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The Chermasu

By Brian McKinley All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Fantasy

Alia

In the early afternoon of the day she felt would change her life forever, Alia Cheveyo ground blue corn. She ground in the traditional way, using the same three stones that her Mother and her Mother’s mother used before her. The scuff of the hearty, dry corn upon the rough surface of the stone lulled her, her hand moved in practiced, automatic rhythm as thoughts flowed through her. For her, grinding in the old way connected her to the land that gave the gift of this sacred blue corn. It connected her to her ancestors as well, who tended the fields of the Wolf clan before her.

She’d always found joy in the simple pleasures of life on Third Mesa:  the sight of Father Sun appearing boldly every morning on the horizon, garbed in His golden-white glory; the clean, thin air that filled her lungs while she ran herself to a pleasant fatigue over the parched, amber surface of the mesas; tending the corn through its season and watching it rise from its Mother’s protective bosom, nurtured by her ancestors who sent the life giving rain; sharing a good meal and conversation with Father after a productive day’s work and sitting together by the fire afterward, just enjoying the melody of his voice while he recited one of the old stories. These were the memories that represented home to her.

  But then there were the dreams.

(… wolves, ceremonies, monsters, battles, fire …)

Strange dreams. Not quite visions, but with a strength and richness similar to the ones where her mind took her back to childhood and her Mother. Almost like memories but they couldn’t be, since she’d never experienced anything like them. She’d had these dreams maybe once or twice a year, ever since she was ten. She’d had one again this morning, more powerful than usual.

The dreams were something she pushed aside upon waking. Usually, her thoughts were peaceful as she ground, but today she couldn’t quite rid herself of the apprehension that had hovered around her since waking.

After greeting Father Sun this morning, she’d made a particular effort to complete the day’s tasks early. She’d beaten the dust and dirt from their colorful Navajo rugs, swept the flagstone floor beneath, given Grandmother’s cast iron stove a good cleaning, and prepared the ingredients for dinner tonight (dried rabbit stew with blue cornmeal dumplings). She’d even been able to finish weaving the last of the oeungyapu plaques that they owed her seldom-seem clan cousins in Waalpi.

She listened to music as she ground, a small battery powered radio on the window ledge filled the air of her home with song. A local FM station played “light” Pahana songs and she remembered Mother listening to it.

She sometimes found herself wishing that she were more like other people her age, that she could regain the warm circle of school friends that her traditional views and lifestyle drove away years ago. Would it be so hard? Simplify her daily routine a bit, take advantage of some modern conveniences, and make time to join some of the girls from the other villages who played basketball. Get them to teach her, be willing to spend time with them afterward...

And be another selfish kahopi throwing the world off balance. What’s wrong with me today? Why am I so unsettled?

Outside, Father Sun hid behind the thickening Cloud People again; the day was mild for October, but overcast with the strong winds that were typical of the mesas.

The shelves above her grinding area were filled with sacks of cornmeal, a sign of industry that made her an attractive marriage prospect to some. At her request, Father had turned away several would-be matchmakers over the years. He sometimes joked that she’d grow to be a lonely old woman indeed if she waited for a husband to equal the standard of her Father.

She forced her attention back to the rhythmic rasp of corn on stone. She’d give this batch to the trading store at Kiqotsmovi to be sold on consignment. At least one positive aspect of the modern tendency toward laziness was that spare products of their work could be sold for some extra money.

Of course, they could just go on government assistance, as many did, but Father always joked:  “Why, yes, just look at how much the government’s assistance has helped the Hopi so far.” They lived in harmony with the people around them and the land that supported them. She knew her place in the world, in the universe, in the Creator’s plan, and accepted it.

  That’s when she heard the singing through the open window.

  The song was in Navajo:  she recognized the language but the voice was unfamiliar. This was the visitor’s way of announcing himself and giving her time to prepare (a custom among older Navajo and Hopi). Since her home lay at the outskirts of Hotvela, on the edge of one of Third Mesa’s many outcroppings, none of her neighbors were close enough to be disturbed.

  She set down the corn and grinding stone, shut off the radio, and moved quickly to the kitchen cupboard. She put a roll of piki bread out with a jar of wolfsberry jam, plates, and glasses. She decided to heat up the leftover chile rolls now and hoped that Father returned before they got cold again.

  As she got the chile rolls and a pitcher of suvipsi out of the icebox, she noticed that the singing had stopped. He must have seen her in the window and now waited for her to receive him. After setting out the suvipsi, putting the chile rolls atop the stove, and starting the fire, Alia answered the door.

  The man was ancient, in his eighties if not older, but had the most powerful eyes she’d ever seen:  deep and gold-flecked, they had a clarity and calm she’d never encountered before. He wore a red velveteen shirt which, while not uncommon among older Navajos, was the kind of dress generally reserved for ceremonies and special occasions.

  “Good day. I am John Begay from over in the Canyon de Chelly,” he said. His voice, with the breathy Navajo pronunciation, was melodic and genial. The name Begay, she knew, was a common product of the early Pahana schools, an Americanization of the Navajo term for “son of.” Normally, a Navajo with such a generic name would introduce himself further with his “born to” and “born for” clans and other things they felt would help distinguish them, but Begay said nothing.

  Well, de Chelly’s so far from here, he probably doesn’t think it would matter to me. “It’s nice to meet you, Hosteen Begay,” she said. Hosteen meant “Old Man,” but was a term of respect among Navajos. “I’m Alia Cheveyo of the Wolf clan. Please come in.”

The Pahana schools were also responsible for her last name, which meant “Spirit Warrior” and was a nickname of Father’s father because of a dream where he’d wrestled a qatsina and won

She stepped aside to let Begay pass and he gazed around at her home for a moment to let his eyes adjust. In the years since Father and Grandmother had told others of her childhood vision, older Hopi and Navajos had occasionally arrived so she could look at a painful area with her “special sight” and tell them whether they needed to go to a Pahana hospital or to a singer. Perhaps that was what brought this man here today, but she’d try not to assume anything.

Whenever non-Hopis visited, she always found herself wondering how her home appeared to them with its stone walls, awkward fitting modern door and windows, rebuilt roof of beams and tarpaper, kerosene lanterns, second-hand sofa, chairs, and Navajo rugs. Could they feel the warmth of her family’s lives in these walls?

  “I was just preparing lunch,” she said, indicating the place settings on the oilcloth they used for meals. “Would you like to join me?”

  “That is very kind, thank you,” he said, settling himself slowly onto a floor pillow. This style of eating was also traditional and helped make more use of the space. Besides, sitting at floor level was more intimate and relaxing than the formality imposed by a table and chairs. 

Begay didn’t seem to find the arrangement awkward, either; he broke off a piece of piki and put jam on it like an old hand. His face was not the typical squarish shape she associated with Navajos, but more angular like crumpled leather stretched over granite with a proud eagle’s beak of a nose. A stiff red and black cloth banded his forehead while his full, silver hair framed his face in two tightly-bound braids.

Despite his age and the power she glimpsed in his eyes, he didn’t carry himself like a politician or wear flashy displays of turquoise jewelry and a big silver belt buckle. His denim pants and cowboy boots looked well-used and she sensed that this man lived in keeping with Navajo tradition, which would mean that he appreciated the modesty of her home.

After checking the status of the chile rolls, she poured them both a glass of suvipsi; its tartness made a good balance to the sweetness of the jam. Begay nodded his thanks as he finished chewing and took a sip of his drink.

“This is good,” he said, breaking off another piece of the tissue-thin cornbread. “I had me a Hopi wife, long time ago, and she used to make piki for me.” He glanced at her with a conspiratorial smile. “But I think yours is better.”

She blushed at the compliment. “That’s very nice of you to say.” She opened her mouth with the intention of asking which village his wife came from, what her clan was:  the polite conversation that would pass the time while they ate and help determine whether they had any clan relation. But something held the questions inside her and, after a moment, she got up to check the stove.

The chile rolls were heated through and ready to eat; the mutton she’d used for the meat stuffing was very tender and they still smelled as delicious as they had last night. After placing a couple on her plate, she returned to Begay and gave him one. There was a nagging familiarity about this man, but she couldn’t pin her recognition down.

As he swallowed the first bite of his roll, his eyes widened slightly and he took a drink. “I see you use the real mashed chile paste instead of that powder.”

She’d always mashed her own chile paste using Grandmother’s recipe. “Oh, I’m sorry, I should’ve mentioned that--is it too hot?”

“No, no,” he said. “I like when the food bites back.” To further assure her, he took another large bite.

Was he perhaps at this past Soyal ceremony? No, that wasn’t it...

She didn’t realize what an appetite she’d built up and polished her rolls off quickly, helping herself to some piki while Begay finished his roll.

“That was wonderful,” he said when done. “I have not eaten good mutton in years. When my clan and I travel, they always want to go to the Taco Bell.”

She smiled. “Well, thank you. Do you travel a lot?”

He took a sip of his suvipsi before answering. “More than I would wish, but it is necessary.”

An unexplainable disquiet rose in her, a sense of pressure building. “So, do you have business with my Father?”

“No. My business is with you.”

Somewhere in her, his words struck a chord:  she was rounding a blind corner on her life’s road. She recognized this same feeling of pressure, of your heart having knowledge before it was given to your mind, from when she was ten and she’d seen the owl who came to announce Mother’s death. Her heart had known the message he carried all during her long run home, well before the words had come from Father’s mouth.

“You mentioned earlier that you had a Hopi wife,” she found herself saying. This was the moment that would change her life. She should just ask John Begay to leave and continue with her chores. But, no, she would have to face whatever this turn in the road held for her. She was Hopi. “Do you know what clan she was?”

Begay glanced past her shoulder, as if assessing her. She could see that he knew what was in her heart at this moment, whether from his power or simple experience. His eyebrow rose, ever so slightly, with curiosity. “My first wife was of the Wolf clan.”

Alia went still as she remembered exactly where she’d seen him before. It swept out from her childhood memories like canyon debris washed out by a flash flood...

While running in her ninth summer, she’d collapsed in exhaustion. As she lay dying on the parched ground, far from anyone, the Wolf Qatsina had appeared to her, announced itself as her Guardian Spirit, and taken her to visit Maski, the land of the dead. There she’d spoken to her mother, who’d assured her of her happiness in the underworld and urged Alia to stop her grieving and return home. Another man had appeared--this man, she realized--who Mother had introduced as Red Feather. He’d also spoken to her and told her that she must live a good life and obey her father. After taking her outside her mother’s home, Red Feather had lifted his hands to the sky and Alia had been struck by a bolt of lightning, an ancient sign of the spirits granting their seeing power...

Remembering it all now, it was nearly impossible to imagine how the vision could have ever left her mind. It hid inside me so that I wouldn’t mistake the time my Guardian Spirit spoke of, she reasoned. After her vision, she’d awoken, cotton-headed and connected to tubes that fed her dehydrated body. In the same clinic where Mother had died. She would have died of heatstroke, they’d told her later, had it not been for a Navajo shepherd passing by on his way to work. She’d discovered her Father sitting beside the bed, watching her with tears spilling down his cheeks.

She’d never seen him weep.

“Stay with me a while yet, daughter,” he’d said, brushing damp hair away from her forehead and managing a smile. “I don’t think I would have the strength to bury you too.” It was the first time he’d referred to Mother’s death since informing her of it the month before but, in those simple words, he’d been transparent to her eyes and she’d seen the terrible pain he carried in his heart. She’d also seen his complete, helpless love for her and felt shamed by it. Slowly, she’d told him of her journey to the underworld, careful not to leave out any details.

In the years that followed, she’d grown closer to Father and Grandmother, listened to their stories with genuine interest, and done her work diligently. Though they’d never spoken of the vision, she’d always kept it in mind. However, over the years the specifics had quietly drained away, leaving her with the silent reassurance of Mother’s touch...

As all this passed through her mind, Begay--Red Feather--sat waiting for her to speak. On impulse, he grabbed a last bit of piki and slipped it into his mouth.

“Red Feather…” she whispered.

He stopped chewing abruptly and swallowed, the surprise clear in his rapid blinks. “How …do you know that name?”

She examined him more closely now, realizing that this man even wore the same clothing in which he’d appeared to her nine years ago. “I saw you in a vision when I was a girl,” she answered, her mind still distant from this voice that spoke so calmly. Prophetic visions, she decided, were wondrous in the sacred stories and kiva tales, but very disconcerting when they stopped in for lunch. “It was the name I was told to call you. You said that you’d come to me one day and ask me to accompany you. Then, you told me, I’d have to make a choice that would determine my life’s road.”

Red Feather (for that was how she would think of him from now on) considered, nodded slowly. “I was also first shown you in a vision, but that vision came to me only two days ago. I have no memory of you before that time. But you have named me correctly; the name you spoke is the name given to me in a vision by First Wolf, when I was young and moving about. It is my most true name, to be used only among the people of my blood --who are not the Diné and, indeed, are not truly men.”

He paused then, either to phrase his next thoughts or allow her a chance to respond.

It was his last, most unusual statement that brought her solidly back to earth. Red Feather’s voice, even in English, was like listening to Father speak Hopi; there was a gentle, lulling rhythm to the Navajo’s speech that made it easy to listen and drift on the current of his words. She drew a deep breath, fortifying herself with the crisp autumn air, and inclined her head slightly in a request to continue.

“As your vision has warned, granddaughter, I have come here on this day to ask that you return with me to my hooghan,” Red Feather said. “In that place I have the means to perform a brief ceremony that will draw memories of our people from your blood--for I do come to you in kinship, despite that you are not yet aware of our ancestors. You are unique in all my travels, and would add much power to the great ceremony I have began, but you must first be aware that this journey will change you even in the first step. Only if you accept that warning should you agree to accompany me.”

They sat in silence for a full minute while Alia considered and Red Feather waited. The silence was a comfortable one. Presented now with a simple choice, curiosity replaced her earlier dread. 

“What you’ve said does make me a bit uneasy, but I realize now that I’ve been waiting for you for years.” The words were out of her mouth almost before she was aware of speaking and they surprised her. More of a surprise was that she was speaking her heart’s truth. “I had forgotten my childhood vision until today but…”

She paused, amazed at how simple it was to speak to Red Feather of such things, like talking to Father or to an old family friend. Already he felt like kin to her. Considering this, she made her decision.

“Perhaps, as you say, it won’t be easy for me to see what you show me, but there is a part of me that needs to know. I don’t know if I’ll want to go further once we’re done at your hogan, but I’ll follow you to the first step, at least,” she said.

Red Feather nodded, a faint smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “I could see in my vision that you would be unique.” He climbed gingerly to his feet with a popping of joints and a loud burp. “Mmm-hmm, some powerful-good mutton.”

When she finished straightening up the floor, she wrote a quick note to Father and followed the Elder outside. “Quite a thing,” he mused. “First time I ever had someone agree so quick…”

***

The land where Red Feather made his home was absolutely breathtaking. The rich orange-gold layers of the sheer canyon walls slowly transitioned to the soft tans of soil and the plentiful greens of scrub brush, cacti, grama grass, and hearty trees that populated the canyon floor.

Though nothing could replace Third Mesa in her heart, the contrast between the golden brown landscape of home and the rich variety of color out here was astounding. Red Feather’s hogan sat off a small dirt road in the floor of de Chelly, a mile or so past where Monument Canyon branched off.

She took a moment to stretch before Red Feather went to the back of his jeep, took out a small shoulder pack, and walked toward his “home.” It was more like a settlement to her eyes, composed of three traditionally made, six-sided hogans (which Red Feather pronounced hoo-whan), a small cone-shaped hut, an empty fenced corral, the tops of storage dug-outs, and a modest green trailer home similar to many she’d seen before. A dormant gasoline powered generator sat next to the trailer.

The Elder led her to the door of a hut and stepped inside.

She entered the darkness and stood inside the threshold to let her eyes adjust. Red Feather set his bundle down near the fire pit and removed the large blanket which covered the roof’s smoke hole in his absence. She saw that three large, forked posts positioned in a triangular fashion supported the log-and-mud walls of the conical hogan (hooghan, she thought, his is the correct pronunciation). The floor of hard-packed soil was clear except for a few storage chests set against the walls and the fire pit in the center; there was room for at least a dozen people to sit comfortably around it. Medicine bundles and ceremonial rattles hung from pegs or nails on the walls but there were no domestic objects or tools.

“Close the door and sit over there,” Red Feather told her, pointing to a spot behind the fire pit which faced the door.

With the door closed, the only light came from the smoke hole in the ceiling. She watched the dust motes dance in bright shafts of sunlight as she took her position. Red Feather came over to the fire pit, singing in Navajo, and sprinkled corn pollen into the empty hole. The pollen sparkled as it traveled Father Sun’s rays. He sprinkled a bit upon the crown of her head.

When he finished his song, the Elder went to one of the storage chests and removed an armload of dried brush and branches of pine, juniper, and pinyon. “This may be uncomfortable,” he said as he returned and filled the fire pit. “But we must begin by speaking of witches and witchcraft.”

A shiver tingled her spine and, without thinking, she glanced around the empty hut suspiciously. Even among more progressive Hopi and Navajos, witchcraft was still not something discussed casually.

“I will not speak of it over-much, but I must give you warning that much of what will be shown to you may have the seeming of witchcraft. I promise you that it is not. Much of the history of our ancestors is unpleasant, much is full of wickedness, and much has passed into the stories of human tribes, often changed or confused in the telling.”

Having arranged the kindling to his satisfaction, Red Feather took a small plastic lighter from his pocket and lit the wood in a few places. Fragrant smoke wafted up through the passage to the sky. “Our ancestors, who I know by the name Chermasu, had great power. In the final days of their war against the yei’iitsolbahi’--the blood-drinkers--who control the biligana world, they often hid among the tribes and taught ordinary people how to perform some of their feats. When our ancestors were slaughtered, many of these people, now skinwalkers, were left behind to cause mischief and suffering and to bring still more into their evil societies.”

She glanced around the hut again as Red Feather rose and went to get a bundle from the wall. For the first time, she realized just how isolated she was out here. She was alone at the only settlement for miles with two men she’d only met a few hours ago, completely vulnerable if his intentions should prove malicious. Her note to Father had provided only the slightest indication of her whereabouts, since the Canyon de Chelly monument was huge and she could be anywhere within the huge expanse of canyons and overlooks.

She forced herself to control the creeping edge of panic she felt and think calmly. She trusted her Spirit Guide, she trusted her power to see clearly, she trusted her instincts:  all these things had assured her that Red Feather and his group were to be trusted.

Chermasu. The word itself--

(… wolves, ceremonies, monsters, battles, fire …)

  --seemed to have a strange, haunting power.

Red Feather unwrapped the bundle, inside which she saw (among other things) a ceremonial pipe, tobacco, and a white wolf’s pelt. “Because so much of our ceremonies and powers have become witchcraft in people’s thoughts, it is difficult sometimes to explain the difference…”

“My grandmother and father both taught me that evil is in the malicious intention of the user, not the power itself,” she explained, managing to sound more certain than she felt.

“Yes, yes, exactly!” he said. “That is what I mean, that because you have heard of witches transforming with skins does not make our using of skins witchcraft. The other members of my Pack did not share the traditions that our two tribes do and so this was easier, in some ways, to explain without alarming them.”

“Can you tell me what Chermasu means?” Speaking the word filled her with an odd euphoria, something that seemed to come from outside herself. Or, more precisely, seemed to be an outside force expressing itself inside her.

“Yes,” Red Feather said after a few moments. “Though I do not know what tongue the word comes from or who first used it to name our ancestors--and I cannot even say that the word has not been changed many times since then--there is an idea of it which was passed down to me. Chermasu could be said in biligana as ‘The Wolf People,’ ‘Animal Skin People,’ ‘Wolf’s Children,’ ‘The Changing People,’ ‘Changing Wolves,’ or even ‘The Standing Wolves.’ You may choose any of these in your thoughts, for it means all of these but also none of them. It is human, a clumsy thing made more so by the clumsiness of the biligana tongue. Among themselves, our ancestors had no need of such a word.” He handed her the white wolf pelt. “Put this on your head and shoulders.”

As she did, he lit the pipe with a twig from the fire. The fur of the pelt was remarkably soft and the inside had been worked to a texture like the supplest of leathers, only the deep-set stains of human oil and a faintly sour smell hinted at its age. She wondered for a moment if Red Feather was going to transform her into a wolf right here and now.

He handed her the pipe. “Smoke this down to the bottom. Tobacco’s good for thoughts.” He fed a few more branches to the fire and, from the pack he’d carried in, removed a gray wolf’s pelt and a bag of some finely chopped material she couldn’t identify.

She began to smoke and placed herself into a prayerful mindset while Red Feather sprinkled a pinch of the bag’s contents into the fire and donned his own pelt. The pipe was simple but expertly carved from a solid piece of pipestone, the tobacco local and traditionally prepared (the taste was noticeably mellower and smoother than the store-bought Pahana tobacco that often got used for convenience). The old man watched her smoke, waiting for some subtle signal …

The walls of the hut slowly disappeared from her perception, lost in darkness and haze, but the sensation was not unpleasant.

Her body fell into a rhythm of bringing the pipe to her lips, inhaling smoke, lowering the pipe, and exhaling …

Her remaining thoughts drifted like wispy clouds in a season of drought.

Lift, inhale, lower, exhale …

The weight and unfamiliarity of the pelt no longer register. It is a second skin.

Lift, inhale, lower, exhale …

She’s not sleepy or disoriented, just calm. Her mind is clear and uncluttered.

Lift, inhale, lower, exhale …

Her peripheral vision no longer picks up Red Feather, but his presence remains constant. She looks past the fire into the darkness where the door was.

Lift, inhale, lower, exhale …

Red Feather growls. A low sound from deep in his throat. Almost a purr. Her blood resonates with the sound. The growl shifts for a moment to a higher whine before returning to the deep rumbling--

The memories come, a gentle stream that quickens to rushing torrent:

{she is stands in the rain. she moves silently through the sleeping camp, mind focused on her goal. she slips into the tipi that is her target, her child barely stirring in her crooked arm as it suckles her breast. the couple lay together beneath buffalo blankets, their newborn resting in the woman’s arms with its head at her throat. a glance tells her that they have drunk from the water jug with the sleeping powder. with practiced movements, she reaches down and twists the infant’s neck to break it, slides the baby from the mother’s loose grip, and sets her own child into its place. a pang of loss hits her and she forces it away. she must not falter now. the dead human baby is meat for her pack, her own living child is an encumbrance. this is how it must be.  if he survives, he will be claimed one day by a pack of his own like she was. she must forget him. once stands in the rain is certain her baby--the baby--is properly positioned and the human couple has not stirred, she rises and steps cautiously from}

{this jesus society that remains in awatovi is dangerous to them. it will spread like a disease and bring more pahanas. it may also bring more of the blood drinkers. all those who take part in the jesus ceremonies must be destroyed. she must see to it. once deserted, the village will make a fine place of refuge for her pack and the slaughter will provide an abundance of meat. there is hatred enough against the pahana priests for the abuses they heap upon the people there. all it will take is to encourage the talk of witchcraft, fan the flames}

{fire everywhere, smoke, confusion, her senses are overloaded and disoriented. the blood drinkers are everywhere, far more than they were told. lightning wolf, where is lightning wolf?? a few long strides away, a mass of the wretched creatures leap upon two eagles--they’re tearing the limbs from his body! no sign of the blood-drinker chief at all. they are betrayed! cursing herself for cowardice, she shifts her spirit to the pure wolf and runs through the burning streets. gunfire! bullets scream past}

{she watches as the trapper lays pelt after pelt upon the desk, the hides of brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends piled up as grisly trophies of slaughter and she must watch and say nothing. wanted posters with wolf faces upon them}

{she runs with what remains of her pack. the blood-drinkers are so much stronger than men and track better too. for days now they have been pursued, then escaped, only to find the blood-drinkers closing upon them again later}

{it is done. strange newcomers dead now. (scent identification) carves manmarks of close human pack in wood to confuse. he is clever. alia reads what her memory-eyes cannot:  “croatoan”}

{running, running, joy and excitement, scent so strong, prey close, pack near}

{slaughtered buffalo rotting whole in fields as far as her eyes can see}

{the smoking ruins of the massacred village, stomach rumbling}

{slash, bite, tear, savage joy, frenzied celebration of feast}

{he mounts her and she gives herself to the joy of mating}

{she howls a warning into the night even as she runs}

{she is dominant male, no other will lead this pack}

{more of her kind than she’s ever seen together}

{soaring inside an eagle, human camp below}

{the meat of the blood drinkers is foul to}

{human screams, drawing her}

{they lie together, content}

{her forest gone forever}

{scent of sheep on}

{must hide, must}

{raw hatred}

{all failed}

{...}

a gorgeous, silver full moon shines down from the clear sky above. alia stands in a lush, primeval forest lent a grayish blue cast by its light. such colors, unlike anything her eye has ever perceived before in life or dreams. she can barely breathe as her gaze takes in wonder upon wonder …

the silence is absolute …

she feels the gentle, steady throb of her heart in the trees, the sky, and the soil beneath her feet. like having a new sense, she is aware of The Wolf’s presence without seeing, hearing, or smelling It. she turns to find It watching her from atop a mossy fallen log three yards away…

The Wolf looks to be the exact creature from which red feather’s pelt (her pelt) was taken:  an arctic species, soft and radiant white fur like newly fallen snow with darker shades visible only in the ears, muzzle, and paws. at the same time It is more, It is all wolves, the magical essence which infuses and connects the blood of all chermasu. Its eyes are like red feather’s, wolf and human mixed with a knowledge beyond time shining from within. First Wolf.

you know me, It says without speech, a language of movement and innate knowledge.

do I? she responds.

you know me.

I’m not sure.

you know me.

I don’t remember.

you know me, First Wolf tells her for the fourth time.

yes. you took me to see my mother.

for the briefest instant, the Wolf Qatsina stands in the place of the unearthly white Wolf. then the Wolf turns and bounds away.

stay or follow.

her heart makes the decision before she can even consider and she is running, moving with a slow, dream like grace as if traveling underwater…

despite this, she keeps pace with the Wolf, leaping obstacles and negotiating the dense undergrowth with ease…

her every stride seems to cover ten…

the forest blurs around her, she sees only the Wolf…

up ahead, It waits in a clearing. the trees, the soil, the rocks are all topped with snow, but no tracks mark The Wolf’s progress to Its place in the center. The Wolf rises onto Its hind legs, transforming as it does to become the Wolf Qatsina and, then again, to become a perfect fusion of human and wolf. It is a being of both nightmare and fantasy, a creature caught halfway between worlds.

she moves toward It, the snow softer and less tangible than expected. like walking atop a cloud. the Standing Wolf seems to look her up and down and she realizes that she’s wearing a manta of third mesa design with her hair braided up above her ears, squash-blossom style:  the traditional dress and hair of an unmarried maiden.

she comes to First Wolf as a Hopi.

It does nothing for a moment, then the towering Wolf-Man begins to dance. It moves faster, faster still, arms moving together in the same rhythm. then It stops, throws back Its great head and sings out to the moon above. a beautiful note layered with frequencies, the first sound to break the silence. the Standing Wolf looks to her.

she nods her understanding, having memorized the dance.

It touches the pads of Its first two semi-human fingers to her forehead, just above her eyes. it feels similar to when the lightning struck her in her childhood vision, but the sensation is doubly intense now. her spirit power is both confirmed and strengthened.

running a clawed finger down Its chest, the Standing Wolf creates a seam in Its fur and a red glow emanates from within the creature. It draws aside Its fur to reveal Its glowing, beating heart...

light floods her vision, washing away everything...

Sees Within.

she blinks. she has yet another name now. she stands in a kiva and understands that it is the deepest part of herself. understands that this entire journey has not been a traditional dream or vision journey, but is instead a journey into herself. hanging on a peg in the kiva wall is a single white wolf pelt and she understands what to do.

she currently understands, in fact, much more than she will remember upon her return to red feather’s hut. this does not worry her, however, for the knowledge will remain within her, influencing when needed. she takes the wolf pelt down from the wall and slips it on.

the transformation is quick and effortless. Sees Within moves confidently across the kiva floor on her four legs, tail swishing happily back and forth. she throws back her head and sings out a single note of exultation before running nimbly up the rungs of the kiva ladder and out…

***

Alia sat up, her head snapping up from her chest. She was trembling.

Red Feather gazed at her. He nodded. “I feel in you the awakened blood. Tell me the name you received. I will not share it with any other, but it must be known to me.”

The fire had died down and the Elder fed it a few more branches while she gathered herself to speak. So many memories, so much to absorb, so much already draining away …

“Sees Within,” she managed.

Red Feather let out a grunt of surprise. “A powerful name. It is as I thought, then; your vision will guide the Pack when I am done. It is for me to help you to be ready.”

Only a moment ago, her feelings had been a turbulent mash but already she felt them draining away and realized that they had not been her feelings at all, rather the feelings of long dead ancestors living again in her. Alia was strangely calm, focused. The situation was still so unreal as to be more like a hypothetical discussion in the kiva than something effecting her life.

“Wait,” she said and removed the white pelt. It felt nearly alive with power now. “Some of the things I saw--some of the things I felt myself doing…”

Red Feather also removed the pelt from himself, rolled it up. “I understand your fears. It was much the same with me when the eldest brother of my blood awakened the memories.” 

“Allow me to tell you our story. It is not like the stories of the Hopis and Diné, passed down in words from the early times. It is a thing which I created from the memories I experienced as well as the experiences and memories told to me by my first Packmates. Others have said that it helped them in putting order to the chaos of the memories.”

Anything would help, but certainly the familiarity of a story would soothe her. And his voice was comforting to listen to with its even, rhythmic lilts. He’d warned her that the things he’d show her would disturb her, hadn’t he? “Yes, I’d like to hear the story.”

Red Feather smiled, tucked his pelt back in his pack, and assumed the straight-backed posture and faraway gaze of the storyteller. “Ahodi’neeshnih,” he began, his voice gentle but with a subtle tension that hinted at things to come. “Long time ago--I’m not sure how long, but the world and people and animals were already around--there was First Wolf...”

***

The story took hours in the telling, but it did soothe much of the anxiety that the memories had awakened in her. After the creation of the Chermasu, the loss of their changing ability, and the Twins effort to win it back, Red Feather told of how the blood-drinkers (the monsters in his thinking) had arrived in the land as prophesized and begun a systematic campaign to wipe out both Chermasu and Indian. The Chermasu had no choice but to ally themselves with their ancient adversary Man to battle this new threat.  Though there were great victories, primarily led by the Chermasu hero Lightning Wolf, the alliance proved too fragile and too recently forged to succeed.  In the last great battle between Chermasu and blood-drinker, Lightning Wolf was betrayed into a trap amid the burning city of Chicago. The few survivors of that battle scattered to the winds and took refuge among the native peoples on their reservations, occasionally daring to have children and pass along their ways to select members of the tribe…

Chermasu ways. The ways of a people she’d had no knowledge of before today, whose ways were not the Hopi way. If her mother and the clan of her mother were not truly Hopi, then she was not Hopi. That was tradition. Her mother and her father lived their lives as good Hopis. She’d lived her life as a good Hopi; it was all she’d ever tried to be.

How could she try to live now as something else?

“Grandfather,” she began, using the general term of respect for an elder. She took a breath, suddenly conscious of the offense she might give by misspeaking. They sat beside each other now, warmed by a fire she had built during the last section of the story.

Red Feather cocked his head, lowering his hands to give her his full attention.

The air itself went still, the spirits pausing as if to eavesdrop.

“I suppose the simplest way to put it is that I’m afraid that to learn how to be a good Chermasu, that I’ll have to … forget how to be a good Hopi.  It’s … it’s also that all those things you told me about our history were so unpleasant and kahopi that it’s hard to imagine wanting to be a part of that heritage. Not that I think that you do, either.” She was already tripping over herself and it was making her angry and more awkward. Damn having to speak in English! “What I mean is that you seem to have found a way of balancing the Navajo life you were raised in with being Chermasu. I was hoping that, perhaps if you told me how you’ve managed to do that, it might help me find my way.”

Red Feather glanced at her before turning back to the fire. His body became more rigid, a subtle tension in his bearing, even as his flame-lit expression slackened in thought. “The first thing to understand, I think, is that I do not try to be a good Chermasu. The ancestors of our blood did all kind of wickedness and built around them an evil reputation everywhere, and it was a reputation they deserved. It was Chermasu hidden among the Diné who raided the biliganas and let the clans who made treaties take the biliganas’ anger. Then, after the biliganas made them take the Long Walk, the Chermasu stayed living by eating the dead and the children of the ones who were captured. The ones who would later be my Diné clan were among the captured ones. They told me of the way things were in that place…”

She couldn’t help but shudder, his revelation both shocking and saddening to her. The Long Walk: after months of conducting “scorched earth” warfare, which destroyed the tribe’s ability to feed itself, Kit Carson and the U.S. Army rounded up about eight thousand Navajos in 1864 and forced them to march over three hundred miles to Fort Sumner. They were housed at Bosque Redondo, in conditions no better than a Nazi concentration camp, with thousands more Apaches. Starvation, disease, and execution took a horrible toll during their four-year imprisonment and less than five thousand Navajo returned home.

The Elder didn’t show much of his reaction to these memories in his face, but she could see the uncried tears waiting in his eyes, hear the sorrow hiding within his words, and feel the grief, shame, and deeply buried anger carried from him on the air like the heat from Father Sun. Without thinking, she placed her hand lightly upon his and just let it lay there, expressing herself through the simple human contact.

He didn’t look at her or respond other than by turning his hand over to gently clasp hers, but his gratitude was clear. “The parts in me that are good are the parts that are Diné,” he continued. “In my Pack, I use Chermasu traditions only when it is helpful for us to think of our common blood. For me, the history that was passed down from my clan and hataali teachers is the true history. For me, Wolf--who was made the chief of all the animal people after the emergence into the Fifth World--is the same as First Wolf; in this same way is Black God the same as the god you call Maasaw. There are also many places before and after that part in my history when I think that the doings of First Wolf and his children were confused for Coyote’s doings. Because the world is different within everyone’s thoughts, there are many levels of understanding to all histories. The history of the Chermasu, as shown to me, is a true history, but it is history as seen by people who were more wolf than human. The way that I learned to live with both histories was to look with a higher level of knowledge and see how they are both true.”

Just on the surface alone, there were many elements of Hopi history that allowed for beings like the Chermasu to exist if she were flexible enough to let herself see them. It reminded her of the visual illusion Mrs. Whitehorse had shown the class in school, where a picture of a forest looked empty at first, but then your eye found an Indian warrior hiding in the forest, and then another, and another until the entire forest was full of Indians. That was the first time she’d realized that your eyes and mind could be tricked into blinding themselves; her understanding of how people could have such different opinions of things had come quickly after that.

“Then you must have also found a way to make the Pahana’s history true for yourself,” she said in mock-awe, feeling it was time to inject a little humor into the discussion.

Red Feather laughed and gave a dramatic sigh. “That is beyond even my power. I fear it takes the gods’ level of knowledge to make that history true.” She chuckled and he gave her hand a gentle squeeze before letting go. “But you also wished to know how I keep balance between the two worlds that I walk.” He paused to think before he resumed. “I still remember how it was when I was a boy and the biliganas came and took me away from my family to go to their school: how they cut my hair and slapped my face when I cried; how I was made to wear their uncomfortable clothes; how the biliganas would shout and make mockery of me when I could not speak their words in the correct way; how they would whip me when I spoke Diné. Most of all, I remember how I wished all the time to be home with my family again. I ran from the school to return home many times; again and again I did this, no matter how they scolded or beat me when I was taken back. I remember that I was a selfish boy and often my mothers would scold me: ‘Evil-spirited child, you must share with your brothers! If you do not, we will have to tell the hataali about you and he will come and cut off your head.’” He chuckled at the memory. “But I think now that because those school people tried so hard to take my people’s ways from me, that in my mind these ways had value. So, being a selfish boy, I held them close to me and would not let the school people have them. For many years after, I carried deep anger in me toward biliganas and tried to have no dealings with them.”

She sat with one knee up, hands stacked over it, and rested her head on her hands as she listened to him. Red Feather shifted and drew his knees up in front of him so he could wrap his hands over them. It struck her as oddly vulnerable, making him appear more like a frail old man to her than ever before. He darted a glance at her, seeming almost shameful. “When the elder brother of my blood came to find me, I had already begun my training with my first hataali, but still I burned with the quiet anger at the biligana. Each new time I would hear of how they treated people, lied, slaughtered the sheep and horses, or was made to deal with them was like a new branch added to a camp fire, keeping it alive. When I first went out with a Pack to hunt blood-drinkers, I went with anger, a dark wind, and I did not think about Blessingway.”

She could feel how badly these memories still affected him and the urge was strong to lay a comforting hand upon his shoulder, but something within told her that it was best to let him tell the story without interruption. “It was only later,” he continued, “that I began to question the ways of our Chermasu ancestors. I went to my hataali friend for guidance. He helped me to think carefully about my life, and Blessingway, and the history of the Chermasu--for I revealed to him the full truth of myself. It was he who first helped me to understand how to make both of our histories true and helped me understand how much I still wished to live in Blessingway. It took me many years to bring myself to beauty, but the decision that made it less difficult was to accept that I could not be Diné in all things. If Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water had not devoted themselves to ridding the world of the monsters that were harmful to the people, the people would not have survived to live in beauty.” He paused and, when he spoke again, his desolation was devastating to her in its rawness: “If I must be apart from my mother’s people and feared for a witch to do what Monster Slayer did, then I shall be so…”

His knees left his chest and his posture straightened, his tone gained conviction. “There are many evil ways that the powers of our ancestors can be used, but I do not use those ways and I do not teach those ways to others. The monsters are not part of Blessingway, I think; if they are, then their purpose is to be defeated. I do know that to slay monsters is not evil, that Changing Woman herself told that the monsters would return one day. ‘They will make everything difficult and have no shame,’ she said. ‘When the people build a fire, the yei’iitsolbahi’ will piss on it.’ And so, now the monsters have returned to prey upon the people and only we have power enough to fight them. That is why we fight them.”

Alia nodded, sitting up. Her heart had grasped his lesson long before he’d finished speaking and she felt it swell with hope and relief. She would remain true to her upbringing in her beliefs, in her heart, in her actions. She would take the responsibility this new knowledge had brought upon her and she would learn how to use the power of the Chermasu.

But she would remain Hopi.


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