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The area known today as Phoenix, Arizona, at the dawn of the sixteenth century.
The land of my people was surrounded on three sides by mountains as dark as my skin. To the north loomed a mountain shaped like a sleeping mule deer; to the west, a ridge high enough to shield our fields from the relentless sun; and to the east, boulders as jagged as Grandfather Eyota's front teeth. Only the south stretched open as far as we could see, and it was from the south that my ancestors first appeared in the desert generations ago.
We were forbidden to travel anywhere but south. The mountains, our elders warned, protected us like broad shoulders. And the valley surrounded by these mountains, once brown and brittle, flourished with cotton, squash, beans, pumpkins and corn as high as our fathers. The land provided everything we needed, our elders said. More than we'd ever want.
Maybe so, I often thought, but I could never escape the feeling that those mountains kept us captive as much as they kept us safe.
"You daydream too much, Aiyana," Chenoa said. She proceeded to poke me in the arm with the tip of a palo verde stick, masterfully sharpened by our younger brother, Onawa. "And you can't expect me to do everything, can you?"
Chenoa was my older sister and like most sisters, I either loved or hated her. We were supposed to be gathering saguaro berries for the Rain Ceremony. Everybody wanted rain when the air grew heavy as deerskin; I simply wanted a peek at the other side of those mountains. And the older I became, the deeper my curiosity grew. I had already seen my sixteenth harvest, and sometimes the desire to discover the World Beyond took up so much space inside my head that it frightened me.
"Don't you ever wonder what's over there?" I asked, stopping again underneath a wispy canopy of palo verde branches. An endless mountain range stretched before us. The rocky ridge had three humps, a middle one as round as a half-moon with smaller ones flanking each side. The elders believed a giant animal slept beneath the mountain; we called it Sleeping Mule Deer. "Aren't you ever curious?" I wiped the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand, watching the mountain's colors shimmer red and orange from the merciless heat.
Chenoa pivoted long enough to grace me with one of her signature eye rolls. It wasn't the first time I asked her about the World Beyond during one of our fruit gathering journeys. It was a luxury for a girl to leave the circle of pit houses in our village, and no doubt Chenoa thought I was wasting time again with silly questions. And we were allowed to travel only so far as we could see the tops of our brush-covered roofs. I supposed Chenoa would rather talk about her upcoming wedding ceremony to Sinopa, but our walks were my only opportunity to say those things that I dared not say inside the pit house. To do so meant I ignored the wisdom of our elders and, ultimately, our Creator, Hunab Ku.
"How many times must we speak of this?" Chenoa scolded, always the good daughter, the wise daughter. The sensible daughter. The daughter I could never be. "The other side is probably just more of the same."
"But you don't know, do you." I said it more like a statement than a question. A challenge.