A few weeks ago, I had a marvelous experience: a photo shoot with a professional photographer, Kara Hudgens, with the assistance of makeup artist Wendy Warren. My resident IT guru is helping me build a new website. I'm doing everything I need to be a successful author ... except putting the finishing touches on Swallowing the Sun and getting it out to the general public.
A few years ago, I came across research analyzing the 13th century "grave of a young disabled woman afflicted with scoliosis, rickets and tuberculosis" in Tempe, Arizona. To survive to age twenty, the girl had likely needed special treatment while she was alive, and the assemblage of grave goods indicated that she received special treatment after her death as well.
I am always intrigued by distinctive burials. Indeed, one of the three details that inspired me to begin writing fiction about the Hohokam was a burial in which the torsos of two young men were placed, facing in opposite cardinal directions and with arms linked. Archaeologists can speculate about why those two men were buried in such a way: Why only their torsos? Why facing away from each other? Why were they arm-in-arm? Were they brothers, friends, enemies? How did they die? But as a writer of fiction, I can craft a reality in which this unique burial is the climax of a plot, explained by the characterization and narrative elements that lead up to it.
The first draft is done!
It took me two weeks to outline and two months to write this initial 80,000 words, the fastest any book has ever come together for me.
Now I'll put it away for a few months and go back to "Swallowing the Sun."
Here we are at the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. It's a solemn occasion for some, a time of joy for others, meaningful in almost every culture around the world. In some places it coincides with famine, in others it marks the birth of a savior. The People of Two Rivers, as I have named the Hohokam in my series of prehistoric novels, definitely observed the solstices and equinoxes . . . but how?
For my "Tales of the Watermasters" series, a group of specialists named the Skywatchers follow the sun as it shifts through its seasonal round. The Skywatchers tell the people when they can safely plant their first crops in the spring (although the Valley of Two Rivers becomes fiercely hot in the summer and has a long growing season, frost occurs frequently enough in early spring that too-early planting can be disastrous); when to call down the summer rains that enable a second planting; when to offer thanks to the mother-goddess for providing the preservable foods that will carry them through the lean winter; and when to turn back the sun from the darkness of winter to bring the warmer days of spring.
The Skywatchers relied on astronomical observatories such as the one at Mother Sleeping (AKA Hole-in-the-Rock), the Temple of the Mist (AKA Casa Grande Ruins), Spirit Mountain at Serpent Gate (AKA the Pueblo Grande platform mound), rock art at River Shield Butte (AKA Tempe/Hayden Butte) and in the Greasy Mountains (AKA South Mountain Park), and a structure along with rock art north of Serpent Gate (in the Phoenix Mountains).
These ancient observatories suggest that the spring sun-festival of the People of Two Rivers began a few days earlier than the actual equinox, perhaps March 18, and the fall sun-festival began a few days later, perhaps September 25. The sun's position along the horizon may also have given ordinary people a rough idea of when to expect the sun-festivals to occur, as the sun would rise or set in a specific "notch" in the mountains that surround the valley for approximately four days. According to the calculations of avocational archaeologist Ben Mixon, there would be 189 days during the summer period, between the equinoxes, or seven months of 27 days each. During the winter, there would be 174 days, or six months of 29 days each. (See my earlier post about the calendar.)
The historic O'odham people, the inheritors of the Hohokam world, had a twelve- or thirteen-month lunar calendar that began in the summer, whereas I have written the People of Two Rivers as starting their year with a four-day New Fire ceremony at the winter solstice, when the sun is "turned back" along the horizon, marking the lengthening of days. The thirteen moons observed by the O'odham appear to have consisted of seasonal markers important to these agricultural people: hot, rainy, short planting, dry grass, light cold, low cold, backbone (midwinter), rutting/heat (animals), lean (animals), leafless, green (leafing-out or sprouting), yellow (flowering), flowers fading (fruiting).
The O'odham used to celebrate the winter solstice with a four-day ceremony focused on their creation myth, with deities who lived at the solstice points on the horizon. Archaeologist Todd Bostwick, in his Landscape of the Spirits, on the rock art of the Hohokam, has a fascinating discussion of the Hohokam calendar systems.
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.
Cholla Blossom gets a lot of grief: betrayed by everyone in her life, foiled at every turn, and foreseeing her own death in visions. Plus, several of my beta readers say her name is too hard to pronounce (CHOY-a), and they don't see why I'm unwilling to return to her original name, White Dove the bland. No, just kidding—the name I gave her initially as a placeholder isn't bland, just stereotypical. Here are some of the reasons I chose this difficult name for this angsty teen.
The segmented jointed stems of these species of "jumping cholla" have barbed spines that embed themselves in your skin if you're not careful moving through the desert. Experienced hikers often carry a comb to flick away any joints that hitch a ride. Grabbing onto a stem with your fingers is a mistake you're unlikely to repeat.
So this plant is lovely but prickly and hard to get rid of, just like Cholla Blossom. And it is literally picked in the bud, just as she fears will happen to her; the mature fruits of most species of cholla are not eaten, except in times of starvation.
I cartoonized these historic photos to reduce the individuality and detail. When I see these characters in my head, they appear as generalizations: hints as to the shape of the face, maybe a hair style or the look in the eyes. I chose these images to give readers a sense of what these characters look like to me.
Limberwood is a remembrancer. He tells the history of his people so they don't forget. But there comes a day when observing events is no longer enough . . .
Will his attempts to provide hope to the denizens of Serpent Gate lead to the destruction of everything he has ever known?
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.
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