Authors: Gary Paulsen
They moved through the night like a soft knife through water, so that the night opened in front of them and closed behind and left them just in their small pocket of moonlight and silence. Later, when Janet tried to remember the ride, all she could honestly remember was that her mind was blank and that images of great beauty would cycle through, come and go, but not really stay so that she could lock them in her thoughts.
They were out of town very soon, away from all buildings, and past the gate to the pueblo, on out into the country, up into the foothills that led to the mountains.
Riding was easy. She was amazed that it was so simple. She’d ridden some in the past, when she was a small girl, but then only in circles on led small ponies.
This was, if anything, easier; the pony moved to keep its weight directly under her, kept her comfortable and balanced, and soon she relaxed her grip on
the braid and began to move with the motion of the horse, which made it easier still, and once she relaxed, she began to see things in the night.
Once a small nighthawk swooped past, not four inches from her face, out of the night and back into it in silence, and she actually felt the kiss of wind from his wing, a brush so light on her cheek that it might have been imagined, a kiss by a ghost.
Billy moved ahead of her as they got out of the buildings and left the road and moved across the flats of scrub and piñon, and she watched him and felt … felt close and strange and safe and wonderful in a way she couldn’t understand and didn’t pick at because she sensed that to pick at it would ruin it.
It wasn’t love, not really, but something very much like it, and there was awe in it and richness and quietness and softness and power, and the feelings all cycled through the way the images did, so that she couldn’t remember later any single one, couldn’t say to herself
I felt this way
at any given time. It was very much like the touch of wind from the wing of the nighthawk, the way the feelings moved through her mind as they rode—soft touches of thoughts that didn’t always tie together but were always good and left her mind with a good taste.
She wasn’t cold, and that, too, surprised her. It was a chilly night, though very still, yet she wasn’t cold even with the movement of the horse, and she supposed it was because she was so caught up in everything else.
The trip across the high desert, out of town, and up through the scrub and sand washes might have taken two hours or two days, she didn’t know, had no way of knowing or caring; but before dawn they were in the pine forests of the foothills and moving through the rich smells of the pine needles around them.
The moon went down while they were in the pines, but enough light came from where it went over the horizon to light their way, and Billy moved ahead of her over a series of ridges, rolling high mountain meadows, through the dark, and finally down a last, sloping incline to some more trees and through the trees and down a shallow bank to the edge of a pool of water.
It was not the same pool as the small pond in her dream. This one was much larger, but she gasped when she saw it because it was so peaceful; around the edges, out about ten feet, there was a thin layer of ice, and the water beyond was so still it was practically impossible to see where the ice ended and the water began.
Billy stopped his horse on the grass near the pond and dismounted and signaled for Janet to do the same, and he took both horses off into the trees and tied them.
Then he came back, and he was holding the striped blanket from the pony, which he unfolded and spread on the ground, and still in silence and all with hand motions he told her to sit on the blanket and make
herself comfortable. When she’d done so, he moved off to the edge of the pond and spread his arms and sang a song, or recited some poetry, in Indian, standing tall with the white buckskins and the night around him, and although Janet couldn’t understand any of the words in the song, she recognized it as a form of praying from the tone in his voice and the way he stood.
When he’d finished singing, the first sound he’d made all night, he squatted with his back to Janet, still facing the pond, and sat in silence for what seemed like hours.
Now Janet became cold, and she wrapped the blanket around her shoulders—he didn’t turn when she moved—and hunched warmth into her shoulders and began to feel strange. It was the strange feeling that comes of not having slept, the messy-dream feeling and burned-out sensation that takes over the mind when sleep is needed, and she wondered if she should tell Billy and was going to say something—perhaps that she would like a little sleep—when he stood up and turned and faced her.
For a time he stared down on her, sitting huddled in the blanket, and while he stood this way, the sun came up in back of him—or at least lightened the sky and silhouetted him with a faint red glow—and she could make out the features of his face better than in the dark, and she could see that they were soft and gentle.
“Why do you do this?” he asked, and his voice had a hoarse quality that was somehow close. “I am an old man, and yet you followed me up into the hills—why do you do this?”
But he didn’t want an answer, not really, and she sat quietly watching him, waiting, and she wanted to touch him but knew that it would be wrong, so she just sat, but of all the things she didn’t question, she didn’t ask herself what she was doing on the mountain with Billy.
That had come up, once, during the ride. A brief question, a touch of inquisitiveness, a smell of wonder; but it had vanished immediately, because even not knowing what was going to happen, she knew she couldn’t miss it.
That it had all been strange, almost weird, she knew and understood—but that it could have been stopped or changed, that she could have not come with him or not be involved with him was utterly impossible. It was all natural, like rain, like wind.…
“And it is this way and so,” Billy interrupted her thinking. “When there was no time, back even before there was no time and no coyote to think of things, the Great Mother sent two crows, and they flew and flew until their wings were tired, looking for a place to land, a place to
He paused, still standing over her, and she looked up and nodded, though she wasn’t sure why she was nodding. She was following the story, but had no idea
where it was going or what it truly meant, or why he was telling it to her.
“When at last their wings could no longer support them, when they had flown through darkness and it seemed they would have to fly thus forever, they fell to earth.
“Down and down they fell, end over end, two black birds tumbling through the blackness of before time, and when finally they hit the earth, it was at the same place at which they had started to fly, the same place they’d been put by the Great Mother.
“And it is this way and so. Where they landed was this place we now stand, as it always will be the place where The People stand. Because where we start is where we end and where we end is where we start, and that is the end of the story.”
He nodded and sat, or dropped into a squat, facing her.
“I …” She didn’t know what to say, what was expected of her. “It is a good story.…” She let it fall off, waiting.
“It is the ritual story always told in courtship between a young brave and the maiden who rode his pony.”
The light was brighter now, a yellow-red glow over everything, and she looked around at the trees and down at the pond without trying to look around at the trees or down at the pond.
“Now they ride in trucks, and there is no ritual.” His voice was tight with scorn. “They ride in trucks and do not mind the beauty of things, the way they used to do.
“Now we would sit for a day and another night, and I would go and kill a deer, and you would eat of it, and when we went down the mountain, we would be married.”
She said nothing, but she thought of the deer that he mentioned and that brought back the dream, and she wondered if she could have read somewhere about the deer and marriage business. It seemed to fit so well.
“Now they ride in pickups and go to the church with the walls and the man in black with the backward collar says they are married, and so they are married, and then they drive around with much sound on the horns of the trucks and get drunk on beer so their heads are loose and go to bed and that is that … tscha!” He turned and spat. “That is less than nothing. Where is the beauty in that?”
He stood, an upward movement that seemed to lift him, and spread his arms to show his buckskins. “Look. Oh, look, I stand in good relation to the gods. Is not this suit worthy?”
She looked up, smiled. In the full light the bead-work was incredibly fine—almost beyond human doing.
“My mother made this suit. I was married to Easter in it.” He smiled, and his ugly teeth did not show but
only beauty. “Isn’t this better than a pickup and horns making sounds?”
She nodded. And meant it.
“Ahh, and it was this way and so. Back before time men were men, and there were no horns and no trucks. And no wine.” A sadness crept in. “No wine—only beauty.”
“Tell me.” She sat up, wrapped the blanket tighter. “Tell me what it was like … all of it.”
He looked at her, let his eyes close and open. “You would not believe it.”
“Tell me anyway. Please.”
And he stood, and began moving and talking, and in less than a second Janet was whisked back before time.
It was more than the way he talked, the words rolling like half-music from his tongue, rolling down and surrounding her with what they said and were; and it was more than what they said and were; and it was more than the way he moved, sometimes with immense grace, half-dancing, and sometimes with jerky movements, but still dancing, only not just dancing but
It was everything, all of it came together—the movement and the words—and Janet thought this must be the way it was back when people lived in caves and the hunters returned from the hunt and told the story of how it went around the fire.
Something moved inside her, watching him talk-move, and it was a strange and new and yet somehow very, very old thing, and it scared her but left her feeling more alive than she’d ever felt.