Ruby Bones

Pojade

The images displayed are as sharp and clear as the best law enforcement recorders can generate under the circumstances and the burly brown bear peering over the shoulder of a somber technician is experiencing an unaccustomed level of anxiety.

It’s not the content arrayed before him causing his misgiving, although the subject matter is disconcerting for a variety of reasons.

Nor is it the luxurious pelt of body hair matted beneath his clothing that’s challenging the efficacy of his anti-perspirant. Rather, it is the certain knowledge that the images the system has just filtered for review are going to require Henry Pojade to do something he most definitely does not want to do.

Sweat has begun to trickle down his back and beads upon the brow of his big, pink, baby-face.

“What do you make of that irregularity?” he says.

The technician, a slight Hispanic woman with a poker face, says, “The woman in white?”

“Yes. Has the record been edited?”

“No, sir. The corruption we’re seeing is sunfade.”

“The trainee?”

“Medical on-site reports he is physically unharmed.”

“Do you have a marker at the disappearance of the woman and the trainee?”

“Yes, sir. I have markers at each instance of her anomalies.”

“Show them to me.”

He watches each of the records twice, reviewing, despite the degradation, the detail from both officers’ personal recorders and the one in their vehicle. The unidentified woman vanishes from her place in front of the local civilian, materializes in front of the junior officer, and both vanish. A momentary pucker in the air marks the spot where they stood and nothing more. The junior officer’s body cam ceases working at that time.

Seventeen seconds later, the woman reappears alone to confront the senior officer who simply disengages and returns to his vehicle as though nothing had happened. He drives off the Pueblo property to a McDonalds drive-thru in nearby Bernalillo, where he purchases three Big Meals and consumes them with an eerie urgency.

There is nothing in Pojade’s experience to help him place this in a reasonable context.

“Can you clean it up so we can see more detail?”

He’s just stalling now and he knows it.

It is an aversion stronger even than his embarrassing and inexplicable fear of amphibians. While the proximity of a toad may drive him to an illogical state of apprehension, the thought of contacting the Deputy Director of LocUS, even in vee, spawns within Pojade a wave of unreasonable dread difficult to drive down or rationalize. After all he’s experienced in his often-violent career, something about Jacob Hergenrather repels him at a primal level.

Regardless, he’s committed and the connection is initiated.

The obligatory ‘announce and validate’ protocol is acknowledged without haste. Almost a half-minute passes before Pojade’s unease is rewarded.

The ‘accept’ cue is followed by full engagement in subjective space. Resolution is instantaneous and, as expected, troubling.

The Deputy Director is cast in near-silhouette against a sickly, greenish-gray phosphorescence. The color, intensity, and subtle motion of the envelope remind Pojade of things pustulent and poisonous. It never fails to make his stomach churn.

Hergenrather’s suit is a razor-edged shadow, but his eyes are the color of sunlight through an iceberg. Shaved head and scowling facial hairstyle only accentuate Pojade’s perception of malevolence.

He’s seen dangerous men before. Lots of them.

He’s experienced the deadly, surgical precision of a textbook military insertion, the randomized mayhem of a well-planned incursion gone hopelessly awry, and known the inhuman brutality of men to whom torture is a craft. He has survived mindless violence spawned of desperation and faced the murderous aggression of street thugs and professionals alike.

This one is like none of them.

No one has ever accused Pojade of being a churchgoing man. The constraints of organized religion have always tended to run more or less counter to his personal set of principles. The antithetical concepts of Heaven and Hell seem designed to keep the ignorant and gullible in line, and he perceives himself as neither.

He doesn’t believe in angels and yet, given all he’s seen in his circuitous path on this bloodthirsty rock, the existence of their dark counterparts seems more than likely.

He’s a big fellow, Pojade is—not Samoan rugby player big, but enough to make him a noticeable presence. Hergenrather is head and shoulders taller.

Perhaps it’s merely his experimental and, as yet, unbalanced anti-depressant talking here, but assuming for the sake of argument that the demon Beelzebub contrived to walk the Earth in the guise of a man, he imagines it would look and sound like Jacob Hergenrather.

The only thing that ameliorates Pojade’s anxiety and the knot in his stomach is his own self-loathing at the realization that this meeting is in vee, for Christ’s sake. Nobody dies in vee, not in a NoASR regulated environment, and certainly not with the kind of failsafes his agency’s interface has in place.

The smile on Hergenrather’s face carries nothing of warmth nor humor, his silence broken by neither greeting nor inquiry, merely a narrowing of the eyes and tilt of the head.

Instead of meaningless pleasantries or unnecessary verbiage, Pojade conjures a virtual portal cloned from his technician’s feed.

Within the vorp, five individuals are imaged near a well-used personal cargo vehicle, a roller with a vintage body type. It’s a custom job of a style popularized at the beginning of the transportation reboot, a cheap conversion, functional and unattractive, just the kind of heap one would expect to find on Indian land.

The vehicle and two of the individuals have linking icons afloat in the virtual air beside them, catalogued references. One of them is an indigenous man, a local, and the other, a short, rotund woman, is far from her home of record. The other three are unidentified, not in the uncharted depth and breadth of Sonder’s memory, unrecognized by any linked agency database.

A watchdog program, however, some kind of legacy routine embedded in the system, had lit up like a proverbial pinball machine, flagging them for immediate scrutiny.

The pair in white garb are unaccountably bizarre.

Of the two, the big one looks armored up, packing a hefty sidearm on his right side that looks as though it could use some counterbalance. The smaller one, a hardbodied female, appears unarmed and carries herself with a self-assured poise he’s seen before. Her cosmetic choice, an all-over blackface, is curious.

He thought she looked every bit as troublesome as her much larger companion, even before he saw what she is able to do.

The third among them is a male, early-mid forties at a guess, a lean, ropey fellow about six-foot nothing, maybe a buck sixty. He refuses to internally calculate the metric equivalents. Long, straight black hair, high cheekbones, prominent nose, hard lines, likely Amerind.

This one, Pojade surmises, might belong to any segment of a small, but recalcitrant population of unchipped, disenfranchised, rebellious trash who think their disdain for the society they reject insulates them from the responsibilities of citizenship.

Hergenrather walks around the vorp, a slow turn, stopping to stare at the man in the battered, wide-brimmed hat. It’s pushed back on his head enough to reveal a weathered, stony face, a hawk nose, and eyes green like new grass. His hair is long and black, but the stubble on his jaw and upper lip is an unexpected red in the bright sunlight.

If it had seemed Hergenrather could not appear more unnerving, Pojade watches his features transformed by undisguised joy. The effect is grotesque. And short-lived.

“Where is this?”

“It was recorded within the Pueblo of Sandia in New Mexico, a sequestered community that does not embrace uninvited visitors.”

“How long ago was this acquired?”

“Four and a half hours.”

“And I’m just hearing about it now?”

“Tribal Police protocol doesn’t require continuous feed. This was captured during a global upload following the most recent sunfade and an algorithm that’s been running for—hell, I don’t know, so long it’s become canon—pushed these three records through CBP. The Assistant Commissioner handed it off to me thirty minutes ago. I allocated a drone to locate the vehicle’s transponder and acquire visual confirmation of the target before I contacted you. Who are they?”

“Walking dead. Where are they now?”

“Northwest New Mexico, near Four Corners. They’re off the trac network, westbound on an unconverted highway. We won’t be able to detour or shut them down directly, but I can have them detained within the hour.”

“No. Do nothing. Wait while I bring this to the Director.” His avatar recedes into the dead, gray-green backlight and the air of frigid malignance relaxes.

Seconds crawl past as Pojade observes how the phosphorescence seems to demonstrate occasions of fluid movement within. It reminds him of weirdly glowing urine. He works to relax the gorge rising again in his throat.

Hergenrather’s return to the conversation is not a relief.

“Show them to me,” says the Deputy Director. It sounds like an order.

Chaffing, Pojade delivers terse instruction to his operator.

A new vorp opens in the space between the two men and envelops them, each sharing an aerial panorama. Beneath them, a near-deserted highway stabs through hundreds of square kilometers of bleak, high desert barrens.

The highway begins to fall toward them, accelerating in a precipitous plunge that terminates an abrupt, gut-wrenching two meters above the pavement.

Neither man is moved, as anyone might be, even in the virtual realm, to clutch instinctively at a nearby stationary object. There are none and Pojade observes Hergenrather with grudging approval.

The eye’s relative position and speed is displayed in an unobtrusive optic in the upper left corner of Pojade’s vision. It does little to distract him from Hergenrather’s glacial stare as their view levels on the target vehicle.

Ocher light from a lowering sun washes the front end of the geriatric utility van and highlights the two individuals in the cab.

The abbreviated nomenclature of the boxy roller’s linking icon is sufficient to indicate its license and inspections are current, and another icon floating in the virtual air beside the roly-poly driver indicates her file has already been catalogued for reference. Right now, it is enough to verify the target has been correctly acquired.

The woman in the passenger seat with no linking icon and jeweled eyes confirms it.

“She looks like her skin is dyed black.” Pojade says. “What the Hell’s that all about?”

“Irrelevant. Are you sure the other two are in the back?”

“They made a rest stop twenty-five minutes ago. Everybody piled out, including those two big dogs from the pueblo. Everyone did their business, climbed back inside, and off they went. No stops since.” Are you certain you don’t want us to intercept?”

“Under no circumstances will you make contact with the subjects. Do you understand me?”

Pojade’s “Yes,” comes at the end of a reflective pause to reconsider his tone. “I understand you.”

“Then transfer full copies of all records to me and release the eye to my control. I’ll take it from here.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You can’t do what?”

“I can’t give you the drone.”

“Why not?”

“My operator is copying the SPD records to you, everything the eye’s recorded so far, and a stream of everything it continues to record, but I don’t have authority to turn the asset over to you.”

“I don’t think you want to start a pissing match with me over a fucking drone, Henry.”

“I have revised directives from the AC-IOC. Our inventory has been decimated by the so-called Vulcan storms. Models sporting avionics and telemetry hardened to maintain operational integrity against the electromagnetic interference are spread thin. I’ve stretched my own authority just keeping a valuable asset that’s been requisitioned elsewhere focused on your persons of interest, although the level of that interest has unquestionably been justified.”

“Wake your Operations Chief and have him give you authorization.”

“No, Mr. Hergenrather. I’m not going to do that.”

“And I thought we were pals, Henry.”

The technician, invisible at Pojade’s right hand, says in his earbud, “Sir, are you seeing this?”

The woman in the van’s passenger seat is pointing. Afternoon sun sets her jet features in vivid relief and, despite its glare in her face, she is pointing as though she has somehow seen the tiny thing pacing almost half a klick ahead of the vehicle. She appears to be pointing at them.

“Take it up. Now!” Pojade says and the technician’s response is a stomach-churning vertical ascent for those within the virtual portal.

The drone’s pressors slingshot it a full kilometer above the vehicle in seconds. Tiny, silent, its chameleon skin renders it effectively invisible.

Pojade straightens himself, shaking off the visceral effect. Hergenrather appears unmoved.

Below them, the van slows to a stop off the blacktop’s edge. The passenger-side cargo door opens. The largest of the subjects steps out and looks up. He’s removed his mask and he seems to be scanning the bottomless blue of late afternoon sky. His eyes cease tracking.

A swash of burnished metal sweeps up in his hand. A bright turbulence becomes a burst engulfing the vorp for an instant before man, van, highway, and desert are erased in a silent flash.

Outside her supervisor’s virtual envelope, the operator is pressed back against her seat, squinting at her deck. Save for a couple rows of small function tiles at its margin, her viewport is blank. Her hands twiddle virtual controls in an attempt to reestablish connection to the asset.

“It’s gone, sir,” she says.

Blinking against a dazzling afterimage for the moment it takes the agency’s AI’s physics to catch up, Pojade’s tari is surrounded by the envelope of putrid ambiance once more. Beelzebub is beside him and its expression is furious, a thunderhead.

The sweat rolling down Pojade’s back feels cold, though his tari does not exhibit the shiver he feels in Real. He silently curses this sense of dread he cannot shake off. This creature can’t harm him.

“I will contact the Assistant Commissioner and task another drone,” he says. “I’ll notify you when the target is reacquired.”

“You do that.”

The sickening backdrop and the razor silhouette wink out.

Two calming breaths are barely enough. Wrestling a pill bottle from a deep pocket, Pojade turns to his technician.

“You alright?” he says and pops a couple tablets into his mouth, swallowing them dry.

Poker face restored, she says, “I may have found another eye we can redeploy. Top of the call list. There will be some blowback.”

“I just lost a drone I misappropriated from the call list earlier today. Of course there’s going to be blowback. It’s nothing like what will happen if we lose that vehicle and its occupants.”

“I have your authorization, sir?”

“You have to ask?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

“All right, then; you have it. Make it happen and alert me when you have a lock on them. And… don’t let them see this one.”

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

Pojade Read More »

Tradition & Obligation

Jonas watches the uniformed man return to his sleek, metallic buggy. Its odd, wing-like doors close with a hushed solidity and the conveyance moves away under its own queer, whirring power.

The dogs complete a couple exuberant revolutions around and shoulder up against him. He lowers the burden of his gear to the ground.

A city has sprung up overnight it seems like, spread out across the high desert in the distance and roundabout, even up into the folded skirts of the mountain and against its southward range. Distant somethings in the air, skimming among the structures, might be birds, but they don’t move like birds.

Short days ago, by his reckoning, he’d found himself in a bizarre little bugtussle perched on the tableland’s edge far to the north of here, called by its peculiar inhabitants, Woebegone. Now there’s a curious word that does not mean the departure of woe, like you’d think, but the opposite. A fitting epithet for that twisted place.

Before awakening to an unscheduled captivity there, he’d been given a vision, a powerful, harrowing foreknowledge, frightening in its depth and implications.

In that dreamwalk, near its end, he saw coaches moving under their own power, both on roadways stretching into hazy distance and through the air as well. Wonders like them and more presented themselves, but he was detached from it all then, a phantom observer only. Not now. He’s certain this is not the same place he was shown, but if his vision of such oddities was accurate, then the other matters that accompanied them, vivid and terrible, are likely accurate as well. That he’s standing here now should be proof enough.

It is an inconvenient fact that often times his knowing is less a blessing than one might imagine. The incomprehensible workings of the Great Mystery have set his life adrift without benefit of map or compass. There is no wonder without terror, his grandfather had assured him long ago. Old Standing Elk sure knew what he was talking about.

Tunkasila, wakinyelo omakiyayo,” he says, and rests his hands on the great rumpled heads on either side of him, anchoring him to the world.

Close by, waiting at the edge of the paved street, is another coach, larger than the one that just drove away and not nearly as smart-looking. It’s big and square and, like the other, there appears no place to hitch a team to pull it, nor need for such. This one, too, has small metal wheels rimmed in thick India rubber or some such, and inside, enclosed behind a wide glass window that matches the thing’s contours, are what look to be cushioned seats. Behind that resides a fair-sized compartment which, through the wide-open side door, seems to have received the brunt of an avalanche of someone’s personal belongings.

A short woman of generous proportions stands nearby in a long, earthen-hued skirt that reaches nearly to the ground. Her feet are bare. An unconstrained cataract of reddish-brown hair whips in a momentary gust as she turns her face to acknowledge him with a nod.

In her left hand is a sturdy branch of twisted willow, as tall as she. It is an eye-catching instrument and Jonas can’t decide which, the woman or the staff, is supporting the other. The hint of an impish smile brushes her lips and lifts her chubby cheeks. Whoever she is, she’s more than just a bystander, that much is sure. He touches a finger to the brim of his hat.

The stern-looking native man, youngish with darkened, angular features, has squared up to Narregan and Brin. In a clear ceremonial voice, he begins a solemn harangue in his own language. Fused oration and song, it progresses without apparent conclusion in sight.

In the intimate connection of the taproot, Brin’s “voice” is in Jonas’s mind.

‘Jo’nas, this one names himself Tonjuh. Do you understand his speech?’

‘Not a word. I reckon he figures you do. Likely he’s pegged you both as a couple of his tribe’s deities and he’s offering his people’s sincere regards.’

Narregan’s inclusion in the tap is a deep harmonic. ‘Whether this is an address prepared well in advance of our emergence, or an impromptu obeisance, we have been treated properly, honorably, and I suspect, at some risk had we been discovered, vulnerable to those less invested in our safety. We will allow him to find conclusion before we withdraw from this place before it becomes necessary to conflict with these t’sunguc further.’

Jonas’s opinion is that with Ile Slohan holding them as they slept, they were likely never vulnerable at all, but as Narregan has demonstrated some tangled emotions regarding the spirit-stone in the past, he decides it best to hold that thought close.

This one Brin called ‘Tonjuh’ seems to reach a coda in his formal address and falls silent, studying the kachinas with expectation. He appears to shy from Brin’s eyes and Narregan has none he can find. Finally, he settles his stony gaze on Jonas. Tonjuh’s spirit-face fairly shouts of inner conflict between doubt and conviction and, regarding Jonas in particular, an abiding suspicion.

Jonas paces forward until he’s even with his companions and plants himself beside Brin. The brindle wolfhound rocks back on his haunches beside Jonas’s caboodle. The fawn noses her way between Jonas and Brin, jostling them just enough to allow her space to add her weighty stare to those of her people as they consider the lone man facing them.

Martin eyes this rough fellow with skepticism, this supposed “sorcerer” who, in his turn, levels a solemn scrutiny from the shade of his hat.

The old stories say the kachinas arrived outside the pueblo in a storm of power unlike anything ever witnessed—everyone saw it—power wielded by the brujo who accompanied them. His great grandfather, Poeyeh himself, witnessed this wonder with his own eyes.

Martin knows how stories grow and change in the telling. Embellishments creep in, pertinent details creep out. Critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific method were not even remotely part of his peoples’ early belief system. If these dogs are only dogs—and despite their great size and intelligent appearance, they are just that—perhaps this man too is only a man, an ordinary man who seems more out of place in this moment than either of the inscrutable beings beside him. More so even than the dogs, for that matter.

The towering kachina, Choktotoochanay, as the Brin named it, is an imposing, armored mass of unknowable potential. And what of she whose display of inhuman ability is beyond his understanding? The question that presents itself thus to Martin is a valid one. What ordinary man travels with such as these? Martin is moved to recall once again old Poeyeh’s recollections. It is a dawning possibility he may have judged this one in haste.

The man speaks up, calling Martin by his ceremonial name. His voice is measured, his intonation traditional.

“I am Jonas Sunka Nunpa of the Sicangu Oyate. I am son of Burns Red and grandson of Standing Elk, a wicasa wakan of our band. You honor us with your recognition and the powerful words you’ve spoken to mark our re-entry into the world of Men. The generosity of your people, the gift of shelter within your sacred space, and the protection you and your people have given us will never be forgotten. We are in your debt and that’s a fact. Your people and their selfless contribution to our safety will remain in our memory and prayers as long as we draw breath from the Mother.”

 

This one who names himself Jonas Shoonka Noompa withdraws a coin from the watch pocket of his denims and holds it out for Martin to accept. Sunlight flashes off a silver dollar.

It would be an insult if considered as remuneration for all his people have given to protect these visitors, but that is not its purpose, nor its true value, and Martin knows it. The coin properly satisfies a traditional protocol. It anchors the story he will tell his people of this momentous day. Almost anything the man would have given him would have sufficed.

He is not a numismatist, but Martin recognizes a Seated Liberty stamped eighteen seventy-seven. It’s shiny and possibly worth tens of thousands on the collector’s market. He nods acceptance.

“I can tell it plain enough you have misgivings,” Jonas says. “It don’t much matter what you think of me,” he gestures to indicate the Travelers with him, “but my friends here and me,” he sweeps a hand to indicate the wolfhounds, “and these two brave hearts, have a narrow path and a dire purpose before us. Time is short and our presence here’s been exposed. We need to be away from this place.”

Martin arrives at a decision. He reaches to withdraw a bone-handled knife from its ancient rawhide sheath, the leather cured and hardened by time until it is almost as rigid as the wootz steel he slips from it. He holds the sacred thing in both hands for Jonas to see.

“This gift,” he says, “given to my twice great grandfather, has remained with each Watcher over the years. Do you recognize it?”

The sorcerer’s eyes trace the mysteries whorled in the blade.

“I do. My father won it in battle ‘fore I was born. Gave it to me when I was ten winters.” He raises his eyes to Martin. “Wait. You said your… GREAT grandfather?!”

“Twice great.”

 “Poeyeh?” Emerald eyes sweep the horizon behind Martin as if he’d become transparent.

“We went into the ground near the end of July thereabouts,” the brujo says. He seems to be speaking from far away. “Eighteen an’ seventy-eight.”

“Jonas Shoonka Noompa, you are in the Pueblo of Sandia. The city you see grown up around us to the south and west is Albuquerque, New Mexico. Today is the thirteenth of September and the year is two thousand twenty-seven. We have watched over you for a hundred and forty-nine years.”

Jonas’s mouth opens, as if he’s thought of something to say in response, then closes again.

“Grandfather Poeyeh understood,” Martin says, “after you had gone into the kiva to rest, that when you awoke, it would be appropriate to square with you. He did not want you to go back into the world without a knife of your own. I believe he intended to give you his own, but when you did not awaken and he grew too old to maintain his vigil, he passed on that responsibility in the same way as this,” he lifts up the wootz blade, “passed down to the next Watcher. And the next… and so on to me.

“This knife, your gift, has become a part of the story of my people. It will not pass on to another, because today, with your awakening, I am the last Watcher.”

He sheathes the blade. Unfastening his belt, he draws it from its loops to release the rawhide scabbard at his hip and, with it, another sheath. He slips the first into a back pocket and holds the second like something fragile between his outstretched hands, eyes low, offering it to Jonas in ceremonial manner. 

Jonas extends both hands and the gift is laid in them. It’s heavy.

The sheath is blood-red leather, hardened, but with a pennant of fringe so fine the breeze stirs it. Adorning it is an unfamiliar pattern of beadwork. The handle is fashioned from a small antler with a projecting spike about halfway along its length that slips into his grip between middle and third finger.

He exposes the blade, just a sliver, enough for breath to catch in his throat. He withdraws its full length—a slab of snowflake obsidian six or seven inches long shaped like a spearhead, knapped to a point, its edges twin razors.

 Ton’ja makes a circular pass with his open hand, palm down, indicating the gift. “Today is only the second time this blade has seen the sun since it was made. I have kept it only for this day. My grandfather made this when he was Watcher. It took him years working it with a patience and precision that continues to elude me. It is sharper than any steel and, though it can be broken, its edges will never dull.”

Jonas watches his hand slide the knife back into its sheath, feeling its weight and presence, hearing the whisper of the leather caressing it. That one, who sat vigil above the kiva from the day he was given the sacred responsibility as Watcher until he was no longer able to carry it, that one, created this beautiful and deadly thing. Created it for him and no other.

“Your grandfather, what was his name?”

“His name was Miguel. As Watcher he was named Ca-pen.”

Around his neck, beneath the drape of a bandana that had once been blue, is a braided leather cord joined to a leather bag hardened by sun and sweat and years. Jonas lifts it out from his shirt and works it open. His fingertips slip inside past Ile Slohan.

Delving, small familiar objects with personal significance shift aside until, at the bottom, he touches his mother’s earrings. He traps one between fingertips and extracts it. Without haste, he cinches the little bag, drops it back inside his shirt and repositions his bandana over its near-insignificant bulge.

Jonas presents the precious thing to the Watcher.

“The eye teeth of a bull elk are ivory. Two of ’em were given to me as a remembrance of great affection. Nothing I have means more to me. Take this one and the thing’s done.”

Ton’ja extends an open hand and Jonas lays the small treasure into it.

“In my prayers I will remember your grandfather, Miguel Ca-pen, and the unbending honor your lineage and your people have demonstrated to bring all of us safely to this moment.”

Martin’s nagging sense that none of this looks or feels like it should, is overshadowed by the reality in front of him. He draws himself straight, his voice is clear.

“This is a momentous time. Long we have waited for this day. There is so much for us to talk about. So much you have to teach us.” He gestures toward a row of modest structures across the roadway. “I understand your desire to be away from this place, but my home is there, a simple dwelling, but removed from the kind of misunderstanding that has occurred here.

“I ask that you do not judge us by the actions of those men. They did not understand, did not know who you are, did not comprehend the magnitude of this event, of what your presence among us means to our people. Tasked with protecting this community, the rules they must follow are narrow. Your existence is beyond the scope of their statutes, beyond their limited experience.

“Know that you are revered guests. I will alert the elders. They will come and draw their circle of protection around you. There will be no further confrontation. The entire community will come together to celebrate your awakening, a proper ceremony and feast to honor you, as you have honored our people by coming among us.” Ton’ja motions toward the street. “Let me show you the way.”

Brin’s words stall him as if she had reached out with her power and locked his knees. “Ee’eh! No, Tonjuh. I am… sorry. Jo’nas is right. We cannot remain here with you.”

“Why not?” Martin’s consternation at the way this improbable episode has so far played out has robbed him of his stony composure, his oft-imagined sense of how one conducts oneself in the presence of mythological beings and mixed-race sorcerers notwithstanding, he realizes his tone might be construed an impertinence, too late to call it back.

“Because, if we stay,” Jonas says, “there’s gonna be a ruckus. That won’t be good for anybody here, nor for them lookin’ on neither.”

“Do you suppose the Council has not the authority to intervene? The council is the authority here and I am their immediate representative.”

“I mean no disrespect to you or your council, Tonjuh, but I don’t s’pose nothin’. I can see it. Trouble’s coming and by the time we get through talkin’ about it, it’ll be on us like flies on a cow chip.”

“I will intercede with them. Once they understand who you are and why you are here, there will be no trouble.”

“You’re tellin’ me how it’s s’posed to go in your mind an’ I’m tellin’ you what’s fixin’ to happen. The cavalry’s gonna come ridin’ in with their narrow rules and guns drawn and the big guy here’s gonna loose his child-like equanimity.”

“How do you know this?”

“How d’ya know when you try to put your boot on the wrong foot?”

Ruby’s penguin shuffle carries her forward, staff chattering. She plants herself too close to Martin to be disregarded. “He’s right,” she says. “Two body recorders and one in the car, even if no one was monitoring at the moment, somebody will review the record soon enough.”

She turns to Brin. “Hi, I’m Ruby. I’m a human being too.”

“He’alowa, Roobee. I am Brin.”

“Pleased to meet you, Brin. Listen, that fellow you disappeared… where’d you take him to?”

Martin cannot believe the woman’s audacity and he opens his mouth to end her interference.

Brin indicates the church with her chin. “There. Below.”

“In the kiva?” Martin is incredulous. This has gotten completely out of control.

“Keeva… Ha’eh! Yes.”

“He’s unharmed?”

“Yes.”

“And the other one?”

“The soft one who went away? I showed him a different purpose. He will follow it for a time. What is a ‘cheeseburger’?”

Ruby’s grip on her staff tightens, head back, her body ripples until she breaks wind and, still chuckling, shifts a meaningful glance back to Martin. “As soon as either of those officers establish contact with their base, we’re going to be surrounded by flying assholes in riot gear and NO bodycams. You don’t suppose your ‘sacred guests’ have any ID, do you?”

Martin wheels on her imbued with all the authority his position carries. “This is a tribal matter in which you have no part.”

He notices the blanket she gave him from the corner of his eye, blues and greens against desert bland, and wonders when it slipped from his hands.

“Your immediate interest and personal safety will best be served if you leave us right now. In fact, I am telling you to leave. Right now.”

Ruby stares at him from far away.

Martin meets her gaze. “You say you were led here to find two dogs,” he gestures, “and you say these two are not the ones. I believe you, Ruby Bones. You are done here. Leave us.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time Spirit World has pulled my leg to get me moving the right way. You see I am here at this moment in time. You say you don’t believe in accidents.”

“Accident or not, your welcome has run out. You are trespassing on tribal land. If you’re still here when the police arrive, you will be arrested.”

“Enough.” Brin has not raised her voice, but Martin’s ears are ringing.

She steps forward, close enough to touch him, and his heart breaks into a crazed pow wow rhythm. He doesn’t want to look into her upturned face, but she speaks his name and he does. He looks away. It isn’t her eyes he remembers in the next distinct moments, but the starburst around the right one. Was it spinning around, or was he? He has to know.

Quiet calm enfolds him. His inner turmoil is not altogether gone, but he has no need to act upon it right now. He can hear the echo of his words in his mind, flinching inwardly at his loss of self-control.

Ruby scuffles closer to him and grounds her staff with barely a sound.

“I understand your entire life and purpose is invested in this moment. I don’t blame you for wanting to keep them here, but there are forces stirring. Can’t you feel it?”

Martin can feel it. There is nothing to say.

 

Something is nagging Jonas, like a tiny burr in his boot that won’t abate until he stops to root it out, and it turns him about. “Beg pardon, ma’am,” he says to the eccentric woman, “but what was that Tonjuh here said to you just a minute ago?”

A foot shorter, Ruby cranes her neck to afford him a searching look. “About my welcome running out?”

“Nope, ‘fore that. ‘Bout the dogs.”

She reminds him of old Standing Elk who often had that same expression when he was listening to something no one else could hear.

“Like I told him before you all showed up, spirit sent me here to find two dogs. Why?”

“I am Two Dogs.”

Ruby looks at the wolfhounds. The wolfhounds return an impassive consideration. She looks to Martin, whose open-mouthed bafflement says enough.

“The children of my band started callin’ me Sunka Nunpa when I was just a pup,” he says. “They meant it to be an insult. My father convinced me otherwise. Either way, it sorta stuck.”

Ruby blinks. “I did not see that coming.”

“Yes, ma’am, but lest we’re prepared to entertain company, we really need to vamoose now.”

“Yes. Yes, I do see THAT coming.”

 

Circumstances have devolved beyond Martin’s ability to control any facet of them. He turns to the half-blood and strives to keep his voice level.

“Will you be leaving us as you came?”

Jonas, hoisting his burdensome saddlebags once more, pauses. “What?”

“In a storm of power.”

“That was a knee-slapper, wasn’t it?”

“By all accounts.”

“Nope. Reckon we’ll be leavin’ with her.” Jonas tips his head toward Ruby.

“And what of us?”

“Beg pardon?”

“You were given shelter within one of our most sacred places. We watched over you, protected you from the outside world for a century and a half, waiting for you to emerge and bend your powers to heal our land, restore the river, to renew and lift up our people, if for no other reason than in return for our faithful stewardship. Instead, you’re just going to leave? You never came here to help us at all, did you?”

“No,” Jonas says. “No, we didn’t. We were guided to the old, blind shaman who… “

“Ta’luli. His name was Ta’luli.”

“Well, Tululi knew why we’d come and gave us what we needed. You’re free to question his decision, I s’poze.”

“How could Ta’luli refuse such as you?”

Silent up to this moment, the big kachina speaks. His voice a pulse in the air, felt as surely as heard.

“The eld you name T’loolee was not afraid of us. Neither was the gift of his aegis given with the thought of what might be gained in return. The generosity of your people was conferred without stipulation. If this faithful stewardship you value is simply leverage against a benefit you believe we are capable of bestowing, one we are obligated now to bestow, what was your constancy beyond a calculated self-interest?”

Traditional teachings offer no clear guidance in this circumstance. Martin’s higher education included no practical tools to navigate the empirical fact of mythic beings intruding upon the here and now. It has, however, provided him a sharp understanding of the big kachina’s meaning. Martin fixes Jonas with a wild, searching gaze and the crushing disappointment of unrealized possibilities informs his words.

“You say you are in our debt. If you have the power to restore balance to the world, why would you not do it?”

Jonas scans the horizon, inhales dry heat and lets it out slowly.

“That’s a tall order. My friends an’ me just woke up. I always like to have breakfast before I restore balance to the world.”

The big kachina’s voice rumbles, “You have assumed a host of facts nowhere in evidence, Tonjuh. Your immediate advantage will best be served by swift reconsideration of your place in current events and undesirable results to follow if this talk is not followed by action.”

Ruby’s impish smile has disappeared into the void. “Is there a back way out of here?”

Martin’s emotions fail to correlate with his sacred responsibility. None of the possibilities presented seem to match either his expectations or his perceived duty to his people and their future.

“Old Ta’luli saw way better than I do where our trail leads from here,” the brujo says. “Tell me, Tonjuh. What has your own vision shown ya?”

Martin jolts.

The memory of his journey beyond the boundaries of reason at the kiva’s doorway in the ground—less than twenty minutes ago!—returns with sufficient force to stagger him.

Is it possible his terrifying vision and these Visitors could somehow be bound together? A novel idea with nothing to substantiate it. Still, the synchronicity is as compelling as it is disturbing.

Nothing in this extraordinary sequence of events conforms to reason. There is no tradition, no historical guidance at all to match this instance, to offer direction. He is alone, immersed in a circumstance that, to his knowledge of his people’s history, has happened only once before. Martin’s opinion of Old Ta’luli’s judgment and decisions made in that other place and time has appreciated in the last minute. Who will advise him beyond the spirits of those who have preceded him? He had supposed them mute as he prayed for their guidance. He realizes now they are shouting to him across generations—as if across a gulf of stars.

Hand outstretched, palm down, Martin indicates a direction. “Head north,” he says. “Past the softball field there is a gate at the end of the paved road.” He extracts a slim ring of keys from the front pocket of his jeans, tosses it to Ruby. She plucks it from the air.

“One of those will open it. You won’t need them again. Lock it back up and drop them in the scrub beside the gate.”

Ruby nods.

“North Santa Fe Trail will take you into the town of Bernalillo. Stay off the CanAm Highway. It’s trac. Highway Three Thirteen hasn’t been converted yet.”

Ruby extends a pudgy right hand. Martin considers it only a moment, then brushes her fingers with his own.

“Throw your luggage and yourselves inside my rig,” she says to the travelers. “Half a minute we’re gone.” She pivots around her staff and does a creditable quick-march toward her vehicle’s street-side door, the syncopated stutter of her twin rattles providing the beat to her feet.

Brin reaches out a hand to Martin, an echo of Ruby’s gesture. A sensation like an electrical current accompanies her touch and he allows his fingers to rest in her palm for several seconds, indulging in the momentary thrill of contact. She graces him with a tender smile.

“You have lost far less this turn than you think,” she says.

He is careful not to meet her gaze. “How do you suppose?”

“You waited, as those before you had done, for this moment to come, and when it did, you looked for Source to reach out through us, like the Hand of ONE, to touch your life and the lives of your people. Has it not occurred to you that ONE has never done otherwise? Look to the multitude of small things that have transpired while you were waiting.”

“So often,” she says, “it is the pivotal event with far-reaching consequence one desires in the hope new marvels and favor will accompany the occasion. See us now before you, Tonjuh, and know we have experienced such an alteration of circumstances as you may not be prepared to fathom, yet from it, I can tell you this: marvels are many; favor far less abundant.

“Where we come from, there is a truth all children know: There is no Color the darkness cannot occlude. When full Night blankets all, the light you require must come from within you.”

“I… I don’t understand,” Martin says.

“I know.” She smiles again and turns away.

He watches her go. The crazy woman motions for her to sit with her up front, and she does. The door seals behind her with a hollow, metallic clap.

Martin’s attention pans back to find Jonas. A volume passes in silence between them.

Martin offers his hand. Jonas grasps Martin’s forearm. His grip is a strong one. Martin mirrors it and nods once his acknowledgement. He watches as Jonas treads the gravel interval to the waiting vehicle, the dogs circling. He follows his saddlebags through the van’s side cargo door and the dogs pile in behind.

Choktotuchaanay towers; his blank Face is turned Martin’s way and Martin is astonished to feel his knees tremble. Words are dust in his mouth. He’s certain the kachina can hear the blood pounding in his temples. He strives to control his breathing, searches his spinning thoughts for something to say that won’t sound weak or stupid when he revisits this graceless episode with the tribal elders. None occur. He hangs pierced in this great Power’s deliberation.

The kachina reaches inside its makeshift poncho and withdraws something small in its hand. As though from a distance, Martin observes his own hand reach out to take his baseball cap.

There is nothing more. Martin watches the probably-not-a-kachina clamber into the waiting vehicle with an agility and lightness he would not have imagined of one so large, or so encumbered. The side door slides closed behind him and seals with a grinding complaint. The heavy electric drive whines to life and the van glides forward.

 

It eases through the quiet heat and a neighborhood of low structures separated by narrow expanses of dirt. The entire insulated community still appears to have been abandoned.

No weathered faces peer out as they pass. No children or animals are in evidence. With the exception of vagrant insects congregating in lethargic eddies, there is no indication of life or movement anywhere.

Clustered housing gives way to open ground and the indicated ballpark, a diamond of bare dirt with a patchwork backstop, rickety bleachers, and a sagging chain-link perimeter fence. As promised, a boundary gate of substantial construction offers egress and, beyond it, the desert fans out, broiled to a dingy, sterile beige.

The way is clear and the van attains an impressive, albeit illegal speed.

 

Martin stands at curbside watching the squared-off rear end dwindle northward with its preposterous passengers. Six discrete beings, six impenetrable mysteries, have passed beyond the boundaries and the complex story of his people, here and gone in the space of less than half an hour. It defies reason.

The elders are going to have to ponder this one for a while.

A small dust cloud is kicked up in the distance by their passage. He watches it spin up into a thin, twisting column, a common enough occurrence in this land, yet somehow it seems to him a signature. The wind whips it away toward the mountain, dispersing it to nothing.

Squinting beneath a fierce midday sun, Martin notices the cap in his hand and settles it onto his head. Its shade is refreshing.

A rumpled bundle lies in a heap nearby—blues and greens, Northwest colors, an anomaly against the drab desert grit underfoot. Martin lifts it from the ground, brushes it off, and folds it under his arm. His sigh is a long one filled with resignation, regret, and perhaps a residual smattering of resentment.

A jolting electric buzz splits the air. Cicadas’ song, missing since the first kachina stepped into the sunlight, returns as though it had never gone.

      ~      

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

Tradition & Obligation Read More »

Small Worlds Collide

Recumbent in the van’s open side panel, a cushion between her back and the door post, Ruby is content to wait for the next scene in the unfolding mystery story her life has become.

To go out seeking pieces to the puzzle, chasing her unbridled imagination for clues, has never rewarded her with satisfying results. This place, right here, is where she is. There is nowhere else for her to be and no reason to be elsewhere.

The sun and hot, dry air feel pleasing on her skin and ease the discomfort in her joints.

Those magnificent dogs are off somewhere, running together as if they hadn’t done so in days. The raven-fleshed woman stands nearby like a statue clad in sunlight, her garb a glare against the drab background of desert soil and desiccated foliage. Her face is turned upward to the sun, eyes closed.

Martin stands dividing his confounded attention between the two women who seem to have lost all interest in him.

Ruby grounds her staff with a clack and hoists herself upright. Her shuffling step brings her closer. She’s looking past him and he follows her gaze.

An official-looking vehicle is tooling down the otherwise deserted street, a sleek and rugged roller with wide desert tires and substantial ground clearance. Two uniformed men eyeball the van and the odd assortment of individuals curbside in front of the church. The cruiser angles in front of Ruby’s rig and whispers to a stop. Gull-wing doors flap up in unison and both men step out into the heat.

A momentary swirl of dust kicks up in front of them, fleeing to the east and away toward the mountain.

The driver, ball cap pulled low over mirrored shades, has the look and bearing of one recently separated from the military: A.J. Squared Away, tightly wound, hyper-vigilant. He remains where his tactical boots hit the ground, on station, hand resting on his sidearm, head on a swivel.

A stocky fellow in crisp uniform exits from the passenger side closest to them and approaches, pinching his mask over his nose. He marks the squat Yoda-looking woman with a nod and acknowledges Martin with a cheerful wave.

“Eh, Martin. Hossit goin’?”

The presence in white observing him in silence brings his feet to a stumbling halt. Her flesh is so black it doesn’t even seem to reflect the sunlight. Her eyes…

“Look at me, Manny.” Martin’s voice is firm.

The officer’s attention flickers toward him.

“She’s come from the kiva,” Martin says.

 

 

Sergeant Manuel Sanchez attempts with moderate success to match Martin’s assembly of words to other words he knows.

Sure, the language is familiar, but that specific arrangement of syllables, as simple as they might seem, is one he’s never in all his thirty-seven years imagined would be cobbled together in the same sentence. They leave him with an incredulous expression that will make him cringe sometime later when the cruiser’s on-board recorder is played back for official review.

It is not the only thing that will cause him distress.

He knows the legend, of course, the story of the brujo and the kachinas who came to the pueblo an old shaman’s dream ago. It is an integral element of the clandestine oral chronicles of his people. Yet all his adult life he has considered the mysterious kachinas to inhabit the exclusive realm of fantasy, affording them the same credence he’s saved for dragons, mermaids, and graviton particles.

Martin Montoya, however, is the Pueblo’s appointed Lieutenant War Chief, a member of the Tribal Council, and the current Watcher in an unbroken chain of those tasked with the guardianship of the kiva and its apocryphal occupants.

Manny has known Martin all his life. There’s no one more solidly credible. If he says this is an entity of inhuman capability and purpose then, by God—he begins to cross himself, thinks better of it—the world is no longer quite like he believed it to be a minute ago.

Almost against his better judgment, Manny turns his face once more to the being that should not, in a sane world, exist.

His heart is rattling in his chest and an unprofessional thrill of fear washes through him, weakening his knees, as the kachina-woman rivets him with her gaze. He wants more than anything to turn away, but her eyes glitter, shifting hues in the sunlight. There is a configuration of scar tissue around her right eye, black on black flesh, eight… no, nine narrow lines precisely raised and arranged in a starburst pattern.

For an unnerving instant it seems to Manny they form a sort of lens through which she surveys the conflict stirring within and around him. Her expression is one of quiet amusement. The contradiction is disarming.

Manny might have been able to find safe passage through his internal turmoil then, had proof of his apparent derangement not stepped into the sunlight through the open door at the rear of the church.

By himself, the long-haired cowboy striding across the threshold, heavy-laden saddlebags slung over one shoulder, settling his broad-brimmed hat against the sun, strikes a discordant note. Alone he might have even seemed kind of funny in a misplaced, lanky extra from an old two-D Western movie sort of way.

But he’s not alone.

Behind him, barely able to fit through the narrow doorway, is a formidable figure clad head to toe in what looks like spotless white tactical armor and draped in a crudely repurposed Navajo rug. Above and around a featureless white faceplate, a mane of black hair ripples as it comes straight on across the church yard with the wild-west anachronism at its side.

The most fearsome of the kachinas from the old stories appears exactly as described in them.

It is no giant, as Manny had imagined proper kachinas of legend to be, but its size and the power of its movements force a shockwave of apprehension ahead of it. Manny has difficulty believing his eyes and maybe it’s just the coffee he drank ten minutes ago, but his bowels are threatening to betray him.

“Sarge?” The tension in the rookie’s voice is impossible to misinterpret. “What the Hell is this?!”

“Take it easy, Jakey.” Manny realizes the younger man’s complete unfamiliarity with the tribe’s secret history would render any attempt to answer nonsensical. “Stand down, son. I’ve got this.”

Somehow it doesn’t seem like quite enough.

 

 

Officer-recruit Diego Aguerre—whose nickname, for some reason known only to his Corps squad-mates, is “Jakey”—is still holding his place beside the vehicle. What little he’s heard or understood of the brief exchange between his partner and Montoya notwithstanding, the increasing headcount is adding to his agitation.

People who clearly do not belong here are coming out of the woodwork.

The cowboy doesn’t look like a problem yet, but the big guy must be near seven feet tall in what looks like a scaled-down, Q-powered Schwarzkopf battlesuit. This one’s head is up, face shield opaque and featureless.

There is no way this can be good. And yet his pudding cup of a partner acts like this is all somehow acceptable.

“I’m calling it in,” the rookie says and opens a circuit. “Dispatch…”.

“That seems a bad idea, Manny.” Martin’s voice sounds calm. “Lights and sirens and a possible armed response is not what’s needed here. These are sacred guests.”

Manny nods dumbly as the kachina-woman, having observed the two newcomers emerging from the church, shifts her attention in the direction of the young officer.

“There’s nothing but static on the comm, Sarge.” Jakey hauls out the dash-mounted shotgun.

“Ten-three, Jakey! Ten-three! Goddammit, son, look at me! This is not in the book! Stand down! Do it now and I’ll explain everything!” Manny realizes he’s shouting in the kachina-woman’s immediate presence and prays she will not misunderstand and incinerate him or anything. “And put that thing away!” He puts iron in his voice. “Do it, recruit!”

The mismatched pair has crossed half the distance between the church and the assortment of individuals loosely clustered near the roadside vehicles. A whorl of hot air whips up, lifting the cowboy’s hat and flagging his hair. Jakey recognizes the butt of a carbine protruding from its scabbard at his back. The improvised cloak over the other’s armor flails too, enough to reveal the artillery snubbed at his side and a rigid protocol is awakened.

“GUNS! They’re ARMED!”

The distinction between warfare and public safety has blurred, activating a far more visceral training. He chambers a round as he’s dodging around the car’s stubby nose and advances on the implausible duo, short-barreled pump carried at high ready.

“Police officer! Stop where you are!”

Both men slow their pace to a leisurely halt.

Manny, sensing the folly of this hostile course of action against incomprehensible beings, shouts. “GODDAMMIT, JAKEY, STAND DOWN! THAT’S AN ORDER!”

There were other words, but the escalation of circumstances, by way of his ability to assess them accurately—as opposed to his senior partner, who evidently has not managed to do so—has forced Jakey to take decisive action. This place is not his home. These are not his people; he just works here, but he knows his job.

His sergeant’s order is irrational. These men have weapons. The law is unambiguous.

“Hands on top of your heads,” he commands them. “Both of you! Right now!”

“Simmer down there with that scattergun, Wild Bill,” the cowboy perp says. “Nobody’s wavin’ iron here but you.”

Jakey cannot understand why his partner hasn’t moved to back him up. This is the most dangerous time of any armed suspect encounter and that jolly, flabby doofus is telling him not to do what he was hired and trained to do. How Jakey misses the Corps where everyone knows their role and follows procedure, simple progressions with reliable, repeatable results. Regardless, he has the drop on these two and the initiative is his.

“You are both under arrest for trespassing on private property and possession of firearms within the pueblo. Put your hands on your head and get on your knees.”

Cowboy perp looks up at the other and says, “Seems prickly, don’t he?”

Everything would be so much easier if he could just shoot one of them to show he means business. It had worked spectacularly well in both desert and jungle theaters.

His comm is still filled with electronic grass. Jakey’s shotgun is aimed between center masses. Whether anything he’s got is able to penetrate the big fellow’s armor is doubtful, but it looks like there may be vulnerable flesh just behind the faceplate where his hair spills out, a serious design flaw.

Inside his head, Jakey’s voice is infused with authority. “Do NOT fuck with me, assholes! Do what I told you and do it now!”

Motion flickers at the edges of Jakey’s vision. Both sides at once. The movement to his right is Sergeant Sanchez double-timing his lard ass over to assist, at last. A glint of sunlight there is Manny’s service weapon being drawn to cover the perpetrators, which is convenient because whatever is on Jakey’s left was much farther away a moment ago.

Across the church yard, two enormous dogs are bearing down on him at a dead run.

Where they’ve come from is a distant concern. They are both bigger than he is. Jakey trains a can’t-miss, hot, double-ought round on the larger one, a brindle less than thirty meters away and closing.

Something bright presses his weapon aside and occludes his target.

The woman in white is centimeters from him. He can feel her breath on his face. It has a spicy fragrance he will recall later.

The soles of his feet press flat against his kidneys as his head and rectum exchange places in some painless, inexplicable fashion. A second later he is on his hands and knees on a surface of smooth stones barking his breakfast burrito and coffee all over his shotgun.

He tosses his sodden mask aside and rolls onto his back with a groan. The darkness is not enhanced by deep-tinted glasses designed for high desert work. He fumbles them off his face.

The floor is hard and his guts are churning, but all his parts seem to be in their proper order, which is reassuring. High up, maybe two meters above him, light seeps in through a square aperture centered in heavy timbers. It offers no clue to where he is, or why.

As to the how, well… she’s standing over him. And then she’s not.

 

 

Sergeant Sanchez is astonished to realize his partner and the kachina-woman have just vanished in a blink before his eyes. Also, he seems to be holding his sidearm in the general direction of what may well be an inhuman being of unknown intent and potential.

The dogs, skidding to a halt where Jakey and the woman had been standing, are poised less than a meter from him now, lips skinned back from bayonets.

Montoya is beside him.

“I told you it was a bad idea,” Martin says. His voice is gentle, as is the reassuring hand on Manny’s arm, lowering his weapon’s muzzle toward the dirt.

If these are truly the supernatural beings of his tribe’s history, then this misplaced character in the hat must be the brujo. He looks more like an unchipped denizen of one of those throwback enclaves that still dot the nation like a bad rash. On the other hand, he did just appear to come from the kiva with the hulk in white.

Manny’s deliberation on this subject is compromised by that same hulk’s featureless mask turned full upon him and by the unknowable motivation of imaginary beings provoked to anger by discourteous treatment.

The air in front of Manny seems to distort and presses outward against him. The kachina woman is so near he can feel the heat of her.

His partner is not with her.

Manny’s personal recorder registers another spike in his vital signs.

Impossible, inhuman beings of antiquity and legend, beyond all common sense and reason, are REAL. They not only exist, their attention has turned upon him. This is not some virtual experience he can step out of and comforting normalcy will be restored.

She is right here. Right now. She is close enough to touch. She is close enough to touch him.

Sunlight on her flesh produces waves of warmth and the scent of her is in his nostrils. Her fingertips on his chest are light, a delicate grazing contact, devoid of menace or even the vaguest hint of peril. In fact, as she traces an obscure pattern upon his chest, his certainty in her goodness and authenticity is confirmed.

She awards him a gentle smile.

His sidearm has dropped into the dirt at his feet. Martin picks it up, slips it back into its holster, and secures the clasp. Manny pats it and, with a purposeful step, returns to the cruiser.

The motor’s idling hum scales up to a business-like frequency as the doors fold him inside. He backs away from the curb and accelerates down the street. At the end of the block, he bears left and is gone.

      ~      

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

Small Worlds Collide Read More »

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 a couple unpretentious stained-glass windows. She steers to a stop at the curb just beyond 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 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.

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 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. 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, 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, 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 Brin. 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. Not mythical beings. That much is clear enough. This singular Brin, however… well, she is something else altogether, is she not?

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 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 here, beyond all reasonable expectation, are two dogs.”

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.

Besides the dogs, however, there is way more going on here than seems typical for this sleepy place. Whatever it is she’s swerved into was none of her business before she parked here. Now Spirit says 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 chuckles as if mystified by the words coming from her mouth.

“These are not the ones.”

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

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