THE GHOST OF GRAND GULCH
Ben lay awake contemplating destiny. Could there really be such a thing? It was crazy that he was out here alone in the canyon with a shovel and flashlight, not to mention the other things he carried in his bag and the necklace around his neck. The alternative to believing this was destiny was accepting that he was just a nut case. And the old man, too.
As he lay there listening to a cacophony of mysterious sounds fill the canyon, he felt his heart beat in a way he had never felt before. His blood surged through his veins with a new, unfamiliar vigor. And his head seemed somehow clear, his thoughts fresh and fragrant. Things looked brighter, noise sounded sharper, crisper. Curiosity had been awakened from its long dormant state.
What were those sounds? They must be coming from huge birds, a swarm of monstrous insects, or some bizarre prehistoric reptile. The sound had an oddly machine-like, inorganic quality to it that made it so very curious. As the last haze of light drifted away and the sounds increased, Ben knew he could not sleep without knowing what lurked so noisily in the canyon.
Armed only with his flashlight, and wishing desperately for a shotgun, he struck out for the source of the noise. His imagination unexpectedly leaped to life again from its long slumber since childhood, and clothed him in a loincloth, turned his flashlight into a long hunting spear, and grew his hair out long, thick and wild, resting on his shoulders like a lion’s mane. He compromised his posture and stalked through the bushes in plant-fiber sandals — ignoring the crackling, rustling and snapping beneath his untrained feet, letting it melt into the night air, for he was a warrior, a hunter treading silently and bravely. Stalking. Alert.
When he reached the river, crashing through the tall, stiff weeds, the noise he was tracking abruptly stopped. He was right on top of it; the creature lurked right where he was, he knew it. He stood still as a tree. Waiting, listening anxiously. He turned off the flashlight.
Nothing. Surely the great creatures would move, create a rustle. He kept his flashlight at his side, his finger poised at the “on” button. His jaw hung down stiffly, and after awhile his lungs hurt from trying not to breathe.
Then the sound came, and he focused the flashlight on the sound. There was nothing illuminated in the beam except the night air. Nothing, that is, until Ben noticed a small frog. Ben watched, incredulous, as its throat sack expanded, almost doubling the frog’s size, and it emitted one of the loud, raucous noises he had been stalking. He couldn’t believe it. He stood and watched the frog for several minutes as it continued its calling. Soon other cries started up all around him, the same sound but a different pitch, in perfect harmony. He moved the flashlight to locate them. Then a high pitched screaming startled him, like a modem or fax machine connecting. It was followed by a deep, croaking “ribbet.” All the sounds came from frogs! And each one sung his note in an intricate, organic rhythm with the others so that when all the frogs had joined in, the whole effect was a magical, joyous reverie and Ben felt his flashlight transformed into a conductor’s stick. He stood upon a rock, as though on a podium, and he could not hold back the impulse to wave it around as though he were queuing each frog.
He felt foolish amid the bizarre amphibian chorus. Then naive and childish. And a small, oily pool of regret spilled out into his soul. How could he have missed this? How could he have waited so long to come out here and discover the land, discover its secrets and treasures?
He had pursued the identification of his heritage so academically, lamely, just waiting for a revelation to come down to him all neatly packaged with everything he wanted to know and feel. How could it not occur to him, he wondered now, to go out and pursue his heritage in the place of his heritage? How had he been so ignorant of the power of place? So lazy and unaware? His first steps into the canyon had felt so foreign. The land seemed foreboding and alien. Ben drenched the air with a long, vague sigh and shuffled slowly, thoughtfully back to his camp. It had been dusk already when he set up beneath a tall juniper tree in a little grove of pinions and junipers on the flat ground below the ruin, where once his ancestors had grown their crops. He had not entered the ruin because of the failing light. A neophyte camper, he felt engaged just in the event of setting it all up. But now he felt a powerful, frantic urge to run up to the ruin, to crawl inside the dwellings and breathe the air and touch the walls.
He reached his sleeping bag and fell restlessly upon it. Logic told him to wait until morning to go to the ruin. He wondered if he had even reached the right place. The old man’s directions were based on landmarks Ben was not sure he knew how to recognize, and they were landmarks the old man knew from another time. Ben had never traveled out in the wilderness. He felt inept. But he had arrived at a ruin, nonetheless, through the directions. If this wasn’t the right one he’d have to start the trip all over from the beginning.
Beginning? What beginning? he scoffed at himself. Beginning, end. Things seemed so muddled now. Those words seemed meaningless, lost in this new hazy world he was perceiving, full of circular patterns. He had always perceived time as a great beach of blackness, a blank void upon which the wave of existence was continually crashing down, a perpetually rising tide. But now, if the old man was real, was telling the truth, there might be no forward motion, no marching of time. Perhaps it was all there, pre-laid brickwork upon which one walked a certain space of it during his existence. Was time the wild and passionate thing he had once thought? He worried now it was instead a docile footpath yielding helplessly beneath the traveler’s feet, stoic and unaffected by travelers in all directions.
Ben settled down in his sleeping bag and fell asleep before he even knew he was tired.
He awoke early in the morning, startled at first by the tree branches over his head. “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” he muttered to himself to impress upon himself the reality of his presence here. He dared not assess the craziness of the situation as he had done incessantly while driving to the start of his hike. He couldn’t possibly turn back now. He had accepted this mission, accepted the premise behind it. He chose to believe. He was here at the site. Crazy or not, he knew he had to go through with it. And besides, now that he was here he wanted to explore. Even if he were to find nothing, even if the old man turned out to be a complete kook, already this trip was the most valuable experience Ben had ever had. He acknowledged this while wolfing down a cold poptart for breakfast, then he sprang for the ruin, which lay nestled against the canyon wall in a giant alcove whose protective “roof” arched magnificently fifty feet above.
Two of the structures were remarkably well intact and so was the kiva. A few more structures were largely ruined but still partially standing. The rest of the site was just a heap of rubble and discolored sand, rife with potsherds.
Ben climbed inside each of the structures with boyish excitement. These are my people, he thought as he inspected the finely-masoned walls. These are my people, as he ran his finger along the ledges of shelves built into the inside walls, imagining what things they might have kept there. My people, as he fingered the small, narrow corn cobs and the pieces of painted and corrugated pottery that lay scattered everywhere.
After a while he sat down inside the kiva, the roof still mostly present over his head. His mission now began to loom over him. Where in all this ruin could he find the four stones? The shaman’s words were of no comfort to him now. “You will know,” he had said. “You will know when you have found the right stones.”
At home under the bare kitchen light bulb in the stiff, yellow chairs, the words were so inspiring. But now, surveying the ruin, they seemed pathetic. To overcome his growing uneasiness, the sense that he was on a wild goose chase concocted by a crazy man, he ran down to his camp, retrieved his shovel, and starting digging. He turned his mind off and dug. How would he explain himself if someone came by? He didn’t know, he just dug faster.
And faster. Furiously. Maniacally. Consumed. Until exhausted, he fell into a deep pit he had dug and fell instantly asleep.
Voices were speaking to him in a language he didn’t understand. He was squatting in the kiva running sand through his fingers and the voices were swirling around him. Smoke was filling the kiva in great bellows until he started to choke, and the voices swirled angrily like a cyclone.
He awoke coughing, his coughs echoing off the walls of the canyon. Overtaken by claustrophobia, he struggled to get out of the pit he was in. Clawing, kicking, he frantically pulled himself out. He ran to the back wall of the alcove and stood panting. The voices of his dream seemed to still be in the air; he swatted at them like flies until they disappeared. It was late in the day. He had slept for several hours.
A spot in his back ached as if he had slept right on a rock. He rubbed the ache as he walked slowly back toward the pit he had just crawled out of. Then he stopped short in his tracks.
“What’s going on here?” he murmured to himself. He had been digging around all over the ruin for hours, but now there was hardly any evidence of it. The first spot he had dug, the one he had slept in, was all there was. Everything else looked just as he had found it when he first scrambled up to the ruin that morning. A breeze blew through the doorways and open roofs of the structures. The sand lay innocently undisturbed in exactly the places Ben had just today ruthlessly disturbed. How could this be? He fingered the necklace the shaman had given him nervously. Did someone come while he was asleep and put things back the way they were? How could he have slept through such activities? Why would someone ...?
Ben covered his eyes with his dirt-caked hands and tried to shut off his thoughts. He felt dizzy and hot. He reached for his canteen hoping there was still water in it.
There was water. In fact, the whole canteen was nearly full. Had he been in such a frenzy working that he had somehow mindlessly gone to the river and refilled and filtered it? He knew he had drank it nearly dry at one point.
He gulped the water down nervously, hoping his head would somehow clear and things would make sense, that he would remember what had happened.
He rubbed the aching spot in his back. He jumped into the pit to uncover the cause of this soreness, and he dug out a perfectly round stone from just beneath the sand where he had slept. It was about the size of a tennis ball and remarkably heavy. It was polished smooth as if it had once resided in a river. He could envision it sitting on his windowsill at home, where people would comment how beautifully polished it was. He set it carefully beside his canteen, then picked up his shovel again and dug idly around here and there. He tried to keep his thoughts at bay as he summoned up the motivation and energy to keep digging. He was disheartened at all his work being covered up, although in an odd way it seemed to appease his guilt somewhat for digging up the sacred site.
The day wore on in thoughtless monotony and tedium, tainted by the strange events Ben couldn’t explain, so that he seemed to exist in a dizzy wisp of smoke. The world turned black and white. At one point delirious thoughts surfaced through the haze like a dolphin on the sea, If a man digs alone in a canyon and no one is there to hear him ... do I really exist? I can’t tell. I can’t tell if I’m making sound. I can’t really tell if I’m here. And the thoughts suffocated in the open air and hurried back inside.
He realized he had mindlessly dug out a rock from the sand and was now turning it over in his hands. When he looked at it he heard the words of the old man, “You will know.”
“You will know,” Ben said out loud to himself. The rock was of no particular shape, but it was almost uniformly a dull brownish-red, covered with a pure-white pattern. The colors were so uniform and smooth, not mottled, they looked like paint. The pattern looked just like a pictograph of a lizard. Ben scraped the rock with his fingernails to assure himself it was natural and not paint. Then he set it reverently aside on the sand.
He felt his heart start to beat faster. This must be one of the stones, he thought. His lungs ballooned with excitement and pressed against his chest. The adventure was on again. The picture was now in color. He grabbed his shovel. He dug with a renewed frenzy. He dug with renewed confidence in the old man and his mission. He dug until the moonless night blinded him.
Then he gathered the two stones he had found and took them to his camp. He took his canteen to the stream to refill. As he knelt at the stream he began to discern above the sound of the water gently gurgling into his canteen an eerie, mournful howl. He removed the canteen from the water and held his breath, listening to the mysterious wail.
He felt goose bumps rising from his skin and he reflexively rubbed the back of his tingling neck. Despite his surprise last night, this was definitely not a frog. Ben capped his canteen and hurried back to camp. He desperately wanted a light bigger than his flashlight, but he felt too tired to build a fire. He laid out his sleeping bag right next to the trunk of the juniper tree, feeling slightly safer under its protective branches, and arranged his other meager items he had brought with him, including the two rocks he had found, along the other side of his sleeping bag as if they were a moat no enemy could cross.
Then he scrunched all the way down to the bottom of his bag so only the few hairs on the crown of his head touched the fresh night air. He noticed now that all was silent.
What could that have been? he wondered nervously. He laughed a “ha” out loud as he thought of the old man and the “ghost of Grand Gulch.” He had heard stories of the ghost for many years; he felt smug now knowing the truth behind it. But it couldn’t be the ghost of Grand Gulch here now because ... unless ...
A new set of bumps and chills assaulted Ben’s skin. What if others had traveled just as the shaman had? What if his enemies had followed him here? What if there was more than one “ghost” in Grand Gulch? He thought back to the old man’s story. As Ben lay trying to fall into the hands of sleep, he replayed in his mind all that the old man had told him that day out on the mesa.
“I had to save my people,” he had said to Ben. “It was up to me. Only I could do it. I had to save my people,” he had said with desperation. Ben’s heart had felt heavy as he watched the old man speak. The man’s pain was so deep, Ben could see that every inch of his body was covered with the scars of it — in wrinkles, in grayness and feebleness — and it drenched every word from his mouth. They sat under a pinion tree atop the vast plateau. Alone on the mesa. Alone in the world.
The old man didn’t speak for awhile. His eyes scanned all around him restlessly. Ben waited. They were engulfed in the broad silence of the mesa. The old man had asked Ben to bring him here; he wanted to tell his story at this spot. Ben knew the story would come, he did not push. He waited patiently, strangely content, while the old man kept his words. His silence floated like flotsam on the deep sea of stillness covering the mesa. An insect buzzed by like a steamship. Perhaps an hour passed before he spoke again, perhaps it was even two before he began his story, his words slowly bubbling to the surface. Or perhaps it was only a minute; the mesa seemed too vast for time to squeeze into a watch. It seemed to lose all context.
“We were one of the last clans of our tribe left in the Canyon, in the whole area. Most of the others had fled or had been killed by our enemy. Our enemy was no ordinary enemy. They did not just kill us. They beat and tortured us, and they ... they ... ate us.”
Ben remembered the strange, heavy hush that followed, like he was suddenly under a blanket. The words were so bizarre, so unexpected. They clung to the air with a pasty stickiness. Ben felt absurd sitting there listening to such words; he wished he could flush them back out of his ears. This was not at all what he had expected. If only he could grab the old man’s words by the handlebars and steer them in another direction.
“They ate ... my mother, and they ate my uncle,” the old man said. “Can you imagine?” he turned to Ben, his face contorted with anguish. He searched Ben’s face as if hoping Ben could answer “yes,” hoping someone could imagine, understand, explain to him. But Ben could not imagine.
“The cannibals ate many of my people, consumed my people’s very flesh into their own vile bodies. We built shelter high up in the cliffs and still they decimated us. They were powerful people. Very powerful. And there was one shaman who gave them much of their power. But I'm a shaman, too; I tried to give power to my own people. But this enemy shaman was too much. I could not battle him eye for eye. I conducted a special ceremony for our bravest warriors. I made them invisible to that shaman and they killed him with their spears. They cut him in half and dragged each half off in a different direction. But the warriors were spotted by the enemy and they left the body halves unburied and fled. The enemy tribe gathered the two halves and sewed that shaman back together! I could not defeat him.”
A queer chill rose up Ben’s spine. He had heard the stories from the elders about how powerful shamans and witches had to be cut into eight pieces and buried in eight different places or they could come back to life. But those were just hogwash tales! Was this old man actually insinuating that shaman came back to life? He closed his eyes now and listened to the old man's story.
“I knew then that the only way to save my people was for us to leave. But the cannibals would follow our trail, as they had the others. We would have to go very far away from our sacred and beloved homeland into unknown territory.
I went out into the desert on my own to find guidance for what I should do. I went to the sacred picture rock of our ancestors and I fasted. And there I had an incredible vision. The spirits showed me that I could save my people and yet remain in the home we loved so much.
This vision made sense to me somehow. We — my people — see ourselves existing more in place or in space than in time or history. This new world of yours, young friend, sees itself through the eyes of history and destiny ... people looking backward for wisdom and forward for salvation or doom. I don’t think this vision would make sense to people of today. But to me it did. I didn’t evaluate what it was actually implicating, I just accepted it. We would be in our homes, where we belong.
I knew it would take all the strength I had to make it work, so I stayed there and rested for three days. I slept through those days and nights, dreaming only of the stones and plants I needed to gather. And I was awake only to gather the things I dreamt of. I didn’t worry about my people as the spirit messengers told me they were safe, so I could rest.
I returned to my home in the morning. I held a meeting with my people and told them I could save them from the cannibals; I sent a messenger to the remaining villages to tell them, too. We would hold the ceremony the following day. Then I spent all day and all night preparing the site, a circle of stones and herbs from which we would travel. After dawn I took a break to gather my things and rest.
I was jolted from my rest by shouting from outside my dwelling. I could hear much commotion going on. People yelled, ‘They’re coming!’ I was not yet prepared! I tried to calm my people as I hurried to prepare the circle. But these kinds of things require stillness; a deep, deep meditative state must be reached – all power comes from this. The stones were merely to help me focus, they had no power in themselves; they were not magic.
I set my brother in charge of calming the others, of gathering them together at the circle, and I tried to reach the necessary state of mind. As I was involved only in this, I didn’t notice what was going on around me. Just when I felt I was ready to transport my people, when the stones were ... were sort of ... turned on, activated, so to speak — they were charged with my mental, spiritual energy — people began shrieking and pandemonium broke out. The cannibals were in sight.
I can’t blame my people for being so frightened, as the cannibals in their warrior paint looked wholly terrifying. But they should have stayed! They should have stayed with me.” The old man began sobbing, his withered frame shaking, shaking. He reached his hand out into the vast empty space before him, as if trying to touch his people.
“They should have stayed! But they ... they were so frightened they just lost their wits. Even our warriors got caught up in the terror and panicked. People ran, tried to hide, climbed to the upper level and tried to fight from there. The cannibals rushed in and in minutes were upon our village, upon me. There was no one left beside me. No one to save. They were fleeing, screaming, amidst the cannibals’ war cries. No one could hear me shouting to them. I tried! One of the cannibals came right at me with his spear. Instinctively I jumped into the stone circle and the ground seemed to give way under my feet. I was falling through blackness. Just falling, falling, and I lost consciousness.
When I awoke I was alone. I realized immediately where I was, but my village was a complete ruin. At first I didn’t understand what had happened.
I dug around with my hands, sick and heartbroken at my ruined village. I couldn’t find any of the stones from the circle. The next day I traveled down the canyon to see what I might find. And all the villages were abandoned and ruined. Every one of them. Some were hardly recognizable. All our cropland was completely overgrown with trees and bushes and weeds. It was almost as if we had never been there. Except we had! Our ruined villages, what little remained above the rubble and dust, attested to that.
When night came, I sat to rest among one of our tribe’s villages several miles away down the canyon from my own. I pondered my situation. I realized then what must have happened. In my vision I only saw that I could move my people away from the cannibals. I knew we would still be in our canyon. I guess it was obvious, but I didn’t realize until then just what I had done — that I had traveled in time. I knew it must be the future because our buildings were here but decayed. But none of my people were here. Had they all been killed, I wondered. Had they never returned from exile?
I felt so, so very alone. I cried and cried. I wailed far into the night, pouring my sorrow out against the canyon walls, only to have it bounce back to me in my echo.
I spent seven days and nights in the canyon. Each night as I sat alone in the darkness I was consumed by my sorrow. My people were gone. I was alone. I didn’t know how to get back home without the circle of stones I could not find — the stones the spirits had shown me. I wailed in mourning every night.
During the days I foraged for food. And on the third day I spotted people. I didn’t know about white people then, and I was scared of them. Over the next few days several groups of white people came through the canyon and I tried to keep hidden from them all. But I know now at least one man saw me. For when I finally made my way back here again, to find you, I overheard the tales of the ghost of Grand Gulch — of a prehistoric man in loincloth wailing through the canyon at night,” the old man stopped and chuckled heartily for a moment or two. “I knew it must have been me they saw and heard. It’s funny. But ... it’s sad, because I do really feel just like a ghost here. I don’t belong here. This isn’t my time.
I wondered, though, where all those people were coming from. I thought perhaps the road to what you call Chaco was still intact. But I found it, too, completely overgrown, although still level and wide, you could tell where it went, but it was obviously in disuse for many, many years. Parts of it were more sketchy than others. I traveled for some time on the mesa top. I don’t really know why; I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know what to do. There was nothing to make me think I would find someone of my people up there. But the canyon was so haunting to me, I couldn’t stay down there.
So I wandered until one day I found a paved road. The paving material was very interesting to me; I had never seen anything like it. But it was painted with bright yellow lines, and it stretched on and on. I was fascinated. I squatted down in the middle of it and touched the paint. I thought this was perhaps some kind of artwork — as we had often painted on rock surfaces. Then all of a sudden some beastly thing — I didn’t know what cars were, of course, it was just some monstrous thing out of a dream, and it came rushing toward me with a terrifying noise I had never heard before. I stood up just as it got to me and I tried to run. It began screeching and then it hit me square in the chest. I fell over backward and blacked out.
I woke up in a place that was terrifying to me. It was just a hospital, but back then, you understand, I had no way to process what was happening. I was absolutely terrified. Things were coming out of my arm, everything was all bright and white, the people were strangely colored in odd clothes with mysterious tools, prodding me, speaking unintelligibly to me. I didn’t realize then that they were there to help me. I didn’t know I’d been hit by a car!
They thought I was a crazy man because I spoke in what they thought was gibberish, because they had found me in a loincloth, because I gestured so violently trying to explain who I was, why I was here, that I had to get back, that I had to save my people. No one understood.
They sent me away to a mental house. Which really wasn’t so bad except for all the crazy people,” he turned to Ben with a grin. He was proud of his little joke. “They made me nervous. There was one other man there like me, an Indian. He was Navajo. He was a real loony, ranting, raving, cursing one minute then he wouldn’t speak for a week. But he became my friend. He helped me to learn English. Eight years I stayed in that place, learning how this modern world of yours works. And when I felt my English was good enough to venture out on my own, I escaped. They still thought I was crazy as I carried on about my home in the distant past, you know. So I had to plot an escape.
I spent several more years ‘on the streets’ as you say, just trying to find my way home. I knew the name of the place where I was, at the mental ward in Arizona, but I knew I had been taken a long way from my home to get there. I had figured out what my people were called — Anasazi — and where our civilization was located within this United States country, but it covered such a large area and of course the canyons and places are not now named what we called them. The only place I could really identify as a place I was once familiar with, was Chaco. Our culture’s great achievement, it was like a capital city. But then it became the home of the six-toed man, and the cannibals emanated from there like the legs of a spider spreading out from its body. I went there and tried to follow the road back to my canyon, but I had to give up; it was too hard. By then I am an old, feeble man, like now.
At length I came to suspect Grand Gulch as my home. I traveled again to Chaco, to be somewhere familiar, and there I met the man who directed me out here, to you, and so I came. And here I am now, with you.”
Such a tale it had been. Ben hardly knew how to take it. Could he believe such a story?
Well, why not? he finally answered himself. He had thought of time somewhat differently, but it didn’t really matter. His had been a rather listless life, his views rather plain. Ben knew his clan was small, his blood-relatives precious few, but that had only seemed to him dull and hopeless and arcane. The elders’ stories seemed too hokey to believe; the Christians seemed too oppressive to believe; other religions had seemed too inaccessible or hard to seek out. His worldview was a soupy mixture of his own limited experiences and a few random items accumulated here and there. So why not time travel?
For once Ben had come across something that just might be compelling enough to actually shape some notion of the world, of the nature of existence. Were he to take up this view, it would seem so bold to mold his view of how the world works around such a fantastic and secular notion. So much more daring, more spirited than the notion of some god, picking one from among many, would be the notion of the plasticity of time. If he could believe in that, accept that, then anything seemed possible. Even a man cut in two coming back to life. What is death, after all, but a function of time? It’s just the final point on a finite line. If time was not just a straight line, though, continually pushing forward, then it seemed like life and death need not be either. The possibilities! How adventuresome life could be, how big and grand and inviting. Ben decided he would believe. He felt like he was stepping off a cliff into the wide open air, so free, unfettered. He would believe the old man and his stories, and take whatever consequences resulted.
But when the consequences presented themselves, they were a little hard to swallow.
“You must go back. You must go back and bring my people here. Complete my mission.” Ben stared at the old man, the open air he had just been frolicking in suddenly seemed damp and sticky.
“I'm too old and worn out. I couldn't make the journey now myself. These years here have been too hard on me. I have such little time left. No one followed me through the portal so the circle must have been destroyed. You must find the stones and reconstruct the circle.”
“But if you travel back to the time when you left, won’t you be younger then and strong and healthy?”
“No. It doesn’t work that way. At least not the way I traveled. The body is unaffected. I simply opened a portal through which travel was possible; the body is not altered any more than it is walking through an ordinary doorway.”
“How can you be sure I’ll arrive at the right time? What if I arrive before you’re even born?”
“I think you can arrive no earlier than when the circle was first activated. In fact I think that’s exactly when you’ll arrive. Probably just as the cannibals come in sight. You must immediately focus only on getting the people into the circle. Throw them in if you have to; it’s all complete chaos anyway.”
“Your people don’t know me; they’ll be confused and frightened of me. And you, will you be there? How would you react to me?”
“Hmmm ...” the shaman fell into a deep silence. “We shall have to paint you up,” he said at last. “I’ll teach you how. I’ll paint you so that when I see you, I’ll recognize you as a spirit messenger. I won’t be afraid of you.”
“It’s all chaos.”
“But ... I ... I ...”
“Ben. Don’t you want to save your ancestors from the most cruel of fates? Can’t you help me save my own soul from the torture it has endured knowing I didn’t save my people from those vile cannibals? You’ve said you know some of our ancient words. Don’t you feel inspired by them, connected to your ancestors who handed those words down through the mouths of their children for generation after generation after generation? Can you turn your back on them? If you’re of my people, Ben, you must help us. You’re one of us.”
And upon those last words Ben felt some hitherto unknown empty spot fill up inside him. It was like he had suddenly grown a new limb. Yes. Yes, he would do it. It seemed impossible not to. He must do it.
And so he reaffirmed his mission as he drifted at last to sleep under the graceful juniper tree, below the ancient ruin, encouraging himself for the long day of work ahead of him tomorrow, and for who knew how many tomorrows until he found those four stones.
The old shaman was impressed by how well many of the old structures at Chaco had withstood the centuries. He touched the walls gingerly. He breathed the air deeply, contemplatively, listening for spirit voices. He cringed at the people around him, bumbling ignorantly about. The modern world of the white men was too secular for him to stomach sometimes. He felt ill watching the people swarm like mindless flies, irreverent, heedless of anything sacred.
He had listened to the park ranger’s speech, solicited by other visitors. He remained stoic through the inept and unstimulating reverie. He had learned to accept the ignorance about his culture and the world he had lived in. But he couldn’t help himself from drawing the ranger aside and asking, “Do you not mention the six-toed man?”
The ranger looked at him quizzically, then a soft, parental look crossed her face, a look the shaman had seen too many times in this modern world where he looked so terribly aged — a senile old man.
“No, I’m afraid not,” she replied gently and walked away. He walked wearily in the opposite direction.
Now in the ruins, an older man, who looked even more ancient than the shaman, impossibly old, strode steadily toward him. As he approached he locked eyes with the shaman. His voice revealed his impossible age as much as his skin.
“You know of the six-toed man,” he said.
The shaman stared back into the eyes that had locked onto his. The world seemed to stop spinning.
“Who are you?” the elder man gasped in a choked whisper.
The shaman stared hard at the older man. There was something about him. Something .... The elder clamped his withered hand around the shaman’s arm and pulled him down to the ground. They sat cross-legged facing each other.
“People here don’t seem to know about the six-toed man,” the elder said, his eyes focusing intently on the man across from him.
“How is it you know then?” the shaman asked cautiously.
Smiling a toothless, cold smile, he replied, “The knowledge has been directly passed down to me from my ancestors. Oral tradition, they call it.”
The shaman’s eyes widened. “Are you...?”
The elder merely raised his eyebrows, provoking the shaman to finish the sentence explicitly.
“Anasazi, as they call us now?”
The older man tilted his head back thoughtfully. He looked over the shaman with an intensity so penetrating the shaman could hardly breathe under this scrutiny.
“I am,” he replied at last and whispered the ancient tribal name.
The shaman inhaled sharply. “I …” he tried to contain his excitement, to keep his voice low, “I am! I am too! Your ancestor!” he practically squealed. “My brother, I thought there were none of us left!” and he began to weep.
“There are a few of us. Very, very few,” said the elder, raising a sparse eyebrow but not questioning the younger man’s allusion to his ancestry. “Many claim to be descendants of ancestors who are not theirs. We, the true descendants, keep ourselves, the truth of our heritage, secret.”
“Then you know. You know the truth about what happened to us.”
“Of course I know what happened to you,” he said, looking annoyed."To us."
“Why do you not say anything to these white people about that truth?”
“We do not say anything to anybody,” he replied evenly.
“So they did not wipe us out completely!”
“They tried,” the older man said with stale words. “They tried to kill us all and they tried to learn our sacred stories, to destroy everything about us.”
“The stories? Do you still know them?”
“I know one.”
“One,” the shaman repeated sadly.
The older man began to recite. As he spoke the first sentence, the shaman gasped, stuck out his hand and cried, “Stop!” His heart was skipping beats with the joy of hearing those familiar words mixed with alarm. He whispered through his tears, “You must not recite it here. Not without ceremony. The words are ritual!”
The older man fell silent. He appeared to be smiling, though the proliferation of wrinkles in his face and the lack of teeth in his mouth made it difficult to discern any but the most animated of expressions. The two men sat for awhile in thoughtful silence.
“So you keep your heritage silent,” the shaman finally said.
“It is the only way we have survived. It is the only way to survive. The enemy has pursued through the centuries. Now there are only a few of us and a few of them,” he grinned widely, enigmatically. “And they will still hunt us down if they find us. We are mortal enemies — that means to the death. The legacy of the six-toed man will not end until one side is destroyed.”
The shaman considered this. So there were cannibals, or at least their descendants, here. He had not expected this. But perhaps if he had all his people here with him, they could destroy the few enemy left and have peace at last.
“Do you know about the Navajo?” the shaman asked, suddenly recalling his queer friend from the asylum. “Why do they call us ancient enemy? Are they related to the cannibals?”
“You do not know?” the older man asked, raising his eyebrows skeptically. The shaman realized his line of questioning was odd, but did not reply.
The older man answered after a moment, “They refused to help us. They could only criticize us, criticize what we had become. While they didn’t ally with the cannibal tribe, they would do nothing to help us defeat them. We resented this. They moved in to our lands. We consider each other with distaste.”
The shaman could see the older man still regarded him with caution. The shaman was so moved to be in the company of his own tribesman, he yearned for the stranger opposite him to feel the same way, for them to feel united in kinship. He took a deep breath and with hushed voice revealed who he was and how he had come here. His audience listened with ever-widening eyes.
“But even if I could somehow find the stones,” the shaman concluded, “I am too old and weak now to travel back. I tried my first few years here to use new materials to open the doorway. But I could not charge them. It would seem I need those particular four stones. The spirits showed them to me and I put so much of my power into those.”
His companion seemed to have drifted off now into his own thoughts. “All these years,” the older man mumbled. “All these years ... and you came,” he smiled to himself, breathing shallowly.
“Grand Gulch is the home you seek,” the older man said to the shaman abruptly. “I have a great-nephew. He's young and strong. Regrettably, he's a creature of his time; he doesn’t know who he is, really,” the old man said wistfully. “I have taught him some words from our language. I have told him where he comes from, but he does not know who he is. He doesn’t have the will to care. And so I could never tell him. But you,” he eyed the shaman slyly, “you may be able to impress him. You ... are real. The stories, my words are flat and uninspiring to him. The past is so distant from us now; it’s been so, so very long,” he drifted off momentarily. “But you’re flesh and blood. You still smell of the past. Even he could see that you're a ghost here. He could listen to you, believe you. Young and strong, he could help you.”
“I don’t have much time,” the shaman said, indicating his feebleness and age .
“Nor I!” laughed the older man, indicating his body of even greater, unguessable age. His withered frame shook with laughter.
“You find him,” he said to the shaman. “I’ll tell you where to look. You send him back to your people.”
The shaman helped the old man up from the ground; his frail body seemed hardly able to handle the task, his legs shook like a new-born fawn’s as he tried to stand straight.
“I’ll be alright,” he assured the shaman.
When the shaman walked away from the old man, his heart was soaring so high it was almost painful, back to the tour bus which had shuttled him there. He left the older man standing on trembling legs, slowly rubbing one hand back and forth across his tiny, shrunken waist, and waving with the other.
Ben awoke at first light, the sky glowing expectantly. The tree branches over his head were welcoming this morning, no longer foreign. Only, they seemed somehow smaller. Perhaps just because he was used to them now. A light dew lay across everything. He lay in his sleeping bag, delighting in his warmth, fingering the necklace the shaman had given him. “Sacred,” he had said, “charged.” He had instructed Ben not to put it on until he had gathered all four stones into a circle, putting one in each direction and connecting each stone into a circle with the bundle of herbs the old shaman had gathered that day on the mesa. But Ben was afraid he might lose the necklace; he put it around his neck that very first day.
A bird’s cry pierced the frosty silence, echoing off the canyon walls. Ben roused himself from his cocoon and searched through his knapsack for a poptart.
All the trees in the little grove where he camped seemed different this morning. The whole world seemed to have a new twist somehow. Ben sat against the trunk of the tree, chewing his breakfast contemplatively. He felt like a new man. He knew who he was at long last. He had connected with his heritage. He thought about his great-uncle, who had been so disappointed in him. “I can’t even tell you who you are,” he had said. “You wouldn’t respect such knowledge.” Ben hoped he could find him now and say to him, “I am Anasazi. I know who I am. Tell me what our real name is. Tell me in our language.” Even the shaman hadn’t told him this. And his great-uncle could finally impart all the ancient knowledge to him, if only he could find him, participate at last in the oral tradition. His great-uncle had taught him precious few words of the ancient language: empty phrases of a juvenile nature, simple greetings, a few isolated nouns and adjectives. No stories. No substance.
He cringed uncontrollably as he thought of the cannibals, stewing his ancestors like they were the mere beasts. Even a lone bird’s cry was so powerful, so moving, deep in the canyon – he tried to imagine the war cries of the cannibals filling the air. He shivered in response.
Done with breakfast, Ben picked up his shovel. He stopped to look at the two stones he had found yesterday. He was starting to get a feeling about that round one. He decided to take the two stones up to the ruin. He dropped the shovel and picked up the stones. They made his hands tingle strangely. Perhaps it was just the cold, he thought.
He came out of the little grove of trees still focused on the stones, looking at them in his hands. It wasn’t until he was already half way up the slope to the ruin that he saw it.
“What!” he cried. He ran frantically up the rest of the slope and dropped the rocks at his feet as he gaped at the ruin.
It was somewhat less of a ruin than it was yesterday. The kiva roof was now completely intact but covered with strangely segmented heaps of sand, littered with corn cobs. Entirely new partial structures were standing; previously half-crumbled walls now stood taller. The lips of two clay pots protruded from the sand against the threshold of a dwelling.
What the hell is going on? Ben thought, too shocked to physically murmur the words. It must be a dream, was all he could reason. Yes a dream. “Wake up Ben!” he yelled in his head.
He began running aimlessly around the ruin. Just running. “Wake up!” he shouted aloud. Steps and ledges now lurked under a thinner layer of sand and debris. Ben tripped and splayed out face down in the sand. Delirious, he backed himself on to his knees.
“If it’s a dream I’ll just dig,” he said to himself. “Dig until I wake up. Maybe I’ll find the stones in my dream.” And he ran recklessly to get the shovel. Time passed; Ben didn’t notice. Dig, dig, was all he could think, all he could do. And then the shovel scraped across a hard surface that gave him such a shiver, like fingernails down a chalkboard, that he dropped the shovel.
A minute later he pulled out a large, severely contorted rock. Without even thinking he ran over and put it with the other two rocks he had dug up. As he did so, a strange sensation took hold of his body. He felt dizzy, tingly, things seemed hazy. He felt more confused than ever.
Then in a short and violent flash: he realized. He picked up two of the stones and ran to opposite ends of the ruin, depositing one at each end. Then he took the necklace from around his neck. He walked to the kiva and set it on its roof. He stooped and entered the kiva, the door still missing, and sat down against the curved back wall, panting. The heavily blackened timber beams so close to his head weighed the air with a ghostly smoke like in his earlier dream, as if releasing all they had once absorbed. Tiny corn cobs, acorns, gourd stems littered the sand at his feet.
Though completely sheltered from any weather element, Ben suddenly felt wind pushing up against his cheeks. For some reason he recalled the words of a Navajo elder he heard or read somewhere, “We do not enter the sites of the Anasazi. Only a shaman who has prepared and purified himself can set foot inside the ancient dwellings.”
Again, he seemed to discern voices whispering in the air, as he had yesterday. This time he stayed calm. He called out tentatively.
The voices again swirled around him. He spoke a few of the ancient words he had been taught. And suddenly the dust kicked up at his feet. Startled, Ben ran out of the kiva.
He stood just outside it. Spooked and unnerved, he tried to think about the stones. He had one more to find. Where should he start looking? On a whim he grabbed the necklace from the kiva roof and put it back around his neck. Not knowing exactly what to do next, he stood very still, his eyes closed.
And he thought he discerned a faint, very faint tingling in his chest. He focused on this; it seemed to want to pull him forward. It was as if a tether was attached to his chest and someone was pulling it, causing the sensation. With eyes barely slit open, so he could just make out the ground at his feet, he tried to follow the pull, emptying his mind, closing it to all but the sensation in his chest. Slowly, slowly, he walked, heeding the pull.
Then suddenly he felt he had reached the source of the tug. He opened his eyes full. He was below the ruin on the far side, down-canyon, at the very base of the midden heap. Instinctively, he dropped to his knees and began digging with his hands. He dug like a dog uncovering a previously buried bone, both hands hitting the sand at once, pulling back towards himself. His thoughts finally started to turn on, pointing out the lunacy of his state and actions. Just as he started to feel embarrassed, his fingertips hit something solid. He knew he had found the fourth stone. The shaman was right: He simply knew.
Ben left the stone in situ and ran back to his camp. He was giddy and nervous. He felt insane. He felt free. He felt like he was about to jump out of an airplane having picked his parachute from a random assortment of packs whose contents were unknown; perhaps he had a parachute, perhaps he didn’t.
He spilled the body paints the shaman had given him from his knapsack onto the ground.
Feverishly, he stripped and painted himself the way the shaman had taught him. He ran back to the ruin feeling like the most important man on earth; he alone would be the savior of the ancient Anasazi.
He decided to set up inside a ruined dwelling whose doorway lay at the edge of the kiva’s roof: the shaman’s dwelling. Ben retrieved the stones one at a time, laying out a curving line of herbs from each one to form a circle with one stone at each “corner.” It was not hard for Ben to empty his mind as the shaman had instructed, for he was so giddy and frightened, it emptied of its own accord, and he clung to the mantra-like words the shaman had told him to focus on, not revealing their meaning, like the tenacious weasel clamps on to its prey.
With each subsequent stone he retrieved and put into place, he felt like an ever-more powerfully charged bolt of lightning, until with the placing of the last stone, standing from inside the circle, he heard a great clap of thunder. His body jolted and felt completely electrified, and the ground gave way under his feet. Suddenly he was falling through a cavernous, cold tunnel of darkness. His mouth gaped open but the only sound in his ears was a fierce wind. He lost his breath; his head started to cloud with an inky blackness. He felt ice-cold. He tried to think a thought, any thought. But his consciousness was splashed away into the blackness.
Ben blinked, groggy, his eyelashes cutting cleanly through the crisp, cool air. He breathed, the smell of dust and charcoal heavy in his nostrils, like grit on his teeth. He listened, soft shuffling coming from outside. Outside what? He opened his eyes full to the charcoal-blackened timber beams above his head, bound together by small bits of rope, and simultaneously felt the hard ground beneath his back and coarse fur against his skin, his feet pushed up against a solid wall.
He looked down at his body, painted symbolically in a language he didn’t understand. He sat up and scanned the interior of the small, sandstone enclosure about him, filled with objects he had only seen in museums or had never seen before.
“This can’t be a dream,” Ben said to himself in a low voice as his eyes darted back and forth between his own body and his surroundings. I’ve done it. I’m here! I’m actually here. An intoxicating excitement ran through his veins. He moved aside a rectangular slab of rock to open a small doorway, and there before him lay a fantastic sight. It was like waking up in the land of Oz. A whole Anasazi village lay before him. Complete, neat and tidy, people milling about, a woman grinding corn.
For a minute Ben just crouched at the door, enraptured. But soon he remembered his mission and realized he had arrived in time. The village was still peaceful; the shaman sat on the kiva roof outside the circle of stones and herbs he had constructed, his eyes closed, meditating.
Ben laughed to himself, That shaman is more powerful than he thinks. The stones are already activated. They were ready for transport before the cannibals even came! Ben knew he must somehow tell the shaman this.
Ben stepped out of the little doorway, leaped over to the shaman and knelt, gently shaking the shaman’s shoulders, half expecting them to disintegrate into dust and float away like a dream. The shaman jumped up startled and stared at Ben with eyes as wide as an ocean. Ben stammered out the words the shaman had taught him to say at this meeting. They felt like giant jaw breakers in his mouth — big, round and awkward. The shaman’s eyes grew wide. He looked over Ben and indicated for him stand up and turn around. A look of satisfaction and wonder took hold of his face and he bade Ben sit down with him.
He began speaking but Ben couldn’t understand. The shaman surveyed Ben’s face as he spoke and after a moment fell silent. A woman passed nearby and stopped to ask the shaman an urgent-sounding question which he answered promptly. The woman looked at Ben wide-eyed and smiled. Then she bent her head and hurried on her way. Ben watched her approach a group of people and heard her speak unintelligibly. Then all heads turned toward Ben.
Ben was disappointed that he could not understand anything anyone had said. It suddenly made him feel very claustrophobic and he yearned desperately to make a verbal exchange, to understand and be understood. With each second that passed now he felt more and more confined, imprisoned, the feeling of claustrophobia strangling him until he choked, coughed, and in pure panic barked out like a dog, spewing forth the simple phases his uncle had taught him. Then he waited, breathless, for the shaman to reply — somehow, in some way. But he did not. He looked quizzically at Ben. And in the responding silence, Ben wilted and shrank. He suddenly wanted to go home. This job was not for him. And yet he couldn’t fail. God help me, Ben thought to himself. Anybody help me!
It occurred to him then that time must be running thin. The cry of the cannibals would pierce the air at any moment.
The shaman was still eyeing Ben intently. Ben gestured toward the circle and spoke as calmly and soothingly and as confidently as he could. “It’s ready. You can go in it now. It’s all ready,” Ben said, knowing the shaman couldn’t understand but hoping he could convey his message by the tone and inflection of his voice and the gesturing. He stood up and held one foot over the edge of the circle, but not touching it to the ground. The shaman gasped and started to push Ben away. But in reaching for him he suddenly understood what Ben was saying. He stopped and smiled up at Ben who reciprocated the smile and replaced his foot back outside the circle.
The shaman stood up and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder, removing it immediately with a startled look. Perhaps he didn’t expect a spirit messenger to be so solid, Ben thought. The shaman then gestured and spoke the way Ben had, conveying meaning in the tone over the words, and Ben understood that he was to gather the villagers together at the circle. The shaman handed him a small feather and then retreated inside his dwelling.
The shaman had pointed out two sentries, probably saying, “Don’t forget them,” Ben figured. He ran to them first. At his approach, they looked suspicious and very edgy. Ben waved the small feather and beckoned them to come in from their posts. The two men glanced at each other, then began to make their way toward him. He led them to the stone circle and gestured that they were to stay. Then he turned to gather the others and he suddenly remembered how the shaman had described to him how everyone ran away when they saw the cannibals, how the shaman lamented over them not staying together at the circle. Should the cannibals come before they finished transporting, he would need to prevent this from happening again.
With a flash of inspiration, he ushered the men to the door of the kiva, whose roof supported the stone circle, and bade them go inside. They looked shocked and scandalized, and eyed Ben with suspicion. Ben suddenly realized that perhaps this was unceremonious. He bowed his head to his chest in thought, but had no idea how to perform a kosher entrance. He brought his hands together over his lips and he could feel all his thoughts cramming together at the top of his head. A panic was starting to overtake him and a sense of urgency poured out of him now in a visible sweat. The two sentries, watching him, suddenly ducked inside the kiva.
Relieved, Ben ran to a group of villagers, brandishing his feather, and beckoned them frantically to follow him. The men started gathering their weapons and the women pots and tools, but Ben grabbed these things away from them and pushed them towards the kiva. "You won’t need those things,” he tried to reassure them as calmly as he could against the rising panic in his throat. At the kiva door he beckoned them to enter. The men, startled, peered inside suspiciously and upon seeing their comrades, entered. But the women stayed outside. Impatient, Ben tried to gently push one of them in. But the woman protested and everyone who witnessed the spectacle threw upon Ben a blanket of bewilderment and shock. He realized then, that women must not be allowed in the kiva. Perhaps he had read that somewhere in the past. But now it angered him.
“What’s the difference?” he snorted, and led the women up the stone steps to the roof of the kiva where the stone circle lay. He wanted to start them transporting right away. The sense of urgency inside him now was almost unbearable. He caught a glimpse of the shaman still in his dwelling gathering things into a large pouch. Ben wanted to tell him he wouldn’t need anything. But he turned and went to gather more villagers. He stuffed the men and older boys into the kiva and corralled the women and children together around the stone circle.
Soon everyone was gathered except for the shaman. Impatient and angry, unable to speak with the ancient tribe, Ben tried to push one of the women into the circle. But she resisted, alarmed and confused. The rest of the people gathered around were very unsettled. Ben thought of jumping in himself to show them, but he feared that seeing him disappear would simply frighten them into running away from the circle. He needed the shaman to talk to them, to explain to them that everything was going to be alright.
Ben ran to the shaman in his dwelling and, reaching over the threshold, tugged at his elbow, begging him to come out, to begin the ceremony. “Forget all this stuff,” Ben shouted at him. “Forget this, forget ceremony, just jump in the damn circle!”
The shaman looked at him uncomprehendingly, and as he pulled his elbow back out of Ben’s grasp, a chorus of unholy screams exploded, piercing Ben like a knife in the back.
He had hardly leaned back out of the doorway when he was grabbed by the shoulders and hoisted up on to his feet. He understood the scene that lay before his eyes in but one ghastly instant. The cannibals had sneaked upon them in uncanny silence, with the sentries absent and the villagers’ attentions all focused around Ben and the circle. The men were all crammed inside the kiva, trapped without weapons. The cannibals were already rushing in to block the one entrance with vicious-looking spears poised in their hands. One poked his vile, painted face inside and Ben could hear the men yelling. The women on top of the kiva were surrounded by cannibals, screaming in a crazed panic. They tried to run but each one who tried was swiftly caught and punched in the stomach so she fell forward to the ground. Ben tried frantically to wriggle from his captor’s grasp, only to be held firm and spun around so that he came face to face with the savage.
Ben shuddered with terror. He felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him. He struggled to breathe under the frightful gaze and hot breath of the cannibal who seemed something not human. Ben’s skin crawled at the thought of this beast’s tongue sliding over it, and he was repulsed by the shining white, crooked teeth he could feel tearing through his muscle, gnawing at his bones. The cannibal’s intense eyes were like daggers and his face was painted in nauseating patterns of black, red and yellow. But it was his mouth, that dreadful maw, that gripped Ben with immobilizing terror.
Ben suddenly became aware that words were tumbling out of the mouth. Ben was overcome with repulsion at their sound, at the siren of intelligence and civilization, and then a pure and violent anger sprang up inside him. Ever since he woke up here in this time he had not felt a part of the tribe he had come to save; he had felt disappointingly outcast. But now in this terrible moment he felt completely bonded to them. He was one of them; he would die with them. In a rage of defiance and a passion of identification, he began spewing all the words he knew in the ancient language. He spat them at the cannibal like holy water on a vampire. They came gushing out, and he could not stop them. He ran out of words and began repeating them.
The cannibal inexplicably dropped his hands from Ben’s shoulders and looked quizzically at him. As he strained to catch the torrent of words, an intrigued smile slowly stretched across his barbarous lips. Then he broke into an abrupt laugh. Ben stopped speaking, horrified. The cannibal reached for him and pulled him to his chest, wrapping his hot, red arms around him.
“Brother!” the cannibal exclaimed. And Ben understood that word, the first word he recognized since he arrived here. “Brother!” Ben struggled to understand what this could mean, but suddenly the face of the shaman poked out of his dwelling and stared, aghast, at Ben. The look of betrayal on the shaman’s ashen face was unmistakable. The women nearby glared at him with the same dreadful look.
Suddenly the shaman shot out of his dwelling and, like a bullet aimed at a target, dove into the circle. His body appeared to melt right into the ground and he disappeared completely. Everyone froze, incredulous, and there was a brief moment of stunned silence. Then one of the cannibals poked at one of the stones with his spear. He rolled it towards his feet then bent down and picked it up. Everyone watched him as he lobbed it over his head, and it hit the ground with a dull thud several yards away.
And as if it were the pistol start to a race, pandemonium instantly broke out as the women all tried to jump into the broken circle. The cannibals tried to stop them; they tried to reach through the stampede of feet to grab the stones and wreath of herbs. Frantically, the women and children jumped up and down on the kiva roof. The men crammed in beneath it winced at the bowing timber beams mere inches above their heads, and glanced at each other with looks of bewilderment. The men began yelling from within, below falling chunks of dried mud; the women and children above were shrieking with panic and jumping for all they were worth on the roof over their husbands’ and fathers’ heads trying to follow the shaman. The cannibals let loose their war cry and began their macabre carnage. Amid it all, Ben stood in an eddy of stillness.
The circle was gone — a cannibal reached for the last stone. Ben could not go home. It would appear to the Anasazi villagers that he just rounded them up like cattle to be slaughtered. He had betrayed the shaman and the very people he came to save through his own ignorance. All this time he was not Anasazi but their mortal enemy; his great-uncle had never fully explained the heritage in which Ben had taken little interest. He had been ready to die with these people, as one of them, but he had not only ensured their defenseless defeat and death, he would also be made to feast with his tribe ... He wretched and fell to his knees.
From this lower vantage point he saw a pair of hands encase the last stone of the circle and pick it up. He looked up to the man who held the stone and gasped at his midriff — the skin was red, swollen and scarred, and pierced through with twine, stitching the lower half with the upper. The grisly cannibal stood a silent pillar amid the chaotic village, turning the stone over thoughtfully in his hands. He looked down at Ben, the black center of his eyes narrowing to slits like a cat’s, and turned up one corner of his mouth in a cryptic smile.
Some notes on the inspiration for the story:
I have hiked and backpacked in Grand Gulch several times, and I came up with this story based on some various facts, research and widely-circulated folklore. I think it makes the story more interesting to know some of the basis for the story, so here are a few notes:
There was found, near the Grand Gulch area (southeastern Utah), the mummified remains of a man who had been sliced in half across the hip area; the skin from the upper and lower halves of the body had been sewn back together with twine made of human hair. He is known as “cut-in-two man.”
Elders from native tribes in Mexico have been documented as saying that very powerful witches and shamans have to be cut into eight different pieces and buried in eight different places or else they can pull themselves back together and come back to life.
At the Chaco Canyon ruins, there is a petroglyph of a six-toed man. Many native tribes believe that people with extra digits have special powers. I have not found an explanation for this petroglyph, but my research has not been exhaustive, as the literature on Chaco and the theories on its phenomenon are vast.
Finally, cannibalism in the Southwest is a very controversial subject and the idea and evidence has gained public attention only fairly recently. Opinions still vary. The most exhaustive treatment of the subject at the time I wrote the story came from the book Man Corn.