By JAMES D. DOSS
ST. MARTIN'S MINOTAUR Copyright © 2003 James D. Doss
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-312-31744-1
PRESSED SNUGLY AGAINST COLORADO'S BORDER WITH NEW MEXICO is the bittersweet land of the Southern Utes. Like the entire universe and every creature in it, this is a work in progress. And a very fine work it is. Splashing, snow-melt rivers follow serpentine paths through broad valleys where willows weep not and lime-green cottonwoods are crowned with shimmering rainbows. Hardy piñon and juniper dot the crests of wind-sculpted mesas. Between these long sandstone benches are dark, silent canyons where spirits who tarry in this world keep company with other shadows. Presiding above all are the cloud-shrouded peaks, blue-green with spruce and fir. During the frigid Moon of Dead Leaves Falling, the mountain's round shoulders are sprinkled with flakes of aspen gold. But this is a fleeting time; soon their heads will be capped in purest white that does not vanish until June is well past middle age. The early Spaniards named these heights after that beloved disciple who inquired of Jesu Cristo: "Lord, who is it among us that shall betray you?" The answer San Juan heard still whispers in the winds. From age to age, the mountains remain ... and the betrayal is repeated.
THE RED-TAILED hawk circles high over the creation. Far below, at the yawning mouth of Cañon del Espiritu, the bird's clear eye spies a tiny silver speck. It is the body of an antique house trailer. The dwelling has stout steel ribs, aluminum skin that can be sliced with a pocket knife, small windows where an old woman's wrinkled face can sometimes be glimpsed. This is where the Ute elder spends the twilight of her life. By the path of the hawk, her home is an almost equal distance from Arboles, Bayfield, and Ignacio-which is to say about ninety-five furlongs. This is a very considerable distance for one who must depend upon others for transportation. Though she is far from civilization, Daisy Perika dwells close to the heart of God. Considering her many sins, this might seem unlikely-and indeed is beyond all human understanding. If she is neither sweet nor full of compassion, there are reasons why. The woman's years have pressed hard, molding her into a leathery bag of brittle bones and bitter memories. Loss and pain have made her greedy and fearful. The elder's tongue is sharp, sometimes vulgar. Despite her many well-meant promises to the kindly pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Church, the shaman has not given up her clandestine conversations with the dwarf-spirit who dwells in the badger hole. Daisy might well commit theft or even murder if there was no fear of being caught and punished. The poor old soul is fond of only six of her fellow human beings, and barely able to tolerate the rest. Under these circumstances it cannot be expected that Daisy would keep the First Commandment. One who finds her neighbors hateful cannot truly love God. But that Lover of Souls adores the crabby old woman. And grants her grace upon grace, not the least of which she deserves. Therein lies the heart of the deepest, sweetest mystery.
DAISY PERIKA pushed herself up from the straight-backed chair, hobbled slowly across the linoleum to peer out the miniature window. Hands resting on the sill, she looked toward the U-shaped formation called Cougar's Tail. Not that she could see the entire curl of the rocky ridge-Daisy could barely make out the mouth of the Canyon of the Spirits. The atmosphere was a stinging swirl of sand and grit that peppered against the trailer like brown sleet. All night, she had slept fretfully. All morning long, the wind had sputtered and coughed, pausing now and then to gather its raspy breath. With the greater of the gusts, the walls of the trailer rattled and buckled as though the sixty-year-old rivets might pop. Moreover, the entire structure rocked back and forth. And squeaked. And groaned. It was maddening. There was this singular blessing-the usually solitary woman was not alone. Charlie Moon, who had arrived with the sunrise, was seated at her kitchen table. The tribal investigator had not said a word since finishing his scrambled eggs and chili-spiked posole. His whole attention was focused on a tattered copy of the Southern Ute Drum. The tribal elder turned to scowl at her nephew. As if he was responsible for the weather. "This wind is going to blow us over into Conejos County." He grunted, turned a page. She made a rude, spitting sound. "I can feel the sand between my teeth." Charlie Moon muttered something unintelligible. The old woman pulled a woolen shawl more tightly around stooped shoulders. "It's cold enough out there to freeze your shadow to the ground." And not much better inside. "I think the furnace is about to give up the ghost-or maybe I'm low on propane." "And the cow's gone dry and the hens won't lay." He winked at her over the newspaper. "Other than that, it's a fine day." Daisy tried hard not to smile; the effort made her face ache. "Anybody who thinks this is a fine day has maggot stew for brains." He folded the tribal newspaper. "There's not so much dust up at the Columbine. You should go home with me." The tribal elder shook her head. "No-thank-you. Every time I go to your ranch, something bad happens. And if I'm not here, thieves might break into my house." Moon glanced around her sparsely furnished home, wondered what anyone would want to steal. Miles from the nearest neighbor, this was no place for an elderly person to live. He repeated the offer he made on almost every visit. "I could fix you up a bedroom at the ranch headquarters." As an enticement, he added, "It'd be nice and warm." "All your bedrooms are on the second floor," she snapped. "I'm too old and brittle-boned to be climbing up stairs." She followed his gaze around her kitchen. "Besides, home is where your stuff is." "I could fix you up a room downstairs." "Where, in a closet?" Moon, who had been thinking of his rarely used office, grinned. "No, I need my closets. But there's a little pantry just off the dining room. It's got a forty-watt lightbulb. We could clear out some of the canned goods so you could have a shelf for your stuff. It'd be nice and cozy." She brushed this joke away with the wave of a hand. "Don't you have to be getting home?" The sharp-tongued woman immediately regretted these words. The rancher consulted his wristwatch. "Now that you mention it." Moon's eye followed his aged aunt as she made her way across the kitchen. "Anything I can do for you before I go?" "I can take care of myself." The shaman placed a palm on the door of the chugging refrigerator, as if she could feel what was inside. "But when you come back, bring me a dozen eggs. Two pounds of bacon. Pound of pork sausage. Can of lard. Sliced bread. Coffee. Milk. Sugar. Butter. And some red chili powder." Charlie Moon, who knew her grocery list by heart, got up from the table. He was not able to stretch to his full seven-foot height inside the trailer, and the black Stetson would go on after he stepped outside onto the rickety pine porch. "I may not be back for a week or two. I'll have some groceries brought over from Ignacio. And I'll get somebody from La Plata Propane to have a look at your furnace." He gave her a hug.
THE OLD woman watched her nephew drive away. Cold coils of loneliness tightened around her heart. Maybe this time I should have gone with him.
EVENING HAS COME TO THE HIGH COUNTRY. THE OVERWORKED winds heave a last sigh before settling into the canyons for a night's rest. Dust and sand drift slowly down to earth. Twilight grows old, dusky gray ... withers into inky blackness. One by one, sharp prickles of starlight burn holes through the outer darkness. A yellow-eyed owl calls once, twice, thrice. She leaves her lookout on a piñon's gnarly shoulder, wings hopefully toward a perch on the pale crescent moon. Night after night she does this. Now a taut stillness occupies the land. The unseen audience is hushed, expectant. Waiting for the velvet curtain to be drawn, the darkling players to appear onstage and prance before the backdrop of mesa, mist, and cloud.
WEARY AS she was, the old woman was also restless. Daisy Perika turned onto one side, found no comfort there, rolled onto the other. She tried lying on her back, staring at an invisible ceiling. The tired old soul listened to the clock's metallic tickety-tick. She heard the recurring call of a distant owl, the sound of something small scurrying across the roof of the trailer. A squirrel, she thought. The elder closed her eyes, tried hard to find sleep. She could not, and finally gave up the search. Moments later, Sleep found her.
A LUMINOUS balloon inflated with soul-stuff, the dreamer felt herself floating upward, passing through the roof of her trailer home. Over there, jutting up between Snake Canyon and Cañon del Espiritu, were the familiar stone formations on Three Sisters Mesa. She was drifting higher now, above the snowy peaks of the San Juans, moving rapidly toward that distant place where the sun would appear to bring a new day. As if covered by a multitude of unblinking eyes, the shaman saw everything-above and below, toward all four points of the compass. A thin sliver of moon hung over the earth, as if suspended on an invisible cord. There was a lake to the south; it was shaped like a leg bent at the knee. Starlight reflected off the glassy waters. There were headlights of automobiles, inching ever so slowly along unseen highways. And then, in a twinkling, the mountains were far behind her. A flash of blue-green light, and the sun was well above the horizon-but not as she had seen it appear on thirty thousand mornings. The incandescent sphere was just there. Not moving. As if time itself had frozen. The dreamer felt herself falling, falling. Daisy Perika was on her back. The shaman felt a thick carpet of grass under her bare legs. She pushed herself up on elbows, inspected the backs of her hands. As she had expected, there were no wrinkles in the skin. No pain in her joints. The elder was young. Her eyes searched for the sun but could not find that bright orb. The sky was thick with gauzy clouds, the air moist and heavy with the perfume of wild roses. She was in the center of a great meadow, dotted here and there by an isolated oak, maple, or elm. But mostly there was thick grass and fragrant wildflowers. Daisy got to her feet, brushed off her nightgown. The great field was bordered on one side by low, wooded hills, on another by a wide river. This place was not real like Middle World, where her aged body slept. It was real in a completely different way. And it was very still. Something is wrong here. But what? Like a hound on a scent, she sniffed. The atmosphere fairly crackled with the expectation of some awful calamity. Having had a thousand visions, Daisy Perika was not unduly alarmed. Morning would find her safely back in her bed near the mouth of Cañon del Espiritu. Knowing that these visions always had a purpose and that something would certainly happen, she waited. It was not necessary to wait long. Daisy felt a slight tug at her skirt. She looked down at the elfin creature whose head barely reached above her knee. It was the Little Man. The pitukupf was dressed in a green cotton shirt, buckskin breeches, beaded moccasins. He also wore a floppy black hat and a dark expression.
The shaman stared at her power spirit, waiting for him to speak. He uttered not a word. But the dwarf did raise his arm. Point.
Daisy looked up, saw something approaching through the mists. The intense silence was penetrated by the rhythmic beating of hooves on turf. Appearing over a low ridge, there it was-a magnificent white horse. Upon the great beast, a rider. She felt a surge of joy to behold this marvelous sight. To own such a fine mount, this one must surely be an important chief. But as horse and rider came near, she realized that this was not a man of the People. This was a white-a matukach. More from prudence than alarm, the Ute woman took a step backward. She watched him rein in the horse, dismount. The tall man wore tightly fitted white breeches, a pale yellow silk shirt with lace at the collar, a long blue cloak. His knee-high black boots glistened like polished midnight. She stared. Should I know this man? The stranger took note of the Ute woman and the dwarf; a wry half-smile passed across his face. He made a slight, formal bow to the visitors from the West. The shaman returned the bow, smiled. This was a good-looking fellow. And quite the gentleman. Daisy brushed a wisp of hair from her face, hoped she didn't look too frowzy in the patched nightgown. The muscular horse snorted, stamped a hoof against the earth. Three times. The tall man comforted the animal with words that Daisy could not hear. The shaman looked down to consult with her power spirit. The dwarf had vanished. This was, as visions went, a rather pleasant one. She waited for the white man to speak to her, but the handsome stranger remained silent. Indeed, he now took no notice of the Indian woman's presence. He gazed off into the distance, toward the great river. His eyes turned glassy. He was as one whose vision penetrates things present-to see another, more distant world.
There was a slight puff of wind that dried her eyes. Daisy blinked.
The white man was standing by a tripod-mounted surveyor's transit. He waited until the suspended plumb bob had damped its pendulumous motions, then checked the compass and the leveling bubble. Apparently satisfied with the instrument, he squinted through the eye-piece. Marveled at what he saw so many years hence. The sighting done, vertical and horizontal verniers were consulted, angles and bearings duly noted. He consulted a map, inked numbers and symbols onto the lined pages of a small ledger. Again, the shaman blinked. The man was on his knees with a triangular trowel. He had already laid a sure foundation that rested on bedrock. Now he was setting the massive cornerstone. Daisy blinked a third time. Now the man was old and frail, his thinning hair white like lambs' wool. He rested in a rocking chair, under the pleasant shade of a hawthorn tree. The matukach elder watched a great number of workers-far more than the Ute woman could count.
Excerpted from DEAD SOUL by JAMES D. DOSS Copyright ©2003 by James D. Doss. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.