The runner sprinted down the paved road, his heart pounding with fear. Although his feet were bleeding, he dared not stop. He looked back. His eyes widened in terror. He stumbled, fought for balance, and pushed on. He had to warn the clan.
A Dark Lord was coming.
Ahoté could not help his forbidden thoughts. There sat beautiful Hoshi’tiwa, just a hundred paces from where he stood at the Memory Wall, radiant in the sunshine as she spun cotton ribbons for her bridal costume. She looked so happy in front of her small adobe house shaded by cottonwood trees, with the fresh stream trickling nearby. All she had been able to talk about was the coming wedding day. But all Ahoté could think about was the wedding night.
His father pinched him.
Under the elder’s tutelage, eighteen-year-old Ahoté was reciting the clan history, using the pictographs painted on the wall as a guide. Each symbol represented a major event in the past. And as there were too many events recorded on the Memory Wall—symbolized by spirals, animals, people, lightning strikes—for the clan to remember, it was the job of one man, He Who Links People.
This was the sacred calling to which young Ahoté was apprenticed and upon which he must concentrate. But his mind was wandering.
His father scowled. Takei did not understand the boy’s lovesick state. When Takei had wed, years ago, a girl chosen by his parents, he had done his duty, begetting many children on her. He had never wasted his time in moony-eyed daydreaming and sexual fantasies. Sex was for creating children, not for idle amusement. If Takei had ever taken pleasure in the intimate act, he could not recall it.
He glowered at his son. Lovesickness was exactly that—a sickness, and Ahoté’s mind was so infected with it, he could not concentrate on his recitations. If only the wedding day could be brought forward, Takei thought, tomorrow perhaps, so the boy could flush the lust out of his system. But the shamans had cast the fortunes of all involved and had declared that the soonest good-luck day was yet three months away!
Takei experienced a ripple of fear. Lust and love seduced a man’s mind from his holy works. Was the boy in danger of weakening before the wedding, risking a spiritual pollution that would profane his sacred task?
A dour, unhappy man who believed the gods had singled him out for a life of bad luck, Takei wished now he had not given in to Ahoté’s pleas to marry Hoshi’tiwa, wished he had had a matchmaker find a girl in another settlement, one not as pretty and clever as Sihu’mana’s daughter. Takei’s only hope was that this was just a phase, a matter of Ahoté wanting something he couldn’t have. Some men were like that, hungering for the out-of-reach, like desiring a married woman. Hoshi’tiwa was forbidden to Ahoté right now, and that fired the blood. But once he could have the girl anytime he wanted, day or night, the fever would leave him. Or so Takei prayed.
As Ahoté’s hungry gaze strayed again to the lovely Hoshi’tiwa sitting in the sunshine, her poppy-red tunic a bright warm beacon, his boy’s body stirring with a man’s desires as he thought of his coming nights as a husband, another sharp pinch on his arm brought him back to the lesson, and he recited: “And then the people knew the Spring of Abundant Hunting, when elk came down from the plateau to offer themselves as food.” The symbol painted on the wall was an elk with arrows in its body.
The last symbol on the wall was a circle with six lines trailing it, marking the sighting of a comet streaking the sky the summer before. No new symbols had been added since because nothing of significance had taken place. As he recited for his father, Ahoté wondered what new symbol would be added next, continuing the clan’s long history.
Far down the highway, which cut through the vast plain and between plateaus, the runner fell, his right knee cracking in pain. As he struggled to his feet, he felt in the paving stones of the wide highway the vibrations of the thundering feet of the advancing army. He swallowed in terror, tasted blood and salt on his tongue.
The cannibals were coming.
Hoshi’tiwa looked over at handsome Ahoté at the Memory Wall, his sinewy body gleaming in the sun as he wore only a loincloth, and her heart swelled with love and hope. Life was good. Spring flowers bloomed everywhere. The nearby stream ran with cool fresh water and fish. The clan was healthy and prosperous. And Hoshi’tiwa, seventeen years old, was looking forward to her wedding day.
She sat in the sunshine at the base of the cliff, spinning cotton for her bridal costume. She sat cross-legged as she twirled a wooden spindle up and down her thigh, deftly plucking clean fibers from a basket filled with carded cotton and adding them to the growing thread that would be dyed and woven into a ribbon for her hair.
All around her the clan was going about the daily business of living: the farmers planting corn, women tending cook fires and watching the children, and the potters creating the rain jars for which her clan was most famous.
As she spun her cotton, Hoshi’tiwa did not know that on the other side of the world, a strange race of people had named this cycle of the sun the Year of Our Lord, 1150. She was unaware that they rode on the backs of beasts, something her own people did not do, and used a tool called a wheel to transport goods. Hoshi’tiwa knew nothing of cathedrals and gunpowder, popes and Crusades, nor did she know that those strange people gave names to their canyons and rivers and hills.
Hoshi’tiwa’s settlement had no name. Nor did the nearby stream, nor the mountains that watched over them. Many years in the future, another race would come to this place and apply names to everything they saw and walked upon. Two hundred miles to the southeast of where Hoshi’tiwa felt warm sun on her arms, a town would be established and called Albuquerque. The area surrounding it for 120,000 square miles would be known as New Mexico. The young bride did not know that centuries hence, strangers would roam the land to the north of her settlement and call it Colorado.
There was only one place, far away in the southeast, that she knew by name, Center Place, so called because it was the hub of trade and communication for her people, and an important religious center. Even so, centuries hence, the name of Center Place would be changed to Chaco Canyon, and men and women known as anthropologists would stand in the ruins at Chaco Canyon and speculate and argue and debate and theorize over what they called the Abandonment. They would wonder, those people in the far future, why Hoshi’tiwa and her people, whom the anthropologists would incorrectly call Anasazi, had vanished so suddenly and without a trace.
Hoshi’tiwa was ignorant of the fact that she would one day be part of an ancient mystery. Had she known, she would argue that there was nothing mysterious about her life. Her clan had lived at the foot of this escarpment for generations, and in all those centuries, little had changed. Hoshi’tiwa was a simple corn grower’s daughter who counted her blessings, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow would be the same as yesterday.
Her thoughts broke like a bubble when she saw Ahoté, while his father’s back was turned, gesture to her. It was their private signal. She knew what it meant: At the first opportunity, he wanted to be alone with her.
She nodded in secret response. And her heart began to race.
The runner fell again, stamping his blood into the road’s sandstone surface, his knees scraped and bleeding, his bones screaming in pain. He could save himself, he knew, by running to the left, off the highway and down a narrow ravine that would shield him from the approaching army. But the people in the settlement were his kin. They were relying on him as the lookout to warn them in times of danger.
Other families—entire settlements—were now completely gone because they did not have lookouts to warn them when the Jaguars came. If he died at the end of his run, at least his family would survive. And so he pushed on.
Hoshi’tiwa’s mother paused in her labor at the grinding stone, where she was turning corn into flour, and squinted up at the sky. The world looked right, but it didn’t feel right. She glanced around. There was young Maya, sitting in the shade of a cottonwood tree, breast-feeding her great-grandfather. Though her baby wailed in its basket on her back, it would have to wait until the elder was fed. The old man had long since lost his teeth, and now he was having difficulty swallowing gruel. Therefore, after the age-old custom of keeping the precious elders alive—for they alone had memories of what went before—his great-granddaughter nourished him with her own milk.
From the mudbrick dwelling next door came screams through the gaping doorway. Hoshi’tiwa’s mother could see, in the darkness, her friend Lakshi, on her knees, her arms over her head with her wrists tied to a rope suspended from the ceiling. Kneeling in front of Lakshi and behind her, two midwives coaxed the babe into the world.
All things normal, nothing out of the ordinary. Yet something was wrong. The air was too still, sounds too muted, sunlight too golden. Was this the day, Sihu’mana wondered, the day she had dreamed about in troubled sleep long ago? Had it come at last? Or was it just a mother’s nervousness before a wedding?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden cry.
At the western terminus of the canyon, where the adobe houses ended and a dense forest of cottonwoods began, a cluster of boulders stood upon ground that had been declared sacred generations prior. Here the sun-watcher priest marked the cycles of the sun as it journeyed back and forth between the Solstices. The priest lived in a shelter nearby, never leaving his post, so that today, like every day, he marked the transit of the midday sun until the shadows disappeared beneath the boulders. Seeing this, he gave a shout.
It was time for the noon meal.
Those working in the fields laid down their digging sticks and baskets of seeds, said a prayer to the corn spirits, and began streaming back into the settlement—over a hundred men, women, and children, to be greeted by family members offering gourds of sweet water and places at the cook fires. The men were fed first, by tradition, being handed stacks of thin corn tortillas, or tamales filled with beans and squash, along with roasted onions, chili peppers, and corn on the cob.
Ahoté’s father left the Memory Wall, his stomach growling, his mouth watering for the crispy pancakes he would fill with spicy beans. But Ahoté remained. He was hungry—but not for food.
Hoshi’tiwa, laying aside her carding and cotton, gracefully rose to her feet, but she did not join her mother at their cook fire, where her father sank gratefully to the earth after a morning of hard labor and accepted the hot pancakes from Sihu’mana.
Food was not on Hoshi’tiwa’s mind. She looked across the golden sunlight at Ahoté, whose eyes were on her. The breath caught in her throat and her heart pounded. When Ahoté spun about and dashed into the nearby cottonwood trees, Hoshi’tiwa lithely sprinted after him.
Chatter and laughter filled the canyon as the men ate their fill and the women and girls served them, but Sihu’mana’s eyes followed her daughter into the forest. She felt her heart tighten with fear and dread. Remembering when she herself was young and love had sustained her instead of food, she grew alarmed. Was her daughter going to weaken before the wedding night?
No mother’s head rested easy at night while her daughter existed in that fragile state between girlhood and marriage. Once Hoshi’tiwa was under a husband’s protection, Sihu’mana, like mothers since the beginning of time, would breathe more easily.
There were two things the marriage partners brought to the union: the man, his courage; and the woman, her honor. Preserving her daughter’s virginity had not been easy, because Hoshi’tiwa was blessed—or cursed, depending on how one looked at it—with beauty. Whenever visitors came to the settlement, Sihu’mana kept a close watch on her daughter. Everyone still remembered, although they never spoke of it, the poor girl Kowka who, just days before her wedding, was with her sisters hunting for ground finch eggs when she had strayed upstream and a band of marauders from the north had happened upon her, alone and unprotected. She had survived the attack, but no man would marry her after that because of the clan’s complex rules and taboos regarding sex. The elders had declared her makai-yó—unclean—and despite pleas of leniency from her mother, Kowka was driven from the village and never heard from again.
The sudden appearance of Kowka in her thoughts now alarmed Sihu’mana, and she quickly whispered words of good luck and traced a protective sign in the air. She had not thought of the unfortunate girl in years. Was it an omen?
Hoshi’tiwa plunged into the dense trees, looking this way and that. “Ahoté!” she whispered eagerly. “Where are you?”
She listened. Birds chirped in branches overhead. The fragrance of spring flowers filled the air. The forest was peaceful and sun-dappled. Hoshi’tiwa tiptoed forward, her ears alert for a telltale sound, her eyes scouring the ground for footprints or a shadow. “Where are you?” she called again, softly, relishing the moment when she found him. This was their private game—hide-and-seek—in which Ahoté pretended to chase her until she let him catch her.
When Ahoté jumped out, she gave a mock cry and turned to run. But he caught her and swung her back, to take hold of her by the waist and pull her to him. He looked into her eyes for a long, breathless moment; then he gently rubbed his nose to hers.
Hoshi’tiwa giggled. “My sweet funny Owl.” It had been her pet name for him ever since, one night the winter before, they had been gathered around the fire and Ahoté had been so frightened by one of the storyteller’s ghost tales that a five-year-old boy had cried, “Uncle Ahoté, you are so scared, your eyes are as big as an owl’s!”
While the women and girls of Hoshi’tiwa’s clan wore their hair long, the men and boys kept theirs cut short, hacking it off above the ears with a sharp obsidian knife. When Ahoté jumped out, he had brushed his short hair up into two “owl horns,” and Hoshi’tiwa laughed. She now reached up and smoothed his black hair down, bringing her hands to rest on either side of his face, her eyes glistening with love.
As Ahoté touched his nose to Hoshi’tiwa’s, and she allowed him to kiss her in this fashion, he burned for more. How was he going to last the three months until their wedding night? When he lifted his hand and brushed his fingers over her breast, feeling the firm flesh beneath the fabric of her tunic, Hoshi’tiwa drew back, suddenly shy.
Although she knew of the private ways between men and women, knew how intimate love was expressed, how men begot babies upon their wives, Hoshi’tiwa was uncertain how she felt about the intimacy she would soon share with Ahoté. Her mother had told her she would find it pleasurable, and Hoshi’tiwa supposed she would, but more important to her was the laughter they would share, the secrets they would whisper late into the night. When she thought of their lives together, she pictured herself cooking for Ahoté, delighting him with food, giving him children, making him proud.
“I love you,” he murmured now. “Tell me you love me. It’s permissible. We are almost married.”
Although she wanted to speak the words, her tongue froze. Hoshi’tiwa had been taught that emotions were powerful magic and therefore must always be kept in check, even such positive emotions as love. To release them by word or gesture was to set free a force that could wreak havoc upon the clan. Everyone knew that words of anger caused sickness, vocalized hatred brought about death; strong emotions destroyed crops and caused miscarriages. Even love, though good, had been known to incite envy, jealousy, and mistrust. So Hoshi’tiwa had been trained, like all her people, to be conservative in actions and speech. But it was all right, her mother had counseled, for husband and wife to exchange endearments—they were encouraged to, in fact, for such tender words enriched the womb and brought forth healthy babies.
Because she could not bring herself to speak the powerful words, Hoshi’tiwa had devised another way to tell Ahoté how much he meant to her. Her hands spoke in clay. Everyone said that when Hoshi’tiwa created a jar, the Cloud Spirits heard her wish for rain. And so, for her beloved, she had secretly fashioned a small, loving memento just for him: a little ceramic owl painted with big comical eyes. She had drilled a hole in it and looped a string so he could wear it around his neck as a constant reminder of her love. And then she had hidden it somewhere in this small forest, as a treat for Ahoté to find.
Sunlight dappled their young bodies as she allowed Ahoté to draw her into his arms and hold her tight. She felt love flood from her body into his, felt their deep bond that could never be broken.
Their love had its beginnings six winters prior. Ahoté was twelve and had begun his apprenticeship as He Who Links People. He and his father were camped in a makeshift shelter at the Memory Wall, away from distractions as they prayed and fasted. The snowfall had been heavy during the night so that morning revealed a white settlement blanketed in deep snow. The people slowly emerged from their adobe dwellings where they had slept huddled against the cold, along with their dogs and turkeys, which they had brought inside for the night, and when it was noticed that one house remained silent, that no one emerged into the cold dawn, the men began to frantically dig the snow away from the wooden plank door.
When daylight flooded the humble interior, they found eight people still in repose, comfortably arranged on woven mats, with puppies and dogs between them—one man, two women, five children. All dead. It was later determined that the smokehole that vented the cook fire through the roof had gotten clogged with snow during the night, asphyxiating the family in their sleep.
Ahoté’s father had been inconsolable, screaming and shouting and weeping through the days that followed, while Ahoté had withdrawn into a queer silence. He had stared at his mother, aunt and uncle, and five siblings, lying so peacefully on their mats, small puppies tucked tenderly between them. They had not struggled; they had not known they were dying. But this was no consolation for Ahoté as he slipped into a strange muteness that none of the shamans or medicine men could cure.
After the burials and prayers and mourning rituals, Takei had stiffened his spine, firmed his jaw, and returned to the Memory Wall, where he had a new event to record, grimly painting it upon the rock with his own hand: the pictograph called the Winter of Eight Deaths, and which would be so known down through coming generations. But the tragedy was compounded by Ahoté’s continued muteness. No coaxing, cajoling, or threatening could restore the boy’s power of speech so that Takei began to panic: What good was a memory man who could not speak?
And then one day, in the spring following the tragedy, twelve-year-old Hoshi’tiwa had found Ahoté by the stream, staring into the shallows. She had just lost her eldest brother to a mountain lion attack, so that she was left with only her parents. Understanding the depths of his sadness and feelings of loneliness, she had wordlessly taken the silent boy into her arms and held him. Ahoté soon began to weep. As he sobbed onto her shoulder, and the tears flowed, the words also began to flow and Ahoté’s affliction was lifted.
They were inseparable after that, and when the time came for Ahoté to take a mate and everyone had thought he would seek a bride in a neighboring settlement, Ahoté wanted only Hoshi’tiwa, and she him.
“Tell me,” he whispered now in a husky voice against her ear as he moved his hands up and down her back. “Tell me how much you love me.”
Hoshi’tiwa felt his arousal pressing against her and, despite herself, began to weaken.
Although he was not far from his destination, the runner turned off the highway to sprint to a small farm where three Wolf Clan families grew beans and squash. Even though they were not his clan, he could not run by without letting them know of the approaching danger. They gave him water as he warned them, between gulps, of the Jaguars’ approach.
“Last year they took many of our young men,” the elder said grimly, “and two of our maiden daughters.”
The runner gasped, “You must run and hide until they have come and gone.”
But the elder looked at his frightened wife, and then he scanned the humble settlement that had once been the home of over a hundred people who were now reduced to twenty. “This is our ancestral land,” he said in a tight voice, “but we must leave once and for all. To survive, we will depart from this place and never come back.”
Their houses were grass shelters that could be abandoned with ease. And the people did so now, quickly gathering up as many possessions as they could carry, hoisting small children onto their backs, and disappearing into the cottonwood trees to leave campfires smoldering and turkeys scratching in the dust.
The runner returned to the highway to dash the final distance home.
Sihu’mana kept her eye on the trees. Hoshi’tiwa and Ahoté still had not emerged.
Recalling the omen that had appeared on the night of Hoshi’tiwa’s birth, Sihu’mana’s fears returned in full force.
Eight babes had issued forth from Sihu’mana’s fertile womb. Two were stillborn, two did not survive the first year, two died before the age of five, and the son, who would have been Hoshi’tiwa’s older brother, died when he came of age and went on his vision quest, going into the mountains with only a spear. He had managed to kill a mountain lion, but only after the beast had swiped sharp claws across the youth’s abdomen, slitting it open. The boy had run all the way home, holding his intestines in, before dropping dead at his mother’s feet.
There were no more children after that, and so for seventeen summers she had loved Hoshi’tiwa and protected her, taught her to walk and talk, to be kind and patient, to be polite and modest, instructing her in the clan’s traditions and many taboos, to make sure the girl did not accidentally break a law and bring disaster to the family. But most of all, Sihu’mana had shown her daughter how to “speak” to clay with her nimble fingers, to create the most beautiful rain jars the clan had seen in generations. But the omen she had seen on the night of the birth never left her. For seventeen years Sihu’mana had swallowed her fear with her tortillas, hoping that the omen had been her imagination, the result perhaps of eating too much spice, too many chilies.
But now her blood and her bones were telling her something else. As she watched old Wuki shuffle past with a basket of onions she had just dug up from the garden, Sihu’mana wondered: Is all this about to come to an end?
The gods had always looked with favor upon Sihu’mana’s settlement. In the winter, snow lay heavy upon the boughs of cedar and pine; in the summer, rains blessed the tasseling cornfields. Her people always enjoyed a plentiful autumn harvest. While a great portion of the corn was sent to Center Place, demanded by the Dark Lords for as long as the clan could remember, there was always enough left for the farmers and their families. And even though this year the Lords were demanding more, because in the land to the south of Center Place, it was rumored, the clouds had withheld their blessed rain and the cornfields there were growing parched, Sihu’mana’s clan were not worried. They would always have rain because their potters made the best rain jars in the world.
Everyone knew that if rain had nothing to fall into, it would not fall. And the more exquisite the vessel, the more the rain would be attracted to it. Therefore, hundreds of jars dotted the landscape at the base of the sheer cliff, in front of doorways, around the kiva, along walls and on windowsills, filling with the precious water that fed the corn crops, the beans and squash, and the drinking gourds of the people. The clan’s rain jars were so much in demand by far-flung villages and farms that traders and travelers stopped frequently to exchange sky-stone and meat and feather blankets for the exquisite pottery.
But now, as Sihu’mana’s eyes made a sweep of the sandy ground between the adobe houses, and the fields and stream, until they came again to the forest of cottonwoods, she saw the root of her ill-ease.
Hoshi’tiwa had been different almost from birth. As a child, asking questions no child should ask. Hoshi’tiwa could never understand why they had to send their best pottery to the Lords of Center Place. And men, too. Word would arrive that the Lords needed able-bodied workers, and the clan had to send a certain number or suffer swift and bloody punishment. Little Hoshi’tiwa, watching a favorite uncle or cousin walk out of the settlement, would ask why. Sihu’mana had constantly warned her against such inquisitiveness. Questioning fate was an affront to the gods. But Hoshi’tiwa continued to ask, and now it seemed that a day had dawned that felt like no other.
Watching the trees, and thinking that the two young lovers had been in there too long, Sihu’mana’s anxiety grew.
The runner wanted to lie where he had fallen on the warm paving stones. He was so exhausted, he thought he could not lift himself up to run the last distance to the settlement.
But his family was there. His grandmother Wuki, and his sister Lakshi. He could not let the cannibals take them captive.
And so, with one final effort, and a desperate silent plea to the gods, the runner pushed himself to his bleeding feet and dashed for the cliffs, where the familiar stream of his home beckoned.
To Hoshi’tiwa’s shock, Ahoté dropped to his knees and, wrapping his arms around her thighs, pressed his face to her abdomen. His lips moving against the fabric of her skirt, he said with youthful passion, “I will love you forever, Hoshi’tiwa. I will be faithful to you always. And I promise to keep you safe.”
At these last words, Hoshi’tiwa glanced through the trees and was startled to see the men already back at work in the fields.
She frowned. It had not always been so. The midday meal had always been long and leisurely. But the demand for corn was increasing with each year. Would there come a time when the Lords took everything, leaving nothing for her people?
Feeling her body suddenly stiffen, Ahoté rose to his feet and said, “What is wrong?”
With her eyes still on the field where her kinsmen toiled to fill the bellies of other men, she said, “It isn’t right that the Lords should take what is not theirs.”
Ahoté gave her an amused look. Once in a while, Hoshi’tiwa uttered the most unexpected words. “It is the way of the world,” he said patiently, “for the strong to take from the weak. The Lords are stronger than us. We cannot fight them, Hoshi’tiwa.”
She wanted to say, “Why not?” but the People of the Sun were not used to questioning the ways of the world.
“Why fret about it, Hoshi’tiwa? We can always plant more corn,” Ahoté said with a smile, putting his hands on her waist and drawing her to him again.
She resisted a little, but let him touch his nose to hers, allowed him to brush his lips over her cheek.
“Hoshi’tiwa,” he said in a thick voice, “do not trouble yourself with things you cannot change. Think only of us. Tell me you love me. Tell me.” And he pulled her against him in a hard embrace.
Hoshi’tiwa’s unseemly thoughts vanished. “I have a small surprise for you,” she said. “A little gift which you must find.”
“How you tease me!” he whispered with a smile. “All right, tell me where to find this love-gift—”
They snapped their heads around to see through the trees a man, exhausted and shining with sweat, appear at the distant bend in the stream. “Danger!” he cried, waving his arms as he reached the settlement, where he fell to his knees and pointed upward. “To the safe house! A Dark Lord comes!”
Hoshi’tiwa and Ahoté ran from the forest. The people in the fields, the mothers and children at the hearths, the potters at their kilns—everyone abandoned their labors and ran to the base of the cliff, where ladders stood in constant readiness for swift ascent to the fortress high above. Those who reached the top first lowered ropes to enable more people to hurriedly climb up the sheer rock face wall to safety.
“Hurry!” shouted the runner, who had come from a lookout tower where he had spotted the army in the distance. Two men lifted him up and helped him to a ladder.
A wailing Lakshi was carried by the midwives, the newborn baby lying on her belly, still connected to her by the bloody umbilical cord. Takei came running from the Memory Wall to help raise more ladders. The people scrambled up blindly, assisting each other, calling out to loved ones to hurry, stark fear on their faces.
A Dark Lord was coming.
Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Wood. All rights reserved.