Sun Cycle of the Buffalo, Moon of Falling Snow
Sternlight's moccasins went silent behind her.
Young Fawn turned and saw him drop to his knees in the middle of the trail, his white ritual shirt aglow with starlight. Huge sandstone boulders surrounded him. Many sun cycles ago they had broken free from the towering canyon wall and tumbled into the valley to stand like monstrous guardians along the Tuming-Back-the-Sun trail. Kneeling in their midst, Sternlight looked pitifully small. Long black hair fluttered around him as he rocked back and forth, his face in his hands, his necklace of copper bells jingling. His cries resembled a lost child's.
"No," he kept whimpering. "No, please ..."
He had stopped twice in the past hand of time. At first, he had pounded his fists on the ground. Now he wept inconsolably.
Young Fawn knew little about the trials of priests, but even she could tell he was weary beyond exhaustion. He had been praying for sixteen days, eating only cactus buttons, and begging the ancestor Spirits to help him. Now, it seemed, the ghosts would not leave him alone.
Young Fawn leaned against a rock and folded her arms on her pregnant belly. Golden owl eyes sparkled in every hollow of the dark sandstone cliff, watching, wondering. To the south, fires gleamed. Fourteen large towns and over two hundred smaller villages lined the canyon walls. The priests would be rising, readying themselves for morning prayers on this critical day of the sun cycle. The fires cast a wavering yellow gleam over the massive sandstone bluff on the opposite side of the canyon. It looked dark and brooding this early, but when Father Sun rose, the sandstone would turn so golden it would appear molten.
Young Fawn sighed. The tang of sage scented the wind, but the fragrance did little to soothe her fears. Sternlight spoke softly to someone, and apparently received an answer he did not wish to hear.
"But why must I do it?" he wept. He lifted his head and looked to his right. As he shook his head, his long black hair flashed silver. "Why me?"
At the age of twenty-seven, Sternlight had been Talon Town's Sunwatcher for nine winters, and his reputation had grown with each one. Chiefs as far away as three moons' walk relied upon his advice. Young Fawn had seen their messengers arrive, packs filled with extraordinary gifts. Over the cycles, stories about Sternlight's wealth had become legend. It was said that twenty rooms at Talon Town brimmed with his fortune--and some dared to whisper that only witchery paid so well.
Young Fawn nervously smoothed her palms over her turkey-feather cape. The brown-and-white feathers glistened in the light. Witches--her own people called them sleep-makers--had great Power. By jumping through a hoop of twisted yucca fibers, they could change themselves into animals, and they used rawhide shields to fly about, spying on people. The most terrifying sleep-makers raided burials to gather putrefying corpse flesh, which they dried and ground into a fine powder. Once the soul had left the body, only corruption and wickedness remained. Corpse powder concentrated that evil, and when sprinkled on someone, could cause death or madness.
Young Fawn had been captured in a raid ten summers ago, but she remembered the sleep-makers among her own people, the Mogollon, who lived far to the south. The Straight Path people called them Fire Dogs, for the Mogollon believed that they had originally come to earth in the form of wolves made from gouts of Father Sun's fire. The Mogollon and the Straight Path people raided each other constantly, taking slaves, stealing food. Her father, Jay Bird, was the greatest and most powerful Mogollon chief. Sleep-makers had continually tried to kill him.
... And the earth had quaked each time, as if the ancestor spirits who lived in the underworlds were enraged by the foolishness of the witches.
Young Fawn reached up to touch the small bags of sacredcommeal she wore around her throat. On occasion, when she missed her family, she thought about those sleep-makers and wondered if their Power had grown over the long summers. Was her father still alive? The earth continued to quake, more often of late, and she took each tremor as a great omen that he had survived yet another attempt on his life.
The Straight Path people, however, took the recent rash of quakes to mean that their ancestors were growing more and more angry with the greed and malice that filled the hearts of their descendants.
Young Fawn glanced at Sternlight. Could he be a sleep-maker? She had to admit that strange things did happen around him. His older sisters had vanished before they'd turned fifteen summers, and no traces had ever been found. Though rumors persisted that they had been taken slave by the Mogollon, Sternlight's cousin, the great warrior, Webworm, had suggested a dire possibility. Sleep-makers lived very long lives--at the expense of their families. When a sleep-maker grew ill, or wanted to extend his life, he used a spindle to extract his relative's heart and put it in his own chest.
After Sternlight's second sister disappeared, Webworm spent days going from family member to family member, begging them to help him kill Sternlight. Both had been very young at the time, Webworm thirteen, and Sternlight fourteen. Webworm's accusation had been taken very seriously. Sternlight, it was said, had truly feared for his life. The penalty for witchery was death, and the sleep-maker's own family had to carry out the sentence. When they'd killed him, they would throw him facedown in a grave and cover his body with a heavy sandstone slab so that his Spirit could never escape. Alone, locked in darkness, the ghost would wail for all eternity. But no one could hear. No one could save him.
Young Fawn jumped when a flock of piñon jays soared over the canyon rim. Against the twinkling background of the Evening People, they whirled like windblown black leaves. Long ago the jays had lived among her people as sacred clowns, Dancing, bringing laughter, and teaching spiritual lessons. They had chosen to be reborn as birds to watch over the Mogollon people.
Keep me safe, guardians. I fear I need your protection on this day.
Sternlight whispered, "Don't tell me that! I ... I can't."
Young Fawn glanced at him. He had his hand out to no one she could see. Clenching her fists over her belly, she waited. No matter how desperately she longed to run away, she could not. It would shame her master and bring terrible punishment upon herself.
Last moon, the wife of the Blessed Sun had selected Young Fawn as Solstice Girl. The choice had been a competition between Young Fawn and her best friend, Mourning Dove, a fact which had delighted them both. Ordinarily, much older, wiser slaves received the honor. Because of that, Young Fawn performed her tasks with great care. She washed the priest's ritual clothes with yucca soap and pine needles to give them a pleasant scent; held his sacred herbs next to her heart to keep their Spirits warm; made certain the blood of his meats never fell upon the ground, for that might offend his animal Spirit helpers. Despite her youth, she tried to be the best Solstice Girl ever.
But as the child in her belly grew, the work became increasingly difficult.
Sternlight pulled himself to his feet and stood on shaking legs. The turquoise and jet bracelets on his arms winked and sparkled in the silvery light.
She called, "Elder, are you well?"
He jerked around, and his copper bell necklaces jingled wildly. His eyes went huge. "Who--who are you?"
"I am Young Fawn. Don't you remember?"
As sunrise approached, the evil Spirit child, Wind Baby, raced through the canyon, bending the scrawny weeds, flicking dust about and whistling around boulders. He ruffled Young Fawn's turkey-feather cape and probed at her white dress beneath, his fingers frigid. She shivered.
"Young Fawn?" Sternlight came forward like a man picking his way through a field of rattlesnakes. "You are Young Fawn?"
A hollow sensation swelled her heart. What a beautiful man. He had a straight nose and full lips. When he was an infant, the back of his skull had been flattened by the cradleboard,shoving his cheekbones forward and accentuating his deeply set brown eyes. Each time his moccasins struck the ground, the seashells tied to the laces made music. His knee-length shirt, woven from the finest cotton thread, outlined every muscle in his tall body.
He looks like one of the sacred sky gods fallen. to earth.
He halted a hand's breadth from her, and in a pained voice said, "I prayed you would not be here. Why are you here?"
"I am the Solstice Girl for this cycle. I go where you go. I do as you tell me."
Gently, she took his arm and headed him on down the trail. They entered a grove of stunted junipers protected from cutting by the Blessed Sun's decree. There, the light fragmented, scattering their path with pewter triangles and glimmering over the clusters of small purple berries among the green needles. Young Fawn proceeded with care. Deer had scooped out beds in the duff, and rocks thrust up along the way, both threats to safe footing. All around them, gnarled gray branches reached upward for the blessings of the sky gods.
Sternlight gazed at her anxiously, eyes focused on her swollen belly in disbelief. "You are Solstice Girl?"
"Yes, Sunwatcher. I have been serving you for a full moon now."
The trail swung around a large pile of fallen rock and entered the sun cove, a hollow worn in the canyon wall by eons of spring runoff. Sternlight took one look at the stairs cut into the stone, and utter terror masked his face. He threw off her hand and backed away.
"No," he breathed, "Oh, no. I can't go up there!"
"But," Young Fawn said, "we must hurry. We have barely two fingers of time before dawn. You know how frightening the drought and warfare have become. You must help make it right. This is your duty. You are Sunwatcher."
His mouth quivered. Behind him, the flock of piñon jays wheeled, their cackles wavering in Wind Baby's gusts. Sternlight balled his fists. "You ... you go first. I will wait until you are at the top, then I will follow. Yes, I--I will. Now go." When she hesitated, he shook both fists at her. "Go!"
She hitched up her white hem and began the climb. Ice filled the rocky depressions, watching her like ancient glazed eyes.The last rainstorm had washed sand and gravel down the steps. Her yucca sandals shished on the grit.
By the time Young Fawn reached the narrow ledge overlooking the canyon, she was panting. A gently undulating surface, the ledge extended about four body lengths by five. A sandstone wall, taller than Young Fawn, ran along the north side. Scraggly rabbitbrush struggled to grow on top of the wall.
A magnificent vista spread around her. Chunky buttes rose like square towers from the desert floor, their sandstone faces shading purple and pink in the newborn light. She could see two of the three sacred mountains. In front of her, Thunder Peak rose in the south; to her right, Turquoise Maiden made a black hump against the eastern horizon. Spider Woman's Butte hid behind a translucent lavender veil. The few shreds of cloud that clung to her face glowed a rich magenta color. Two thousand people lived in the canyon, and their breakfast fires sparkled like a huge overturned box of amber jewels. Wonder filled Young Fawn. Among her people, beauty was sacred, and appreciating it, a prayer.
Gingerly, she lowered herself to the cold stone and encircled her belly with her arms. She would catch her breath, and then, if Sternlight had not arrived, she would go looking for him.
An ancient painting adorned the sandstone wall above where she sat--a white circle with rays emanating from all four sides. The Straight Path people claimed that the symbol had been drawn by Coyote in the Age of Emergence, immediately after their ancestors climbed through the four underworlds and out into this fifth world of light. She knew the Straight Path story by heart:
"Look!" Coyote had said. "I have drawn a map of the Center Place and the four roads of life and death. Listen, now, and I will tell you what it means.
"There is a Great Circle; it is so huge it holds everything, for it is the universe, and all that live inside the Great Circle are relatives. When you stand at the heart of the circle, in the Center Place, you can see that the circle has four quarters. Each is sacred, for each has a mystical Power, and it is by those powers that we survive. Each quarter also has its ownsacred animals, objects, and colors--these make its power accessible to humans.
"When you pray, you must first look down the east road to the dawn place where all the days of humans are born. Its color is white like the snows. It has the power to heal. White clay will cleanse, and the white hide of an albino buffalo will drive away sickness. Only the very strong may run this road to ask advice or give aid to Father Sun. The weak will be melted.
"Then you must look down the south road. It is red-hot like the summer. The pepper pod is its plant, and the ant its animal. This road is only for the dead, or those tending ceremonial tasks. They may travel it to the sacred Humpback Butte, where they will find the ladder to the four skyworlds. Those who climb up will become rain gods, and have the Power to make things grow and flourish.
"Next you must look down the road where Father Sun dies, and all of the days of humans have gone and shall go. Its color is yellow. Its animal is the bear. It has the power to bring peace. The Evening People hold its wisdom. This road is only for the living. People may run it to talk with the Evening People, to learn to live as one.
"Last is the north road. Its color is blue-black like the thunder clouds. Its stone is turquoise. It has the power to kill. It leads to the sipapu, the tunnel of emergence, and the entry to the four underworlds where the ancestors live. Only the dead, and their helpers, may run this road. The entrance to the sipapu is guarded by a huge black badger.
"Where the blue-black road of the dead meets the white road of the living at the Center Place is very holy. There coils the Rainbow Serpent. Her symbol is the sacred lightning-spiral. For those who look upon the Rainbow Serpent with newborn eyes, she shall wake and arc across the face of the world, and they may climb onto her back and rise into the skyworlds without dying. And, if they dare, they may speak with the gods."
Young Fawn gazed to the northwest, toward the Center Place where the roads met. Talon Town sat at the base of the bluff just beneath it. Every morning she looked up, hoping to see the Rainbow Serpent sparkle to life, but she never had. Nor had anyone now living, though the elders spoke of a time longago when the Straight Path people had seen her arc across the heavens often. But extraordinarily holy people had lived in the canyon then, men and women who ran the east road routinely--people whose profane eyes had been burned away by the brilliant white light. When they grew sacred eyes, and gained the courage to look again, the Rainbow Serpent uncoiled and leaped into the sky.
Young Fawn exhaled in longing. I would give my very life to see that.
Her gaze drifted to her right. In the southeast the sacred rock pillar punctured the heavens. Father Sun had risen over that pillar for the past fifteen mornings straight. On this cold dawn, the shortest day of the cycle, Father Sun would be very weak. If he could travel no further, he would stand still on the horizon. That would be a signal that Sternlight needed to perform the "Turning-Back-the-Sun" ritual: He would have to run the east road to help Father Sun.
Four winters ago it had taken seven days for Sternlight to turn back the sun. By then, he had lain near death, curled on the rock like an infant. He had offered his own strength to Father Sun, and it nearly cost him his life. But if the sun could not be turned back, the world would be cast into perpetual winter, and the Straight Path people would die.
This day, of all days, nothing must interfere with the Turning-Back-the-Sun ritual. Father Sun had to see how hard they were trying, how desperate they were for his approval.
Last summer, as the warfare intensified, Father Sun had ordered the sky gods to withhold the blessing rain during the growing season. The Blessed Sun, chief of Talon Town, had told people to pour every extra drop of water they had onto the corn, bean, and squash fields. But they had withered to dust. The springs had dried up. Children had screamed with hunger. And raiders had rampaged across the desert. Like the Straight Path people, the Mogollon and the Hohokam had been willing to kill for a single basket of food.
Horrifying rumors spread that some Straight Path clans had turned in desperation to cannibalism. They'd sought out the Fire Dogs, taking them as slaves during raids, then offered them in bizarre ceremonials to appease Father Sun's anger before cooking their flesh.
Young Fawn shuddered.
Sternlight himself had marched from village to village pleading for people to turn away from evil, to return to the Straight Path, reminding them that the world had already been destroyed four times. The First World had been scorched with fire, the Second World covered with ice, the Third World drowned by floods. The Fourth World had died when Father Sun sucked all the air away. And the Fifth World, the world they now lived upon, would die too, he said, if people did not cleanse their hearts.
Young Fawn's breathing went shallow. Sternlight said that Father Sun had told him he would split the Fifth World apart by hurling huge fiery rocks ... .
Sternlight emerged from the staircase. He stood absolutely still, staring out at the horizon like a man facing his own executioner, eyes enormous, jaw clamped. Dawn blushed color into his white shirt, dyeing it the rich yellow of bitterbrush petals.
"Ready?" she asked.
He stumbled, startled. "Who--who are you? What are you doing here? Why haven't you run away?"
"I am Solstice Girl, Elder. I carry the sacred cornmeal." She untied the four small bags she wore as a necklace and held them out to him. "Come. It is time."
Sternlight did not move. He stared at her in horror, as though she were an ancient beast stalking him.
Young Fawn took the bags, lifted his right hand, and deposited them in his palm. "Elder," she said, "you must face the east. Is that not right?"
In a voice almost too low to hear, he said, "Yes," and forced himself to turn away.
After a few moments, he began Singing. Yesterday, the handsome War Chief, Ironwood, had been along to play the drum; the day before that short pudgy Creeper, leader of the Buffalo Clan, had serenaded the dawn with majestic flute music. Today, the Sunwatcher Sang alone.
As Sternlight opened the first bag, he Sang, "In Beauty it is begun. In Beauty it is begun," and sprinkled a path of white cornmeal to the east.
He sprinkled the bag of red cornmeal to the south, yellow to the west, and finally the blue cornmeal to the north. Then he offered his meal-covered hands to Father Sky, and bent to touch Mother Earth, saying, "In Beauty it is finished. In Beauty it is finished."
The meals swirled upward in a luminous haze and sailed out beyond the rim of the canyon. Like fine summer mist, they sparkled and fell.
Young Fawn waited. It had happened the same way for fifteen days. Sternlight called out, and Father Sun appeared.
The Sunwatcher straightened, crossed his arms over his breast, and murmured, "Come, Father, arise and bring life to the world."
Awe prickled Young Fawn's spine. The first sliver of molten gold flared on the horizon, and the buttes and mesas shed their dark silhouettes and gleamed with a crimson fire. The drifting clouds blazed orange. Shadows sprang into existence, dark and long, stretching westward.
Sternlight used shaking hands to frame the image of the stone pillar and sun, then let them drop to his sides. Tears traced lines down his cheeks.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"Father Sun ..." His voice broke. He kept silent for a moment, then finished, "He's too weak to go on. He rose in the same place today. I--I feared as much."
"Because it means you will have to run the east road, to give Father Sun the strength he needs to travel northward again?"
Sternlight bowed his head. Black hair tumbled over his shoulders, dancing in the wind. He didn't even seem to be breathing.
"Elder?" she pressed.
He put a hand over his eyes.
Young Fawn took a step toward him. "Sternlight?"
"Blessed gods," he choked out. "I can't do it!"
Young Fawn walked in front of him and gazed up into his handsome face, now stricken with horror. "You are the greatest Sunwatcher ever to live. There is nothing you cannot do."
"You do not understand! I ..." He looked sharply to his right and seemed to be listening. His cries became pathetic.Sobbing, he answered, "Yes ... I know. For the sake of all, it ... must be done."
Young Fawn glanced at the spot he'd spoken to. Nothing. Not even a ripple of light. Unnerved, she said, "I understand one thing, Elder: You are very weary. It will not hurt to rest for a time. Come. Lie down in the shelter of the rock. After you have slept you may attempt to run the road." She extended a hand to him. "Let me help you."
Sternlight squeezed his eyes closed and shook his head. "I--I'm afraid."
"But, Elder, you have run the east road many times. I'm sure Father Sun--"
He opened his eyes suddenly. "Do you really believe I'm evil? Isn't that what you were thinking earlier?"
A well of cold grew in her stomach. She swallowed hard. It was said that sleep-makers read thoughts like tracks in snow. That nothing could be hidden from them. "No. No, of course not," she said. "I was just--"
"But you do hate me." He tilted his head and peered at her unblinking.
Young Fawn's heart pounded. She deliberately misunderstood. "You mean because you weep out of fear? No, Elder. Anyone with sense would be frightened. Please. You will tire yourself even more, and Father Sun needs you to be strong."
Hesitantly, Sternlight reached out and slipped a hand beneath her turkey-feather cape to touch her pregnant belly. Young Fawn froze, uncertain how to respond. The heat of his fingers penetrated her dress, warming her skin. The open cape flapped around her.
"Precious," Sternlight said as he stroked the child. "So precious."
"Elder, I do not--"
As though on the verge of vomiting, he grabbed his stomach and bent double, gasping, "Oh, blessed gods, give this task to another!"
"Let me help you! That's why I'm here. Please, tell me what I may do to make the task easier."
A curious expression entered his eyes. Not fear, not apology, but a man bracing himself for a burden he could barely conceive. He took several deep breaths, then slowly straightened.
Wind Baby shrieked through the canyon, and Young Fawn thought she could almost make out frantic words. As though enraged that she did not understand, Wind Baby shoved her hard. Young Fawn staggered forward.
Sternlight rose and blocked her path with his tall body. He extended his arms arid let them hover for a moment, then he embraced her and boldly drew her against him. "Let me hold you for just a moment. I want to feel you close to me."
Fear pumped in her veins. A curious smell clung to his white ritual shirt, musty, bitter, like the scent of a long-abandoned cave. "Sternlight, I do not think--"
He tightened his powerful arms, crushing her against his chest. "Stand still. Just don't move."
"But, Elder, you are hurting me. Please!"
He began sobbing again, terrible wrenching sobs that shook his whole body. He buried his face in her hair and his tears soaked her temple.
"I beg you," he said. "Don't fight me. I must do this thing quickly!"
He dropped his right hand to his belt. Against the gold of dawn, she glimpsed a deerbone dagger. "I need your baby, Young Fawn."
"What are you talking about? Let me go!" She twisted madly, watching him raise the dagger over his head.
Ducking and kicking violently, she broke free and dashed across the ledge, hair flying, racing for the stairs. The morning's gleam covered the dimpled sandstone like molten coral, shadowing every hollow and crack. She leaped over a hole and her foot slipped on ice, breaking her stride.
Sternlight's body struck her, slamming her to the ground. She cried out as pain lanced through her pregnant belly. The Sunwatcher flipped her onto her back and stretched out on top of her.
Tears beaded his cheeks. He held the bone dagger out to the east, the south, the west and north, then breathed a prayer as he lifted it to the glistening gold of the sky. He left it there, glowing in the sunlight, for a long moment.
"Sternlight?" she called in a shaking voice. "Please! I'll do anything you ask. Just let me go!"
"What?" he cried. Terror creased his face as he lookedaround the mesa. "Who said that? Who are you? Boy? Boy, is that you?"
Like a man fighting to wake from a terrible dream, he shook himself and shoved back, straddling her, his wide eyes fixed on the north. After several moments, he sucked in a breath and blinked at Young Fawn, as if seeing her for the first time. Black hair danced about his broad shoulders.
"You are Solstice Girl," he whispered reverently, and with lightning swiftness, he plunged the dagger down, offering it to Mother Earth through Young Fawn's heart.
Copyright © 1996 by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear