Of Sins and Ash

Part 1: Night

The old woman heard footsteps approaching her doorway.  Soft and gentle, but loud enough to wake her.  She lay quietly in the dark waiting for the knock, and after it came she listened as her visitor scurried off into the night.  She slowly moved the heavy deer-hide covers aside (it seemed as if everything she did was slow now) and sat up, reaching for the oil lamp on the table by her bed.  She found it, and soon there was enough light in the small stone dwelling that she could see.

She wrapped herself in a leather robe that she had dyed red and decorated with blue leather stitching.  Since it was still cold she pulled the hood over her head before adding some sticks to the embers in her stove.  Finally, she lit a small lantern, made her way to the door, and opened it.  The small box was waiting in front of the door, as always.  And as always, there was no one in sight.

The woman leaned over, again slowly, and lifted the box.  As she moved it she heard scurrying and scratching noises coming from inside.  They seemed louder than usual.  Oh, she thinks as she carries the box inside, this one must be from someone terrible.

She set the box on the table and examined it carefully.  Yes, she can see now that this one is special.  Many of the boxes left at her door are simple; plain in fact.  Others are carved, painted, or decorated in many ways.  Over the years, she has learned that she can tell something about the person that she is about to cleanse by how much effort they put into decorating the box.  Most folk had simple boxes, but the more evil they were the more they tried to make the box special.  And this box was the most special she had ever seen: it was intricately carved, made with gold hinges, and inlaid with colorful stones.  The woman sighed as she prepared to open the box.  She was not looking forward to consuming this person’s evil deeds.

The scurrying and scratching stopped as soon as the woman opened the lid.  The small lizard stood frozen in place and looked past the woman toward the open room.  Just as it decided to leap from the box, the woman’s hand swooped in and snatched it up with practiced speed.  She held it close to her face while it moved its head left to right looking for another way of escape.  She did not like to let the lizards suffer any longer than they already had.  She did not know how the mystics were able to transfer the sins of the dying villager into the lizard – that was their job.  Hers was to consume the life of lizard, and with it the dying person’s sins so that they would not be punished by the gods who tended the dead.

As quickly as she had snatched it from the box, the old woman bit the head off the lizard and swallowed it whole.  Then, as she sucked the cool blood from the small reptile, she could feel the sins flow into her own soul.  Yes, she thought as she set the drained carcass back into the box, these were the sins of a very bad person.  But now their way is clear.

As she felt the fresh sins blend with those of countless others, the woman took the three gold pieces from the box, closed the lid, and set it in the stove to burn.  It would keep the cabin warm as she settled back into bed and slept the sleep of the dead.

Part 2: Morning

The old woman slept for only the first hour after returning to bed.  The remaining hours were spent in the not-sleep that came with consuming the blood of the lizard, and with it the sins of another.  She had long ago learned not to open her eyes until she was certain that the sweat-visions had stopped, and that what she saw and felt was really of the earthen world.  Seeing nothing now but darkness behind her closed eyes, she knew that it was time to finish her work.  Rising from her bed of soft hides, the woman was surprised to find that it was mid-morning – recovering did not typically take so long.

Despite her bladder being more full than it had ever been, the woman held her urge in check while she used a deer scapula to gather the ashes from her stove.  She placed the cool ashes into a deeply charred clay pot, setting the melted gold hinges next to the coins on the rough wooden shelf.  Next, she used a wooden pestle to grind the ashes, making sure that the lizard’s bones and scales were completely crushed.

The woman slowly scanned her shelves as she worked, waiting quietly for the ashes to tell her what they wanted.  Soon she was adding some dried cactus flowers, some rattlesnake scat, and the crystalized contents of a jackrabbit’s gall bladder to the pot.

Once the mixture was ground to a fine dust, she carried the pot to the yard behind her dwelling and set it on the hard, bare ground.  Finally, with a long sigh, she emptied her painfully full bladder into the pot.

Relieved now, she efficiently worked the liquid sins into the ash with her fingers.  As she did so, she noticed a few small animals and birds watching from the brush at the edge of her yard.  The animals watched as the woman slowly walked back into her dwelling, where once inside, she took the short sword from its place in the rafters that held the thatch ceiling in place.  The mystics had given it to her when they banished her to the wilds so that she might protect herself.  After all, they needed her as much as they shunned her.  While she never found the need to actually use the sword as a weapon, it was her only metal tool and she found it useful at times.

There were more animals at the edge of the yard when the woman returned, and even more approached as she used the sword to dig a hole in the hard earth.  As she dug, she scooped handfuls of earth into the pot and stirred the clay-rich soil into the warm, ashy gruel.  There were many similar holes in the yard, some large and some small, and more animals came into the stony yard as the woman worked, each finding a hole to sit in.  Yes dears, thought the woman, return to your birthing places while you watch your new brother take form.

The woman kept adding earth to the pot, kneading the mixture until it was firm enough to mold.  Since she had started with so much liquid, this was the biggest lump she had molded yet.  She worked the now-stiff clay with firm, practiced hands, and used small, sharp bones to etch the features onto her creation, taking great care since this would be the first time that she had made a creature such as this one.  She had made many mice, snakes, birds, rabbits, and even a few coyote over the years, but this was the first time that she had so much clay to work with.  This time she would make a person.

Part 3: Afternoon

Once she finished molding the clay infant, the woman undressed and stood over it while facing south.  She tilted her face to the sky, eyes closed and arms outstretched, holding a sharp flint dagger in her hand as the hot desert sun warmed her scarred body.  She spoke a few words in a language that not even she understood, and with a swift flick of the dagger she cut a short gash into her right breast.  As the blood flowed, she knelt over the clay infant, leaning over its face as she let the crimson drops run off of her nipple and onto its pursed lips.

At first the blood simply pooled on the clay lips, but soon it started soaking into the small human form.  As the last drops of living fluid fell from the woman’s breast, she thought that she could see the clay form begin to move.  Yes, there now, the slight rise and fall of the chest.  The creatures watching from their holes in the yard lifted their heads in surprise as an alien sound suddenly pierced the still air of the remote wilderness: the squall of a newborn human infant.

The animals all scattered at the sound except for one coyote, who was held fast in the woman’s gaze.  He was a male, but she knew that he had recently sired pups.  Without words, the woman commanded the coyote that the infant was to be taken to his mate.  The large carnivore approached slowly and was about to take the infant by the nape of the neck when the woman stopped him.  You will harm this infant if you carry him, she told the coyote.  I will carry him to your den.  You lead.

The coyote paused, unsure of whether his mate would allow the woman to approach her den, for she was not of the woman’s making as he was.  But the woman’s gaze was not to be refused, so the coyote led her to the den.  To his surprise, his mate was docile around the woman, and let her approach with the crying infant.  She remained docile even as the woman reached into the den and placed the human infant amongst the coyote cubs.  The crying stopped as the infant found a teat and began to suckle along with his new brothers and sisters.

The woman gazed at the coyotes until she was certain that they understood that the infant was to be protected, not harmed.  Once she was confident that her newest creature was safe, she began walking slowly toward her home.  It was time for her to eat and rest, for it had been a long day and she was tired.

Part 4: Summer

The boy had done well despite his disadvantages.  True, when the woman left him in the coyote den he had been much larger than the pups, but they quickly matured while he remained helpless.  Within a few months the pups were fully weaned and learning to hunt on their own.  The boy, on the other hand, could not even roll himself over.

But the pack knew to care for the tiny human, and another bitch took to nursing him when his first mam ran dry after her own pups were weaned.  They even sensed that his odd lack of fur would leave him cold, and they nestled against him to keep him warm at night.  When winter approached, the old woman left some hides in the arroyo near their den, and the woman’s hold over the carnivores was such that they knew not to eat the soft leather.  Instead, and somewhat against their hungry nature, they drug the hides into their den and pulled them over the boy when they left him behind on their cold night hunts.

And so the boy lived through his first year, at the end of which he was crawling nearly as well as the coyotes, although he was much slower.  In fact, he was too slow and helpless to stray far from the den, and was always left behind when the pack hunted.  Still, he was full of playful energy, and would wrestle with the younger coyotes until they all lay panting on the rocky hillside.

Sometime during his third year the boy began to walk on only two legs.  At first this made the coyotes nervous because they had long ago learned than only danger traveled on its hind legs.  Soon, though, they got used to the boy’s strange ways.  Nearing his fourth year, the boy began to join the pack on forays further from the den, although he was often scolded for his clumsiness in startling prey.

In time, the boy learned to be stealthy.  And, although he was not as fast, as strong, or as vicious as the rest of his pack, he was by far much smarter.  He also had skills that the others did not have – he could use his free front limbs in strange but useful ways.  One of his cleverest feats was to use his stealth and ability to throw stones as a way to drive prey into places where his brethren lay in wait.  It was a strategy that worked well, and in time the some of the pack even began to salivate at the sight of the boy collecting stones.  By the spring of his sixth year the boy had indeed become a valuable member of his pack.

As the summer wore on, the boy began to sense…something.  It was as if there was a voice that he couldn’t hear calling from inside his ears.  He would sometimes turn his head to see what creature was calling, but there was never any sign.  He began to sense that others in his pack heard it too, and sometimes the pack leader, the old male with the top of his left ear missing, would wander off alone for a day.

Old half-ear was getting slower, too, and the boy knew that he would soon wander off and never return.  All of the older coyotes eventually did, and although the boy did not know why, he knew the signs.  And half-ear was now showing them all.

One night, as half-ear slowly got up and headed toward the den, he stopped and turned away, walking slowly off into the desert instead.  The boy, now resolved to learn the mystery of where his kin went when they took their last walk, silently followed the old coyote.  Half-ear moved slowly, stopping often to rest, but the boy kept him in sight throughout the night.  Though the child should have been tired, he felt alert, sensing again that something was calling him.

At dawn the old coyote rounded a group of large red boulders that had fallen from the mesa above, and made his way down a low hill.  They boy continued to silently follow half-ear, getting down onto his belly as he neared the edge of the hill, stopping behind a large rock.  He slowly peered around the rock and watched as half ear approached a very large pile of stones.  The stones were larger than he could have lifted, and there were more than he had ever seen stacked in one place.  They rose in long straight stacks, and formed a large pile that was covered on top with high piles of dried yucca smeared with clay.  There was a large opening in the center of the pile of stones, and the boy could see that the pile was empty inside, like a den.

Half ear lay down about ten lengths from the pile of stones, facing the large opening.  Soon a creature that walked on only two legs as he did came out of the stone-pile den.  He had never seen such a creature before, although there was something familiar about it.  It was taller than he was, and its skin was darker and full of wrinkles and scars.  The creature knelt in front of half ear, and put its hand on the old coyote’s head.  Soon, the boy saw half-ear stop breathing and lay still.

The boy also lay still, well hidden from view, holding his own breath and confused by the scene below.  So he was startled when the creature looked directly at him and beckoned with its arm.  It was then that he knew where the call was coming from, and what it meant.  It had been coming from the creature below, and he knew now that he could not resist its call.

Part 5: Conquistador

The soldiers rode to the small church at midday, arriving in a thick cloud of dust that hung weightless in the still air.  The lead rider dismounted, and ordered the rest of the men to take their horses to the nearby river.  “Water them and let them rest in the shade.  And take my horse with you,” he said, handing the reins to his lieutenant.  “Come back and meet me here in half an hour.”

As the others rode off, the tall man walked to the church entrance, paused to remove his conquistador’s helmet, and stepped through the great wooden doorway.  He stood still for a few moments appreciating the cool air while his eyes adjusted to the dim light.  As his vision returned, the soldier could see that the new priest was kneeling before the sanctuary, deep in prayer.  Not wanting to disturb him, the soldier took a few quiet steps up the aisle and sat at the end of a pew.

After a few minutes the priest spoke a few words of Latin, crossed himself, and stood.  Turning toward the soldier, he said “Thank you for coming.  Please, come with me to the rectory where we can talk.”

As the men entered the small dwelling the priest gestured toward a table where there was a pitcher of water, along with two clay mugs, two wooden platters, a loaf of bread, and a slab of cheese.  “Sit,” the priest gestured.  “You must be hungry after your ride.”

The soldier sat and drained his mug thirstily and set it on the table where the priest immediately refilled it.  “Thank you, Father,” the soldier said as he looked around the sparsely furnished room.  “It is good to have a priest in the village again.  As you know, we have not had one here since your predecessor died last year.”

“Thank you, my son.  The villagers have been welcoming, although there seem to be quite a few who have not been converted to the Faith yet.  But then I suppose that is why God has sent me here.”

“And your journey?  I hope you had smooth sailing.”

“It was delightfully uneventful, and in fact would have been outright dull if not for an insufferable merchant who talked for nearly the entire two months it took us to cross the ocean.  He told me his life story along the way, and it took all of my patience to politely humor the ­fool.”  The priest frowned and cut a small piece of cheese for himself before continuing.  “There was one thing he told me as we neared land, though, that seemed absurd when I heard it but, I fear, actually appears to be something that may warrant, shall I say, intervention.”

The soldier waited patiently as the priest ate his cheese and sliced some bread.  He had only known this priest a week, but had already learned that he was one of those who emphasized his point by taking his time to make it.

“What this man told me,” the priest finally continued, “is that some of the heathens in this new world claim to be able to cleanse the sins from one’s soul, thus allowing them to die sin-free.  At the time I initially thought that this was just more of the old fool’s gibberish, and put it out of my mind.”

The soldier cut some bread for himself, and chewed silently while waiting for the priest to continue.  The priest also remained silent, looking sternly at the soldier as if daring him to ask the logical question.  But the virtue of patience was well ingrained in the large soldier, and he used it well.  “Imagine my surprise,” the priest finally continued, “when I heard about an old woman who lives in the high desert beyond the river.  I assume that you know of her?”

“La Bruja?  Of course Father, everybody knows of her.”

“And they ask her to cleanse their sins?”

The soldier shifted uncomfortably.  He had bristled at some of the local customs himself when he arrive in this strange land ten years ago, but soon came to appreciate how some of them helped keep the natives peaceful. Still, he knew that the Church considered such practices to be blasphemy.  “This is an ancient country, Father.  Some of these people have ancient ways.”

“So, it is true.”

“Father, ancient customs are not always necessarily evil.  In fact, some of our own people have adopted some of them as they make their homes in this new world.”  Remembering the splendidly decorated box that he had set on La Bruja’s doorstep seven years ago, the soldier continued, “In fact, one of your own predecessors…”

“Blaspheme!” shouted the priest, his face now crimson as he jumped to his feet and slammed his fist to the table.  “Need I remind you that only God can cleanse a soul of its sins?  Claiming to do the same is an attempt to usurp the hand of God, and anyone who commits such sacrilege is guilty of the mortal sin of blasphemy!”

The soldier sat, stunned to silence, as the priest began to pace, his voice suddenly calm.  “You know the penalty for blasphemy, do you not?”

“Yes, Father.  It is death and eternal damnation.”

“And did you yourself just defend blaspheme?”

The soldier, who had never wavered in life-and-death struggles, was nonetheless shaken by the thought of being damned to hell.  “Father, I…”

Knowing that the soldier would now do whatever he was told, the priest began to speak in a calm, nearly soothing voice.  “Fear not, my son.  I know that in your heart you serve God.  I know that in your heart you seek only to rejoice in the kingdom of heaven, and that you wish to avoid eternal damnation in the pits of hell.  I know that in your heart you will gladly perform your penance and rejoice at your chance for salvation.”

The sound of hoofbeats could be heard approaching outside as the soldier rose from his chair and faced the priest.  “And my penance?” he asked the priest.

“La Bruja is guilty of sacrilege and blasphemy.  For that she must be put to death.  On your return, I shall hear your confession and absolve you of all your sins.  Now, go in peace.  I shall expect to see you here again by dusk”

Part 6: Boy

The boy knew that something was wrong.  He had lived with the old woman for a whole turn of the seasons now, and he had learned to understand her even when she did not tell him things.  And as he watched her working silently by the stove, he knew.

She worked with a sense of urgency this morning: reaching straight for small bundles instead of letting them invite her hovering hand as she usually did, stirring more quickly than usual, and at one point she nearly dropped a small bowl onto the floor.  But what was especially different today was that she had not drank the blood of a lizard last night –there were no ashes to mix into her clay pot.

It was midday when the boy watched the woman carry the clay pot outside and urinate into it.  As usual, he watched from a short distance (a lesson he had learned during his first days with her, when he had tried to urinate in the pot after she did and had suffered his first rebuke at her hands).  Also as usual, the old woman began to knead the mixture with her bare hands as she added small amounts of earth.  Finally, she turned the lump of clay onto a large flat stone and began to shape it as a few dozen small creatures wandered into the yard and watched her from their shallow holes.

The boy always wondered what she would make, but he never tried to guess.  She had caught him guessing when he was still new to her home and she had made him understand that it was best to watch and wait.  She told him, silently as always, that not even she knew what the earth wanted to become until it spoke to her, and that his guess might confuse it.  The boy did not understand how the woman knew when he was guessing, but he did understand that he must always obey her, and so he was content with simply wondering.

He watched the form take shape slowly.  It was larger than a mouse, but smaller than a hare.  Soon he could tell that it was taking the shape of a bird.  The woman used fine bone tools to carve the bird’s features, etching with a practiced hand.  Although she always took great care when creating a new creature, the boy sensed that today she was paying even closer attention than usual to every detail, down to defining the fine blades that made up the feathers.

When she was ready, the woman stood and smiled at the boy.  She told him that it was nearly time to go.  He let her knew that he was confused, that he wanted to stay with her. She helped him understand that while it may seem as if he was being taken away, he was actually being sent, by her, and not to worry because she would keep watch over him.

Then, the old woman shed her robe – the red leather one with the blue stitching – and gave it to the boy.  She told him to wear it, which he did, although it felt strange since he only wore clothing in the winter.  Holding her flint dagger in one hand and the clay bird in the other the old woman looked to the horizon and stared for a long moment before lifting her face to the sky and making the sounds come from her mouth.  In a flash, she added one more cut to her scarred breast, and let the blood drip into the beak of the large, black bird.

The boy heard the sound of horses approaching – horses with riders.  This time, however, the woman told him to stay instead of hide.  Although he was scared of the riders, he was even more scared of disobeying the woman, so he stood still as the horses filled the small yard, surrounding him.  A tall man climbed down from his horse and walked quickly toward the old woman, and making the noises from his mouth, he pulled a long shiny stick from something hanging at his side and stuck it through her chest.

Blood gushed freely from the wound as the woman fell to the ground, and the boy knew that she was badly hurt.  He began to cry and run toward the woman, but one of the riders grabbed him and pulled him up onto his horse.  The tall man climbed back onto his own horse, and the men began to gallop their horses toward the horizon.  As they crested the small rise beyond the yard, the boy took one last look back at the old woman.  He saw the raven rise up from the ground where the woman lay, and begin flying high into the sky above the riders.

The woman’s voice came to him, but now it came from where the raven flew: go with them, she told him, and be patient.

Part 7: Padre

The priest stood in front of the church and gazed impatiently at the horizon.  It would soon be dusk, and the soldiers had still not returned.  He began to worry that La Bruja had eluded them, or worse yet, had somehow overpowered them.  He knew that his fear was irrational – unfounded even – because he served God, and God protected His servants.  Yet still…

He had learned about fear as a boy in Spain, growing up in a household with an abusive father and an older cousin who tormented him relentlessly.  But then, when he was twelve years old, the inquisitor arrived in the city and established a tribunal in the name of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.  Three days later the church bells called the parishioners to the main plaza in front of the church.  Under a slate-gray sky, a woman and two men were led into the center of the plaza where bundles of wood were laid waiting in front of large wooden stakes.  It was obvious that the three prisoners had been tortured, for they were limping badly and their torn clothes were stained with blood.

He had stood with his cousin near the front of the crowd and watched priests nail the prisoners to the wooden stakes as their sentences were read.  Because the woman had repented her sins, she was granted mercy and garroted before the fires were lit.  He had been fascinated to see the men writhe in pain as the flames seared their flesh, and their shrieks of agony excited him in a way that he had never known possible.  In a flash, he saw how serving God would be his salvation from his miserable, fearful life, and he made a vow to himself that he would one day be the one to light the fires that cleansed the earth of the damned.

Several weeks after the first executions, while walking past the church he noticed the inquisitor talking to a priest in the courtyard, and it struck him that God was giving him an opportunity.  He approached the men, waiting politely to the side while they talked in low tones before the priest walked hurriedly toward the building where the accused were being held.

The inquisitor scowled at the youngster, expecting him to run off in fear as others always did, but he merely smiled.  Then, he surprised the inquisitor by kneeling before him, bowing his head, and saying, “Please, your eminence, God has asked me to help you serve him.”

After a painfully long silence the inquisitor finally spoke, and in a menacing voice said, “You have seen how I serve God?”

“Yes, your eminence.”

“And you wish – you believe that God has asked you to help?”

“Yes, your eminence.  It would be an honor.”

“An honor…or a pleasure?”

“They are the same when serving God, your eminence.”

He remembered how the inquisitor had smiled as he blessed him, and taking him by the hand, had said, “Rise, my son.  You shall assist me, and if you do as well as I believe that you will, I will prepare you to enter the seminary.  There is a new world across the sea, as I’m sure you know, and we need priests to help cleanse it for God.”

The priest’s reverie was broken by the sight of dust rising on the mesa.  Soon, the riders came into view, approaching swiftly in the faint evening light.  They slowed as they neared the church, coming to a stop in front of the priest while their dust drifted along the road.  As the lead rider dismounted, the priest asked, “La Bruja?”

“God’s will is done,” the soldier replied.  “And now you will hear my confession?”

“Of course,” said the priest.  Then, seeing the boy for the first time, asked, “And who is this boy?”

“He was with La Bruja.  She may have kidnapped him for he seems to be glad to be with us.”

“And what has he told you?”

“Nothing, Father.  It seems that he doesn’t speak.  Perhaps La Bruja put a spell on him?”

“Set him down.  I want to look at him.”

The soldier who had carried the boy lowered him gently to the ground, where the child looked around curiously.  “Poor child,” said the priest.  “It’s a blessing that you rescued him from that witch and her spells.  We shall consider that your penance, and your sins absolved.”

“Thank you, Father.  And the boy?  What now for him?”

The priest walked up to the boy and took him by the hand.  “I will take him into the church,” he said as a large raven landed atop the church bell behind him.  “I shall train him in the ways of God, and prepare him to enter the seminary when he is older.  We will need more priests in this new, strange land.”

As the priest began to walk with the boy, the raven above him cawed three times.  The boy tilted his head and smiled.

Part 8: Pack

The young coyote approached the clearing just after dark.  She stopped at the line of white stones that marked the boundary, and glanced over her shoulder.  The rest of the pack lay hidden in the clumps of sage and yucca, and although she could not see the pack leader, she knew that he would be angry if she turned and came back.  She played the role of scout, which meant that sometimes she was at risk, but the pack protected her and she was never scared.  Until now.

The scout turned again toward the clearing and stared at the form laying on the ground: a two-legger lay on its back, dull eyes open toward the cloudless night sky.  It smelled like the old woman who lived in the large stone den, but her scent had changed.  It had always been a distinctive scent – similar to other two-leggers, but with something-else mixed in that told the pack that she was to be respected.  Now, the two-legger scent was still there, but the something-else that came with it was different.  It was the smell of death.  And death meant food.  And the pack was hungry.

Still, fear of what would happen if they crossed the line unbidden had shaped their instinct, so they had waited all evening, hungry and unsure.  Finally, the young female wandered tentatively past the row of stones and into the clearing.   The rest of the pack watched closely.  Nothing moved.

The pack began mewling and murmuring, their hunger gnawing at their caution until finally the alpha male burst through the sage and bounded toward the motionless body.  Hunger now banishing all sense of fear, the alpha barked at the old woman, and when she still did not move he nipped her thigh.  Still no rebuke, only…food.

The old woman had been slight in build, and it took just a few short minutes for the pack to reduce her remains to a mere scattering of bones.  Sated, they spent the next several minutes howling joyfully at the sky before trotting through the desert for a rare night of carefree play.  As dawn neared, the coyotes began returning to their dens, calling loudly to each other as they regrouped.  None of them noticed the raven watching from atop a lone piñon at the edge of the lair.

La Bruja watched patiently as the nocturnal creatures slept through the day and into the afternoon.  As the day progressed, their sleep grew fitful as organs, blood, and muscle absorbed what was once her physical being.  Yes, dears, she thought, I have become part of you now.  And you are becoming part of me.  Where I could once only tell you to do my bidding, I will soon be able to do it myself through you.  Where I was once only a single being, I will soon be many.  Sleep my pets, and gather your strength, for we have work to do.

As the coyotes began waking in the late afternoon they began sensing – something strange.  It was similar to the feeling that they had when the old woman commanded them, but different somehow.  As the sense became more distinct, more compelling, the coyotes became restive.  Soon, the younger ones began to accept the change and calmed down.  Others seemed to have a harder time, and began to whimper, glancing apprehensively around the lair.  The older coyotes had the hardest time of all, and one old male even began to jump around erratically, snapping wildly at the air until he fell exhausted.

By dark, the pack had calmed, having adapted to the changes within them.  It was then that the raven glided from her perch atop the piñon and landed in their midst.  The carnivores calmly surrounded large bird and sat, quietly waiting.  The raven turned its head, slowly looking each coyote in the eye before taking to the sky, and the pack began to run as one behind her.

Part 9: Chosen

The hare bounded across the hot sand and stopped behind a small saltbush. It stood in the shadow, motionless other than flaring its nostrils as it sniffed the dry air. A small stone flew past its head and it bolted once again, this time disappearing over the edge of a small arroyo. A young woman rose from behind a large clump of sage and followed.

The hare led the woman through the arroyo until it opened into a large, flat patch of sand. There, it sprinted into the open plain and disappeared safely out of sight. Discouraged, the young woman scanned the desert for more prey, her sling hanging empty at her side as she began walking slowly toward the scrubland where she might find smaller, slower prey.

Soon she was walking amongst flowering sage and wolfberry, and as she scanned for prey she thought she saw a stone dwelling standing in a nearby clearing. Hungry, tired, and still hallucinating, she walked toward the dwelling, hoping to find her first food since leaving the pueblo two days ago.

She had not meant to stray so far from home; she had only meant to learn what the men saw when they had their peyote visions. They had never allowed her to join them in their ceremonial camp, telling her that her own sacred place was with the women in the menstrual lodge. Then, one month as she was walking from the pueblo to the lodge, she noticed a clump of the small button-shaped cacti growing near the path. She had always let her curiosity make her decisions for her, so she quickly cut the tops off of three of the cacti, and hid them in her small leather pouch.

As luck would have it, she was alone at the lodge that evening, which she took as a sign that she should eat the peyote. She was disappointed when at first nothing happened, and even more so when her stomach emptied itself of its bitter contents in the middle of the night. Soon after vomiting, though, the visions came: the shadows that the fire threw on the lodge walls became a colorful mix of intricate patterns, and when she stepped outside the stars in the sky became alive with color and moved in ways that she had never imagined.

Soon, the stars began forming animals instead of just patterns, and the animals began to speak to her. At first she could not understand the words, but then a bright raven formed in the center of the sky and clearly commanded the young woman to follow. The raven grew quickly, soon taking up the entire sky, before exploding into a million separate pieces of bright light. The pieces reformed into dozens of coyotes which ran haphazardly in all directions across the sky. Which way do I follow, the girl shouted at the sky. As if on command, the light-coyotes gathered at the center of the sky and began to run as a pack toward the north.

The woman ran after the coyotes, following them through the desert until dawn when the sky grew light and the coyotes faded into the clouds. She continued to walk north, still not knowing where she was going, only that she must respect the visions that still danced behind her eyes. At night she finally rested by a small spring where she drank and filled her small water skin.

Now, with her water skin as empty as her stomach, the young woman tentatively approached the stone dwelling. She was not entirely certain that it was real – she had been fooled by the visions twice the day before – but when a raven called from atop the chimney she knew that she had reached her destination.

Stepping through the low doorway into the cool room, the woman watched as the visions reappeared faintly in the dim light. Curious, she took another step into the room but stopped suddenly when she heard the rattle. The menacing sound came from her right, so she stepped to her left, only to hear another rattle. Then she felt the bite. And then another.

She fell to the floor, pain shooting up each leg, and gazed helplessly at the ceiling. Why was I called here just to die, she wondered. All I wanted was to know…

Suddenly, the raven flew into the room and landed on the woman’s bare chest, claws scratching her breast as it peered deeply into her bloodshot eyes. The large bird flew to the doorway, where the woman thought she saw a pack of coyotes, and began to caw excitedly. Before the woman could decide whether the scene was real or yet another vision, the room was filled with coyotes. She felt their fur as they rubbed against her, felt sand hit her leg as one dug a shallow hole in the earthen floor, and heard a light splash as one of the females urinated in the hole. As she grew faint, the woman thought she saw the raven fly onto the shelves and use its beak to carry clumps of dried herbs to the hole. Odder still, it looked like one of the coyotes was using its paw to mix the herbs and earth with the urine in the hole. Then, two coyotes each took a mouthful of the herb-urine-earthen mud and dropped it on her wounded legs, pressing the poultice into the fang holes with their muzzles while the rest of the pack lay firmly atop her as the seizures began.

The last vision that the woman saw was the strangest of all: One of the coyotes stood still and let another swiftly rake its flank with its fangs. Then the raven flew to the bloody coyote, took some blood in its beak, and placed three large drops on the woman’s lips. She could feel the blood run over her tongue and into her throat as the world went dark.

Part 10: Student

The boy slept on the floor his first night in the rectory. The priest had tried to get him to sleep on a bed, but the wild-raised child could not get used to the feeling of being off the ground. Finally, the priest relented and left for his own room.

Once he was alone, the boy settled in amongst a pile of blankets but could not sleep. The image of the tall man killing the old woman flooded his mind, and he was still confused about why the woman had made herself into a raven. Finally, shortly after midnight, the boy stood and looked out the window. The raven was perched on a post in the yard, surrounded by four coyotes who sat as if keeping watch while she waited for him.

He let her know that he was confused, and she reassured him that he was where she wanted him to be. Be patient, she reminded him. There is work to do, but it will take time. He wanted to know what he should do and she let him know that he needed to learn how to make the noises with his mouth. He began to bark and yip, the coyotes now sitting up ready to join in, but she let him know to stop, that nobody should know that she was in the yard. She then let him know that it was the other noises that he needed to learn. What noises he wanted to know. Patience, she reminded him, and the raven flew off with the coyotes running beneath her.

The priest woke the boy in the morning and brought him to a chair in the room where the stove and the food was. The old woman had had a chair, so the boy knew what it was for although he had never used it. There were four chairs in this room surrounding a wooden table that had some food laid out on it. The priest led the boy to one of the chairs, and despite his apprehension at using it, he knew that the old woman/raven/coyote wanted him here, and wanted him to learn, so he sat. The priest sat as well, smiling at the boy, but when the boy reached for some food the priest frowned, made the noises, and grabbed his hand. Then, the priest put the boy’s hands together in front of him and then did the same with his hands. He lowered his heard and made the noises some more and when he stopped he used one hand to touch his forehead, his stomach, and then each shoulder. The boy did the same and the priest smiled.

After they had eaten, the priest cleared the table showed the boy where to clean his plate. He had learned how to clean while living with the old woman, so he was able to satisfy the priest on his first attempt.

After the kitchen had been put back in order, the priest sat the boy back down at the table and laid out an assortment of objects: a feather, a stone, a spoon, and so forth. He then picked them up one at a time and made the noises with his mouth. The boy was puzzled, and a bit apprehensive, but he knew that the old woman wanted him to learn to make the noises, so he made himself try.

Soon, the boy realized that the noise the priest made was different for each object. He paid closer attention and noticed that the noise was always the same for a particular thing. Each different from the others, yet each one always the same. In a flash the boy understood that the man was using noises the same way that the old woman had helped him know things, but while the woman could do it with her eyes, the man did it with noises from his mouth.

The boy watched intently now as the man lifted objects and made noises, and when he was sure that he knew the noise for the stone he pointed to it and used his mouth to make the noise. As the priest smiled broadly and made happy noises, the raven landed on the post in the yard. She let him know that she was pleased.

Part 11: Sky

The boy watched the lone rider approach under the heat of the late afternoon sun. As the rider drew near, the boy recognized him as the tall soldier who had killed the old woman. When the tall man in the saddle looked at him and smiled, the boy ran into the church to get the priest.

The priest stepped outside as the rider dismounted and the two men walked toward each other, meeting in the middle of the short path between the church and the road. The tall soldier dropped to one knee and kissed the priest’s ring as the man of God made the cross sign with his hand. Noticing that the boy was back in the doorway, the soldier asked, “The boy; does he speak yet?”

“Some,” said the priest. “He quickly learned the words for many common things, but he has not yet learned much more since. But then, it has only been four months since you brought him to me. I expect he will learn in time.”

The soldier waited for the priest to tell him why he had requested this visit, but the priest just looked at the sky, saying, “Have I ever told you that I find the sky here fascinating?”

“It does have a certain beauty,” the soldier acknowledged.

“Beautiful, yes, but there’s more to it than beauty. What fascinates me is that it seems as if this sky can be many skies at once. Here, look to the south, see how dark the sky is with afternoon storms? Yet at the same time the sky to the north and the western is simply a broad, cloudless expanse of the deepest blue. And finally the eastern sky is full of high white clouds throwing shadows on the hills. Today it’s as if we have three skies, and there are days when there are even more”

“True,” said the soldier, knowing that the priest would not be telling him about the sky unless it helped make a point, a point that he would make only in his own good time. “The sky in this country can be something to behold. Surely, though, there is more on your mind today than the weather?”

The priest paused for a moment, not liking to be rushed, before turning toward the soldier and simply saying, “You remind me of the sky.”

The soldier laughed, “Father, if I didn’t know better I would think you were trying to pay me a compliment! But I am but a simple soldier and do not always understand poetic references. Please, Father, feel free to be more direct with me.”

“As you wish. I make reference to the sky because depending on how I look at you I see something different. If I look one way, I see a strict and ruthless soldier dedicated to conquering this new world for God and for Spain. If I look another, I see a man who tolerates the ways of the heathen as if they were a natural complement to God’s creation. And if I look yet another way I see a man who is keenly aware of his mortality and fears for the fate of his eternal soul. You may think of yourself as a simple soldier of God, but I fear He sees you as more than that.”

“And the lesson you are trying to impart?”

The priest looked blandly at the soldier and said, “That there is only one sky in the Kingdom of Heaven. You know which one that is. You simply need to settle on it and remain steadfast; to prove yourself to God in a confident and unwavering fashion. To do his bidding without question, without hesitation, and without doubt. The alternative is to bring doubt upon your own place in His Kingdom.”

The soldier now understood why he had been called to meet with the priest – the cleric only made allusions to his place in heaven when he wanted the soldier to do something for him. Returning the priests gaze, he asked with what he hoped was enough innocence to mask his suspicion, “And by what means do I do that, Father?”

The priest looked once more toward the sky before answering, “I understand that there is another sin eater living in the desert.”

The soldier had also heard about the new bruja, but he was surprised that the priest already knew of her. The villagers had not quite come to fully trust this new priest, especially since he had had the old woman killed, and so kept many secrets to themselves. Still, the soldier had learned quickly that this priest was crafty and ruthless in his own right. With the power of the Church behind him, and his willingness to use the confessional to his advantage, it made sense that the priest could gather information in his own way.

Turning his own gaze to the sky now, the soldier said, “I expect that putting this new blasphemer to the sword will prove to God which man I am. Do you agree, Father?”

“Doing God’s work will always secure one’s place in His Kingdom, of that you can be certain.”

Looking to the west, the soldier replied, “I do not have time to round up my men and pay her a visit before dark, and so will wait until morning. I expect that I’ll be back for absolution by the time you finish your morning prayers.”

“If you left now then this matter could be closed this evening.”

“Are you suggesting that I approach this new bruja alone?”

“Are you suggesting that you are scared to face a young woman alone?”

The boy watched as the two men glared silently at each other. He had learned more about the mouth noises than he let on – the old woman told him not to let the priest know – and although he understood what the men had said, it seemed as though they were now letting each other know things without making the noises. It surprised him, for he thought that only he and the old woman/raven/coyote could do that. As the men stared at each other, their looks reminded the boy of how his coyote brothers sometimes looked when deciding whether or not to fight. Finally the tall man turned, and without a word he mounted his horse and rode into the desert.

Part 12: Blood

The soldier rode quickly toward the stone dwelling on the mesa. He was not worried about the coming darkness – there was still plenty of time before the sun set – but rather, he was anxious to get the unpleasant task done with. While he never hesitated to kill in battle or conquest, he found it troubling to kill unarmed natives simply in the name of God.

He slowed his horse as he approached the bruja’s place, and stopped at the line of white stones surrounding the yard. As he dismounted he noticed a scattering of bones, then a skull. A chill ran up his spine as he realized that they were the remains of La Bruja. He stood staring at the bones, lost in thought, until movement caught his eye.

A woman approached him from the small dwelling. She was naked, as the old woman had been, but unlike the old woman, she was young and beautiful with straight black hair and smooth skin. The soldier felt his throat catch as she approached, knowing that he was to kill her. Adding to his sense of surprise, he felt a stirring in his groin as he looked at her breasts and the thick tangle of black hair beneath her taut belly.

He was startled at his feelings toward her – they went against everything he had lived his life by. He had come to the new world as a child, a mere cabin boy on one of the many ships carrying soldiers across the ocean. There had been a short skirmish as the crew came ashore, and the soldiers had been impressed with his bravery and willingness to take part in the fight. Despite the captain’s objections, the men took the boy with them as they made out for new lands.

The next twenty years had been spent exploring and conquering the natives. Then ten more years as the captain of his own band of soldiers, with his own garrison just outside the growing village. And for what? Had killing natives and forcing the survivors to worship his country’s God really secured his place in Heaven?

It was startling to realize that something that had always seemed so certain now seemed so unclear. The woman was lovely and the land here was serene. Why should he not give up the sword and stay with her here in this place? For the first time in his life, he felt as though he could give instead of take.

Movement to his left interrupted his thoughts, and he turned to see a pair of large coyotes entering the yard. Then, hearing a growl behind him, he turned and saw two more approaching from his right, then four. Behind him were another five or six. Curse that witch, he thought! While she had enchanted him he had allowed himself to be surrounded by a large pack of coyotes. And curse that damn priest for insisting that he come here now, alone.

The tall soldier drew his sword and tried to pick out the pack alpha, knowing that if he could kill their leader that he might stand a chance of scaring the rest away. As if reading his mind, the woman said, “There is no leader, they act as one.”

“Do you command them?”

“No.”

“Then who?”

The young woman held her arm out and a large raven landed on her hand. As if on command, the coyotes formed a tight circle around the soldier – they sat out of reach, yet close enough to be a deadly threat.

“La Bruja?”

“She has no name, only power. Power that comes from forgiveness, from cleansing, from rebirth.”

“Only God can cleanse sins and grant forgiveness!” the soldier shouted as he raised his sword, and yet part of him was still doubting – had he been wrong all along?

The woman chuckled as the coyotes edged closer, the soldier now turning warily while trying to see in all directions at once. “You came to our land to rule from fear. You have brought nothing but fear and death. Now you will know both.”

“No,” he replied. “Please, I want to…”

The raven cawed loudly and the coyotes leapt at once onto the soldier. He tried to swing his sword but there were too many of the animals, and they were too close. He felt teeth tearing through his clothes and into the flesh of his legs, his arms, his shoulders, and even, yes, his groin. The more he struggled the tighter their jaws clamped, teeth now deep in his flesh, blood flowing freely from his wounds. Beaten, he lay bleeding on the ground, in agony, yet still somehow alive. The coyotes had him pinned to the ground, three or four of them held each of this limbs tightly in their jaws as one large male held him by the throat.

The woman stood over him, and he could see that she was now holding a short sword. The end was dull and scratched as if it had been used for digging, but the edges still looked sharp. As she knelt over his head the coyote who held him by the neck released his grip and the woman place the edge of the sword on this throat.

“Please,” begged the soldier. “Let me live. I want to stay with you here, in this place.”

“No, it is not to be. Just as she must die, so must you.”

“She must die?”

“We all must, when it’s time. Hers is later, yours is now.”

“Then at least cleanse me of my sins. You can do that. I don’t fear death, but I do fear damnation in hell.”

The soldier looked into the woman’s eyes and for a moment he saw mercy in them and he felt the sword lift from his neck. But then, shaking her head, the woman raised the sword high, and returning the soldier’s gaze, said, “It’s too late for that; you had your chance years ago and you chose your path. Carry your sins with you into your hell.”

The raven’s caw echoed across the mesa as the woman brought the sword down swiftly on the soldier’s throat.

Part 13: Night

The boy couldn’t sleep. He lay awake listening to the coyotes calling in the distance and imagined himself running with them. But it was more than just old memories keeping him awake tonight; he was afraid of the tall soldier and what the priest might have told him to do. Was there really a new bruja on the mesa? Had the soldier killed her too?

He heard hoofbeats approaching on the road, and grew even more anxious. They were of the large horses that the soldiers rode, and they were coming quickly. Soldiers galloping in the middle of the night could only mean trouble.

The horses stopped in front of the church and the boy heard someone dismount and walk quickly toward the front of the church, then whoever it was walked slowly to the rectory door. Oddly, there was no knock for several long moments, but when the knock came it came loudly and the visitor called urgently for the priest. Curiosity overtook fear, and the boy got out of bed and followed the priest to the door.

The boy could tell that the priest was annoyed at being awakened, and he sensed an uneasiness to his step. “What took you so long,” the priest asked curtly as he opened the door. Surprise registered on his face when he saw that the man was not the captain, whom he had apparently been expecting, but was instead the soldier who had carried the boy on his lap after La Bruja had been run through with a sword and left for dead.

“My apologies, Father,” said the soldier. “But we have not seen the captain since he left to speak with you this afternoon. Still, we didn’t worry until his horse returned without him at dusk. A party went to search for him on the mesa. We thought…maybe you had heard the rumors of a new bruja and had sent him to…to pay her a visit.”

A dark look crossed the priest’s face, a look of anger and contempt, though the boy knew that it held fear as well. He knew the priest well enough now to know that he relied on the captain to do things that he wanted done but could not do on his own. Over the months, the priest had gained enough influence over the captain that the conquistador was taking direction from him, and although the boy did not understand the subtlety of human politics, he knew that an important balance was being shifted. This priest was hungry for, and gaining, power. If the captain was dead then the priest would have lost his most powerful earthly weapon. And if the new bruja on the mesa, or worse yet, La Bruja in whatever form she may have taken had killed the captain, then the priest indeed had something to fear.

The soldier stood quietly as the priest contemplated what he had been told, until finally the priest calmed himself and asked, “Tell me, what did you find on the mesa?

“Nothing, Father, answered the soldier. “But then, as we approached the church just now we saw a coyote carrying something in its mouth. Something that it dropped at the church doorstep before running off into the night.”

“And, pray tell, what did it drop?”

“This, Father,” the soldier replied, holding out a small book, the soft leather cover of which was punctured with teeth marks and smeared with blood.

The priest took it and turned it over in his hands, fear becoming clear on his face as the soldier continued: “It’s his bible. He carried it with him at all times. He swore he would never part with it as long as he lived.”

Part 14: Pistol

The blood drained from the priest’s face as he held the captain’s bloody bible in his hands. He managed to keep his voice calm as he thanked the soldier for bringing it to him, and asked him to come back in the morning to report anything new. As soon as the soldier left, though, the priest started shaking and had to sit. After several more moments, he got to his knees and bowed his head, clasping his hands in front of his chest as the boy had watched him do many times before. It was a long time before the priest stopped shaking enough to get to his feet.

Once he rose, the priest walked quickly to his bedroom with a determined look in his dark eyes. The boy followed, but since he had never been allowed in the priest’s room he stopped and watched from several steps outside the doorway. The priest went straight to the great wooden chest at the foot of his bed and opened the heavy lid. He reached inside and removed a smaller wooden box that he then carried to the small table next to his bed. The boy watched in silence as the priest opened the box and removed an odd looking object, laying it carefully on his bed. The object was almost as long as the boy’s arm, and made of a long smooth piece of heavy black metal with a heavy wooden handle on one end.

The priest removed a pouch from the box and poured a measured amount of what looked like black powder into the end of the strange object. He reminded the boy of how the old woman would carefully measure and mix the contents of the bowls that she kept on her shelf when she was about to do something important. However, unlike the old woman, who usually worked with graceful ease, the priest moved with quick, nervous motions that bordered on the frantic.

After using a thin, straight rod to tamp the powder into the long metal object, the priest then used the rod to push a small piece of cloth in behind the powder. Next, he poured in a number of very small round pieces of black metal followed by yet another piece of cloth, and used the rod once more to tap everything firmly in place. Finally, he placed the strange object into the belt of his robe, and he walked out of the room, through the rectory, and into the church.

The boy began to follow but stopped when he felt the old woman call to him. He went to the window and saw the raven waiting on the post in the yard, surrounded by a large pack of coyotes. He let her know that he was scared and she reminded him that things were as they should be. She explained that fear was only the confusion caused by not knowing, and that she would help him to understand as best as she could, but that there would always be something left unknown. Learn to make fear your ally, she let him know, for it helps you to learn.

As more coyotes joined those clustering around the raven, the boy felt the old woman’s presence grow stronger. The thoughts she sent to him were more powerful now, and he began to understand that unlike the other two leggers who were born of flesh and blood, he had been born of sins and ash. He was of the earth and its spirit, yet bound with the dark will of those who had once walked it. But, the old woman helped him know, he could be made whole by taking in the spirit of the sky and the light that it carried. To do this, she explained, he would need the help of the priest.

The boy was confused. Was the priest not dark of will? Was he not the enemy of the old woman’s spirit and those of this land? Yes, the old woman replied, but you need both darkness and light to become whole. And while the priest and his god consider me their enemy, remember that joining the opposite ends of a cord makes a whole circle. So then, remember that joining the dark and light will make you whole. Listen past your fear.

The boy stood listening to the old woman/raven/coyotes for a long time before turning from the window and walking into the church. The priest was at the altar preparing for a solitary mass when the boy walked in.

“Father,” said the boy, startling the priest for he had never spoken other than to name simple objects. “Death is coming. We should prepare.”

Part 15: Statue

Ever since he had come to live with the priest, the boy had been fascinated with the statue of the man nailed to the crossed pieces of wood. There were smaller cross statues around the rectory, including one in the room where he slept, and many people also carried them strung around their neck. He had even seen people kiss the smaller statues, especially the one that the priest wore. But the statue that stood behind the altar was the one that fascinated him the most. It was big: the man was as large as the priest, and because the large crossed beams were held up by an iron stand, the man’s feet were nailed to the wood at eye-level to the boy.

The statue itself was made of a dull brown metal – the priest had called it bronze – and it was realistic in its appearance. So realistic in fact, that the boy kept waiting for it to come to life just as the statues that the old woman had made always did.

The bronze man was held to the crossed wooden beams with nails, and there were long branches of thorns twisted around his head. These were unlike any thorns that the boy had ever seen, each one being as long as his finger. They were also shaped of metal, and the ones that were not sticking into the statue-man’s head were filed to a sharp point.

Still, despite the pain he must have been in, the man on the cross looked like he was at peace. Or so the boy thought, for the man’s head was tilted slightly upward, and although the boy had spent hours gazing up at the statue, he could never quite see the details of the face.

Now, the boy knelt in front of the altar as the priest prepared the small pieces of bread and the flask of wine. After he had gotten over his surprise at how well the boy could speak, the priest told him that the best way to prepare for the possibility of death was to receive what he called sacraments. First, the priest had poured some water on the boy’s head and made the speaking noises but they were ones that the boy did not understand. Next he asked the boy to tell him if there were things that he had done that he was sorry for, but the boy could not think of any so the priest simply smiled and told him to repeat a “prayer” with him three times.

Now the priest stood at the altar and made more of the unusual speaking noises as he prepared the third sacrament – the one he called “communion”. As he watched the priest make the strange noises and prepare the communion, the boy was reminded of the old woman preparing one of the statues that she made of sins and ash.

No sooner had he thought of the old woman than he felt her presence outside the church and he grew excited. Patience, she reminded him, so he calmed himself and looked again at the statue as the priest went about his tasks. The light from the tall candleholders on either side of the altar reflected on the statue-man’s smooth metal skin in ripples that made it look like he was actually moving.

Soon, the priest told the boy that the bread had been made into the body of his god, and the wine into his god’s blood. He gave a small piece of the “body” to the boy but it did not taste any different to him than any other bread. Next, he gave him a sip of his god’s blood. The boy had tasted blood many times as he grew up with the coyotes, and this tasted like no blood he had ever had before. Nor did it taste like anything he had ever drank before. As he swallowed it, the boy felt a slight warmth rise from his belly. He could not help but remember how the old woman/raven/coyote told him that the blood of the priest’s god would mix with hers to make him complete.

Suddenly, the raven flew through an open window and landed on one of the tall candleholders that lined the aisle. She was joined by a large group of coyotes that filed in silently through the open church doors. The priest stood rigidly behind the altar and pointed at the raven, shouting, “You! You are not welcome in the house of God!”

As the coyotes began to howl, the priest took the odd wood and metal object from his belt and pointed it at raven.

Part 16: Fire

The boy looked from the priest to the raven and her coyote pack, and back to the priest again. The coyotes were poised, ready to attack the priest, but for some reason they were not moving toward him. The priest also stood unmoving, his arm outstretched toward the raven while he pointed the strange object at her.

For several long moments no creature moved and it seemed to the boy that they all, priest, raven, coyotes, and even himself, had become statues like the man on the crossed beams. Finally, his fear overwhelmed him and he crawled around the altar to hide behind the big bronze man-statue. His fear shamed him, for he had wanted to protect the old woman/raven/coyote, not hide.

She sensed his fear and his shame just as she always sensed everything, and let him know that he was doing just as she wanted. Then she let him know how he was to help, and he understood now why he needed his voice.

“She says that she forgives you,” the boy said, finally breaking the silence that gripped the stone church.

The priest remained frozen in place, but the boy could hear the surprise in his voice as he asked, “How do you know this?”

“She helps me know things,” the boy answered. “And she says that forgiveness can let life flourish in this land. That trying to rule through fear and death will destroy you, but there is still time for you also to learn to forgive.”

“She’s a servant of Satan and she’s possessed you,” the priest said, his voice now beginning to tremble. “There is only one God, and only He can forgive. And he has damned this witch to the pits of hell for eternity!”

“She says that she wishes you no harm,” the boy responded, surprising himself at how calm his own voice sounded now. “But she says that even your god must believe that you will reap what you sow. She pleads with you to sow forgiveness, not hate.”

The priest stood rigidly in place, his arm now wavering. “What does she know of forgiveness?” he shouted. “She who has lived in this godless land? This witch, this blasphemer? God does not forgive those that bow to the devil’s evil will. Her forgiveness means nothing, for there is no harm that becomes her other than what she has brought unto herself.”

The boy watched from his hiding place behind the statue as the coyotes began to move closer to the priest, the fur rising on their necks and saliva dripping from their bared fangs. “She says now that she is ready to cleanse you of your sins; that it will be her last act as she returns to whence she came.”

The priest looked frantically around the church as the coyotes made their way up the aisles. Settling his gaze on the raven, he said, “I killed you once,” his voice raw with hatred. “Now go back to the hell from whence you came.”

Suddenly a thunderous noise echoed inside the church. Smoke, fire, and the black pieces of metal billowed from the thing in the priest’s hand, knocking the raven from the candleholder, black feathers scattering through the air as she fell. The boy watched in shock as the dead bird turned back into the earth from which it was made, leaving only a small pile of dust on the smooth stone floor.

Once the raven was gone, the coyotes stopped moving toward the priest and looked around in confusion. As they realized that they were inside a strange, closed space they began to panic and run chaotically through the church, bumping into each other as well as the walls and furnishings.

The boy wanted to run to the raven but he felt weak and dizzy and his legs faltered. He lost his balance, and as he fell he reached out and grabbed the iron stand that held the statue, but it was not as steady as it seemed and the heavy statue toppled over along with him. Falling to the floor, the boy closed his eyes and braced himself against the coming blow of the statue, but the blow never came. Instead, he heard a crash and a scream as the head of the statue landed on the altar, breaking its fall and saving him from being crushed. The screams continued, and when the boy looked up he saw that the priest was trapped beneath the bronze man’s head, the metal thorns piercing his arm and pinning him to the wooden altar.

The coyotes continued to run around the inside of the church, becoming more frantic as they searched for a way out. In the confusion, one of them knocked one of the large candleholders over onto the altar, and the molten wax spilled over the screaming priest. Soon, the priest was covered in flames, shrieking in agony as he struggled to free himself from the metal spikes that pinned his arm to the flaming altar.

The molten wax carried the flames to the wooden benches and soon the fire was spreading though the entire church. The coyotes were truly panicked now, and would have perished in the flames themselves had the boy not run to the front of the church and howled loudly, calling his brothers and sisters to safety.

Once the pack escaped to the street they frolicked with the boy as they welcomed him back into their fold. He lay on his back in the road, laughing at the starry sky as the pack alpha licked his face. Soon, the sound of villagers rushing to the church broke the joyous spell, and with the screams of the dying priest fading into the night, the boy and his pack ran toward the mesa.

As he ran, the boy realized that for the first time in his life he could no longer hear the old woman’s voice guiding him. At first he missed her, but soon he realized that he now felt her spirit in his heart. And along with the lightness that her spirit brought, he also began to feel something else – a darkness made of fear and hate that weighed heavily upon him. The two spirits seemed to push at each other within him, and the boy was confused. He continued to run through the night, stopping only to howl at the sky as he sought to escape his confusion. At dawn, when the light sky met the dark, the boy came to understand that he must now learn to live peacefully with both spirits in his heart. Strangely, the thought was a comfort to the boy, and for the first time, he felt complete.

Epilogue: Tomorrow

The young woman slept past sunrise for the first time since leaving her pueblo. It felt odd, seeing the daylight as she opened her eyes, and she lay in bed for quite some time getting used to the feeling. Looking around the stone dwelling, the woman realized that she was in a strange place yet everything seemed surprisingly familiar. She vowed not to get out of bed until she understood what was happening, but eventually her bladder convinced her otherwise.

As she walked toward the door, the woman noticed rows of small clay pots on shelves near the cooking area. She seemed to know what was in each one without looking, and even had ideas about what they could be used for. As she stepped outside to empty her bladder she had a dim memory of an old woman’s voice guiding her, teaching her, preparing her. But the voice was gone, and she could not quite conjure it up again.

Back inside, the woman spent the morning cleaning the dwelling and arranging things. Some things she merely straightened and others she moved, for while this place may have once belonged to another, it was hers now.

By afternoon she had collected water and begun to soak maize while she went out onto the mesa to forage for squash and herbs. Near evening she heard coyotes howling nearby, but she was not scared. They seemed to be coming closer, and soon she could even hear them rustling through the brush.

As she returned to her dwelling the woman looked over her shoulder in time to see several coyotes running out from behind the pile of large boulders at the top of the rise across the arroyo. They were chasing a young boy, and to her surprise the boy stopped and turned, let out a loud bark, and tackled the closest coyote. The pair wrestled for a moment before noticing her, at which point they stopped suddenly and the boy stood, the coyotes by his side, tongues lolling as they panted from their rough play.

The boy and the woman looked at each other in amusement before the boy turned and ran off laughing into the brush with the coyotes. As the woman walked back to her home she had one, last, faint memory of the old woman’s voice. It had come to her in the night, telling her that there would be ashes to collect from the church in the nearby village. Since it was late, she decided that she would go collect them in the morning, for she knew what to do with them now.

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