He looked out over the changing colors of late afternoon desert light, not specifically at distant mountains or monument-like monoliths, nor thunderhead clouds towering into the immense dark blue sky. The old man next to him had been silent for some time, only slow steady breathing testimony to life. He'd come to sense the old man's presence and didn't look at his deeply-lined face as much as he had during the first three seasons they'd spent alone together.
The most difficult task for the formerly talkative boy had been learning when and how to ask questions. The old man only responded to well-crafted questions. Now, questions seemed more elusive the more the boy thought things through and he'd become more content to understand the nature of things through a process akin to osmosis.
The movement of the heavens, the cycle of plant-life, the comings and goings of animals. He knew when it was going to rain and when it was going to be dry, sometimes days ahead of the usual signals that preceded changing weather.
The thing that still bothered him was being alone when far from their place of dwelling, of having no one else to share the experience with or to comment on unexpected discoveries. He never worried when he was with the old man, never experienced any kind of discontent. They gathered and shared food together and slept almost side by side on those nights under the immense sky, or sheltered by overhanging ledges when weather became too inclement.
The old man had taught him the true names of all of the plants and their special relationship with the people; which plants were edible, which had healing properties, which plants could kill. When sick, the old man had collected certain plants and taught him how to prepare and use them as allies. He'd relearned what to eat and drink, when to eat or drink, what to avoid and why.
Without ever discussing it or naming the thing, he'd come to realize that everything moved to a rhythm so grand it escaped being seen, yet when ignored, invited certain penalties. It was much like a browsing rabbit, too hungry to pay attention, grabbed by a stalking coyote.
They had traveled great distances together. Often the old man asked him to find water because he was thirsty, or to make a fire to cook what they were going to eat. He knew it was a test of sorts, that the old man could have done it himself, but he did what the old man asked without question and received no special thanks or recognition for how well he performed any task.
At daybreak on three separate occasions, the old man had prepared an acrid-tasting beverage and told him to drink it. The first was after the season's first snow, second, when the snow had melted, and last, when the river dried-up. The resulting experiences were so profound they'd left him without questions for days, yet given him new ways to experience life. The old man had only told him he'd find better answers than he could pass on using words.
"Grandfather," he said, looking out over the desert, "why do the others kill and not eat what they kill?"
The old man didn't stir. His breathing didn't change, and the youth thought perhaps again he'd asked one of those questions. In the distance a lone raven caught an updraft and circled out of sight. The boy heard the old man swallow.
"They have become ill," said the old man, still not moving. "They don't understand what they do."
He'd seen the others and their machines from a distance, vehicles and roadways they built, the passing of their airplanes high overhead, seen evidence of their frenetic industry in what had once been sacred places. He'd never talked with one but he'd seen them hunting and knew their weapons were awesome. What he didn't understand was the killing.
The old man offered no other explanation so he thought about the answer he'd been given. They have become ill. They don't understand what they do.
He considered illness to be a state where one has become out of balance with life rhythms, eating or drinking the wrong things so the body suffers and can't remain well. He thought about the word 'understand', accepting it to mean 'being aware of all things', and applied it to the rest of the remark…'what they do.' The obviousness of 'doing' wasn't their problem, it was the word 'what' that pointed to meaning in the old man's answer. It must be what they are doing
, he thought, like the hungry rabbit who isn't aware of the coyote
He saw the lightning between earth and sky and heard distant thunder, heard it echo through canyons and disappear like water into thirsty sand.
"I hope they learn," he said.
The old man said nothing.
He made a small cooking-fire before the sun set. While the buried cattail roots baked in hot sand, he roasted the rabbit he'd caught in a snare.
He offered the old man water and the old man drank, then walked off into the boulders to urinate. They ate under the dome of stars, listened to the song of the wind in the rocks and the bark of coyotes in the distance. It had been a very warm day and night was slow to cool.
"All I tell you are stories," the old man said, as though they'd been talking all day. "I don't have any answers to the questions that will bother you most. I don't know the meaning of life. All I can do is show you things I have learned and tell you stories my grandfather told me. When I die you will do whatever you do. I can't tell you what the right thing is to do. You will know."
That left him feeling uneasy because he didn't know what he would do at that moment, but he said nothing and looked up at the stars.
"Being alone isn't bad," continued the old man. "We are people who don't like to be alone, so we live together so we have someone to dance and sing with - someone to share things with; to bring more of us into this world. It is our way. There is nowhere we can go and be alone for very long any more. Being alone at times is important to live a healthy life. The other people don't understand this. They want to take their way of living with them everywhere they go. It makes them ill but they don't understand."
The old man lay down on his side and pulled his blanket over his legs, one arm under his head for a pillow on the hard sandstone ground. He knew the old man wasn't going to speak about it again so he lay down too, after putting a short thick branch on the coals so he could watch the fire before going to sleep.
Twice, he heard the scream of a lion in the canyon below and knew it was hunting. The moon came up before the fire burned out and thunderheads embraced the golden white orb with rain-pregnant arms. This time the thunder was further off in the distance.
In the middle of the night he awoke to the wind he'd expected. It was warm and came from the southeast where it was building clouds over the mountains. He got up and walked away from glowing coals and, wind to his back, relieved himself over the edge of a cliff. A coyote howl was joined by four others as the pack ran barking and yipping for a long time, celebrating a kill and enjoying the feast. He caught the scent of a skunk on the air - then it was gone. He laid back down near the small fire and was asleep almost as soon as his arm cradled his head.
He awoke before the sun. So had the old man. He'd gone off somewhere but the boy knew he'd return. He ate dried corn cakes and pine nuts, chewed on a salty hunk of jerky, then drank a large amount of water.
Drinking-skin in hand, he hiked down to a small spring that trickled from the face of the canyon wall and followed the scent of green moss and grasses that always seemed to grow where there was enough water. He emptied and filled the skin, then plugged the rawhide mouth with the carved wooden plug in the image of a raven's head with open beak. He washed his face and body, then soaked his feet in a small rock pool where cattails grew on the opposite bank. Dry and dressed, he put on his sandals.
The hike back up to the top of the mesa was difficult. There was no hurry. He was aware that a single slip would be his last. 'All things in their own time.' That's what the old man told him his grandfather had said. He was sure it was correct.
The old man was sitting on a red sandstone rock, repairing an undone seam in his bag with sisal fiber and rabbit-bone needle. He watched the old man's hands work, having learned that through watching he'd learned most of the important things he knew. Repair complete, the old man looked up at him, dark leather-like face peaceful, serene.
They sat across from each other and combed-out wind blown hair, untangling and braiding strands at both sides of their heads. He tied braided ends with thin rawhide strips but the old man tied his with sisal. He offered the old man the water bag and the old man drank, sat quietly, then drank again - plugged the bag and handed it back.
When the old man got up and picked up his bag and blanket, the boy also got up. He tied his blanket and bag with the carrying strap and put it overhead and shoulder.
They followed an ancient worn trail in the sandstone, visible only to eyes attuned to such things, a trail worn by thousands of passing feet over centuries, a trail with no other visible markers. When the old man stopped by a picture-rock, so did the youth. He had no idea what the strange carvings meant, but recognized what appeared to be humans, antelope, snakes and the sun, a huge rock face with many red painted figures and carvings. The day was hot and dry. Wind made sounds as if someone were whistling somewhere high above them.
"I don't know," the old man said, touching a zigzag shape, "maybe it's a story…but I think more than one person carved it. My grandfather said he didn't know, either. All the people have forgotten."
They followed a trail occasionally no longer visible. The old man must have known where he was going because he never slowed his comfortable pace. They drank water twice before the sun was overhead, then descended a sharp switchback deep into a cliff-shadowed valley.
The boy could smell the water long before they saw it, a slowly moving stream deep as his neck. They sat in the shade and ate again and watched birds come and go from the water's edge. In the shadows of the opposite bank, a bobcat squatted to drink. Neither spoke as clouds covered the sun and darker shadows cooled in the canyon.
To make his pack more comfortable to carry, the boy took a few pieces of hide from his pack and braided a wider section for the strap. The old man waded across the stream and collected a bundle of cattails. He cut their roots, rolled up long leaves, and put both into his pack.
A noisy raven's nagging caw echoed though the narrow canyon as they followed the stream. They climbed the trail when they came to the end of the canyon where a steady wispy veil of a waterfall fed the stream at the base of a tumbled rockslide. Above them and blending in with the overhanging cliff was a stone-walled structure so natural the boy hadn't even noticed it until the old man stopped climbing and looked up at the place.
"This is where I will die," the old man said. "My grandfather died here. There are many of our people here."
He followed the old man's feet, using the same foot and handholds that had been carved into the stone cliff. Soon they sat in the opening of the lower level structure, stone walls with timber beams above. He handed the water bag to the old man who waved it away without comment. There was a large bundle of firewood on the floor, and a stone circle for holding a fire.
After he had prepared their last rabbit for cooking, he made a wood spit, cleaned the cattail roots and began the fire. He was good at making fires now, able to start them with steel and stone, breathing life into the tiny sparks nesting in the fluffy dried innards of an old cattail. He cooked the meal and they ate without talking.
While he made things as things should be, the old man undressed and put on roughly-woven white cotton pants and long-sleeved shirt, unbraided his hair and combed it for a long time with stubby gnarled fingers. Re-braiding hair, he tied three golden eagle feathers into the back and small clay and shell beads to the ends, put an ancient silver Concho belt around his waist and an unpolished blue-green turquoise necklace around his neck. After rubbing his face with red dust, he put his fingers in the coals and made a series of black marks on earth-darkened cheeks. A single white line down the bridge of his nose was done with one finger dipped in a paste he'd made without the youth's knowledge and kept in a small folded piece of hide.
Without receiving direction, the youth moved and sat at the back wall when the old man began to dance and sing, moving slowly, trance-like, voice making the stone room sing. It was a song of life and the youth listened to each word, words he'd never heard the old man speak. The song was long like the old man's life. When it flowed through an opening in the rock wall, moonlight created a shimmering pool on the stone floor of the room. The old man danced in the moonlit circle as it moved across the floor, and when it finally disappeared, he sat down in the open doorway and stopped singing.
"There is a room above this one," he said to the night. "I am going up to sleep on the ledge at the back of the room. There is room for me. Before the sun rises, come up. You will have to move that stone to enter the room. It is heavy, but you are strong. You will see others there. Take the belt and the necklace with you. When you climb down, make sure the stone rolls back over the hole. You are my only living family. You are a man now. I am glad you came with me and listened to my song. We will sing together in the room above. Do not speak of this place to anyone until it's your time to come here." So saying, the old man got up and touched the youth on his forehead. "Sleep well. You are a true human."
He walked to the back, climbed a pole ladder and moved a stone blocking an entrance above, then vanished into quiet darkness. There was a sound of the stone being moved back over the hole.
Before sun-up, the youth climbed the ladder and moved the stone. A moment later he stood and let his eyes become accustomed to the near lack of light. It was a large round room with a ledge circling half, a ledge with dozens of blanket-covered forms. The old man's was at the far end. The youth didn't look too-closely at the leather-like faces of those he passed, faces illuminated by thin fingers of dust-particle laced light that crept through small chinks in the stones. He stood by the old man and looked at his serene face, at the black stripes and white ridged nose. The only sounds in the room were his own breathing and heart beating; sounds of life. The old man had placed the belt across his chest along with the turquoise necklace. The youth picked them up, looked at the old man for a long time, then turned and climbed back down.
Before he left the stone rooms, before moving the rock back over the hole, he stood quietly, thinking he heard the old man's song. After a while he decided it had been the sound of the waterfall in the back of the canyon. He left the pole ladder on the floor.
Climbing back down the face of the cliff was even more difficult than climbing up. At the bottom, he stood and looked up at the almost invisible architecture.
He washed his face in the stream and drank his fill, shouldered the two packs and followed the trail back along side of the stream. When he got to the spot where they'd eaten at mid-day, he sat in the shade and ate for the first time that day.
The sound of the raven and singing of birds sounded the same as the day before as he climbed the switchback out of the valley. Hot dry winds at his back, he followed the sandstone trail across high desert mesas, ancient footsteps he knew he'd follow again.
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