The Bones of It

Her nav signals its disconnect from the trac pattern and glides the vehicle onto a well-maintained surface road. She resumes manual and squints into the middle distance ahead for a glimpse of something she’s never actually seen before.

It’s been a good many years since she was last in these parts. The nature of things everywhere guaranteed in advance she would find conditions gone downhill. She had crossed over the ribbon of the Rio Grande half an hour ago on her way into Albuquerque, saddened to see what had been the life-blood of the central valley reduced by drought and an almost third-world level of management to little more than a trickle of sludge. A few hearty cottonwood sentinels remain near the river’s edge and up the bosque, last representatives of the stands that once thrived there. The rest are desiccated and skeletal, choked to death by thickets of salt cedar—delicate, opportunistic invaders with a ravenous thirst and unparalleled adaptability to this environment. Altogether the whole reminds her of nothing so much as a spectacular accumulation of tinder.

And there it is. A featureless turn-off from the thoroughfare, deliberately absent clear signage, gives the only access to an historically eclectic enclave community. The tribal police blockhouse and checkpoint appears to be unmanned. Her rig passes through like a ghost.

It is an island, disassociated by intention from the suburban phage sprawling outward from Albuquerque’s enchanted Old Town nucleus. The Pueblo of Sandia and its people have ever maintained their unique integrity, their scrupulous estrangement. Their residences, modest, stick-built homes of a low, blocky style are arranged in a series of paved, asymmetrical loops. Without the quaint adobe huts the occasional naïve tourist might expect, it looks like any other dust-blown, low-income subdivision wizened by the high desert clime. Yet, there is something indefinably dismal in its character, a cheerlessness perhaps compounded by bare dirt lots, a meager scattering of sparse, haggard-looking trees, and the lack of any serious attempt at ornamentation.

She swings wide onto one of the perimeter streets near what appears a small, but conventional-looking Christian church. It’s marked by a workmanlike steeple and unpretentious stained-glass windows. She steers to a stop at the curb beside it.

The driver-side door opens with minimal complaint and she steps, staff in hand, from the running board of her war-ravaged van into a hot, dry breeze.

She walks, penguin-like with a pronounced hitch, and she looks, upon approach and departure, like a red-headed apple. Hers is a chubby-cheeked, almost jolly, elfin face with a cataract of auburn hair churning around it. It’s the eyes that spoil the illusion of cheerfulness. The light in them is from stars that died before the Earth was formed. Not counting the AIs, of course, less than a dozen people know her real name. Only three of them ever use it. Everyone else though, those who respect, love, or fear her, call her Ruby Bones. Some say she is a medicine woman. Others might use the term ‘shaman’. She will tell you instead, if you’re indelicate enough to inquire, that she’s just a crazy old woman.

Raw sunlight many would find uncomfortable warms her most agreeably. Barefoot in the coarse soil at curbside, she circles slowly in place, senses open, questing. A directionless, droning buzz infuses the air. The mating song of cicadas is the sound of heat, a subliminal racket that bores its way into one’s calm. There are no people, children, dogs… no traffic, nor movement of any kind, save an errant insect or two. If she didn’t know better, she’d think she was alone and the whole place deserted.

A voice abrasive as a rasp carries on the hot air, a single, emphatic caw. A pause and it comes again, insistent. A second voice like the first picks up the cry and then others, many others. A congress of black-winged disharmony has formed a hasty council along the roofline of the church. In the space of a half-minute, the dreamy afternoon stillness has become pandemonium. She plants her staff beside her like an exclamation point, producing a single, sharp clack, surely inaudible in all that braying.

“No need to shout,” she says. “I can hear you.”

The convocation’s uproar scales down to a mumble. Blue-black flutters and cocked heads accompany a return to silence by all but one, a plaintive yawp that might be an assertion, or a dare.

Ruby regards the baleful collective intelligence of the gallery and addresses its spokes-crow. “All I needed was a whisper, little sister. Instead, you brought the whole choir. I am honored. Thank you.”

“Yawp,” the lone delegate replies.

A masculine voice behind her is a surprise. “The welcoming committee is rarely so enthusiastic.”

Her turn is measured by the memory of how sudden motion transmutes a familiar and tolerable ache into misery. Despite the crows’ raucous caucus, she should have felt the approach of another. There is, however, no sense of tension accompanying this new presence.

Maybe twenty years her junior, the man has the unmistakable look of a pureblood; straight black hair past his shoulders, sun-hardened features, eyes dark as the underside of a boulder. His open, benign expression is an unexpected contradiction to a countenance carved in flint.

“You’re a good bit off the tour route.” His voice is pleasing, conversational rather than authoritative. “Are you looking for someone in particular?”

“As is often the way of it,” Ruby says, “I was led here. Can’t say exactly why, other than I’m to find two dogs.”

“That seems a curious charge.”

“I’ve learned to just go where Spirit directs. Sit, stand, turn this way, go that. Today I am here.” She extends a hand. “Most call me Ruby Bones.”

Martin reaches to lightly brush her fingers with his own. Nothing more, a formal act. “You may call me T’onja.”

“T’onja. A human being,” she says.

“You know the Tiwa language?”

“No. I don’t know anybody anywhere that does. You’re not afraid to touch me?”

“Should I be?”

“Recent history as a guide, most folks hold to the notion fewer people die from being too careful than not.”

“You are not masked. Are you not afraid the gonji might be lurking in me? In the air around us now?”

“I’m not afraid of anything anymore.”

Ruby’s careful turnabout and shuffle back toward her van is braced by the unique topography of her walking stick, a sturdy, twisted willow staff as tall as she. The hardened leather rattle affixed to its crown is a twin of the one tucked in her belt. Both contain tarsal bones of badger and shape a snappy syncopated rhythm to match her hitching step. At the curbside panel she gives the recessed handle a firm yank. Its sensor engages at last and the door creaks itself fully open with a lugubrious metallic complaint.

Martin watches her wrestle with something just beyond arm’s reach, her rattles chattering as she does so. Leaning inside just at the edge of tolerable discomfort, she reaches with her staff to draw something closer, her legs pumping air as she works to right herself again. She emerges dragging an old tan suitcase with one broken clasp from the conglomerated heap of her belongings. She beckons him closer. Martin has a brief view of patterns in deep blues and greens as she withdraws a woolen blanket, bundles the fabric in half, and presents the gift to him in both hands.

“It’s no accident we’ve met here today,” she says.

He receives the gift with a somber nod. “I haven’t believed in accidents for a good many summers.”

Ruby closes her eyes and breathes in mid-day’s buzzing heat, the dusty smell of this place’s history, and a wisp of the river’s stench. She can almost smell the sense of honor and duty in this pueblo’s warrior come out to meet her.

“Well, there are dogs about, sure enough,” he says.

“Could’ve fooled me.”

“But I suspect not just any two of them will do, will they?”

“I see you know how this works.”

Ruby unearths a water bottle from just behind the passenger seat and assumes a marginally comfortable semi-recline just inside the cargo door, digging her toes into the hot sandy soil to find a cooler layer beneath. It’s deeper down than she had expected. She takes a draught from the container and casts a meaningful glance toward the church. Martin’s gaze follows.

Among the congregation gathered atop the building, the lone representative utters a long, near-articulate remark and holds its place as the rest of the assembly vacates without a word, only the sound of wings slapping air. Thermals rising from the baking soil lift them and they glide in eerie silence to the west and the river. The remaining sentry calls down a single, sharp warning, hops along the ridge top and out of sight on the opposite side.

At the rear of the house of worship, a small door that should not open without the key in Martin’s pocket, does so and, from it, a myth given substance and flesh steps into the light of day. The song of the cicadas, as hypnotic an intonation as ever cast itself through the air, ceases.

.  .  .

She is a vision, a stunning, painfully sharp presence of contrasts. Purest white covers her from neck to toes in something neither fabric, nor armor, resembling both. Her cloak, its cowl thrown back, ripples in the hot breeze. It is disturbing to look at it. Her face and hands are blue-black in the sunlight, like raven’s feathers. She looks regal, a being of unknown purpose gazing at them across an infinite gulf.

A pair of large, powerful four-leggeds, dogs, each one the size of a man, exit the building close behind her. Heads high, they take in their surroundings, marking the presence of Martin and Ruby with little concern, testing the air. The brindle spins in place, circles the woman once and bounds away at a gallop with the other on its heels. They round the corner at the rear of the church and are lost to sight.

The woman approaches them with an easy, feline gait. Two paces from Martin she stops. Not a being of imposing, supernatural stature,  she has to look up slightly to meet his eyes. He is careful not to meet hers, but mid-day sunlight dazzles on her attire and defines the sunburst embossed around her right eye. Martin knows this mark. The story of it is burned into tribal memory. He swallows his trepidation with difficulty. His mouth is dry.

“I am T’onja,” he says to the kachina in his native Tiwa. His voice does not falter. “I am a person. A human being.” It is a ceremonial greeting, one he had assumed he would never have to use.

Once he had prepared words that might meet such a moment, but they are far away now and this is high ceremony. It has come upon him without forewarning, but it is his charge, nonetheless. An accurate record of it is now his sacred responsibility. He begins again to address the being before him, employing words his elders likely would approve. 

She regards him in silence. He catches himself glancing at her tattoo, then into her rainbow eyes, and words fall away from him.

“I am T’onja. I am a person. A human being,” he says in English as an afterthought he doesn’t remember thinking.

“He’alowa, Tonjuh. Meliha a’chi, T’choct ot U’chah na. T’sunguc,” she says.

Martin is uncertain whether communication has been established. He touches a hand to his heart and says simply, “T’onja.”

She echoes the gesture. “I am Brin. I understand this speech, Tonjuh.”

Having never dealt with a power being before, Martin deems this an auspicious beginning.

“Since I was able to understand my rightful place among my people,” Martin says, “I have waited for you.”

The two great beasts come loping around the front of the building and straight on to bracket the kachina woman, Brin. They eye Martin and Ruby with quiet gravity. Their manner would seem stately if not for their rough, unkempt appearance. Their size is impressive, daunting. Martin’s consideration shifts from one to the other and, finally, back to the kachina. She lays a hand on each rumpled head and speaks to the dogs bracing her sides. Her language is unfamiliar.

Wolfhounds. Martin’s not seen the like of these before in Real, but he’s seen images and recalls something of their ancient origins. His great grandfather thought them kachinas also when he saw them, power beings in the form of animals accompanying the others on their inexplicable sojourn among the People. Dogs. Just that. Not mythical beings. That much is clear enough. This singular Brin, however… well, she is something else altogether, isn’t she?

She has half-turned away, scanning the surroundings with unhurried interest. The squatting bulk of the sacred mountain in the middle distance to the east holds her gaze for a long count. Martin’s attention is fixed on her profile.

The brindle takes a step, closing the space between them. Its manner conveys no threat and Martin extends a hand almost chest high, fingers closed in a loose fist, as he’s learned to do with any unfamiliar canine. The beast stops just short of his flesh offering, sniffs it, looks him up and down with an imperious detachment, then turns away and crosses the intervening space to where Ruby sits in the vehicle’s open side door. She coos to the dog as he approaches and gives him a rigorous caress. He nuzzles her neck.

The fawn looks up from the kachina’s side with expectant eyes.

“Yoosh,” The Brin says and waves a casual hand toward the pair.

Ruby dislodges a wooden bowl from a substrate of accumulated paraphernalia within the van’s spacious bed and fills the vessel with water from the bottle still close at hand. The brindle’s muzzle is mustache-deep in the basin as she leans back to watch him. The fawn joins her mate and a duet of vigorous lapping sounds ensues.

The eccentric woman, propping herself within the van’s doorframe, seems to be disinterested in what may be the most consequential human interaction in recorded history. Instead, she’s refilled the bowl and seems to take pleasure in the simple act of watching the beasts empty it once more. The Brin, too, is observing them, her features in repose.

“Ruby Bones, I do not believe in coincidence any more than I do accidents,” Martin says, “but you have come seeking two dogs and, beyond all reasonable expectation, here they are.”

Ruby seems mystified. The presence of these wonderful creatures is beyond expectation. Truthfully, she had no idea what to expect when she drove in here, but coincidence or no, the synchronicity of intention and manifestation in a matter of minutes is not remarkable at all; that’s just how Spirit moves in the affairs of one poor, pitiful, crazy old woman. Whatever it is she’s swerved into was none of her business before she parked here. Now she’s in it until it’s done with her.

The dogs, sated, whirl, circling each other with yips and growls, and sprint away. Ruby shakes her tumbling mane and, chuckling as if surprised by the words coming from her mouth says, “These are not the ones.”


Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

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