Angels of a Desert Heaven
by Marguerite Reed

 


Over Joshua Curtis dark wings unfurled.  A bar of shadow filled one end of the room, angling against unearthly currents.  Joshua himself couldn’t see the wings.   The journalist from Rolling Stone couldn’t see them.  Only Siwa, from her corner in the Hyatt VIP room, saw the gold-daubed feathers rising from the musician’s back. 

The injustice of it bruised her heart: this white man was adorned with such wings all unknowing, while Federal law allowed eagle feathers only to those who could prove on paper how Indian they were.

An acoustic guitar balanced on Joshua’s lap; with every brush of his fingers against the strings, Siwa sensed his thought swelling like a blister: Please, God, help me just a little longer.  All the while deflecting comments about groupies, about MTV airplay, about last month’s pot bust.   

“Maybe you want to ask questions about Bears Eat Monkey?” he asked the journalist.  “You know, the album we’re doing this interview to support?”  He kept his temper when asked about the lead singer’s drug use, offering little further than a pinched  frown.

“Come on,” he said, the line between his brows deepening.  “These guys are like my brothers.  We catch each other if we slip.  I don’t see Brian slipping any time soon.  This means too much.  But seeing anybody slip brings in the readership, right?  Nothing succeeds like schadenfreude.”  A sidelong look at Siwa, an amused twitch of those brows, and the frown disappeared.

The journalist followed his glance.

“Meet my bodyguard,” Joshua said, grinning.  “She’s a psychic, and she’ll kick your ass with her mind powers.”             

Some sort of AA bodyguard is more like it, Siwa caught from the journalist.  Maybe I could pump her for info later.

Siwa thought of ten different responses at once.  The journalist would build his own conclusions and plane them to whatever slant he’d chosen prior to the interview.  Not her concern.

Those wings, unseen to everyone in the room save her, those were her concern.  They’d been her concern since Joshua called her eight months ago.

*     *     *

Through the cacophony of a telenovela and her daughter Socorro washing dishes, Siwa almost missed the ring.

Vinyl siding, she thought.  I’ll tell them I live in a seed pot. “Hello?”

“Is this . . .”  The pause of an Anglo trying to figure out her name.  “. . . Ms. Santiago?”

Siwa rolled her eyes ceilingward.  “May I help you?”

“This is Joshua Curtis.”

Should she know Joshua Curtis?  She focused: trying to pick up anything she could over the connection.

“You’re a busy man, Mr. Curtis.”  It popped out of her.  Sight unseen sometimes took her like that.  A whirl of activity, of lights— the presence of a greater focus than hers upon him.  “What can I do for you?”  It’d be find my girlfriend (no) find my mom (no) find my money (no) talk to my dead grampy (no) am I psychic too? (Maybe?) 

“Well, not real busy at the present.  We’re taking some down time here in Albuquerque—”

We?

“—and I started thinking about this—issue.”

Young, Anglo, rich.  “Mr. Curtis—if you don’t mind my asking—who are you?”

A burst of chagrin through the line, alum on her tongue.  “Um.  This is really—”

“Embarrassing, yes.  No one knows you’re calling me.”

“No, they don’t.”

“It’s about the why, not the what, isn’t it?”  She was beginning to groove with the back and forth, getting more and more of him with every exchange.

“I was hoping I could that find out from you.”

“It’d be bad—” something flashed “—for business.”

“Just another stick they could beat me with.  Hey, you do know who I am, don’t you?”

Bring out the brochure.  Damnit.  “It’s an art.  Not a science.  You can’t measure the results in a laboratory.  That’s why scientists and the hyper‑rational don’t approve of us.”

“The hyper‑rational.  Hey, I like that.  Can you prove it?  That you’re psychic?” 

It didn’t take paranormal ability to predict the turns the conversation was about to take, and for once she decided not to dance.  If she could lick the phone, she would, if she could somehow get his breath through the receiver, if she could push the phone into her ear, her vagina, her eyes, it would be easier.  She closed her eyes and let everything within her drop.

“You’re wearing boxers.  No, shorts.  You’re not wearing any shoes and you haven’t changed your socks since yesterday morning and what would your mother say but she’s dead and you’re worried about other people dying.”  She took a breath, still submerged.  “You want me to go on?”

A little click in his throat.  He got the words out, doing a fair job of impersonating cool.  “Please do.  Fascinating stuff.”

“You didn’t shave yesterday.  Your hair is in a long ponytail tied with a broken shoelace because you couldn’t find an elastic—” Input hit her in a current of physical sensation.  That long hair.  Her fingers caught in a silky skein, blond strands across her eyes, her lips.

She opened her eyes, pulled her finger out of her ear.  The red of the chili ristras in her kitchen shocked her to full consciousness.  Waves of nausea lapped at her.  She crouched down in the middle of the kitchen, the soles of her feet flat on the tile.           

“I have clients tomorrow,” she said.  She rode the billow of sickness, taking big, whole-body breaths.  “But we can meet for lunch.  Las Mañanitas.  Open‑air dining.”

When the conversation was over, Siwa crawled to the trashcan by the door and vomited.  A hell of a headache was coming.  Served her right, for losing her temper and showing off.

Fortified some time later with orange juice and ibuprofen, Siwa went to the computer and pulled a search.  One hand to her mouth in queasy amusement and wonder, she clicked through pages of references to Joshua Curtis.  To the band he played in, Sugar Skull.  To the two albums released, Day of the Dead and Buffalo Child.  To the fan sites on Yahoo; the bootlegged videos on YouTube.

The pictures told her he was white and wealthy and did not eat enough.  She could use that, perhaps, a little cheat on the cold reading.  Oh, Señor Curtis, she’d say.  You’ve got something weighing you down.  I see responsibility . . . I see a lot of people depend on you.

Get him first on neutral ground, and then in her own territory.  No velvet‑draped rooms for her, no patchouli.  No Carlos Casteneda either, and no pastel plains Indian dream catchers.  Her office was a porch converted into a sunroom, done in clean, unassuming neutrals.  Siwa was still paying the bank for the improvement loan.  

She did not do a booming business.  Enough to cover the yellow pages advertising, enough to add to Socorro’s college fund here and there.  Surfing through Google, though, she felt as if all the quarters had started spraying out of the slot.

*     *     *

Las Mañanitas was a nineteenth‑century stagecoach stop renovated into a restaurant.  Lion-colored adobe, soft and stark as skin against the bright September sky.  Siwa chose her seat on the patio twenty minutes before the agreed-on time.  The smell of piñon smoke, cooking maza, and automobile exhaust vied with each other.  Linda Ronstadt’s "Canciones de mi Padre" trilled from a CD plugged into an outdoor extension.

Between a breath and the next, shadows inclined; light rattled against the surface of the cottonwood leaves, like the glitter of a flock of birds shifting course.

Joshua Curtis came sloping in through the adobe archway.  Hands shoved into the pockets of a suede jacket, a knit cap on his head, blond horse‑tail streaming down his back, he looked like an off‑duty mechanic, or a baby biker.  She saw the little crease between his brows as he took in the rough walkway to the patio, the blue painted door to the storage room, the press of customers.

Was he looking for a renaissance fair gypsy, all paisley scarves?  She’d done that in her day.  Was he looking for a clairvoyant Frida Kahlo, bedecked in braids and snakes?  Taking pity on him—he wasn’t the psychic, after all—she stood up.  The motion and her lilac suit caught his eye.  He shambled over to her like a good‑natured gangly hound, hand out to shake.  

Siwa tried not to grit her teeth against that intimacy.  Vulgar, sexual, male, with a dogged work ethic.  She felt a little tired, thinking of the bright hardness she would have to marshal.  Go on and get to it, she told herself.

He topped her by a foot and she felt better once he took his seat.  “You wouldn’t have called me if you didn’t truly believe there was a problem.  I mean, who the hell calls a psychic?”          

“Looks like I did,” he said.  Uncertain, for all of his testosterone.  Sneaking little sipping looks at her.

“Tell me why, and tell me what you want me to do, and we’ll see how we go from there.”

“Mind if I smoke?”

Siwa pulled a hardpack of Marlboros out of her purse and spun them across the table to him.  “There’s your brand.”

A small jet of surprise from him.  She let herself smile.  “I read it in an interview last night.  I did a little research on you, so you could start in the middle.”

“We get to the hard stuff right off the bat, huh?”  His fingernails were a little on the long side, all the better to slice through the plastic on the pack and pull out a cigarette.

“You wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“You get that from an interview too?”

“Nope.”  She settled back, inspecting him.  He tried to return her stare, but gave it up after some seconds with the first plume of smoke.  In that exhale she caught the scent of pain, bewilderment. 

“But I feel you have a lot to say,” she went on.  Standard script.  Theatrically she closed her eyes, lifted her palm, as if to feel the energies emanating from him.  “A lot you want to say that you haven’t told anyone.  Not friends, not girls, not family . . . .”   

“Well, duh,” he said.

She had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from snickering—it gave her that appropriate aesthetic expression.  “So much anger!  So much confusion for one so blessed . . . .”

Now she did open her eyes, ignoring the expression of skepticism on his face, and tapped the table next to his right hand.  Broad, long‑fingered, a silver ring with a yin‑yang symbol etched on it.  “There’s a lot of power here.  You’re holding the reins of a lightning horse.”  She met his gaze.  “Do you feel you’re getting burned?”

“I’m six foot one, but I’m getting taller every second from you pulling my leg.”

“You called me, Mr. Curtis.”   

He grinned.  Wash of amusement tinged with a little shame.  “I should shut up and listen, huh?”  He put the cigarette in the ashtray and turned both palms up on the glass‑top table.  “So look at my life line, love line, whatever it is, and do some of that voodoo you did on the phone.”

“What do you think was I doing just now, Mr. Curtis?”

“Jesus, I dunno—it wasn’t what happened last night.”  He gave Siwa a sidelong look.  “You know the saying ‘you can’t bullshit a bullshitter?’  You weren’t conning me last night, but you tried just now.”

“So, you can just fly in here and tell me my business?”

He caught her hand, quick as a hawk on a mouse.  “Why did you say that?”  

Impression, sensation: of soaring.  The world so small, wind ruffling through her feathers as she looked down, carrying a message to Heaven . . . .

The hairs on her arms were standing up. 

“Jesus, I’m sorry,” she heard him saying, as if through a high wind.

“Don’t let go,” she said; except he had broken contact, and the exaltation of flight ceased.

The waitress brought them coffee.  Siwa knew there was no way she could eat, and Joshua seemed to have no inclination for food, only one beer after another, which he drank like water.

“Is it dreams?” Dizziness eradicated grammar. 

“No,” he said, and lit another cigarette. 

“Is it drugs?”

“I don’t think so.  I don’t get fucked up the way I used to.  Definitely not before a show.  No way.”

“A show?”

His expression softened.  “Yeah.  I’ll be up there—it’s the greatest feeling in the world, man; you’re plugged into this immense weather system of sound, like a fucking sonic chariot of the gods, and it’s all you—and out there, thousands of people who’re grooving on what you do and giving it back.  It’s better than sex.”  He smiled.  “Lasts a lot longer, anyway.  Then these feelings,  pictures—I don’t know what to call’em—started.”

Gazing out on the sea of faces, Joshua loved the crowd.  He lived for it.  He had never told anyone, but there had been times when, walking out on the stage, the roar of the fans hit him and tears sprang to his eyes.  How’d he, a punk kid from Durango, gotten to this?  Did he deserve it? 

In the middle of all of it, the worry and the worship, Joshua found himself pulled up out of his body.  He felt himself playing, still saw the tits of the redhead in the front—at the same time he soared above the crowd, with all his fingers caressing the air, body rocking with the thermals.  At first he suspected a flashback.  Christ knew he’d ingested enough pharmaceuticals in his day.  Yet it happened every show, blowing away all anxiety while he held his guitar.  Even as he worried and wondered about it, he sought it—sprang upward with his whole soul.          

Once he stopped playing, his body trapped him again.

“I feel like a junkie, man,” he said, on his fifth beer.  “As much as I want to play, that flying—it’s purer than any shit I ever did.  It’s like being two Joshuas.  One of them is making music that shakes the earth.  The other—there I am, on the breath of God.”

Red-faced, he fell quiet after that last admission.  Siwa let him be silent, not wanting to wreck the ripples dancing out from him, as concrete to her as rings in water from a dropped stone.

“So there’re two answers,” he said, grinding out his cigarette.  “One, I’m crazy.  I don’t like that answer.  Two, I’m—possessed, or something.”

“And you like that answer better?” Siwa asked. 

“Being possessed is more interesting than being crazy.  I've been crazy before.”

“So why a psychic?  Why not a doctor?”

“Hell, why not a priest?  Am I gonna start spitting pea soup?”

Siwa tried to put as much soulful concern into her face as possible.  “Do you think that’s a possibility?”  Scare him a little more than he already is.

“What do you think?”  Beneath the cocky tone, genuine strain.  

“I think you could benefit from a real reading.” Siwa glanced at her watch.  One of her more exasperating clients was scheduled at noon, a trophy wife of a local developer, who viewed psychic readings as a spiritual form of colonic.  “Mysterious forces are surrounding you—“ she could say this without a trace of irony “—and unless you find out what’s going on, I foresee something negative happening.”

Cynicism fought distress within Joshua, although he kept his features schooled.  “That something else you read in my aura?”

She bit her tongue.  “You and I both know this is really happening.  No matter what others say.  This is actual; this is real, and you need to find out what it is and what it means for your life.”

“You don’t fool around, do you?”

“Only fools fool around.”  Oh, he liked that, she felt.  “And you would be a fool to ignore this.”

 *     *     *

I feel as if I’ve gone a few rounds with Oscar de la Hoya, Siwa thought.

She sprawled in her patio chair in her housedress and coat, a beer in her hand.  High over Sandia Crest storm clouds gathered, a bruise on the limpid twilight.  A storm was blowing in from the Gulf.  Two hundred miles westward, in the Four Corners country, there had been no rain for weeks.  At their last conversation, Siwa’s grandmother told her how yet another family had left the First Mesa due to drought.  Perhaps the katsinam were angry, her grandmother said.   

The spirits that visited the Hopi people every year between January and July were friends, teachers, counselors, who interceded between human people and the spirit world.  Siwa’s grandmother could list hundreds of them, and new ones appeared as the decades wore on.  Whites who studied the Hopi (and some Hopi said that everyone should have a pet Bahana) seemed very interested in quantifying the katsinam.  Siwa’s grandmother, depending on her mood, either chuckled over that or grunted in irritation.  Maybe Jesus would qualify as a katsina too, she’d say, with a mischievous glance, but he hadn’t shown up in a while.     

Deep within the blue, lightning flickered.  Thunder rumbled far away, and a puff of cool air stirred the hem of Siwa’s dress.  To be able to soar so high, what would that be like?  To be able to dance in the heart of a thundercloud?

Usually in her clients there was some prevarication that oozed off of them like the tang of road‑kill skunk.  With almost every truth divined, the clients compelled Siwa to create falsehood.  Was Mrs. Clarendon’s husband cheating?  Yes, because she belittled him at every turn; toxicity billowed off of her in flares of acrid green—but she didn’t pay to hear that.  Was Mr. Jimenez’s dead child trying to contact him?  No—what haunted him was the cocoon of guilt at keeping her away from her mother’s side of the family, who were not of the same race.  

It was a rare customer who wanted to hear the truth.

Joshua Curtis, she suspected, was one. 

*     *     *

“Okay,” he said, sitting down, brushing at his jeans.  “What do I do?  Do you whip out the tarot cards, or—?”

Siwa smiled her third‑kindest smile.  “Actually, Mr. Curtis, I need to run your credit card.”

“You take cash?”

Siwa allowed herself an inward purr at the sight of the fat leather wallet on its chain.  Don’t get greedy. “It’s a hundred for today’s session.”

Joshua pulled out the bills with no hesitation, twenties, tens, a few wrinkled fives.  The month’s electric bill, plus a little left over.

“I don’t know if I can solve this,” Siwa said.

“I don’t know if I want to solve it,” he said.  “You mean, make it go away?  No....”  He flung himself up out of the chair and ranged around the room, thumbs hooked through his belt loops.  Today he wore a t‑shirt that read, as best as she could tell, I’m the tokin’ white guy.  A turquoise necklace looked out of place against the t‑shirt’s neck.

Very young.  Very good‑looking.  For an Anglo.  If she were ten years younger—

Stop it, woman; he’s just a job.       

Siwa let his essence drift to her like pollen on the breeze.  He laid a finger on one blade of the Venetian blinds, bent it, peeked out.  Dust motes formed paisleys in the air when he moved.          

“Sit down.  I want to tell you something.  Right away, so you can lay this fear to rest: this—experience, vision, whatever you want to call it—it’s not going to affect your musical ability.”

He sagged back into the chair.  “Well, that’s one,” he said after a moment.  “But.”

“If you get rid of it, that won’t affect your musical ability either.”

Fear and tension spouted up—and flowed away from him so vividly Siwa imagined she heard the gurgle of water swirling down the drain.  Her smile became real.  “If you like, I can do a traditional reading.  This situation has already become a little unorthodox, as you may have guessed.”

“And a traditional reading is what?”

“The cards, reading your palm—”

“Got a crystal ball?”

“Yes, I have one of those.”  Siwa liked the crystal ball because its lucent depths soothed her eyesight, helped her focus.  Placing her hands over the client’s as they both cupped the glass was the sole act that mattered.

“I don’t want to know my fortune,” he said.  “I don’t believe in that stuff.  I don’t get the good without the bad, right?  I make my own future, right?”

Siwa knew her nod could be read as any answer he cared to receive.  He was worried about something beyond his hallucination: she picked up the path and followed it inward.

Exasperation.  Concern.  Weary plodding love.  She glimpsed a male Anglo face, dancing brown eyes, thick dark hair from beard to crown circling his head in a spiky corona.  Hurt like a bruise—hurt like a burn, the tissue dead and dying at the surface.  

“His name’s Brian,” she said.  “You think your singer’s dying.”

Denial shot across like a steel gate.  “He’s not dying.  He just needs some time.  Shit, even Keith Richards got off smack, and he’s in the South Pacific falling out of coconut trees.  That’s what I hate, man.  Everyone always writes us off.  Bunch of vultures.  You know, it’s never Joshua Curtis, musician, it’s ‘Josh’—I fucking hate ‘Josh’—Curtis, guitar hero and cocksman extraordinaire—Jesus!  And every single piece it’s Brian Silver, junkie.  Like that’s gonna be on his fucking headstone. ” 

The shock at what he’d just said flashed out on his face.

She knew she was treading on shale with her next question. “If—If!—Brian did die: what would the consequences be?”

He leaned forward, fingers steepled, pressed against his lips.  Turbulence, devotion.  Anger summoned to push down fear. 

During their tour last year, Brian had started getting drug sick.  Every show became a question mark.  Could Brian pull off another two‑hour gig?  Get away from the needle long enough?  Methadone treatment, sure.  Bupe, even better; although if Brian was in buprenorphine treatment, they had to keep him away from the booze.  It’d work for a while and then he’d be back on. 

Please God don’t let him fuck up.  Please God let him be able to sing

These prayers were always at the back of Joshua’s mind as he played, while he attacked the changes on "Jailhouse Tattoo," worked the headbangers over with the riff on "Blow My Mind Blues."  Brian and his bullthroat bellow made the music—Carlos might play killer bass, and Tag might have the deftest touch on drums since Neil Peart, but Brian made the connection between the music and the humanity.

Always in interviews the three of them backed Brian up.  He’s cool, man, they’d say, and distract the journalist from Guitar World or Kerrang with stories of their own outrages. 

They never said anything about the frustration Brian might have caused them.  No word about the missed appointments.  The thousands of dollars down the toilet from delayed recording sessions.  They made excuses for him and lied and stonewalled and never, ever considered getting rid of him.  Other bands had done that with their members.  The guitarist who was an alcoholic and behaved like an asshole got driven to the bus station.  The bassist who got slapped with statutory rape because a groupie lied about her age—out the door, buddy.

Joshua sighed.  “He comes in late, smelling like a fucking homeless person and he’s got film on his teeth and he’s not well enough to lay down a track in the studio—and do we show any kind of self‑preservation and boot his ass out?  We do not.  We’re not that hard, man.”  He shook his head.  “We’re not that hard.”

Brian shoots up in his feet and won’t wear flip‑flops.  Brian shoots up in his hands and has to wears gloves in public.  They have a five‑month tour scheduled starting in November, the first one they’d been able to do in a couple of years.  Start out sunny, Laredo on November 2nd, Corpus Christi, New Iberia, Mobile, and down the coast of Florida.  All over the country through the dreary months of winter (“Christmas in Omaha, can you dig it?”), winding up in Texas again doing the spring break circuit.   “And I know he’s gonna hose it up.  We’ve got some crappy gigs, and it’s a crappy time of year.  All I want to do is play.  I want Christmas in Omaha, long as I’m playing.  It’s the only thing I don’t screw up.”

Would Brian get in the way of the music?  And what would Joshua be capable of if that happened?  The fear had an acrid, offal taste.

“We’re playing a club this weekend.  Just a practice—we’re billed as The Amazing Steves.  Why don’t you come see us?  I mean, so you can be there.”

“When it happens?”

“Right.  Maybe I grow eight arms.  Maybe I’ve got demons crawling out of my asshole.  It isn’t something I’m scared of or that I want to stop.  I just want to know why.”

Keep on like this, Siwa thought, and it’ll be another hundred.

“If he dies, the band dies,” he said after a while.  “And if the band dies, I don’t know what will happen to me.”   

*     *     *

The young man at the club’s entrance stamped Siwa’s hand.  She blocked out his boredom and borderline hostility, but once inside she wanted to flee home and take a hot bath with her sleep mask on and plugs in her ears. 

The name The Amazing Steves had fooled no‑one, she guessed; the current of people knocked her into the wall. They all seemed to be showing too much pale, pimply skin—the men too hairy and the women like sullen raccoons.  In slacks and a blouse she was overdressed, as usual, for the Bahana world.

Smoke veiled her in grime.  Grit and cigarette butts and bottle caps mashed beneath her feet.  With clenched teeth she won her way to the unfamiliar country at the end of the room where the stage reared up.  It seemed to her all black boxes and flimsy microphone stalks.  Swatches of tape anchored fat wires to the stage floor.  At the back a drum kit, like a piece in an art gallery, glowed beneath a spotlight.  Two electric guitars leaned against their stands.

She considered dropping down a little to see if she could sense anything, but so many people surrounded her, so many musicians before Joshua had been on that stage that it would be futile.   

At the concession area she ordered ice water with lime and then found a seat at the edge of the floor, giving her what she hoped would be a clear line of sight.  It demanded total diligence to block out the waves of sensation from all of the psyches gathered into such a small space.  Watching more and more people jostle their way into the club, she relaxed her jaw repeatedly—and when the band appeared, the crowd’s passion crested and spilled over her defenses. 

So much want!  So much hunger!  For a moment, from her vantage point by the rail, she saw them no longer as humans, only as an swarming nest of gaping mouths.  They cheered all through Brian’s little speech—Siwa caught “thought we could fool ya” and “glad we didn’t” but either the sound technician had been asleep on the job or the amplification was too much for her acoustic‑accustomed ears.

She saw the drummer raise his sticks with a spin and bring them down.

The sound blared out, ugly, inexorable as the sun.  A racketing cheer rose at the initial assault of those chords.  Was this music?  It rang her very fillings.  No escape from it.  She fought the impulse to clap her hands over her ears.  God, Joshua was going to pay her for this. 

The bass player was a chunky boy wearing a wife beater and a ball cap; the drummer was barely visible past the cymbals.  Brian himself could not stay back from the edge of the stage.  He wooed the crowd as he bellowed into his mike, leaning over the surging crowd, touching as many hands as he could reach.

And for the first time, she witnessed Joshua in his element.  Shirtless, he looked all bones and sinew; but the necklace had found its place against his pale skin.  He thrashed his head just as violently as the headbanging kids in front of him, blond hair a froth. 

How can he do that and play at the same time? Siwa wondered.  She found herself hoping her client had a good chiropractor.  When he bounced up to his microphone to wail his part in what Siwa assumed was the chorus, his grin suffused his whole face.  Men and women yearned toward him. 

Gradually the noise took shape for her: blocks of chugging melody folded themselves; electric geometries invaded her respiration.  The intricacy of the guitar solos took her by surprise.  No headbanging there, only sober immersion.

After the third song, Joshua’s naked torso gleamed with sweat.  Droplets caught the light like sparks every time he flung back his hair.  The area behind him, even in the spotlight, darkened, thickened.  Siwa squinted, thinking it was the smoke.  If she rubbed her eyes, it would ruin her make‑up, so she blinked, shook her head.  All that blond hair, whipping back and forth—it was a wonder he didn’t blind himself.

A pause came in the scald of notes.  The relentless drum and bass ruled the crowd’s pulse.  Joshua’s whole body marked time, side to side on the balls of his feet like a dancer.  At Brian’s beckon, he stepped to the fore and split the air with sound.

In a blossoming burst of air and darkness and illumination, a pair of giant wings unfurled from Joshua’s back.  Topaz light broke behind the massive feathered silhouette.  The primaries extended in a seeking caress—brushing the stage floor as he leaned back, eyes closed, lost in creation. 

Siwa dropped her drink.  Heedless of the ice and lime and glass shards she fought her way out of the confines of chair and table, eyes focused entirely on this impossibility.  Her temples pulsed with the beat.  I’m hallucinating.  Somebody put a roofie in my drink.  My eardrums broke, and I’m having a brain bleed. 

Too small to bull her way through the crowd on the floor, she had to squeeze her way past teenage girls and thrashing young men.  Two helpful hulking boys caught her as she slipped on God‑knew‑what, and they guided her to the front, guarding her between and before them.  Right next to a dreamy‑eyed Latina girl who stared up at Joshua as if she would eat him alive.  Like the other women Siwa found herself reaching out to touch—but not Joshua, not the man himself. 

Those wings.  She saw every fragile feather, the silky vanes, the gleaming shafts, as exquisite as if drawn in ink.  They stretched overhead, immense.  Soft blades with which to flense the air.  Soaring.    

*     *     *

After the set, Siwa stayed rooted to the floor until Joshua fought his way to her. 

Bouncers were trying to herd him towards one of the side doors, imposing their bodies between Joshua and the more aggressive fans.  “Later; he’ll see you later, okay?  Stay for the next set, okay, girls?”

“Don’t worry about them,” Joshua said.  He pushed his hair back behind his ears.  “Are you all right?  Did you see anything?”   He was breathing as if he’d run halfway up First Mesa; his hair hung rat‑tailed with sweat about his face.  When he took her hand his expectancy parched her.

Incomprehensible, Siwa thought.  That a person like this could house such glory within him—  The energy of the crowd left her feeling infected.  Her psyche wanted to expel the toxins that had pooled for the last forty‑five minutes.  With no courtesy whatsoever she snatched her hand out of his grasp.

“Okay, let’s talk somewhere else,” he said, unruffled.

He showed her to "the band room," where the close air held the odors of sweat and pot, and half-stapled posters drooped from the walls.  One corner boasted a tiny dorm fridge; along the left‑hand wall an understuffed couch languished.  A brick substituted for the couch’s missing leg.

Cross-legged on the couch sat Brian.  Joshua flinched, but to Siwa, Brian looked as peaceful as a yogi contemplating his navel.

On the scarred coffee table lay a belt.  Next to it, a round-bowled spoon.  A candle.  A bottle of lemon juice.  A dainty syringe and a snack-sized plastic bag.  Siwa realized his anticipation, beyond thirst at the well’s lip.   

Brian looked up at the two of them with a smile, beatific but for the knowing cat’s claw line at the corner of his mouth.  “Don’t start, brother,” he said.  “I’m not touching.  Just looking.”

“Promise me?” Joshua said.  Brian held up his hands.  Efficient as a nurse, Joshua peeled off the gloves, examined each hand palm-down.  Scars wormed across the backs and down the pale inside of each arm.

Siwa made an involuntary sound of dismay.  Both men looked at her, Joshua stony, Brian still possessed of that ghost’s smile. 

“It’s all right, miss,” he said.  His hand squeezed Joshua’s.  “My bro here looks out for me.  Don’tcha?”

Siwa felt the effort it took Joshua to lighten his voice.  “Just get your works put away, ASAP.  The only busts I’m interested in tonight come in a D cup.”  His gaze turned to Siwa.  “Can we step outside a minute?”

Brian struggled to his feet and swept her a gallant bow.  In the small space he nearly crashed into her.  “Mademoiselle, it grieves me to intrude so rudely on your privacy.  Pray tell your paramour were he to wax wroth with me, I find his choice estimable and enviable.”

“That’s why you write the lyrics, man.”  Joshua’s grin was hollow.  He took Brian’s hand and folded it around the gloves.  “Be good for me, huh?”          

*     *     *

No moon showed; the cloud cover was black as iron.

“I saw something,” she said, to disturb that graveyard dread that drained the joy she’d seen overflowing him.  “Joshua. . . . I want you to think about this, now.  Or, don’t think about it—feel it.  What does the concept, the image of eagle mean to you?”

Siwa haltingly described for him what she’d seen: the wings unfolding from his naked back, like a griffin’s, an angel’s, a katsina’s.  The vision still shook her.  She did not meet his eyes. 

“You’re saying I had bird wings growing out of me.”

Eagle wings—”

“Okay, eagle wings.” 

“That is what I saw when you were on stage.  You picked up the guitar, you played, and the wings—” She swallowed, resisted the urge to pace.  “The wings came out of you like a goddamn Christmas picture.  You looked like you were about to yell, 'peace on earth.'”

Had any of her clients manifested visually before?  The closest she’d gotten was an unnerving case of a girl with skinwriting, which she immediately turned over to the Catholic church—at the relief of the girl’s mother.  Siwa wanted no part of that one.

“And what do you see for Brian?”

“He’s not my client.”

“Jesus, that’s cold . . . .  What if I paid for him as well?”

Siwa shook her head.  “It doesn’t take a psychic.  You know it as well as I do.  You’re the one taking care of him.”

“Well, shit.  What do these wings mean, that I’m an angel?  Brian’s guardian angel?”  He turned his gaze to the starless sky.  “Come on, God!  How about helping out your angel down here?”  He looked at Siwa with a face come from generations of unemployment offices, buckled linoleum, duct tape home improvements; bitter against the grindings of an indifferent cosmos.  “God doesn’t make angels out of people like me.”

*     *     *

Siwa had never dug so hard in such uncomfortable surroundings on behalf of a client.  Even in Albuquerque, where almost all the shades of lovely brown were represented, her appearance at the University of New Mexico library provoked a few stares.  It was her short stature, she knew; her severe features (primitive, she remembered one woman thinking, how exotic!), which made Anglos tell her to smile.

She knew what the eagle meant to her people but not to Joshua’s.  Thus she went to the Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore.  She brought home books on British Isles mythology, European mythology, a couple of naturalist’s books.

The golden eagle, aquila chrysaetos, had been the emblem for the armies of countless European nations.  The favorite of father gods and a guise of magicians and tricksters.  Birds were the favorite spirit‑forms of the Celtic bards.  Shamans of ancient Europe of Asia wore cloaks of feathers . . . .

Yet Joshua had never defined himself in terms of his background, had he?  The most he’d said was a punk kid from Durango.  He never said whether he was Scots‑Irish or Swiss‑Slavic or whatever endless combinations existed in this country.  What muddle of spiritual tradition was visiting him?  Was he possessed by a sixth century Scandinavian sorcerer?  Channeling a manifestation of Celtic bardhood?

Siwa wanted to thump her head on the desk in frustration.

 *     *     *

A huge poster from the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting an Aztec calendar glowered in Socorro’s bedroom.  Some days Siwa’s daughter identified as Mexican; other days she declared herself Pan‑Indian. On the opposite wall, by her desk, a smaller image of Leonard Peltier watched over her mournfully.

No knobs were allowed on Socorro’s door.  In defiance, she left her door open at all times, no matter whether she was dressing or sleeping.  Siwa spoke mostly English, so Socorro spoke whatever Spanish she’d picked up from her father and her friends.  Rarely did she ask her mother for anything.  So when Siwa heard her voice, she responded at once.

“Hey, mija.  ¿Que tal?

Socorro looked up from her book and answered her in a burst of Spanish.

“You’re a smart girl, but I’m your mother, which makes me wiser than you,” she replied in Hopi.

Defeated, Socorro switched to English.  “Mom, am I going to spend Christmas with Great-Grandma?”

Siwa crossed the room and sat on the edge of her daughter’s bed.   “Halloween with your dad—"

Dia de los Muertos, Mom—”

“Thanksgiving with my dad—”

“Ugh.”  Pure adolescent revulsion.  “Subjugation and Appropriation of Indigenous Peoples Day.”

“I thought that was Columbus Day.”  That won a wry smile.  “You may not want to spend Christmas with Great-Grandma,” Siwa went on.  “No computer.  No electricity, even.  It’ll be very tough.”

“That’s where you grew up.”

Siwa nodded.  Grew up with her grandmother as parent, her mother in prison and her father landscaping for industrial parks in Phoenix.

“So I should be able to do it.  Easy is for gringos.”

“Don’t say gringos.”

Socorro heaved a ten‑pound sigh.  “Fine.  Maybe Great-Grandma will let me bring my kachinas home this time.”

“They’re safer where they are.  Can you imagine how you’d feel if someone broke in and stole them?”

“I’d kill them.”  Siwa caught the image of a blue‑jeaned burglar breaking the glass of Socorro’s window; Socorro herself stabbing him with a screwdriver, like something out of a Lifetime Movie.  The burglar white, of course.

“My bloodthirsty child,” she said and stroked the back of one knuckle across her daughter’s cheek. 

Socorro smiled indulgently.  “Mom, can I ask a favor?  Can I spend Dia de los Muertos with Great-Grandma too?”

“For someone who’s so fascinated by her heritage, I should think you’d want to be with your dad as well.  You’re more Latina than Hopi, after all.”

“Don’t you get it?  It’s about place.”

“Place?”

“Right.  Yeah, I’m part Latina.  But Latinas are kinda like Anglos.  Transplanted.  Believing in stuff dragged—” she waved a dismissive hand “—thousands of miles from another country.”  She looked at her mother from eyes that, Siwa thought with a shiver, saw farther than she herself ever had.  “I have to be where my feet are, Mom.”

*     *     *

Siwa had heard Arizona described as alien, as a moonscape.  Every time she heard that, she shook her head.  The fragrance of sage, juniper, asphalt blew into the car.  No headaches now, no matter how far down her consciousness dove.  During the five‑hour drive in the rental car she hurtled deeper into stillness, with every mile Albuquerque’s protective carapace peeling away from her and her daughter.

Good fortune that Socorro understood.  When she wasn’t reading, she watched the October landscape enfold the two of them.

The drive from Polacca up the flank of the Mesa, at over a mile, was longer than the walk from Sichomovi to Walpi.  Not good news for many of the tourists.  The parking areas along the paved road up the Mesa held Yukons, Denalis, Tahoes, and a few RVs.  Such large vehicles were not permitted to park on the Mesa.  In her two‑door rental Siwa rolled past small clots of tourists—fat whites from east of the hundredth meridian, who complained when it rained, who dressed in fifty‑dollar tanktops and two‑hundred dollar sandals.  Some of them stared at her and her daughter, their boiled‑ham faces set as if against a bad taste.

The parking lot by the new convenience store was half‑full: only some with local plates.  Dwellings that looked as if they had calved from the yellow rock shouldered for space alongside prefab steel buildings.  Antennas and satellite dishes sprouted from the rooftops.  Dogs trotted around, looking busy.  When Siwa slammed her door, none of them paid her the slightest attention.

Socorro shouldered her backpack.  “Mom,” she murmured.  “I know what I want to do for a living.”

“I’m scared now,” Siwa said.

“Tour guide.  I’ll take groups of Navajo and Zuni retirees on a bus and we’ll go to the suburbs in Fort Worth and spend our time looking in people’s windows.”

As they walked through Sichomovi, they saw leathery white people clustered around doorways to homes that displayed signs: Hopi Pottery for Sale.  Authentic Kachinas for Sale.  Tourists watched—at a respectful distance, Siwa had to give them that—as a woman maneuvered smoldering patties of sheep dung from a firing pit.  Someone’s grandchild screeched “Eeew, is that poop?”  Siwa wanted to smack him.  Wasn’t too many decades ago your ancestors were combing the prairies for poop to burn too, sweetheart.

At the town limits loomed the sign that notified tourists about the ban on any sort of media—cameras, camera phones, camcorders.  Past the sign extended the projection of rock on which the thousand‑year‑old village of Walpi perched.  As a tourist attraction, its dilapidation was permitted, to the point where the jumble of rock houses reminded travel writers of nothing so much as a stone version of the shantytowns of South Africa.  No electricity.  No running water.

After Siwa convinced the handsome Hopi teenager by the sign that she and Socorro were related to Esther Sekaquaptewa, and did not need the tour’s custody, they walked out on the tendon of rock that connected Walpi to the rest of First Mesa.  Sun drenched the rock point, the streets of stone.  Socorro tentatively waved to one septagenarian sweeping dirt from her front step.  The breeze picked it up and blew it back, and the woman swept on, with such calmness and economy of movement that Siwa knew she would outlast the wind.

She took Socorro’s backpack, and gave her a nudge.  “Go wander, sweetheart,” she said.  “But wander respectfully, okay?  I’ve got to talk to Great-Grandma.”

“Can I—”

“No.”

“What about—”

“No.  You know how to act.  If anyone asks you who you are, tell them who you belong to.”

Everywhere Siwa looked, the village ascended.  Limestone dwellings piled on top of each other to an unrealized zenith.  Railingless stairs climbed to second stories, to rooftops.  From kivas, ladders pointed upward like the inquisitive antennae of mimbres insects. 

Presence pressed close around her.  She walked as warily as possible, trying to barrier herself against it, as she must every time she visited Walpi.

Her grandmother’s house faced south-east.  Uneven window jambs gave it a squint; the ancient vigas thrusting out from the walls lent it pugnacity.  An array of plastic buckets stood by the doorstep.  When Siwa knocked, the  door swung open.

It was a little dark, a little dusty in the house.  Sunlight poked through the gaps in the blinds and under the door where the weather stripping had pulled away.  From the battery‑powered radio turned to KUYI, reggae played tinnily.

“So, Miz Santiago.”  Sarcasm weighted her grandmother’s voice.  “You still calling yourself that these days?  Or did you change your name again?”

“No, Grandma, it’s still Santiago.”

The broad figure stumped out of the shadows.  “I never understood what was wrong with good old Sekaquaptewa.”

“Grandma, the Anglos can’t pronounce it.  If they can’t pronounce it, they ignore you.  They couldn’t pronounce Piestawa, so they say Jessica Lynch.”

Her grandmother grunted, which meant she did not disagree.  She waddled into her kitchen and rooted around in the cabinets and drawers like an absent‑minded badger, snuffling to herself and shooting out her lower plate from time to time.  There was a sore spot on her gums, Siwa knew, one that burned and itched like an ant sting.

“Grandma, go ahead and take ‘em out.”   

Her grandmother eased out her teeth and set them on the table, not without darting a crabbed look at Siwa.  “I told you not to do that around me.”

“I know, Grandma.  I’m sorry.”

“You been eating?  Look at you.  I’ve got some lamb stew.  I’ve got some watermelon pickle.  Lois Gashweseoma got me some Wonderbread.  You want a sandwich?”

Not eating would give offense.  “How about some crackers?” 

Siwa ate and listened to her grandmother talk about the corn crop, the Tribal Council, Lois Gashweseoma’s daughter who had run off to Phoenix and gotten pregnant.

“That’s not why you came to see me,” her grandmother said at last, with a comfortable sigh.

“You see where I get it from?”  Siwa reached across the table and patted her hand.  “You could be pulling in the tourists too.”

Her grandmother snorted.  “I hear your mother talking.  She ran off chasing the money just like you.  And got mixed up with a non‑Hopi, just like you.”

Siwa could not fight the comfort these old arguments gave her grandmother.  “Grandma.  Will you please tell me about eagles?”

The old woman shook her head.  “Questions. If you hadn’t left, you’d know this.  This is what I remember.  It’s what I know, not what other folks know.  I don’t know what they know, and I never asked.” 

“I know some of it.  I know eagles are important to us.  Every year our eagles are killed—sent home—on the last day of Niman.  But I need to hear it from you, Grandmother.”

“I’m not going to tell you the stories, because it’s the wrong time of year for that, but I can tell you a little.”

Eagles.  A person holds or wears an eagle feather, that person has the attention of the spirit world.  Esther thought that’s the way it was with a lot of people, not just the Hopi, but she wouldn’t talk about that—she didn’t know; she wasn’t one of them.  Siwa’d have to go ask someone else about that.  Maybe an anthropologist.  That’s what prayer sticks were made of, eagle feathers.  Cedar, or cottonwood—Esther’s father always used yarn from cottonwood cotton—and eagle feathers.  Because eagles are the ones who carry prayers. 

“FedEx,” her grandmother said and chuckled.

Please God don’t let him fuck up.  Please God let him be able to sing.  Joshua’s voice came to her as if he’d whispered it in her ear. 

“If someone prayed hard enough, could he become an eagle?”

The old woman’s face clenched in thought.  "That’s a good question.”

“I have a client.  A white man.”

“Most of yours are white.  Does he live here?”

Siwa nodded.  “Born in Four Corners country.  He’s haunted by an eagle spirit, I think.  I’ve seen it.  I don’t know if it comes to him—or if he makes it.”  She stole a look at her grandmother, who was dabbing peanut butter on the rest of the crackers.

“Well, now that’s an interesting idea.”  The crackers piled up.  “Maybe when he dies he’ll become a katsina.”

“Grandma!”

The old woman shrugged.  “Or he could be an angel.  You like that better?” 

“It’s not his tradition.  He’s white.”  She felt like Socorro.  “He’s not invited.”

“You’re talking as if you had no grandparents to teach you.”  Esther Sekaquaptewa enfolded Siwa’s hand within her own.  Ninety years’ worth of callouses, and a grip like rock.  She drew her granddaughter to the door and pulled it open.

Over First Mesa clouds striped the evening, bands of turquoise and shell above the luminous horizon.  If Siwa kicked the pail at her feet it would tumble six hundred feet down the puma‑colored cliff, strewn with boulders like a litter of bones.

“Look around, Siwa.  Do you think Jesus lives here?  I don’t.  This is the world Masauwu guards, handsome Masauwu wearing his bloody animal hides.  Your white man was born here.  In Masauwu’s world.  That’s who he talks to, that’s who talks to him.”

Was it possible that Joshua wasn’t informed by a European framework?  The soil, the water, the grain, the meat—though impure from pollution and hormonal tinkering and genetic hybridization, it was still the stuff of this place, still the flesh of the earth building his flesh, the blood of the continent pumping into his veins.

Her grandmother chuckled.  “How do you like that for assimilation?”

*     *     *

So here was Siwa, watching over a white man who somehow had claimed the attention of her land’s spirits, if her grandmother was right.  The unfairness of it left her without footing.   She had been irked at Joshua from the moment he asked her to attend the interview at the end of the Sugar Skull tour, and even more irritated when he said he’d pay for her time.

Siwa stood up—the journalist flinched.  Joshua’s wings vanished like vapor in sunlight.  “I think we’re going to call it a day,” she said.

The man spluttered a bit, insisting they’d only had an hour.  Let Joshua say whether he was finished.  Groupie bitch, he was thinking.  

A handshake from Joshua disseminated some of his anger.  “Hey, just think—you’ve got the next part of your piece already written: ‘The second time we meet, Joshua Curtis is daring me to strap on skates and knock elbows with the Doomsdames roller derby team.’”

“I’ll do it if you do,” the interviewer shot back.

That earned him a staccato laugh.  “I’ll set it up, man.  I’ll have my guy call you, okay?”

“Don’t worry,” Siwa said, indulging herself.  “Mr. Curtis’s pet psychic won’t be there.”  She ignored the glance Joshua threw her and nodded politely to the journalist.  Long practice kept her smile in place.

Joshua deflated once the door closed.  He knelt by the edge of the bed and set the guitar in its case.

“I think this’ll be the last time you’ll need me,” Siwa said.

No audible response.  She tried to ignore the hurt and exhaustion simmering from him.  “That’ll be—”

“Yeah, I know.  A hundred.”  Snap snap went the clasps on the case.  His face was turned away from her.  She set her lips together.  Damn the man.  Yet as a professional, she should tell him.  “I consulted someone about those wings.”

Now he looked around, his hope so clean and shapely, like an unpainted water jar, that her anger leached away somewhat. 

She started to speak, hands lifted—and stopped.  How could she tell him this?

“Every time those wings come up, that means you’re talking to God.”

“To God?”  As if she’d switched to Spanish, or Hopi.

“The Supreme Being.  The Creator.  Powers That Be.  Indian beliefs specify that the eagle carries prayers.”  She tsked at his expression.  “You pray with your guitar.”      

He sat back on his heels, and Siwa felt the astonishment filling his hope.  “So it’s not—”

“No.  It’s nothing bad.  Basically you’re running around like a spiritual mailbox with the red flag up.”

“You said ‘Indian beliefs.’  I’m not Native American.  Not a drop.”

Siwa bit her lip.  She thought about answers she might offer him.  “You were born here.  Looks like the spirits of this place are the ones paying attention to you.”

“And what do you think about that?” he shot back.

The anger returned despite her shock at his response.  What kind of answer could she give this white man? 

 “I am terribly jealous of you,” was what came out of her mouth.  She sat limply on the edge of the bed, next to him.

Joshua took her hand.  He placed it snug against his own, palm to palm, weaving his fingers through hers.  “I’m sorry,” he said.   

An intimate gesture for anyone.  For Siwa it was like being given the siphon to an endless aquifer of energy.  She gasped with it; her arms broke out in gooseflesh; her nipples hardened painfully.

“It’s all right.”  Blind acknowledgment.  They did not release each other.

“Would it help if I took you to bed?”

She had to laugh.  “When did that ever help anything?”

“Can I take you to bed anyway?”

“I’m too old—”

She knew he was going to kiss her before he did it, but the touch of his mouth on hers was still a sweet shock to her body.  A kiss that asked permission in a deferential caress of her lower lip.  She surprised both of them by opening like a blossom on the vine, giving him liberty to slake her thirst, and he rose up between her knees and guided her hand to his face.   

*     *     *

Joshua wasn’t the best lover she’d ever slept with.  But gentle, and greedy in a sweet, passionate way that kindled her own lust.  Too lean, though she cherished the beautiful bones lying close beneath the layers of skin and muscle.  As with many blond men, his body hair was more ginger than gold.  She liked to play with it, tugging, ruffling.  She liked the way the stubble on his jaws and throat pricked her lips when she kissed his neck, ran her tongue over his adam’s apple while he labored above her—his body bright with sweat, tasting of salt and lemons.

Afterwards he sat on the edge of the bed and played for her, slow songs that she liked much better than Sugar Skull’s tortured densities.  Gillian Welch’s “Whiskey Girl,” the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Alison Krauss’ “Restless.”

Feather by feather the wings appeared.  They bloomed out of the empty air, as if shadow had condensed above his shoulders.  The wings spread until they seemed to fill the room, longer than Joshua was tall.   “You’re flying right now,” she whispered.

Siwa felt no reservation at his touch now; she discerned him to the marrow of his bones, beginning and end, both his bright soul and the dark caul of fate that enveloped him.  She did not tell his future when he reached for her, his hair falling down like a curtain, veiling them in silk and gold.

*     *     *

Joshua never came to her little house for sex.  If he’d suggested it, Siwa would’ve refused him.  When he was in town that early summer, she was content to visit him at the Hyatt, where the air conditioner never failed, where someone else washed the sheets.  Unless he wanted Socorro to call him Daddy, there was no need for him to enter her home. 

“So why did I get wings and not some rabbi in Flagstaff?” he asked during one of her visits.  She was still giddy from her orgasm, and did not answer him immediately.

He nuzzled her ear.  “I mean, you’d think somebody like that would get more tools to talk to God.”

“When was the last time Brian did it?”  She propped herself up on one elbow.  The air-conditioning billowed across her skin, half delicious, half painful.

“When was the last time he fixed? . . .Corpus.  Other than that I really haven’t seen him rollin’ hard since before the Amazing Steves gig.”

She fit her hand over his side, appreciating how her fingers slipped in the shallow between each rib.  Brown on cream as if painted with a yucca brush.  “Maybe you just need it more than some rabbi in Flagstaff.”

*     *     *

To let him leave had ached more than she had anticipated.  Sugar Skull’s contract demanded another album, and Joshua itched to record the music he’d written during the tour.  Both Joshua and Tag had insisted on hardcore preparation before they went into the studio again.  No slacking around in the studio paying inspiration’s late fees.  Off to Denver they went, to stay at Tag’s house while they mapped the album. 

She dreamed of Joshua from time to time.  Fitful dreams, submerged in the canyons of sleep, that drifted like cloud wrack across her memories the next day.  In those dreams she let Brian beat her in pool; she scribbled lyrics and played guitar endlessly.  She would wake with the tips of her fingers sore, and a smile on her face.  

A few funny notes came in the mail, one-page effusions bordered with stick figures with stick guitars, stick microphones; rectangles for buildings and triangles for mountains.  The words he wrote were cheerful, but Siwa touched the paper and knew how hard he worked.

Siwa dreamed while Joshua escaped from a day of what he called “writing/fighting,” meandering through Denver’s nightlife.  Cement sidewalks under her feet, neon like migraine flashers across the vitreous of her eyes.  She heard Tag and Carlos arguing over every metal album released.  Brian was running, leaping, pouncing—after a moment, Siwa understood that he was playing a game of touch-the-awning.  Her dream split between the conversation (so odd to hear herself say “If Megadeth had continued exploring those jazz influences they uncorked on Rust in Peace, they would’ve gone a lot further,”) and trying to keep Brian from breaking his neck. 

Cliffs of concrete and steel loomed against the paler night.  The traffic flowed by, denser than Siwa was used to.  Trucks, convertibles, Jeeps—incessant engines, pierced by the occasional horn; women leaning out of their windows to yell at men, men burning rubber at stoplights.  It disoriented her, feeling her own timidity overlaid by Joshua’s nonchalance. 

A quarrel arose.  Someone was trying to talk Brian out of jaywalking.  Joshua’s exasperation and concern bogged her down—then a geyser of fear as Brian stepped out into a clear patch in the street.

Arms lifted, the breeze plucking at the tails of his unbuttoned shirt, he bellowed into the night: “In action how like an angel!  In apprehension how like a god!  Like Moses, baby!”

In terror Siwa felt herself plunging towards him, right into traffic.  “Goddamnit, Brian, quit fucking around!”

Inhuman blare of an SUV’s horn.  The glare of headlights—her hands hard on Brian’s shoulders, shoving him.

Impact.  Pain.  Kicked right out of the meat of her body to the dark place, where the sole sensation was the cradle of air and great distances . . . .

*     *     *

“Mom!  Mom, are you okay?”

Why was Siwa so uncomfortable, curled up like a snail? 

Was that her pillow, so scratchy?  Patpatpat on her shoulder, which resolved into her daughter’s hand, patting her, shaking her.

“Mom, dios mio santo, are you okay?  Do I need to call 911?”

911.

Memory opened her eyes.  Light from her bedside lamp reassured her.  She was alive; her daughter was alive.  She pushed herself up and realized with dismay that she was on the floor of her bedroom.

“Nightmare,” she said thickly.  “Get me a drink, please?”  Headache as if she’d butted a cinderblock.  If she hadn’t already thrown up, she would soon. 

Socorro brought her water from the bathroom, the cup smelling faintly of toothpaste.  Images from the dream bloomed and swiveled in Siwa’s brain.  No need to make any phone calls to verify the accident. 

Dull with acceptance, she brushed her teeth, reassured Socorro, and went back to bed, where after an hour of staring into the dark she drifted off.  Her unconscious sorted through the detritus of the past day, but there were no more dreams of Joshua.  How that scene had come to her, she did not guess: but it was her last vision of him, her last awareness of his intangible presence in the world.  Each time she had taken him into her body she had known this moment would arrive; each time she kissed him good-bye she had known when Masauwu, walking in the dark, would take him.    

In her sleep the tears slid out from beneath her eyelids and striped her skin with salt.     

*     *     *

Joshua Curtis, almost a star, earned an inch of type in the Albuquerque Tribune.  Siwa learned from the internet that Joshua wound up at Craig Hospital, which was touted as a center for spinal injury and severe brain trauma rehabilitation.  A thirteen, fourteen hour round trip from Albuquerque.  No thanks, Siwa thought—then made plans with her father to drop off Socorro on the way. 

Craig Hospital, nearly its own little town, nestled in a landscape of crayon-green grass and deciduous trees.  Non-stop sprinklers hissed impotently in the July heat.  As Siwa walked up to the monolith entrance, she saw a groundskeeper cleaning the sidewalk with a jet of high-pressured water.

At Admissions, she requested Joshua Curtis’s room number.  The receptionist invoked the HIPAA privacy law, but Siwa tricked the answer out of the woman’s mind and strode through the corridors as if she had every right to be there. 

Her composure balanced on a needle’s point.  An anarchy of minds pummeled her.  Some like a skipping CD.  Some raving.  Some locked within and unable to make connection by even so much as a meeting of eyes.  

Pain, pain, pain.

Help me, she thought.  Help me, trailing one hand along the wall.  Passers-by took her for a patient as she trudged along the obscenely cheerful corridors.  Her relief that Joshua’s room was nowhere near Pediatrics was profound.

As she neared the room, whatever bravado she clutched dribbled away.  What are you afraid of? she chided herself. 

Some thoughtful person had cracked open the door.  Like a little girl she tiptoed to it and put her eye to the space.  Her heart buckled within her.  She could no more enter that room than she could walk through the children’s wing.

The single sound was the relentless suck and hiss of the respirator.   Beyond the bulk of the pillow she saw the jut of his nose, a sallow cheek.  An older woman sat in the vinyl‑covered recliner by the window, peering at her cross‑stitch.  A stack of embroidery and craft magazines had fallen in a pastel slide by her feet.  Another woman, a generation younger, hair in a tight roll, wore the defeated look of someone drained of weeping.  In one hand she held a black-bound book; in the other she held Joshua’s hand.  Her lips moved ceaselessly.

It pierced Siwa through, realizing she had never brushed Joshua’s hair.  Medical staff had shaved his head.  The bandages swathing his skull were somewhat less white than the sheets.  No more Joshua there.  At best she might be able to pick up a kind of mental static—at worst—she refused to imagine. 

How warm of a reception would those pale blond faces offer if she stepped in?  Those women would brand her the interloper, the invader.  Not good enough for our boy.

She failed.  She turned and left the hospital, her heart on the ground.

*     *     *

Joshua died after sixteen days in a coma.  His death earned a few squibs on the cable news networks.  Conversely, the fan websites wailed and wore sack cloth.  !!JOSHUA 4EVR WE <3 U!! seemed to be the prevailing sentiment online.  The alternative and hard rock stations played more Sugar Skull songs than usual.

Together Socorro and Siwa watched a cobbled‑together VH‑1 retrospective.  Brian and Tag and Carlos were identified as funny, intelligent young men with a wild streak, with whom she felt no particular connection.  But Joshua stood out for her in a curious doubling fashion: here was the celebrity, the focus of equal parts adulation and nonsense; here was the man with whom she’d been intimate, who got terrible ingrown toenails, who had to take a lint roller everywhere because of an inability to resist passing cats and dogs.  She recognized the tobacco‑and‑cola stain on his right canine when he smiled during one clip.  The bruise on his left bicep during that same clip—she and Joshua had been rough‑housing in the hotel room and he’d fallen against a chair.  The mark was forever caught on media, a vehicle devoid of meaning for her, while the body had been incinerated three days after death.  She looked at that bruise, a clot of violet pixels on the television screen, and put her head in her hands.

*     *     *

Siwa had never visited the San Francisco Peaks, but as a Hopi she knew that they were the home of holy things.  The Hopi, the Navajo, the Havasupai, the Zuni all believed them to be a sacred place.  The Bahana and the various nations had fought long and bitter legal wrangles over the area as long as Siwa remembered, and before that.

North America’s small mountains had always struck Siwa as inquisitive, and the San Francisco Peaks were as curious as cats.  On the edge of Flagstaff, the Peaks loomed above the grasslands.  Sometimes they drifted in the distance, like rainbearing clouds struck by the sun.  On the very few times Siwa had been through Flagstaff, the Peaks peered over her shoulder, leaned around the edges of buildings to see what she was doing, where she was going.  They watched her through the windshield and through the rearview window.

“You’ll take me there someday, right?” Socorro asked on the last visit to Walpi before the school year started.  “Great-Grandma says that’s where the katsinam live.”             

Siwa had dropped a kiss on her hair and left the girl to ponder those mountains, staring at each other across a hundred miles of magic country. 

Now, as Siwa approached the exit that would take her back to Albuquerque, she wrenched her wheel to the right.  West.  She drove grimly, already missing Socorro’s presence.  The Peaks rose on the horizon and she felt the bend of their regard toward her.

What are you doing? Albuquerque’s the opposite direction.      

Just want to see, she answered herself.

Want to see what?

She would not go up into the mountains—the thought of encountering hikers made her mouth curl in involuntary aversion.  Should she met any of the Hopi elders come to sprinkle a little pollen and cornmeal, the embarrassment would be desiccating.  No, she would just give herself a treat, spend the night in Flagstaff, drop in on Socorro’s father.  Get a little comfort there, perhaps.

And see the home of the katsinam.

Winslow, then Flagstaff.  Even through the tangle of highways, the blaring signs for hotels and fast food, the Peaks soared.   Bare, brown save where the snow lay like the clouds come down from the sky, they watched the city from their tumble of volcanic angles, all shoulders and cocked eyebrows.  They grew too high, too wide, too intent on her.  She should stop.  Get some food at the next Wendy’s, hit Ramón’s apartment, get some sleep.

You chickened out at the hospital, rose the thought.  Go on and get to it. 

Siwa pulled into the next cross street.  In disgust and grief, she let everything drop and ran up over the curb.  Dimly she heard a shouted “Jeezus Christ, lady!” 

Nothing dim about the plague of humanity.  Everywhere.  Like inhaling during a swarm. 

Her brain felt like a sac of diseased meat that bristled with the city’s larvae.  She tasted blood: she had bitten her tongue.  Trembling, she rolled down her window. 

A nimbus of light bordered the mountains.  She should squint to look at it, but her wide eyes drank it all in.  Her brain might burst from pain and pressure, but as she stumbled out and went to her knees on the tarmac, she believed it would be worth it.

Out there, on the San Francisco Peaks, the spirits danced. 

Hundreds of Katsinam shimmered like a heat mirage.  They siphoned up into the terraced clouds and funneled back down, always dancing.  Now huge, now tiny; forms so bright they stamped on her retinas one moment, the next moment melting into the forest and the sun-blind snow.  She saw beautiful Tsitoto, the flower katsina, carrying the sacred fir tree in his left hand.  Crow Mother with her basket of bean sprouts and her whip.  Two little Mudheads scampered among the taller Katsinam, one beating a drum, the other chasing the Eagle. 

Kwahu, the Eagle, danced and swooped, the bells strapped just below his knees ringing.  Siwa heard the silvery sound as an echo on the breeze.  His white kilt gleamed.  The impassive face shone blue against the blue sky. 

Even through her rapture, Siwa noticed something about Kwahu that differed from the kachina dancers she remembered from her childhood.  She squinted against the fabulous light—and she saw, framing the black-striped face, braids of blond hair.  And around his throat, the Eagle wore a striking single-strand turquoise necklace.

Tears like rain burst from her eyes.  “You’re right.  God doesn’t make angels out of people like you.”

 

 

About the Author:

Marguerite Reed was born and raised on the Great Plains where she currently lives with her husband and two daughters.  Her short fiction can be seen online at Strange Horizons.



 

 


Story © 2007 Marguerite Reed.