Brian MacMillan

Rebirth

BM Rebirth

Rebirth

A series of historical fiction stories with spiritual and/or magical aspects. This collection is one story away from being completed.

The story below is a fictionalized account of a trip by Winston Churchill’s mother and father to the Grand Canyon. The style of the story is self-consciously formal in order to provide a sober foundation to the story itself, which is magical-realist.

Chapter 1: The Hermit’s Rest

A gentleman and his young wife entered the boutique, which overlooked the Canyon. The store was unexpectedly opulent given that it was the last stop on the Santa Fe railroad, and therefore at one of the remotest corners of the United States of America. The gentleman was dressed like a Roughrider, with loose khaki pants, long, laced leather boots, a leather jacket and kid gloves. He carried a wide brimmed hat under his arm. His eyes were yellow, his black hair thinning and streaked with gray. He had a delicate frame: his head was long and narrow, as were his limbs, fingers and nose. He was gaunt, his skin was stretched and translucent white, as if no longer able to absorb sunlight. His leather boots made firm, sharp sounds as he walked, but he was unsteady on his feet. He used a thin ebony cane as a prop when he made the small effort of ascending the three wooden stairs at the entrance to the shop.

While the man looked like he had been aged by disease, his wife, because of her rude health and light disposition, looked younger than her twenty-five years, almost adolescent, except for the assurance with which she deported herself. She wore a white calico dress. Her dirty blond hair was covered by a muslin shawl decorated with images of blue violets; she wore white sandals on her feet. She could have been headed for a summer garden party except for the large knapsack slung over her left shoulder. It was of a type favored by railway workers because of its sturdy, coarse leather, and its fringe of iron hoops. A pair of leather riding boots, an array of tools, and a parasol were attached to the hoops, and then secured against to the knapsack with cracked leather straps.

The Lord hobbled over to a glass and mahogany-wood display case, in which the store showcased its more valuable goods, while the Lady selected an assortment of items from the wooden shelves that lined the walls of the shop, and then headed through a pair of saloon doors to a fitting room; a hopeful sales clerk followed closely behind her.

While the gentleman idly browsed the store’s collection of knives, guns and accessories, the store manager sidled up beside him. The manager was dressed in an English style: light gray woolen trousers held up by suspenders that curved around the outside of his rounded belly, and a fine white cotton shirt on which was printed blue pin-stripes. He was a large, lumpy man, so the stripes made him look like a topographical map. His vest was of a slightly darker gray than his trousers. The outfit was completed by a short jacket that hung over the edge of the chair beside the cash register.

The store manager knew better than to make a sales pitch to his high-born customer, so instead took out a cigar and started to idly chew on it while hovering a barely polite distance away.

“Would you like a light?” The gentleman removed small, ornate silver lighter from his trouser pocket and vaguely waved it in the direction of the shopkeeper.

“I’m not really a smoker. But now that you offer a light, I think I will have a smoke. If you don’t mind, that is.”

The gentlemen indicated his agreement by removing a cloisonné cigarette case from his breast pocket, from which he extracted and quickly lit a cigarette. He offered the lighter and the cigarette case to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper tried not to let his eyes linger indelicately on the ruby and emerald pattern that adorned the case. When he averted his eyes he noticed the dried scabs that lined the gentleman’s hands. Having no where else to avert his eyes, the shopkeeper looked directly at the gentleman as he spoke, “I’ll smoke this.” He indicated his cigar, while gingerly taking the lighter from the gentleman’s hands. “I’m celebrating. I just received a telegram indicating that my brother now has an heir.”

“Congratulations. Is this his first child?”, the shopkeeper asked.

“No, third. But the first two were daughters.”

“I’m envious. I have no heir myself, although I do have one daughter.”

“If I may risk being forward, sir, I think that with a wife as young and healthy as yours you should have no …”

“I’m not getting any younger” the Lord snapped. The shopkeeper watched in silence as the gentleman unconsciously traced his right forefinger along the line of scabs on his left wrist.

“Are you in Arizona only to view the Grand Canyon or is this a side trip from some more important business?” the shopkeeper asked.

The gentleman replied. “I am an investor.”

“In the Jerome mine, perhaps?”

“Indeed.”

A female voice spoke to their backs. “It is my father and I who are the investors.” The Lady had returned from the fitting room. She was now dressed in brown riding boots, jodhpurs and a light, white, collarless cotton top of a style popular in the Raj. The only item remaining from her earlier outfit was the muslin shawl, which was draped around her shoulders. The sales clerk stood a respectful distance behind her, with a chiffon dress that looked like a bouquet of wilted flowers in her arms.

The gentleman replied in a testy voice. “Jeanette, I am head of our household. Your interest in the mine is my family’s property.”

“Yes, dear heart. But I control the trust.”

The gentleman snapped, “When we pass away, your interest in the mine will become the property of our heir.” His anger made his yellow skin turn red.

The Lady averted her eyes. At first the shopkeeper thought she did so in submission, but then realized she was looking at the blood seeping out one of her husband’s torn scabs. When he noticed at what his wife was looking, the gentleman made a show of putting on his black kid gloves. Once one, he tugged each glove once and then turned to the store keeper. “I’m off to inspect our mounts. Please take care of my wife’s every need. Charge whatever she buys to my room.” The effect of his brusque exit was marred when his cane got stuck in a crack in the plank by the door, and he stumbled.

The Lady lingered after her husband’s departure, to ask the storekeeper detailed questions about the poisonous snakes and insects that she should be wary of on her upcoming hike. At the shopkeeper’s suggestion she purchased a small, sharp knife, which she strapped to the inseam of her right leg. She did not haggle over its premium price, and left an extravagant tip for good service. She exited the store in half a dozen sharp, precise steps, but paused when she got to the veranda to look north, over the Canyon. It was dusk; the sky was terraced by bands of clouds. The Canyon walls were similarly paneled. Although the earth was darker than the sky, both were interlaced with shrinking purple shadows and lengthening bands of colored light. On a near horizon two condors floated on updrafts, while in the distance an eagle swooped down on its prey.

§

The dining hall at the El Tovar hotel was crowded with visitors from Phoenix, many of whom were here not to commemorate the completion of the railway, but rather to see the renowned people who had come here to do so. They were particularly interested in the New York Lady and her noble English husband. The room buzzed when the maître d’hôtel greeted them at the entrance to the restaurant.

Before the nobles could be seated, a crowd of bourgeois notables, doctors, lawyers and mining contractors, coalesced into an impromptu receiving line. 20 minutes of introductions followed. Lord Churchill was gracious, but did not extend even one calling card, although he promised to call on a middle-school principal from Phoenix who claimed to have excavated a treasure of Navajo artifacts from a gravel pit just east of Flagstaff. Lady Churchill annoyed her husband by answering all of the many questions she was asked.

Eventually the greetings ended. The couple sat down at a table with a view of the Canyon. It was dark, and despite the electric light in the restaurant, the sky was black and speckled with stars. The couple did not talk. The Lady nursed a glass of wine; her husband drank whiskey and soda while he smoked a cigar. He affected the manner of someone who was pensive, but his gaze was unfocused.

After the Lord poured his third drink he spoke. “Jeanette, why did you publicly discuss our affairs in front of that shopkeeper?”

Jeannette Churchill looked out over the Canyon while she answered, “If I remember correctly, it was you who first mentioned Daddy’s mine.” Her words were spoken without affect.

“Never talk that way in front of commoners.”

“I’m glad we’ve cleared that up”. The Lady turned to her husband, narrowed her eyes, and then reached for his cigarette case. He scowled while she removed and lit a cigarette. She replied by staring at the scabs on his arms.

§

They slept in separate rooms, which provoked little comment. Although the Lady was reputed to have modern manners, the Lord was known to be civilized.

§

Although the gentleman got up later than his wife he was ready for the hike sooner than his wife: he preferred to have a cigarette and shot of scotch for breakfast, whereas she always ate a full meal. Their plan was to enter the Canyon from the Horse Thief Trail, follow the Colorado River up-stream for 6 miles and then loop back along Cameron’s Trail. They walked their mules in silence along the rim of the Canyon. At Yavapai point they stopped to look out over the canyon. It was 20 minutes past sunrise: the shadows that were bushes and trees were filling in with the color the sky was losing. The gentleman returned to the journey to the trailhead before his wife. She lingered until the transferal of color from sky to earth was completed.

Although the El Tovar hotel had been open for several months, most of the tourists to the Grand Canyon still stayed at the tent camp clustered around the railway station near the head of the Horse Thief trail. The tents were of a military style: squat, rectangular, with peaked tops, and were just big enough to hold 4 cots. The gear was the same as what American soldiers had just used to defeat the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines.

It was late in the season so the camp was empty except for two tents, which were populated by an extended family who were just waking up. A young girl dressed in a flowered dress made of fine but dusty cotton was sitting on a stump while her sister, who was dressed in a thick dark gray woolen dress of a style favored by teachers, was curling her hair with an iron she had heated in the pine-log fire. The girls’ brothers were playing tag, or perhaps fighting, in and out of the shadows cast by the low-slung sun. The sky was cloudless. Venus was visible just above the horizon; Mars could be seen glowing faintly red above it. In the foreground vultures floated on a morning thermal.

The Lord looked at the dusty family with the sour expression, as he skirted around their camp and proceeded to his appointment at the trail-head. The Lady appeared several minutes later. She intentionally walked close to the tents, pausing for a moment to ask the eldest girl about what sites they had seen. Her younger sister answered the Lady’s questions, as if it were she who had been asked. The girl informed Lady Churchill that her family had made it all the way to the Indian Village in a two day hike, but had turned back, instead of doing a loop, to avoid paying Mr. Cameron any more fees for the use of his trail. “Mr. Cameron even charges to use the loo”, she noted disapprovingly. The Lady graciously thanked the girl for her information.

The trail-head lay just beyond the small wooden building that passed for a railway station. When the Lady reached it, she saw that her husband was at the first switchback, 100 yards into the Canyon, where he was conversing with two guides. With great difficulty she steered her stubborn mule onto the trail and carefully began her descent.

While still out of earshot of her husband she stopped her mule and looked out over the Canyon. The scene reminded her of a Sunday school class she had attended as a child, where she had been told that if she wanted to find an example of God’s glory she need look no further than a sunrise. She was not one to embrace religion because of words, but that advice she had never forgotten.

“Miss.” A small voice broke her reverie. The Lady looked down. The girl she had spoken with earlier had followed her. The child’s hair was now puffed-up into tight, dirty blond curls, and her calf-high black leather boots were tightly laced, and polished.

“Miss. Do you want to know a secret. I learned it from an Indian man.”

The Lady nodded and smiled, but the girl took no notice. She did not need affirmation to continue.

“Mother told me not to talk to savages but my eldest brother said they know magic, and he’s been to war, so when my mother was fighting with Mr. Cameron about his fees I did. Talk to a savage, I mean. He had a feather cap and wore nothing but moccasins and a small cloth around his privates. He told me that sage brush has the power to clean things, not like vinegar and water does, but like the way the wind blows dust away. I gave him my charm bracelet and in return he gave me this and told me to burn it. Please have it. Mother said I can’t take it home.”

“My goodness, that sage is on fire!” The Lady shied away from the smoking bouquet the child had just handed her, but continued to clasp the girl’s hand.

“Please take it”, the girl admonished. “It has to be a present or the Indian gods will frown.” The child let go of the sage and slid her hand through the Lady’s. The smoke disturbed the mule so the Lady moved downwind, the smoking bouquet firmly clasped in her gloved right hand.

The child spoke, “Now wave it. The cleaning magic is in the smoke.”

The Lady solemnly waved the sage in the air before her eyes, like a Catholic priest with a censer. The heavy smoke fell down into the shadowy, cool area along the edge of the trail where her husband was talking. Eventually it merged with the swirling smoke from his cigarette, until a slight gust of wind dispersed it. The Lady turned turned to the girl, “Thank you very much. My family could use some healing magic right now. Let me pay you …”

“… oh no! The shaman was clear about how you can’t take money for magic. That would corrupt it.”

“But you traded with him?”

The girl nodded.

“Can we trade for something?”

“Sure. How about that button?”

The Lady’s satchel was adorned with a button she had been given during President Roosevelt’s campaign for Governor of New York. She had forgotten she had it. “Absolutely.” The Lady unpinned and handed the button to the child.

“Penelope! Come here right now!”

“Bye!” The girl curtsied and then ran back to her mother.

When the sage had burned down to its handle of sticks, the Lady dropped the bundle onto the ground and ground its remains into ashes with the heel of her riding boot. She resumed the descent toward her husband and their two guides, leading her mount by a rein made of frayed rope. Although the sun was shining hotly, the trail was cool because it was still in shadow. She followed the faint smell of sage to her husband.

The sun was now high enough that the features of the two men with whom her husband was talking could be seen. She knew that the European was their Québècois guide, the famous hermit who lived in a cave in the Canyon. She was surprised to find him accompanied by a native. The hermit was dressed in denim overalls and a threadbare flannel shirt. He was not so much unshaven, as crudely shaven, with the slightest distinction between long white grizzled beard and coarse skin . His skin was dark from the sun. His head, like that of the Lord, was shaded by a Roughrider hat, although his hat did not have an ornamental string bow attached to its rim.

The native was a young adult. His muscles were tough but wiry. The result was that he looked both athletic and malnourished. His head was adorned with a simple, lightly feathered headdress that had been dyed, or perhaps stained, the same dusty maroon red of the Hakatai shale that lined the walls of the Canyon1. His gnarled, unwashed black hair hung straight down to below his shoulders, but was parted in the center so as not to cover his face. Two strands were tied back with a leather cord. Around his neck he wore a half dozen strings of yellow and cyan colored beads. A palm-sized copper talisman was attached to one strand of beads; it looked like a cross between an ankh and a miniature horseshoe. The snake image that had been tattooed around his upper arm indicated his clan. The necklaces and headdress suggested that he was a Hopi shaman or snake dancer. A leather sash held up the woolen cloth wrapped around the Hopi’s mid-section. The cloth was reminiscent of a kilt, rather than the loincloth worn by the Navajo; it had been bleached white, and had a stylized image of a sidewinder snake embroidered onto it with coarse yellow, green and red thread; a second band of black was embroidered along its lower fringe. The native’s boots, which looked like they were made of deer or elk leather, came to mid-calf and were fringed. He had red and blue colored strips of fabric tied just above his knees.

The men were dismounted. The Lord’s mule blocked the trail and from the Lady’s perspective was bleached white by the glare of the sun. The two guides’ mules were standing fully in the shade, passively eating from the feedbags attached to their necks. These mules were piled high with camping gear and water skins. The guides, apparently intended to walk. The Lady stopped between her husband and the guides, at the point where the sun met permanent shadow, beside the canyon wall. She stood fully in the sun, her mule in the shade.

There was a moment of silence while her husband took one last drag on the cigarette he was smoking, and then ground it into the earth with the heel of his dusty brown hob-nailed boot. The Lord looked at the European guide, not his wife, when he finally made the introductions, “Louis Boucher, this is my wife Jeanette.” He nodded towards his wife and said, “Jenny, Mr. Boucher will be our guide.”

The Lady held out her gloved right had, which to her surprise the man shook rather than kissed. As he did so, she said, “You must be the Hermit.”

“Bien sûr” the man replied.

“Une plaisure de faire vôtre connaissance.”

The Lord scowled. His French was poor. The Lady was impressed that the Hermit presented himself so well. Most prospectors were quite coarse.

The Lady asked the Hermit, in French, the name of the native guide.

“Pachu’a”, he replied.

The native nodded his head and smiled.

The Lady turned to face the native directly, and said while curtsying every so slightly, “Um waynuma”2.

The native’s smile broadened. His teeth were stained yellow from tobacco, one of his front teeth was black. He replied, “Um-pi-tuh”.

The woman looked sideways at her husband. His scowl had been replaced with the terse smile he used when he was pretending to be impressed.

“Do you know many American Indian languages?”, the Hermit asked the Lady.

“Not even one, although my grandmother claims her grandfather married a Potawatomi woman.”

The Lord broke up the discussion by reaching out and grabbing the rein of his wife’s mule and tugging the beast onto the path and in to the sun. The Lady, with a short, sharp motion, yanked the rein out of her husband’s hand. The scowl returned to his face. He tersely said, “It’s time to go.” As he spoke, the Lord awkwardly mounted his mule. His left leg buckled on his first attempt, but after a brief struggle he succeeded on the second. He began the descent without a backwards glance. His wife followed: although she had mounted her mule before her husband, she let him go first. The guides followed on foot, leading their mounts by thin black leather reins.

The path into the Canyon was steep, ill-defined and surprisingly cold because the part of the trail they were on was still sheltered from the rising sun. That was not a bad thing. The cloudless and deep blue sky promised a hot day.

They rode together in silence. Eventually the Lord addressed his Lady. “Do you think Miss Astor will marry the Duke?” He spoke over his left shoulder to his wife, who rode just behind him.

“What?” Her husband’s Fifth Avenue gossip was out of context, so it took a moment for the Lady to realize what he had just said. She replied before he could repeat himself. “Let me return the question to you, dear. Do you think it will be a good marriage?” The path narrowed as they approached a switchback. To their right was a small, steep gully, to their left the canyon wall. The Lady let her mule fall back so that she rode directly behind her husband. He had taken off his hat and was rubbing his thin sweating face with the dark red, cowboy-style neck scarf that he had tied to his sun-burnt neck. As he turned the corner of the switchback, a stone was dislodged by the foot of his mule. It fell into the gully, causing a small slide of gravel that looked like red steam.

When the path widened again, the Lord said “It is a good match. She is very rich.” He spoke toward the Canyon. As a result his words echoed faintly.

“She may be rich. But I understand that he is a philanderer”, his wife replied.

The Lord guffawed and then quickly composed himself, “That is to be expected of a man of that station.”

The Lady stopped her mule, and shouted to her husband’s back, her face white from rage, “Are you a man of that station?” The Lord kicked his mule to make it pick up its pace, but did not reply. Pachu’a followed close behind him. The Lady fell back until she was abreast the Hermit.

When the Lady finally regained her composure she said sub voce, “Pardon me, Mr. Boucher.”

He replied that her heated words with her husband had not offended him. Although he spoke in French, he made a point of speaking quietly, and directly toward the Lady so her husband could not hear that they were conversing at all.

“Do let us talk about something more pleasant”, she replied. There was another moment of silence while she thought of what that might be, then she said, “Is there a theme for this trek, or a lesson that you like to impart to visitors? Or perhaps a gimmick?”

The Hermit thought for a moment and then replied, “No, but when asked I always reply that this loop is a complete adventure, beginning and ending with a sunrise. What that adventure will be, however, I can not predict.”

The Lady nodded. “That reminds me of an aphorism of my grandfather’s, ‘You can have everything in a day.’”

§

They moved very slowly forward across a wide, stone terrace that was at the mid-point between the top of the Canyon and the Colorado river. Their path took them along the lip of the terrace. They were walking at an angle to the river, which lay ahead of them to their left. A condor circled lazily in the sky before them. Suddenly the gentleman reined in his mule and shouted in a loud voice,

“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones.”

His words startled a flock of birds that had been hiding in the shadows below them.

The Lady nudged her mule past her husband. The Hermit followed on her right, beside the edge of the path. The Lord lingered for a minute more before he continued. Pachu’a passively kept his mule several paces back; the Hopi followed the Lord when he began riding again.

“What was that about?” the Hermit asked the Lady, while nodding toward her husband. They were far enough ahead of him that their conversation was private.

She replied, “He was quoting Ezekiel. He did the same thing when we visited Mount Sinai. He thinks that he can achieve penance through bible study and prayer.”

“I see. What about you? Do you try to elicit favors from God? Or ask him to forgive your sins?”

“The last time I prayed, I asked God to strike my Sunday school teacher dead with a lightening bolt. But to answer your question, no I do not ask favors of God, it is bad religion as well as bad policy. Not that I couldn’t use one or two favors, myself.”

The Hermit replied in a quiet voice, “If I understand your situation correctly, it would require just one favor for your fortune to be perfect.” He glanced at the Lord, who was once again rubbing his pallid, sweaty face.

“Indeed.” She smiled ruefully. “But enough of such talk. Tell me a story. Tell me a story about here.”

The Hermit smiled as he replied, “My pleasure, Madame. This place is called Sipápuni3 by the Hopi, which means the Place of Emergence … ”

The sun was high in the sky. The air was now burning hot except in pockets in the narrow strips of permanent shadow that clung to the canyon walls, and in the sparse shade provided by the Yucca trees. The Lord had once again covered his head with his Roughrider hat, and covered his neck and lower face with his cowboy kerchief.

They entered the valley after several more switchbacks. The canyon wall was to their right and the river to their left. As they rode, the area on the right side of their path gradually rose to form a wall and then narrowed into a channel through rock, like a wedge: above them the canyon was wider. To their left, a steep embankment led down to the Colorado River.

Eventually the wall to their right completely blocked their path and they needed to ford the river. It was the last day of September, after a dry summer, so the river was very shallow. The mules lived up to their sure-footed reputation by making the descent down the now rocky embankment with no incident. As they forded the little stream they caught a glimpse of a brown rattlesnake hiding in the shade of a rock.

On the other side of the river they encountered a small group of natives who were resting in a cool dark outcropping of rock. The natives were elaborately decorated. One had white dots painted on his legs and wore a hat with two white horns. The effect was both comical and sinister. The man beside him was painted in two colors of red. A third, on whose back was tattooed a black spider, sat with a large diamond-headed sidewinder rattlesnake in his lap. The fourth man stood apart from his companions. He had no markings on him whatsoever. This last man noticed the travelers first. He calmly rose, approached the Hermit and asked, “Where are you going, Looie?”

The Hermit stopped; the party followed suit. He replied. “We’re going as far as Cameron’s trail, and then returning to the South Rim via the Village. What about you?”

“We are on our way to Ovapai to fight with Tawákwaptiwa and his brothers. We are going your way. Let us walk together.”

While the Hermit and the native conversed about the causes of the dispute, the Lord moved protectively beside his wife. He pulled back his jacket, revealing his revolver. He fiddled with the rifle strapped to the back of his mount, but did not remove it. His show of force was wasted, for the warriors were watching the Hermit. Boucher signaled for the natives to join him. They rose and began to collect their scant belongings into their leather pouches.

The Hermit edged his mule toward the path, which continued just beyond the Hopi warriors. Pachu’a followed close behind, on foot. The Lord and the Lady brought up the rear, still mounted on their mules, she with her hand near the bowie knife she had strapped to her right calf, he with a hand on the pearl handle of his revolver.

The Lady made a motion to pull ahead of her husband. When she did, her husband said, in a loud whisper,“Jenny, ride with me. I want to tell you something, in private.” She dutifully fell back, expecting a lecture about how she needed to be wary of natives.

The Lord rubbed his face with his red kerchief, while steering his mule with his legs. He retied the damp kerchief, and then began to speak, tentatively, “I decided to embark on this adventure because I hoped that the dry climate would help to cure my … condition. I think that my plan has worked. I am feeling better than I have all year …” Out of the corner of her eye she saw him scratch a dried scab on his left hand with his right. “I was thinking that tonight would be a good night for us to conceive an heir.”

“We already have a daughter.”

“You know what I mean.” She waited, he spoke again, “A male heir.”

Lady Churchill snapped, “I think that it would be best to conceive our next child when you are fully recovered.” She glowered at her husband for an instant, and then kicked her legs into the side of her mount. Her mule sluggishly picked up its pace until she was once again beside the Hermit. Pachu’a fell back until he was abreast the Lord, who was moving forward very slowly. The native warriors walked in between.

The Hermit leaned toward the Lady and said, in a whisper, “Just one favor.”

The Lady smiled tersely as she replied, “Let’s not dwell on my domestic problems, Monsieur Boucher. Most women have much more serious problems. I can cope.” She nudged her mule until she was in front of her guide.

§

The overhanging rock gradually fell away, leaving the party in the middle of a wide, shelterless river valley. The dry air was so hot that it shimmered the way waves do in clear water. The buzz of insects echoed off of the walls of the canyon, creating the impression that the land itself was vibrating.

The natives began a low chant that was almost a hum. It was strange music to walk by because it was reminiscent of the irregular sounds of the canyon, and did not match their walking rhythm, which was slow and steady, except when rough, rocky terrain obstructed them.

A rattle snake hissed. The travelers all stopped moving and the natives stopped chanting.

The Lady scanned the path in front of her until she spotted the dust-colored snake, partially covered in the shadow cast by a wedge of sedimentary rock. It was not within striking distance. She was still, afraid more of her mount throwing her out of fear than the snake.

The natives encircled the snake. Its back was a lattice of white diamond scales set against a background of dusty gray-green. It had been lying on the ground in a stretched S shape but had now tightly coiled itself and raised its head. It moved its head in a semi-circle, sticking its tongue out to sense the air.

Pachu’a very carefully moved behind the snake. From this position, he crawled toward it very slowly. When he was one step away, his hands darted out, the left grabbing the snake’s throat, the right its tail. He slowly stood up from a crouch, still holding the snake. His thigh muscles strained from the effort of rising slowly. The snake was three feet long.

Pachu’a showed the snake to each native in turn. Although their faces’ remained solemn the Lady sensed that Pachu’a was showing off.

When Pachu’a had completed his circuit he gestured for the group to continue. Once they had disappeared around the first bend he returned the snake to the spot where he found it, found his mule (it had tried to hide itself in the scant shadow of a Yucca tree) and effortlessly rushed to catch up with the group.

After an hour, the natives headed off on a diagonal path, along an off-track shortcut that approached the Havapai village from the back. The Lord’s group continued along the south bank of the Colorado River. The trail was flat and exposed; the dry air searingly hot.

The canyon narrowed again. They reached a choke point where a spur of rock enclosed on the path. They spotted a shadow under the tree. As they got near they saw that the shadow was an old man.

The tops of the old man’s limbs, fingers and toes were lined with dots of white paint that made him look like a skeleton. He was covered in a filthy blanket that was decorated in white diamond shapes, like the skin of the rattlesnake they had just encountered; a horned felt hat hung from his neck by a coarsely woven cord.

The Hermit signaled for the group to pause. He nodded toward Pachu’a, who proceeded purposefully forward. Pachu’a greeted the old man in Hopi, and then presented him with a handful of cactus flowers. The old man cupped his hands in order to receive the flowers, and then placed them in a battered tin bowl near his feet.

“What did Pachu’a say?”, the Lady asked the Hermit in a quiet voice.

“Greetings Másaw. Please let us use this land. We will respect it.” As the Hermit spoke, a tiny pink striped snake emerged from the rock enclosure in which the old man sat. Pachu’a quickly picked it up, the same way he had done with the rattlesnake. He presented it to the old man who laughed, clapped his hands, and then bowed to the snake.

Pachu’a knelt to the ground and released the snake. It quickly slithered under the rocks to the right of the old man.

The old man spoke once again, with a cracked, dry voice; the Hermit translated for the couple, “You may use this land. But do not forget that you are here to fulfill the Plan of Creation.”

Pachu’a bowed from his neck, and then stepped back into the group.

The formalities were apparently over. The Hermit approached the old man, clasped his right hand for a moment. He then removed a paper bag from his satchel and handed it to the old man, who did not open the bag to inspect the present, but he did smile gratefully.

They continued along the path, with everyone on foot and in single file: the path had narrowed to the width of one mule. The valley edge now encroached on the river to such an extent that there was no longer an embankment; a half arch of rock overhung the path.

The old man joined them. He walked in front, as if he were now their guide.

The Lady drew abreast of Boucher and asked, “Can I talk to him?” She nodded toward Másaw. “Will you translate?”

“Certainly.”

They quickened their place slightly until they were beside the old shaman. Boucher spoke a few words to the old man. He smiled a toothless smile and nodded. Boucher turned to the Lady and invited her to begin her interrogation. Her first question was, “Are you a shaman?” The Hopi man smiled and shrugged.

“Yes”, the Hermit replied.

“Do the Hopi believe in God?”

The old man spat out a couple of syllables. The Hermit translated, “Not in the way you mean.”

“But you have gods?”

“There are spirits and magical beings.”

“Is there a prime spirit, like Jupiter?”

The Hermit answered her question directly, rather than referring it to the old shaman, “Yes. The principal Hopi god is named Tawa. He is the sun god. But unlike Jupiter he prefers not to get involved in the affairs of men.” Boucher then translated the conversation to the old shaman, who indicated his agreement by nodding his head.

“Are there other important deities?”

Másaw replied and Boucher translated, “Spider Woman. In many ways she is a more a powerful being than a god. She is sort of like fate.”

“I see.” The Lady nodded her head and then asked, “Mr. Boucher, what did you give Másaw?”

“Peyote.”

The Lord, who was now leading the troop, stopped his horse and turned around. The entire group stopped behind him. He said, “You have peyote? We will talk at our next stop.” He wheeled his horse around and continued the trek.

It was now late afternoon. Although it was still bright outside, the sun was low enough in the sky that its light did not shine where they were walking. Their path had joined the permanent shadow.

They followed the trail around a bend and the path widened considerably, while still remaining under the shadow of the valley wall. The Hermit walked his mule to an outcropping on the inner side of the path, and tied its rein to it. He then turned to the group and said, “We’ll camp here.”

The travelers unpacked the kindling the Hermit had packed for their camp fire, which was quickly started. They sat around it, in a broad circle, with their backs to the wind. It was cold in the shade on days like this, when there was no wind to stir the air.

They ate dried beef and drank water.

The Lord spoke, “Mr. Boucher, I’d like to converse with you in private.” The Hermit nodded. The two men walked away from the camp to a place where the path was exposed to sunlight. It was far brighter outside the shadow cast by the overhanging rock, but quickly getting darker. They spoke briefly then the Lord returned to the camp fire, a chesire-cat grin on his face, while the Hermit smoked a cigarette just outside their group. When Boucher returned to the fire the Lord said, “Jenny. Come here now.” His wife dutifully rose and followed him to the edge of the campfire, on the side opposite to the Hermit. The Lord made a show of having a private conversation, even though their voices were still audible to Másaw and Pachu’a.

“Jenny. I have spoken with Mr. Boucher about that new man, Másaw. It seems he is a shaman. If we wish, we can engage in a religious ceremony tonight. It will be like the ayahuasca ceremony in Peru, except with snakes and not condors. Are you interested?”

She nodded.

“Very good.” The Lord eagerly rubbed his scabrous hands together.

§

Lord Churchill and his wife sat at opposite sides of the fire. The air was still, so there was no problem with blowing ashes.

Pachu’a began to grind the peyote flowers, which looked like buttons, into powder. He then added water to the powder, which created a paste. When the paste was fluid enough to drink he poured it into a series of small clay bowls. Másaw sat beside Pachu’a, periodically giving him instructions.

The sun had long since set. The sky was so full of stars that the heavens looked like a web. Another web of shadows danced around the fire. The edges of the canyon, which in daytime were in permanent shadow, were now black as pitch.

“Drink this”. Pachu’a handed the Lord one of the clay bowls. It was full to the brim with the cactus flower paste.

The Lord took it and drank deeply. He handed the bowl to his wife. The Lady had a small sip, began to hand the bowl to Louis Boucher, had second thoughts and took a second small sip. The Hermit handed the bowl, when it was offered to him, directly to Másaw, who drained what remained in one long draught. They repeated the ceremony. After drinking the peyote paste a second time the Lord began to cough, as if he were choking. His hands struggled around his chest until his right one removed a flask of whiskey, which his shaking hands struggled to open. He drank until the flask was empty. When done, he paused. Then he coughed furiously until he had no energy to cough at all. He sat for a few, long, moments with his bent head held up by his hands. His long, thin hair fell forward, over his face.

While the Lord vomited onto his dusty Roughrider boots, the Hermit handed the Lady a skin full of water, from which she drank. Then she retched. She was so nauseous that she sat bent over her legs, with her arms cupped over her head for several minutes, staring at the puddle of vomit at her feet.

An unseen hand helped her re-find her equilibrium. When she looked up again, she saw that her husband had composed himself.

Her nausea passed. She noticed that her senses were sharper than normal, and more sensitive. Even though it was night, in the dim star light she felt overwhelmed by sensations: sounds, lights, smells. The slopes of the canyon rose solemnly all around her. She could faintly hear the babble of the Colorado River. If she listened to the River for too long it began to sound like a voice talking to her.

The air was full of vibrations.

The Lady saw the visitor first. He emerged from a web of shadows in the darkest part of the campground, the area of permanent shadow.

She asked, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” She whispered her questions. For some reason she did not want the others to hear.

The apparition replied, “I am Sotuknang. I am not here. But I have a message.” He was old, his skin was dry and gaunt but his body had a sinewy strength. His long, thick black hair was tied into strands by beads.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Look at the shadows.”

She looked to where he pointed, at the shadows cast by the campfire on the walls of the cave. She fell into a trance while looking at them, as if ensnared in a web.

The shadows began to organize themselves into a story. She saw a flood wash away the world. Then the water shadows drained away and the ground opened up. From the dark deep hole the shadows of people emerged and spread out into the night. Many lingered around the campfire; a shadowy crowd that mingled with the flames.

The scene changed again. The dark shadows where the stranger had once been standing resolved into the face of a very old woman. Her eyes were shut. Her sockets were like pits lined with wrinkles. Her hair was a web of dark brown roots that merged with the shadows flickering on the cave wall. The woman sat cross legged on the ground. Her eyes remained closed but she was looking at everyone and everything. She reached her hands out to the Lady, palms facing up. Jenny rose, moved to beside the old woman, knelt down and grasped them.

“What do you want?” Spider Woman asked the Lady with a thought.

The Lady knew what she wanted most, though she kept that desire locked in the shadowy recesses of her mind.

Behind her someone fell to the ground with a thump.

Lady Churchill did not immediately turn around even though there was a commotion behind her. She continued to stare at the web of hair and wrinkles and shadows. The web grew darker and blacker until Spider Woman disappeared into blackness.

When Jenny finally turned around to look at her prostrate husband she knew immediately that he was dead. He had hit his jaw on a rock when he fell, the force of impact had broken his neck. His hips, which had followed his body to the ground, were twisted awkwardly so that his legs were skewed. She had dreamed of this moment in her mind’s eye every day since she had discovered her husband’s syphilis. In her mind’s eye the scene of her release was always a funeral home or hospice, and she always imagined feeling relief mixed with joy and expectation at her husbands death, but now she felt nothing.

She let the shadows smother her senses and wrap her in sleep.

§

The next morning the sun rose as it always did. The Lady awoke gradually. Her eyes were still sensitive to light and her ears sensitive to sound.

When she remembered her husband she lay still for a moment wondering whether what she remembered accurately. She lay on her back and looked up at the bright morning sky, but with closed eyes. She asked the Hermit, “Est-il mort?”

“Oui. Your husband is still dead”, the Hermit replied.

She opened her eyes. The rock face was above her, but its shadows were thin. Daylight was creeping along the top of the cliff. She heard Pachu’a making coffee. She knew it was him because he chanted in Hopi to himself as he did so.

“Dead!”, she shouted. The word echoed like a chime against the canyon walls.

Jenny pulled herself up and took a seat on a rock by the camp fire. The Hermit offered her a mug of coffee and sat down beside her. She said, “Who was that man?”

The Hermit replied, “You mean Másaw? He’s a Hopi shaman …”

“Not him.”

“Pachu’a?”

“No. The man last night who was dressed like a Hopi warrior.”

“There was no other man.”

“I see. And there was no woman with hair like a web of roots?”

“Peyote makes you see things that aren’t there.”

“How did my husband die?”

“He had a heart attack and then broke his neck when he fell. If I may be so bold …”

“Yes?”

“I think that it would be better if you returned alone. The Lord’s death could make trouble for us.”

“Of course. And please do not worry. I will take care of everything. How far is it to Cameron’s trail?”

“Less than one mile straight along this path.”

“Can you secure my husband to my mule before you leave?”

“It has already been done.”

“Its going to be an interesting day today, isn’t it”, the Hermit said after he strapped the last of the camping gear to his mule.

“I agree” Jenny replied. “There is a whole universe of possibilities awaiting me …”

Gas escaped from the corpse.

“You’d best hurry. Bon chance, Madame”. The Hermit and his companion were gone in moments.

Jenny Churchill grabbed the reins of the two mules and began the short walk to Cameron’s trail. As she walked, she thought, “Cameron will certainly earn his fee today, dealing with my late husband. He probably charges his dead clients double.”

She laughed. Yesterday she could have left her deceased husband’s body for the vultures, but today rancor was a burden. She didn’t need burdens. Or favors. Not even hope.

She pulled down the brim of her hat and then stepped out of the shadows into the light of the indifferent sun.

Fin

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