Read The Shaman Laughs Online

Authors: James D. Doss

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Native American & Aboriginal

The Shaman Laughs

BOOK: The Shaman Laughs

/pitwku-pi/were usually good-natured, though on occasion they could be grouchy.

—Anne M. Smith
Ethnography of the Northern Utes

Colorado, Southern Ute Reservation Canon del Serpiente

From a distance, the lone monolith has the sinister appearance of a peglike tooth, set firmly in the mouth of the Canyon of the Snake. A close examination reveals that the top of the sandstone projection is remarkably flat. Suitable, perhaps, for a table. Or an altar.

Near the center of this surface, there is a cavity. In the age of the woolly mammoth and giant ground sloth, it was only a shallow depression that caught a few drops of rainwater; barely enough for a sparrow's bath. But that was then. Now it is larger. Deeper. But the sparrow no longer comes to bathe in this place.

In a time known only to lingering ghosts, the basin was put to practical use by resourceful women of the Anasazi. They would fill the natural metate with hard grains of blue and yellow corn, then grind the maize into a coarse meal with heavy granite
. Over a score of generations, their labors gradually enlarged the cavity and gave it a measure of symmetry. These were the fat years, before the great thirst visited the land. Drought did not travel alone; Hunger and

Sickness strode along hand-in-hand, only a few faltering steps behind. At the appointed time, Death would come in the form of a small gray owl and sit on the heads of those who were called away to the world of shadows. Many were called.

During the centuries after the Anasazi had passed into the whispers of romantic myth, the bowl-shaped cavity reverted to its original function as temporary home to the occasional goat-faced spider or silverwing cricket. But that was during the dry season. When booming thunderstorms rumbled over the sinuous canyon, the cavity would catch a precious store of water. Flittering yucca moths, even sleek ravens would come to drink. It might have remained so for a thousand millennia until the sand-laden winds finally eroded the monolith to dust.

It did not remain so.

On this day, the cavity in the stone is filled with a warm liquid. It is thicker than water.

The long finger dips into the viscous fluid, then touches the tip of the tongue. Yes… delicious. The finger dips once more, then moves in slow, deliberate strokes over the grainy canvas. The drawings on the sandstone table in Snake Canyon are simple, but the subjects are unmistakable. The original figure was a bull elk. There are also mule deer, a few horses, a scattering of domestic cattle.

But the slaying of animals has never been more than a preparation for the ultimate goal… and the incomparable delicacy.

These new sketches in scarlet represent human beings, the second much larger than the first. The left hand of the smaller figure grasps a rectangular object. To the casual observer, it might be a purse. Or a book. To identify the larger of the intended victims, the stained finger executes a short arc over the stick-man's shoulder. Among those who possess knowledge of such matters, there will be no misunderstanding of this archaic sign.

It is a crescent moon.

The Shaman's Home: Canon del Espiritu

Daisy Perika leaned on the aluminum sill of her kitchen window. She stared at the stark outlines of the great stone women perched on Three Sisters Mesa, that five-mile finger of sandstone that separates the Canyon of the Snake from the Canyon of the Spirit. The old woman did this whenever she was troubled; it helped to calm her spirit.

But something moved. She blinked at the ghostly figure of mist descending the mesa's crumbling talus slope. The vaporous Whatever It Was took each step with exaggerated care, as if a fall might cause serious injury. How curious; this comic behavior brought a slight smile to her wrinkled face. The specter seemed to raise a wispy arm in a hesitant greeting, then ventured forth in starts and stops as if unsure of itself. Would the phantom approach the Ute woman's home uninvited? Perhaps this shadow wished to talk. To whisper sly myths into the shaman's ear; tales of times when the earth was young. Before the People were. Many spirits, like human beings, had a tendency to exaggerate. Not a few were incapable of telling the truth. But the apparition paused, then turned away, apparently drawn to the shelter of the sandstone walls of
Canon del Espiritu
. Wandering spirits, even ghosts of human beings, were common enough in this place. Such appearances did not trouble or even surprise the old woman. This was a lonely spot, where even the ghosts thirsted for conversation with the living.

Matters of far greater consequence than this shy apparition occupied her mind. But, since Nahum Yacüti had disappeared so mysteriously in that awful storm, who was there to talk with about such deep things? Daisy had almost forgotten about her cousin; Gorman Sweetwater sat at her small kitchen table, sullenly nursing a cup of brackish coffee.

Gorman longed for a smoke and, as was his habit, was feeling sorry for himself. He figured he ought to be able to smoke if he wanted to. Hadn't he driven all the way out here to bring his cousin a load of stuff she needed from town? The Ute rancher thought about rolling himself a cigarette, then he thought again. The old woman was in a foul mood tonight. And he didn't want to get Daisy started with all that endless talk about how bad smoking was for his lungs and it would be the death of him for sure and didn't he care that poor little Benita would be left all alone without a Daddy and besides who would take care of his precious cattle then? Gorman slammed his coffee cup down hard enough to get her attention.

Daisy Perika was startled by the noise; then she remembered the groceries her cousin had brought to her remote trailer home at the mouth of
Canon del Espiritu
. She lifted a carton of eggs thoughtfully, as if weighing them. "Something ain't the way it ought to be." She snapped at Gorman like it was his fault.

"That woman at the store said"—a dry cough rattled Gorman's lungs—"… said them eggs is jumbo grade A and still warm from the hen." He stuck an unlighted pipe into his mouth; the taste of stale ashes lifted his spirits. "Take a sniff, I bet you can still smell the chicken's—"

"I don't mean the eggs." Gorman could act so stupid! Or maybe it wasn't an act at all. She opened the refrigerator and carefully placed a dozen eggs into their oval receptacles in the door shelf. "It's the air that don't feel quite right tonight," she said almost to herself, "I won't be able to sleep good."

Her cousin raised an eyebrow. "What's wrong?" Sometimes, Daisy could see tomorrow. And the day after.

"It's like
comes for somebody. Somebody I know."

At the mention of the demon, the pipe slipped from Gorman's lips and clattered onto the linoleum floor. "Somebody you know?" He hadn't been feeling all that well lately… Maybe the old woman could see a deadly sickness coming to snatch his soul from his body. He pressed the question as he retrieved the beloved pipe. "You mean… like one of your relatives?"

She refilled his cup with black coffee. Charlie Moon, her favorite nephew, was out there somewhere in his squad car, patrolling the rutted back roads of the Southern Ute Reservation. "Not you, Gorman."

With great relief, the old rancher released the breath he had been holding. "You always did worry too much. Me," he pointed at his chest with the pipe stem, "I figure when a feller's number's up, it's up." He leaned back and stuck the pipe between his teeth. "When old St. Peter toots that big horn, why I'll just saddle up my pony and go and meet Gabriel at them purple gates."

Daisy sighed. Like most old men, Gorman got sillier with every passing year. The shaman squinted through the open window at the approaching midnight. She hugged her shoulders and sniffed at the night air. The breath of the canyon was still warm, but it was not sweet with the usual aromas of sage and juniper and pinon. "I don't know what it is, Gorman… something just don't smell right."

Gorman Sweetwater, whose reprieve from the cold fingers of Death had improved his mood considerably, glanced over the rim of his coffee cup at his cousin. He smiled only with the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, "Maybe it's that old
pitukupf who
lives up the canyon in his badger hole; I doubt if that little fellow has took himself a bath for… prob'ly twelve or eight hundred years. More or less."

The old woman pretended not to hear this foolish talk. Her cousin, who had once lost a good horse because he didn't show proper respect to the
, should know better than to make jokes about the dwarf-spirit. But Gorman, like most old men, was apt to forget the hard lessons he'd learned in life.

And then there was Charlie Moon. There would be no point in telling the policeman that she sensed something terrible out there. Her nephew would treat her with respect, but he would pay little attention to a warning based on her intuition. Daisy Perika closed her eyes and tried to see into the darkness. Tonight, she knew, sleep would not come at all.

The Policeman's Home

on the Banks of the Los Pinos

It was almost midnight when Charlie Moon finally unbuckled his cowhide cartridge belt and draped it over the back of a heavy oak chair. He pulled off his boots. The Ute policeman's thoughts drifted to Benita Sweetwater. Any day now, Gorman's daughter would be home from Fort Lewis College in Durango. He could almost see Benita's dark eyes, the flash of her sweet smile. But such thoughts were distracting and would rob him of sleep. Moon forced his mind to other matters. Such as Police Chief Severo's upcoming vacation and his replacement by Scott Parris for those few weeks. Moon smiled at this thought; it would be good to spend some time with his friend again. The Ute also considered his unfinished adobe home; there was so much work be done, and never enough time. And finally, Charlie Moon let his thoughts drift to his aunt Daisy. It wasn't good for the old woman's mind, living by herself at the mouth of that haunted canyon. It was a place that more prudent Utes preferred to avoid. The isolation turned her thoughts inward, made fantasies come alive and dance around her little bed after the sun slipped behind the mesa. But there was no use talking to her about moving. The old woman was stubbornly fixed on the notion that because she had entered into this world at the mouth of
Canon del Espiritu
, from that sacred place she would also depart.

But Charlie Moon did not entertain those troublesome thoughts that keep less fortunate souls sleepless far into the depths of night. For this reason, the Ute policeman was usually asleep within a minute after his heavy frame hit the mattress. On this night, Moon rolled over in his bed and was soon lost in the infinite, ever-changing landscape of his mind. As a finger of cold moonlight reached gently through the window and touched his face, the dream began innocently enough, without any hint of that which was to come. * * *

The dreamer walked along a much-used trail. Without knowing how it could be so, Charlie Moon was certain that his feet had made this path.

This place was unremarkable except for its striking familiarity. Before him was a field of black basalt boulders, scattered patches of juniper and pinon, and irregular clumps of fringed sage. White four-petal fendlerbush blossoms waved at him, mountain bluebirds and yucca moths were on the wing, tireless honeybees droned from pink rose to purple aster. The Ute paused to watch a buffalo cow grazing on the lush grasses; her mate drank from the waters of the rolling stream. And what was his grandmother's name for this creek that churned its reddish-brown waters through the shallow valley? Sweet Waters of Forgetting? Blood of Manitou? Tears of the Sky Virgin? He could not remember. But one landmark was unmistakable. The stark profile of the Coch-etopa Hills rose into a morning sky that was a whitish blue. But the dreamer could see over the horizon—far to the east, this endless sea, this sky-blanket over the earth patched with billows of clouds that rolled and swelled—great vaporous waves driven before an unseen storm that had not yet reached its full fury. A small wooden ship pitched upon the rolling surface of this sky-sea, square sails bent before the winds. A craft that would bring the fierce Blue Eyes to this land of the grandmother of all his grandfathers. Some of these first would be killed, a few would be enslaved, fewer still would be absorbed into the confederation of tribes who lived in that place where the sun came up. But there would be many others who would come over the cold waters. Many beyond counting. The ship vanished into a deep fog.

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