by Gary Every
A future ghost bursts across the road. An antelope rises from the grass and sprints alongside my truck before passing. It is hard to believe something so fast could be in danger. The swift Sonoran pronghorn is on the verge of extinction with only a few hundred left living in the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness Refuge and Bombing Range.
The government did an environmental study to determine whether the military exercises and bombing runs being performed on the wilderness refuge were harming the wildlife, especially rare, endangered mammals such as the Sonoran pronghorn. What the government study revealed was that the bomb craters left behind by exploded ordinance collected rainwater and these temporary pools are important for the survival of the tiny remnant of this subspecies of antelope, quenching their thirst in this driest of deserts. The antelope runs unbelievably fast, weaving between creosote bushes and leaping prickly pear as it flees. This nearly extinct species of antelope running beside my truck is a future ghost.
The stand of grass the antelope burst out from is part of an old Hohokam charco. The Hohokam were prehistoric astronomer priests who built an empire based upon the cultivation of corn in the middle of a saguaro cactus forest. The Hohokam built their agricultural civilization in the middle of the desert by mining water like it was gold. Ancient pottery, centuries old, litters the earth. An old O’odham wizard named Jose Juan was the last human being to live here. They say that Jose Juan was the last shaman who could bring the rain armed only with a bighorn sheep skull, a cup of saguaro fruit wine, and a song.
The antelope bursts from the grass, races past my truck, flying across the landscape. A dust devil dances across the desert, small swirling cyclone of dirt, dust and debris spinning across the landscape. The antelope runs straight towards the twirling dust devil, leaps inside, and disappears from sight.
The old man faces the sunset, his ancient voice trembling as it blesses. Jose Juan’s head swirls with brandy but his voice does not slur because he is singing for others. It is a solemn responsibility; representing not only the people gathered here but past and future generations as well.
Jose Juan repeats the first verse and the clan joins in chorus, fingers intertwining, hands clasping above the heads of the men and women. Jose Juan sings to the saguaro cactus, the uplifted arms of the green thorny giants begging the heavens for storm clouds. The giant cacti strain and reach, stretching for the rain clouds, hoping to prick a storm cloud with a thorn, rain falling from the sky like candy from a broken pinata.
Jose Juan sings songs praising the frogs; underground hibernators who come to the surface after monsoon rains to splash in puddles, sing, dance, and breed all night long. In honor of the frogs the people will dance, sing, and get drunk on saguaro fruit wine all night long.
Jose Juan takes a small divining crystal and breathes upon the opaque stone; the kiss of an ancient prayer washing away the Sonoran summer’s dust, drought, and heat. If the stone is warm the rain will not come. Jose Juan cools the stone with a loving kiss and then enters the circle of dancers, brushing the sky pure with eagle feathers, tickling the dancers. The O’odham people sing and drink more saguaro wine. Jose Juan takes a bighorn sheep skull and gently cradles the cheshoni head, filling the massive, curled horns with saguaro fruit wine, burning the bones, and praying the most ancient of songs. Rituals which date back to the ice age.
“To the year 1909,” the Norwegian exclaims, holding his brandy snifter aloft. Jose Juan smiles and downs his liquor. One thousand nine hundred and nine years does not seem like much time when you possess magic and sorcery going back 12,000 years.
They clink glasses and Lumholtz, the famed Norwegian anthropologist, continues his interview with the legendary O’odham medicine man.
“You are 115 years old?” The Norwegian anthropologist asks.
Jose Juan nods. The time travelling shaman already knows that he will be 143 when the geographer Ives interviews him in 1933.
Lumholz pours them both another shot. Jose Juan tosses back his head and downs his shot in one gulp.
Lumholz is camped along the edge of the Agua Dulce mountains. While the women are out with the women gathering saguaro fruit, the anthropologist asks the ancient shaman about bighorn sheep.
Cheshoni?”Lumholtz asks, “Is the word for bighorn sheep?”
Jose Juan nods and pours another brandy. He is very generous with Lumholz’ liquor.
The O’odham and bighorn sheep have an interesting history together. When the conquistadors reached the Estrella Mountains outside of what would one day become Phoenix, Arizona they reported seeing piles of bighorn sheep skulls stacked over a thousand high.
“Tell me about bighorn sheep hunting,” Lumholtz asks.
Jose Juan speaks slowly, clearly, “To hunt the mountain sheep you sleep in caves to purify yourself. Then the hunter must wait, perched atop the rocky crags, watching the water holes where the bighorn sheep must come eventually.”
“After you eat the bighorn,” Lumholtz inquires, “Do you always burn the bones in the fire?”
“You must burn the bones in the fire or else the ghost will tell the other bighorn sheep to run and hide. Remember to save the skull. The skull of a bighorn sheep, an old ram with a massive rack of curling horns, can be used to bring rain in times of extreme drought.”
The brandy swirls inside Lumholtz’s head, making him giddy with excitement, slurring his speech and causing him to stumble when he stands. It is a surprising anthropological discovery – the O’odham are the only Native Americans in North America who burn the bones of game animals. It is a tradition which dates to the mastodon hunters. It is a tradition which goes back 10,000 years. Jose Juan, the 115 year old sorcerer who will live at least another 20 years does not seem effected in the least by the brandy except for a great big smile.
“The cheshoni ghosts,” Jose Juan says, “Control the wind.”
Late in the night, still slightly drunk, Lumholz stumbles from his tent. In the darkness, Lumholz blunders into a creosote bush. A few more steps and the Norwegian anthropologist swerves to miss a prickly pear cactus, trips over a rock and falls face flat in the dirt.
He lands right beside Jose Juan. Jose Juan has been sitting silently, watching the stars.
“How are you doing?” Jose Juan asks his fallen companion.
Lumholz groans. The Norwegian replies, “I needed to piss.”
Jose Juan chuckles. “You white people are so strange. Us Indians, we piss standing up.”
Lumholz chuckles back, “I appear to still be a little drunk.
“Anything I can do to help?”
“A little drunk is bad, really drunk is good.” Lumholz declared. “You could pass the bottle.”
Jose Juan reaches beside him, grabs the brandy flask and passes it to the slightly drunk anthropologist.
“This is empty,” Lumholz whines.
“Indeed it is.” Jose Juan stands, stretches and yawns. “Time for bed.”
“What is this rock I have stumbled over.” Lumholz asks. “Someone has painted it white.”
“It is the Door to the House of Wind.” Jose Juan scolds his friend. “Do not touch it.”
Of course, that is exactly what his drunken companion did. As soon as Jose Juan left for bed, the Norwegian anthropologist attempted to unearth the painted white stone Jose Juan had referred to as The Door to the House of Wind.” It took quite a bit of effort. Lumholz kicked the rock as hard as he could. The rock never bulged but his toe throbbed. He dug around the base of the rock with hands. He pried at the rock with sticks, trying to lever it out of the ground. Lumholz became obsessed with the rock, sweating and grunting as he tried to dislodge the Door to the House of Wind. Lumholz worked himself sober and continued digging. The white painted rock toppled over with a thud. The ground shook for just a moment.
The breeze kicked up and tossed Lumholz’s hair. It suddenly occurred to Lumholz that perhaps he had made a mistake.
The wind grew stronger. The stars were quickly obscured by dark clouds. The thunder clouds rolled in from all directions, swooping in from the horizon like hunting raptors. Lightning bolts speared the mountain peaks. Funnel clouds dropped from the darkest clouds, scouring the landscape as they twirled. Lumholz ran to the tent of Jose Juan, needing to wake up the famous medicine man.
Jose Juan’s tent was empty. Where had the shaman gone when Lumholz needed him the most?
Lightning struck a nearby ridge, shaking the earth and incinerating a saguaro. The bright flash illuminated Lumholz’s frightened face.
A dust devil swirled across the valley floor, growing larger and larger as it approached the mountains. Spinning swiftly, the dust devil hopped up the bajada and began to climb the ridge holding cactus fruit harvesting camp. The twirling dust devil grew taller and taller, pelting Lumholz with sticks, dirt and stones as it approached. The dust devil spun and spun in place directly in front of Lumholz, spinning impossibly fast. Suddenly Jose Juan stepped out of the dust devil, his hair tousled as if he had just stepped out from a helicopter.
“What did you do?” Jose Juan shouted. “I told you not to touch the white stone!”
Lumholz shrugged sheepishly.
“I told you not to open the Door to the House of Wind!” Jose Juan marched towards the unearthed stone
Lumholz followed as lightning flashed and the wind howled. Jose Juan tipped the white stone upright and kicked dirt into the hole, scraping the earth with the side of his foot. Lumholz dropped to his knees, feverishly scooping soil into the hole. When Jose Juan let go of the white stone it sagged slightly but remained upright, tilted slightly. The winds stopped and the clouds vanished. The dust devil stopped spinning and the debris fell to earth.
“What were you doing inside that dust devil?” Lumholz asked.
Jose Juan said, “Time travelling.”
This dry, dry desert is famous for its graves and ancient archeology is scattered upon the ground. There are pottery shards and spear points representing the O’odham, Hohokam and mammoth hunters. None of this stuff can be carbon dated accurately because there is so much background radiation that they get dates from the far distant future.
Jose Juan was 114 years old when he was interviewed by Lumholz in 1909. He was 142 when he was interviewed by the geographer Ives in 1937. Jose Juan died at some point in the 1950’s. Nobody is sure exactly which year, but they are sure about the event which caused his passing. Jose Juan’s house is nestled in a distant corner of the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge and Bombing Range. There is no paved road which takes one anywhere near the area. It was not the Wilderness Refuge part of the region which killed him but the Bombing Range. Jose Juan was killed in the heat of the Cold War. No one is sure exactly what year these events occurred, but the Tohono O’odham reservation is right beside the wildlife refuge and bombing range.
Most people suspect that our own government was using the bombing range to test low yield nuclear bombs during the 50s and 60s which our military denies, claiming it is fallout from tests conducted by the evil Soviets. The O’odham elders tell a different story, many of them remembering mushroom clouds rising above the desert floor, hovering above the mountains. In the days which followed the wind made people sick.
Jose Juan watched the first of the mushroom clouds rise above the desert he called home and began to cry. Jose Juan wept copiously, tears running down his cheek. The tears flowed down his face and fell off his chin in a tiny cascading waterfall. The tears splattered upon the parched desert earth like sad rain. The tears fell until Jose Juan’s body was emptied of water. Then Jose Juan died, crumbled into dust and was blown away on the wind.
They say that when Jose Juan died, the knowledge of how to bring a storm armed only with a cheshoni skull and a song disappeared. A small portion of Jose Juan’s house is still standing today. The ruins of Jose Juan’s house stand atop the ruins of an old Hohokam field. The Hohokam were master desert farmers who preceded the O’odham. Jose Juan had harnessed the irrigation canals of a thousand year old Hohokam charco to make a levee and provide water for his cattle. To this day, O’odham still make pilgrimages to Jose Juan’s house to make offerings of prayers and ancient, intricately painted pottery.
Others come to Jose Juan’s house too; half-breeds and hybrids — armed only with spray paint cans, cerveza, and mescal. These others know only part of the old rituals, only some of the ancient song lyrics.
Still they play with magic they do not understand because they must do something to try and heal this world. This world today, without a sorcerer like Jose Juan to bring refreshing rain, this world today has rivers like the Santa Cruz, San Pedro, Rillito, Tanque Verde, and Babocamari which run barren and dry. In this world today the mighty Colorado River no longer reaches the sea. Modern eco-warriors come to Jose Juan’s house to try and restore the precious waters stolen from the desert by urban thirsts.
In part, these eco-warriors are successful; clouds gather on the horizon, jostlings of thunder and lightning. The clouds hover in the sky; darkening, darkening. Tornadoes leap from the heavens, whirling dervishes of chaos and destruction. The twisting winds break cactus limbs from the saguaro and organ pipe; hurling airborne bombs of spine and thorn. The lightning flashes, unleashing hailstones and the wind howls. Wind hurls itself across the sky, the cheshoni ghosts of extinct sheep from a hundred different mountain ranges pushing the wind harder and harder, making it shriek through the high mountain passes. When the breeze is moving this fast you can hear a high pitched whistle; the thin friction scream as air rushes over the saguaro cactus needles.
And if you listen closely, you can hear cackling laughter in the background. Giggling, guffawing, laughing demons tumbling and cavorting clumsily through the sky; belching and farting. Brand new, full of mischief, just born demons greeting the 21st century with a giggle.
The demons fly in flocks, roaming the skies, resembling gangs of wandering street thugs. These new demons have tiny pterodactyl wings, too tiny for their lumpy mammal bodies. Their reptilian beaks open wide, revealing rows of sharp teeth. Their eyes change color from red to blue, green, violet, orange, and back to crimson blood red. One biologist at a conference held to interpret the sightings of frightened rural peasants described these new demons as “Really pissed off bloodsucking reptilian bats”
Behold the new demons of the night sky, behold the chupacabras!
The chupacabras is a brand spanking new demon, first sighted in rural northern Mexico but now they have been spotted migrating across the border. The chupacabra is a 21st century demon, a bloodsucker feeding on livestock but dreaming of more. These thirsty, thirsty, monsters, born of rural rumors, poverty, and dry riverbeds are coming. The chupacabras sail lightning scarred midnight skies, navigating along the dry sandy arroyos where water once flowed and they are hungry; feeding first on the blood of the last few wild cheshoni and then coming for the future dreams of newborn children.
Gary Every is an award winning journalist. Prize winning articles such as Losing Geronimos Language and The Apache Naichee Ceremony were in his book Shadow of the OhshaD and anthology of the best of the first eight years of his newspaper columns. As a science fiction author he has two novellas in print Inca Butterflies as well as The saint and the Robot. His poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling Award 7 times.
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