Read an Excerpt
Cañon del Espiritu,
Southern Ute Reservation
Yesterday the Ute woman had only felt the creature’s approach, the same way she divined the threat of a thunderstorm long before it danced across the mesas on spider legs of lightning. Today, she could smell the musky odors of his lean body. As she watched the sun fall toward its nightly repose in the bosom of the blue mists, the shaman could distinctly hear the beast’s panting breaths, the soft padding of his paws.
Darkness was the preferred companion of the beast, and darkness already wrapped its arms around the pleated skirt of Three Sisters Mesa. The unrelenting creature moved ever closer. Yogovuch trotted up the dusty arroyo at the base of the sprawling mesa, then through the fragrant thickets of sage and into the forest of gnarled piñon. The woman hadn’t actually seen the dwarf’s messenger, but his presence was palpable. The limber beast, with scarlet tongue draped over black lips, was approaching her trailer house in brazen fashion, and she was offended by this display of arrogance. Daisy Perika steeled herself and pulled the worn cotton blanket around her stooped shoulders. She stood on the unpainted porch and gripped the pine railing. Daisy waited expectantly for Coyote, servant of pitukupf, to speak to her of his elfin master’s business. When it came, the eerie sound startled the woman.
“Yiiiooouuuwww . . . aaaooouuu . . . iiieeeooo” the beast yodeled to the shaman. The somber summons fell on ears that refused to listen.
Daisy clapped her hands together, the sound pierced the twilight like muffled pistol shots. “Leave me in peace, Yogovuch,” she shouted to the intruder, who covered himself with shadows. “I am full of years and my bones hurt. Know this”—she boldly shook her finger in his direction to emphasize her determination—“I will no longer hear the drum or travel to Lowerworld.” It was, she thought, high time for the dwarf to find a younger woman to take over this arduous work. She went inside and threw the bolt on the flimsy door.
She waited somewhat uneasily for Coyote’s reply. All she could hear was the rhythmic chirping of the fat black crickets. “That is good,” she muttered, “the mangy servant of pitukupf has turned tail. Tonight I will sleep without dreams. . . . My spirit will stay in my body.” Even as she was consoled by this naïve hope, a puffing gust of wind shook her frail home, rattling the kitchen windows. She shuddered; was this Coyote’s answer? “I hope,” she whispered, “ticks big as plums suck out all your blood!”
Determined to push the encounter from her mind, Daisy eased her frame into a cane-bottom chair and squinted at the snowy picture on her television screen. Millions of black and white dots attempted to coalesce into figures of human beings and helicopters with pods of rockets. She could not get a good picture when the rain fell between the distant city and her home at the mouth of Cañon del Espiritu. “Aunt Daisy,” her nephew had cajoled, “you’re too far away from your family; you ought to move into one of those new tribal houses at Ignacio. They got cable TV, running water, everything. You live like a hermit out there, and,” he added ominously, “you could have a stroke and die and we wouldn’t know until they smelled your body all the way down at the Piedra.”
“When I die,” she had responded with a poker face, “you’re gonna know right away. I make you a promise.” The young man had been at a loss for words as he imagined Aunt Daisy’s spirit visiting his bedside on some still night. He considered asking her to keep her ghost away from his home, but thought it prudent to drop the subject.
Daisy was considering whether to start supper when her ears picked up the distinctive sound of chugging engine and creaking frame as a vehicle left the gravel road and heaved its weight over the rutted surface of her dirt lane. The identity of the pickup truck became unmistakable when the driver shifted to low gear. The old Dodge had a bad muffler and the shepherd had never learned to use a clutch properly. Daisy got to her feet and pushed the aluminum door open. She shaded her eyes from the setting sun as she watched Nahum Yaciiti climb down from the pickup, his bowed legs challenged by the operation. He was leaning heavily on his shepherd’s staff as he shuffled toward the porch.
“You’re too little for that big Dodge, Nahum,” she teased. “You should buy one of them little Jap trucks.” She knew Nahum could afford a new truck; the old sheepherder had a reputation for being uncommonly thrifty. There were delicious rumors, whispered in Ignacio bars, that Nahum buried rolls of greenbacks in wax-sealed canning jars under his grape arbor. Holes made by hopeful treasure hunters sometimes appeared under the arbor when Nahum was away from his home for more than a few days.
When he did not reply, she was tenacious in pressing her point. “You’re going to fall out of that big truck someday and break your hip, and then who’ll look after you?” Nahum’s wife, who had been two decades younger than her husband, had been taken by influenza during last February’s cold rains. Now, the old man lived alone in an adobe house north of Bondad on the rocky banks of the Animas. Only a few sheep remained from his large flock; Nahum treated them more like pets than livestock.
The shepherd smiled, displaying an uneven set of pegged teeth. He leaned his oak staff in the corner, hung his hat on it, and dropped his heavy coat on the floor before he sat down at the kitchen table with a deep sigh. Nahum looked hopefully toward the coffeepot and the woman took the hint.
In his youth, Nahum Yaciiti had spent most of his days and nights under a cloud of alcoholic fog. His body still showed the ravages of this addiction, but Nahum had been off the bottle for many years now and his mind showed no signs of the former sickness. Only last week, at an AA meeting at the Peaceful Spirit Center, Nahum had stood up and proudly told the group that for sixteen years he had drunk nothing stronger than Daisy Perika’s coffee. This brought an appreciative chuckle from the audience; the old shaman’s coffee was widely believed to be strong enough to melt spoons and some whispered that Daisy added “special ingredients” from her store of herbal medicines. A respected member of the tribal council swore that months of impotence had been cured by a single cup of the acrid brew.
Nahum Yaciiti remained silent while Daisy poured a massive heap of grounds into the paper filter and started the coffeemaker with only three cups of water. He looked toward the television with eyes that seemed to pierce through the phosphor-coated screen, his gaze fixed on some distant scene. The old woman glanced at him over her shoulder, enviously wondering what far landscape Nahum could see. There were persistent rumors about the bowlegged shepherd. Some of the pious Chicano women who lit candles at St. Ignatius Catholic Church whispered that Nahum was sometimes visited by angels as he tended his flock. Armilda Esquibel, Nahum’s neighbor, told the Jesuit priest that she had actually seen the shining visitors from heaven watching over Nahum’s sheep while the elderly man slept under a cottonwood. There was an incredible report that, on Easter Sunday of 1990, the old shepherd had suffered from bleeding wounds like those the square Roman nails had made in the hands of the blessed Carpenter. Daisy, who had never seen an angel and shuddered at the brutal savagery of the Crucifixion, considered these reports to be superstitious Mexican prattle.
She placed the cup of coffee on the wooden table her second husband had assembled from an assortment of knotty pine lumber. That particular husband had many practical skills, but the building of furniture was not to be counted among them. Nahum leaned one elbow on the rickety table, which tilted under even this slight weight as a leg wobbled. The woman scowled at the much-used piece of furniture; “That old table’s legs are like mine. Barely manage to hold up the load. I’ll send a letter to my nephew in Durango, tell him to come over and fix it.”
The shepherd uttered his first words. “Leave the table as it is.” His sober expression emphasized this curious instruction. She nodded her assent but felt uneasy. The old man did not waste words, so this must be important. The shepherd had a sip of coffee and grimaced at its bitterness. She stirred another teaspoon of sugar into the dark liquid and watched to see if this would suit him. He squinted at the cup and had another taste.
“What,” she asked, “brings you out here to my place?” Nahum did not drop by for casual conversation.
Nahum turned his gaze to Daisy. The old woman saw a deep sadness in his eyes. “Darkness comes.”
She tilted her head and regarded her visitor quizzically. Was he predicting his death? Or hers? “What have you seen, old man?”
He considered his arthritic hands, slowly flexing the swollen joints of deformed fingers. “Last night, in my pasture. Balls of fire came. They danced.”
Nahum did not have to explain. Every Ute knew that the bruja traveled in this manner. She didn’t respond; Nahum, like most Utes, didn’t care to speak directly of witches. She looked away toward the blackness gathering outside her window. Coyote, who tarried nearby, spoke again. “Ooooeeeee . . . yooouuuwww . . . aaahhhoooo . . .”
“Damn you, Coyote,” she muttered viciously, “I hope you choke on your tongue!” Daisy poured herself a half cup of the brackish liquid and sat down across the table from her visitor.
“I feel something bad, too—here in my bones.” The woman lowered her voice barely above a whisper, as if someone might be listening at a window. “Last week I found a soft place in the path to the creek. Someone had been digging. I scratched around with my walking stick and found a raven’s egg . . . and a plume of owl feathers . . . right there where I walk almost every day!”
Nahum nodded as if he had expected such mischief. To step on an egg or a plume of owl feathers buried by a malicious bruja was certain to cause illness . . . perhaps even death.
Daisy continued, her tone becoming even more conspiratorial. “For three days now, Coyote has been skulking around my house, saying, ‘Come along, Daisy, come along with me to see pitukupf,’ but I don’t go. I’m tired of this work. Let someone else go, that’s what I say.”
Nahum Yaciiti drained the cup and pushed it across the wooden table, which swayed slightly and creaked. He raised his bushy brows and appraised Daisy with his soft brown eyes; it was a frank gaze that she found hard to return. “You,” he said gently, “will hear the voice of the dwarf.”
Daisy tugged nervously at her blanket shawl. “I am tired of hearing the voice of the pitukupf, old man. And I will pay no attention to his servant, Yogovuch. Since the day when the world was made, that worthless animal has been lazy. Coyote will grow weary of bothering me; he will go back to his little master.”
Daisy’s tight lips betrayed her determination. Nahum gazed intently at the cup of coffee as if he could divine secrets from the jet reflections vibrating off its surface. “Many spirits come and go over the earth.” He looked up, but Daisy avoided eye contact. “Two spirits we cannot ignore. The Spirit of Truth, who whispers softly, here.” Nahum tapped on his chest with two fingers. The old man hesitated before he continued. “The Spirit of Lies”—Nahum scowled as he tapped his temple—“he speaks here, spreading sweet poison.”
Daisy pretended to be savoring her coffee, but she was concentrating on every word from the shepherd. Unconsciously, the woman pulled her blanket shawl partially over her face as if to hide from the dark spirits. “Don’t preach me a sermon, old man, tell me what is happening. Which of these spirits is working now?”
Nahum Yaciiti used his finger to draw a cross on his wrinkled forehead. “The Spirit of Truth always works. But now the Spirit of Lies comes near to help his servant. I can,” the old man added with sudden vehemence, “smell his foul breath when he passes!”
Daisy shuddered, clenching her shawl with brittle fingers. She sniffed tentatively but could smell nothing unusual. Her voice was barely above a whisper. “Who is his servant? What work does the Dark One plan?”
Nahum closed his eyes and remained silent; Daisy could hear her windup alarm clock ticking in unison with the black crickets’ rhythmic chirp. Before Nahum replied, he opened his eyes and studied Daisy thoughtfully. “The Liar speaks to his servant, in a village of the matukach.”
Daisy eagerly grasped at this straw. “If this Dark One works among the white people, that is a bad thing, but it is not our responsibility.” Aware of his disapproval, she continued even more forcefully. “Some of my best friends are whites, but I say”—she thumped her knuckles on the tabletop for emphasis—“leave it to the matukach to deal with their own problems.”
He ignored this minor outburst. “You will touch this Darkness. Do what is right—”
“How will I know?” she interrupted.
“What is right is written on your heart.”
Nahum slid his heavy shepherd’s staff under the edge of Daisy’s propane stove, placed his foot by one of the stove’s legs, and pried until the leg popped loose from the linoleum. Daisy watched in amazement but held her tongue as he moved to the second stove leg to repeat the procedure. Nahum was behaving strangely. Was the old man losing his mind? When his task was completed, he grunted his approval and bent over to pick up his heavy wool coat. He attempted to fasten the carved antler buttons; his arthritic hands trembled with the effort.
Daisy impatiently brushed his hands aside and deftly buttoned his coat. She patted his shoulder in motherly fashion. “You’re getting old and creaky, Nahum. You should spend the winter with your relatives down in El Paso, where it doesn’t snow so much.”
“Before the first snowflake of winter falls,” he said, “I will go to be with my family.” The shepherd waved a feeble farewell and departed without looking back.
Daisy leaned against the porch railing and listened until the chugging sound of the Dodge pickup was lost in the winds that moaned softly through the mouth of the canyon. First snow would come soon, with the Moon of Dead Leaves Falling. Tonight, the sky was as clear as the water in the Piedra. Her pulse quickened when she realized that the waning moon was not far away from the earth; he was just there . . . sitting on Three Sisters Mesa, resting for a moment on the stout shoulders of the stone women. The shaman could count all the round pockmarks on his silver face. Even Akwuch seemed very near, as if Nighthawk might fly to him and perch on his handle. Her grandmother had told her, “Akwuch is the dipper that pours out the stars. When the morning comes, all the stars have been spilled into the darkness.”
“That is fine for the stars,” Daisy muttered. “Akwuch will gather them up again before the twilight comes. When I am poured out into darkness, Grandmother, who will gather up my soul?”
Copyright © 1994 by James D. Doss. All rights reserved