Insights into Writing, Editing,
Turning Dry Facts into Compelling Stories,
and Anything Else That Interests Me at the Moment
and Anything Else That Interests Me at the Moment
Spadefoot obediently chanted his lines within the liturgy in counterpoint to the Rainsinger’s. Three of his brethren stood with him, all four together wearing identical headdresses: turkey feathers surmounting a mask of cottonwood painted black above and white below, and long hanks of gray old-woman hair hanging down from the bottom half as rain. Each wore a shell net hanging from a hip-belt, with only a thin cotton breechcloth to shield his flute and rattles from the surprisingly sharp-edged shells. Their voices were tuned with his as the quartet alternated among themselves in the responses. He did not much care about the words, repetitive as they were and having much to do with obedience to the will of the Ta’atchul; as he had told Morning Green, he really could have said them in his sleep. Obedience was his theme—though he was having trouble feeling it—while good heart, the courage to accept change, and the sustenance of life were the messages spoken by each of the others.
Morning Green’s descant tied together all the contrapuntal motifs around one crucial element: blood.
The beat of it. The ebb and flow. The heat of absolute belief.
Yet Spadefoot could not focus his attention on the ritual. It was brilliant, of course. Morning Green had seen to that. Set up in the gather ground, with the Temple of the Mist rising behind them and a dark, pitted stone altar before, the liturgists were on display for all the people to see.
This was not a ritual reserved for those few of sufficient rank or generosity to receive an invitation to enter the Rainmakers’ compound. No, through what had to be carefully planted rumor—helped along, Spadefoot assumed cynically, by the discord stirred up by Deerchaser—the news of the Rainsinger’s blood-magic had spread throughout the village. The crowd gathered here to witness the ritual was larger than any Spadefoot had ever before seen.
Not even the spring ceremonies, when the Smoke Mothers gave out blessed seeds and the Watermasters danced to harness the river-serpents, were so well attended. He assumed Morning Green was pleased, by that, at least. Although . . . a glance cast in that direction through the eyeholes of the mask showed no trace of emotion, no pleasure or pride, upon that face.
Morning Green was dressed in the long gray robes he wore not merely for ceremonies but all the time, even in the heat of summer, hiding all of his unnaturally pale skin except that of his hands and his face, painted now with black clouds and gray rain-drizzle. Long strings of small white twisted shells, like elongated raindrops, hung from a rabbit-fur mantle on his shoulders, with turkey feathers fanning out around his neck. His arms were painted with black stripes, spiraling down from his shoulders. Upon his brow was fastened a mirror that reflected the light of the lowering sun into the eyes of whoever in the crowd made the mistake of looking too directly at the five priests arrayed behind the altar.
Spadefoot did not think any of the avid audience could see the deer hearts that lay in the trough of the altar’s top piece. They certainly could not see the acrid liquid pooled in the narrow channel cut into the trough. Nor would they realize that the pillar on which the trough rested was hollow—or, more precisely, was actually of several parts cut and fitted together as neatly as Morning Green’s homily. Within lay a firestarting kit.
He was not quite sure what the purpose of that was. He had gotten no answer when he had asked the Rainsinger, merely the comment that he was not ready in his heart to receive the mysteries of the divine.
He supposed he should take consolation in the fact that the ritual was going forward. Morning Green trusted him that much, at least.
The relationship between them had been strained nigh to breaking the previous day. Though most of the strain was his fault, he did not regret what he had done.
Deerchaser’s injuries were being tended; she was feverish but in no danger. Rush was still imprisoned in the kiva but was no longer mudded in and had sent away the healer, apparently not so badly injured that he needed her potions. As for Cholla Blossom, she was still with the Smoke Mothers, close enough that she could be watching the ceremony without him ever knowing. The midday observation he had made a little while earlier had confirmed his certainty that this was the night the Skywatchers would light the New Fire. After the flames were already sending up smoke at the Temple of the Mist.
There had been a beat of silence, he realized—he had missed his cue. “Then all must submit to the lords of the sky,” he said quickly. “For theirs is the only will.”
The lines that he and the others did sound meaningful and, perhaps more important, had seven stressed syllables just like the oldest of songs. Evidently, judging from people’s past responses to Morning Green’s prophecies and rites, that was all that mattered.
From his perspective, the Ta’atchul had no more need for human devotion than Morning Green seemed to have for Spadefoot’s. Obedience, yes. The focusing of people’s attention on them, and them alone, that was a part of it, too, for such all-powerful beings were likely to be prideful.
But surely they cared nothing for whatever else was thought to rest in the human heart. The exhortations calling for courage, for morality, even for living—those were to benefit the Rainmakers, not the Ta’atchul. To explain why an ever-greater part of the ceremonial round should be given over to the Rainmakers. To weed out any who disagreed, which was the lesson many would take from Deerchaser’s whipping.
Spadefoot watched Morning Green’s back tense as it became Spadefoot’s turn to speak again. Maliciously he let one too many beats go by before he delivered his line. It was a petty vengeance, he knew, and he cautioned himself against doing it again. There was too much at stake to risk doing anything that would minimize the impact of this ritual offering.
This was the first rite ever devised completely by the Rainmakers.
Smoke Mothers delivered to the goddess the sweet smoke of tobacco; the hunters, precious parts of the deer, those that engendered offspring and partook of nourishment; the Watermasters, their shadow-dance; the Skywatchers, the smoke of the fires that would be lit this very evening, after the last arc of the sun vanished below the horizon. In proper season, during the Calling of the Rains, the Rainmakers drank of the ritually prepared saguaro wine and vomited it forth upon the ground, just as young men of the villages had done before their arrival. Moisture for the earth, to call moisture from the sky. It made sense—but only if one followed the goddess.
What the Ta’atchul wanted with blood was unclear to Spadefoot. The truly divine could have no use for that which was vital to mortal creatures. But if the rapt looks on the faces of all the mortals gathered here were any indication, he figured he was the only one to whom such doubts had occurred.
The back of his neck prickled. Without thinking, he began to lift a hand to smooth the hair there. A warning hiss and elbow to the ribs from his right-side companion aborted the gesture. They had long ago been taught what to do, and he normally had no difficulty in following the instructed form: eyes front, arms at sides, keep feet still, no words other than those of the liturgy.
But this was going on too long. Another glance at the crowd indicated that he was the only one to feel that way. They listened intently, drinking in every word.
Spadefoot shifted his weight. Again came the undervoice remonstrance, but he could not stay still. Something seemed wrong. The light was fading, he realized. With the Temple of the Mist blocking his view of the sun, he could not see why. He told himself that a drift of cloud had blown over, although when the rite had begun, the sky had been clear—as it had been for too many seven-days now, with the winter rains late in coming.
The Rainsinger came to the dramatic part of his discourse. Striding to the altar, his hands became busy with the firestarter. From behind, to Spadefoot, he seemed to never look down to see what he was doing, yet a wisp of smoke soon curled up from the dry duff.
Then he lifted the deer heart in one hand and raised it above his head, letting the blood-red stuff within gush out, cascading down his arm and off his elbow, to splash upon the altar and the strange liquid there. The onlookers gasped with shock. Some near the front recoiled. Spadefoot knew that what they took for magic was the result of much effort on Morning Green’s part, both to preserve the heart and to find the right mix of ground minerals and dyes to represent the color and flow of fresh blood.
But he gaped along with them when Morning Green lifted a flame-tipped reed and lit the blood on the altar. With a flicker and then a whoosh, the fire burst into existence, flashed up over the Rainsinger’s head, and then . . . vanished.
The consternation of those who had witnessed the impossible was released in loud exclamations and shrill chatter, except among the four Rainmakers who formed an arc between the Rainsinger and the wall. Their covert, shaken glances told Spadefoot he was not the only one who had been kept in the dark about that little detail of the ritual. By comparison, the lighting of the New Fire in advance of the fires at the Belly of the Earth would seem almost commonplace.
Spadefoot found it hard to breathe, and the hairs on his nape had lifted again.
The air seemed to darken, though a look at the sky showed no clouds building there. Rain, the badly needed woman’s rains of winter, was what the village needed to help douse the tensions, but he sensed there was something more ominous approaching. He had to see what was happening beyond the temple . . . ignoring the prescribed order of the ceremony, he took off his mask and pushed his way past his vow-brethren.
Once beyond the shadow of the temple, he glanced sidelong at the setting sun, experience having taught him never to look directly at it. There was a darkness building on the horizon below it, sweeping down from the Greasy Mountains and piling up against the Old Man Mountains, building ever higher even as he watched. It seemed like one of the sudden stormclouds of summer, though in the west rather than the east.
But it was not a cloud, he realized—the darkness was earth, not rain. Nearly everyone was staring that direction now, as the twisting, shifting column thickened and deepened, blotting out the sun’s bright face. This was not the season for dust storms. And he had never seen one so large and mounting so fast.
“Don’t look!” he shouted, springing forward to stand beside Morning Green. “Do not look at it!” His voice rang out even louder than the Rainsinger’s had done earlier. A few people, only a few, left off their absorption with the vanishment of the sun to watch him. He would have only a few heartbeats to distract them, he realized, before they were all blinded by their curiosity and awe.
Morning Green pushed him away. “Get back,” snapped the Rainsinger.
Spadefoot grabbed at him for balance, but the fake red blood still dripping from Morning Green’s arm had a greasy feel, and his hand slipped. As he lurched forward, the mica mirror opened to him like a third eye, making him small and distorted in his reflection.
With a quick upward twist he snatched it off the Rainsinger’s head and strode with it to where the wall enclosing the temple precinct was the smoothest. A corner of his mind noticed that it was time to get the Seekers out here with plaster again, but most of his focus was on how to make this work. With reflections, you had to think of angle and distance—normally the reflective surface stayed put, especially if it was water, and the object being reflected was moved to the right distance and placed in front of the surface. With the sun . . . holding the mirror upright nearly at eye level, he made a slight adjustment with his body. The image would have to be cast back, upon the wall.
A shaft of light caught on the mica and bounced upward. Spadefoot dropped to his knees and changed the angle.
And there it was. The image at first seemed like the moon, diminishing from half full to a mere sliver as he watched. But the edge of the blackness was lumpy, not a smooth arc like the moon in its phases. Then he realized that the bite taken out of the sun’s brilliance was not growing in size, that the freak storm was collapsing as quickly as it had built. “It passes,” he said with relief. He shouted then, trying to raise his voice over the mounting hubbub, “It passes!”
“You had better be right,” he heard.
And then Morning Green took him by the chin, raised his face to the sky, and made a slashing movement across his forehead. There was no pain at first. Spadefoot stared at the obsidian blade in the Rainsinger’s hand. A piece of his hair was caught on it.
He reached for the hair, then felt something warm trickling down his forehead. His eyes stung, first the right and then the left, as when burned by a stray spark carried on the wind. He put out his tongue and tasted blood. “You cut me.”
Above him, Morning Green roared, “Behold as I deliver the People from the evil of the mother-goddess! She sent her shadow, in the time of woman, to deprive us of the light. She grieves, jealous that you are turning from her, giving yourselves over—heart and heart’s-blood and body entire—to the mighty Ta’atchul. Do not be afraid, for this is but a shadow of her evil. By my own blood, drawn from the son of my loins, I call upon the Ta’atchul to drive this shadow away. But to defeat her once and for all, to conquer this evil entirely, they require a sacrifice from each of you.”
Spadefoot sagged on his heels. “My blood,” he tried to whisper, but his unvoiced words barely bubbled through the sticky fluid, now on his lips.
“The Ta’atchul shall turn back the blackness from the sun, but the power to turn back the goddess’s blackness lies in your hands!” the Rainsinger howled. “Take your knives and draw blood, and the sun will be restored!”
“Blood! Blood! Blood!” came the chant, quietly at first. From the Rainmakers, Spadefoot realized. Then the rest of the gathering picked it up, raggedly, in little pockets here and there at first, but becoming a thunderous rumble.
“They understand at last,” Morning Green said.
There was immense satisfaction in those four words, Spadefoot realized. A hand grasped his elbow.
“Show courage,” he heard from the Rainsinger. “No weakness. I forbid it.”
He blinked up through a red haze of his own blood. He had never loved the man he had once thought of as his father, though a much younger Spadefoot had felt affection and admiration, which had faded to respect, which in turn had become intermixed with resentment over time.
Now he tasted something unfamiliar, something bitter, something that lay cold and thick in his mouth along with the blood that had dripped down from the wound of Morning Green’s making. For the first time, he knew what it was to hate.
I had my mother teach me to read when I was four, and I've never stopped. Now I can play with words all day long... it's the best job in the world.