Larry Sands a Southern Ute approached Poker Martinez. This fellow, nicknamed Sandman by his peers, showed no outward indication of disrespect to the Sun Dance chief But neither was there the least sign of deference.
In clipped, matter of fact speech, Sands pointed out a few relevant facts to the tribal elder, who (he assumed) apparently didn't have any notion where he'd led the small caravan of vehicles. For one thing, the Sandman informed the old man, they had crossed the tribal boundary some miles back, where the jeep trail turned north at Moccasin Ditch. For another, they were on BLM land. Government land. He waited for a response.
The blank expression on the chiefs face did not change. But inside, the old man burned. This smart assed boy (who rarely spoke in the Ute tongue) had himself a framed piece of paper from a college. Worse still, there were nasty rumors that he planned to go away to some uppity university and study the white man's medicine. Eventually, he'd leave the reservation for good.
The young man waited, though not patiently. This old duffer apparently did not understand. Larry Sands resumed his polite report, but in a more urgent tone. It would not be lawful to remove a tree from this place not without a federal permit. It wasn't a smart thing to do. Getting these tree hugging Feds on your case was like having a cross eyed bulldog bite your ass. They didn't let go till they got their chunk of flesh.
There were reasons that the Sun Dance chief did not care to hear about such things. For one thing, he had a toothache that had been throbbing since midnight. For another, his wife had presented him with cold cereal for breakfast. Little donut shaped things floating in skim milk. The cold milk made his tooth hurt all the more. Absorbed in his miseries, he did not give a damn about white men's boundaries or rules. Without looking at the Young man, the chief spat into the yellow dust. This was his answer. The Sandman retreated and said no more. Let the stubborn old bastard do as he wished. He smiled. Maybe the tree would fall on him. Hammer his hard head, drive him into the earth like an iron spike.
Poker Martinez growled to himself. Being Sun Dance chief was a significant honor, it was true. But it was also a sharp pain in the ass dealing with these young know it alls. And it was not like he had a choice about where to get the tree. He'd had two dreams. In the first dream, he had walked along the rocky banks of the Yellow jacket, following the narrow deer path that led up the small branch called Burro Canyon. And he had seen the tree that must be taken. Just below an outcropping of dark sandstone, its thirsty roots fed by a trickle of a spring. The cottonwood would have a nice straight trunk, with a symmetrical crotch about sixteen feet above the ground. If it wasn't on Ute Mountain land, well that was just too bad.
In the second dream... well he had seen something even more important. The memory of that promise filled him with anticipation.
The old man folded his arms and surveyed his little band of Saturday warriors. He figured he had maybe ten good men, and most of these had seen at least fifty winters. The young fellows seemed to think this was a weekend picnic. Like going out to cut a Christmas tree. When these chubby town Indians had finished their sandwiches and sugar cakes and sweetened coffee, maybe they could manage to walk a mile or so to the place where the tree waited. He opened the door of his aged Dodge pickup and reached behind the seat for a parcel rolled up in an old bed sheet. He unwrapped a Brazilian lemonwood bow and a single arrow. The bow was store bought and fancy; the arrow was not. The shaft was made of serviceberry wood; split magpie feathers served as fletching. Fixed to the business end was a pink quartz arrowhead his granddaughter had found down in the New Mexico desert, in the long shadow of Shiprock. With this arrow, the Sun Dance chief would shoot the tree he'd seen in his dream. Then, the older dancers would take turns putting ax to trunk. Novice dancers would have the honor of stripping off the bark and branches, and loading the post into Poker Martinez's battered old pickup.
And next week taku nikai "thirsty dance" would begin. Yes, everything would go well. It would be a fine dance.
This is what he thought.
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