Out here, he warned, you should always be on the lookout for snakes by day, not that they will go out of their way to attack you, but stray into their territory and the Western Diamondback will give you a quick lesson in awareness. They hide among the scrub sage and in the arroyos, but you still walk for this kind of beauty demands your attention regardless. And at night, he added, don’t stray too far for the coyotes wander freely looking for rabbits and small game, and though you would be too large a meal, you’d still be worth a taste. You are in their home, after all.
We remember the oddest moments of life, the tragedies, the occasional comedy, but mostly the unusual moments that etch themselves into memory in ways you would not have expected. Driving along the mostly deserted road, a moonless night, or nearly so, the Mesa cold and forbidding, not at all reminiscent of the birth to be celebrated by the world the next day, as it had for millennia. The movie was dark and heavy, the meal somewhat the same, dominating the conversation… THUD — a sudden shift left into the oncoming lane, no one, thankfully, oncoming, the door caved in, passengers’ bones checked, none broken, all badly shaken. In the beam of the flashlight, is an elk, sitting off the road, still much alive but shaken, and in the first light of morning, moved further into the scrub, and by afternoon, off into the foothills.
The night is that bitter cold that slices easily through nylon and Polartec, makes child’s play of fleece and denim. The small rooms glow in the dim radiance of propane lights and heaters as the silver is carefully packed away in plastic tool boxes. The pinyon wood is neatly stacked in forty pyres, some little taller than the white children clinging to their parents’ legs, some reaching twenty-five feet, frozen sentinels against the star gorged sky. The fires are slowly lighted from the top, the green wood slowly creeps to flame as its sap drips fire until the pile is consumed. Half frozen we step away from the sudden oven heat. The smoke climbs obliterating the stars as the procession snakes from the small, adobe church, the men at its head firing rifles into the scowling smoke cloud. A sheet is draped over the four poles a chupah over the statue of the Virgin Mother remarried to her people. She weaves through the crowd, gringos, Indians, looking always upward, beyond the smoke the clouds against which it nestles, beyond all, for another faint glimpse of her Son.
His brother said that if you left the windows open at night, the ghosts would come in and might steal your soul. He didn’t care, he wanted to hear the song the stars sang every night, to see them come down and move in pairs across the mesa, for stars, he knew turned orange when they left their celestial perch, and would certainly keep the ghosts away, for ghosts were like rabbits and hid when the stars came near, and once in a while, if a ghost moved too slowly he would hear its cry as it was captured by a star. And, he was certain, ghosts preferred doors, and they kept theirs tightly locked, for you never knew what you’d find out on the mesa.
The wind takes up voice as it caresses these mountains, it’s song a lullaby to the coyotes staring at the waning moon. When night grows darkest, they
join in the song, a spirit kirtan they have practiced for centuries. Men stare nervously on the mesa at the stars providing faint light, the moon wrapping herself in her cumulus shroud, and the twinned orange orbs that peer out from the sage. They see only fear of coyote, imagine the trickster seeking to perpetrate evil
not the Kachina out in the night to oversee and protect the land that is rightfully theirs.
Down at the butt end of the arroyo is a pond, an aneurysm in the stream that runs down from the mountains for better than a month each spring. The twisted, gnarled mesquite cluster around it, like children gazing at a corpse in utter fascination who dare not approach lest it become real and touch them. The three scrawny goats nibble at the mesquite and stare at themselves on the surface, occasionally dragging their tongues through the water. Each night as the sun is swallowed by the earth, their songs begin until the gods arise from the water and dance across the parched ground.
I came down out of these mountains once, emerged from clouds that built, blackened the sky, bleached and were gone, I slid on snow pack, I came down into the sage and piñon, lit my fires and purified myself. I ran with jackrabbits, imagined bears were coyote, coyotes cats that might curl in sleep around my feet. I dug for water, turned parched ground to straw with prayer and dream, baled my dreams and straw and stacked them neatly, plastered them over and huddled within, I ran wires to the mountain gods and drew their power, I stole the light of a thousand stars, darkened the moon and now I am chindi, rejected by my spirit kin, left to wander the mesa.
I sit outside, on the mesa, having watched the mauve, fuchsia and coral sky finally concede to night. The two orange orbs sit twenty yards away, staring back and in this moment coyote and I have known each other for moments, for generations, and we are content. Coyote tells me he was once an elder living in the old adobe buildings, how he was a shaman, still is, with his magic, and I tell him of how I walked for years in the desert, food appearing from heaven, of how we crossed the sea and some thought it parted for us. Coyote and I are both old and we know we each have stories that no one would believe, and so we are left to believe each other and tell our stories to the sky gods.
“Turn on the light so I can hear you,” she says, and I reach for the switch across the room. “Please whisper,” I respond “and I may be able to see my way to the window.” I draw up the shade and in the dim glow of the night’s light I feel the braying of a coyote in the Sandia hills,
hear the conversation of leaves descending, and taste the chill of autumn, that wraps the house in its soft blue-black velvet grip.
On the mesa between El Prado and Tres Piedras after the sun has been swallowed by the mountains, to the east a fire burns. Countless stars stare down on the shivering sage. The scorpion lunges for the distant hill. The fire grows behind the mountain, the orange disk rises slowly. The smallest stars flee Luna’s furious light. The jackrabbit stands frozen in the road until her baleful eyes fall on him, and he dives into the sage. In the dead hours, once she has sought her refuge, the clouds are no longer shrouds. The wind fancydances in the canyons.