The boy stood at the mouth of the cave, his body trembling from the physical effort required to remain erect.
Háawka, Hattepaa kwa'stik.
He cocked his head and lifted both hands to cup his ears, then stopped his breath. Not breathing came as a relief from the shortened, labored gasps his breath had become over the last few minutes. Was the voice real...or had he just heard it in his mind? Another cruel hallucination?
"Hello, Little Coyote. I am here."
The clear sound of his grandfather’s voice dissolved the doubts and unanswered questions he’d battled during the difficult journey. His heart sang. Grandfather was there and waiting for him, just inside the cave. He shuffled forward but paused after only a few steps, fatigue threatened to buckle his knees. He concentrated as he reached deep within to find the strength to continue.
The cool air inside the cave was the first sensation he had allowed himself in days, and the air became a soothing wind against his hot skin. Then the wind seemed to slip under his feet, making it possible to take the dozen more steps he knew he needed to...in order to save his life.
Two days he’d controlled pain, thirst, and hunger as he’d made his way to where he believed his grandfather would be.
Two days of accepting every sign without question.
Two days of taking each path as it was presented.
And on this moonless night, without hesitation he’d approached the rattlesnake and allowed it to strike. And just as Grandfather had foreseen, he’d been like an observer--he’d watched the snake leap toward him, feeling--but not feeling--the fangs sink into his thigh.
Just for that instant, that moment, it was as though he had not been in his own body at all. And though it had seemed like a dream, he’d known even then it was deadly real.
"Tell me, Little Coyote, why you are here."
"I have met 'ewii taaspiich and he has sent me here to test you."
The old man nodded, then his creased, sun-weathered face softened with a broad smile. Bringing his pipe to his lips, he puffed on it until a blue cloud of smoke surrounded his head. He set down his pipe, then lifted one hand and patted the rabbitskin blanket spread on the ground next to the glowing embers of a low fire. "I will show you, grandson, so you will believe."
As the old man helped him recline, Coyote watched as Grandfather examined his wound. Blood had trickled from the bite and dried, and redness surrounded the snake’s entry into his leg.
"With the bite of the snake, it is done," Grandfather whispered.
The old man began to sing a slow chant as he added branches to the fire until sparks showered to the ceiling of the cave, and the embers grew into tall flames. From the boy’s waist, he unfastened a small gourd that hung by a braided rope, undid the lid and peered inside.
"When did you drink the tolvaach?"
"Before the sun came up today." He groaned, his body restless with the pain he no longer denied.
Grandfather dipped a bowl into a large storage olla, then brought it to Coyote’s parched, cracked lips.
"My 'aaskay is filled with sweet water for you, my grandson. Drink and tell me what you have seen and heard. Tell me of your dreams."
"The dream--it was the same, Grandfather. Even after drinking the tolvaach. It was the same."
"And you hoped for something different?"
"Yes." He’d assumed his quest would change everything. He believed the dreams would finally end, or at least new dreams would come to him. Dreams that were clearer, ones he could understand.
"You cannot control these things."
"But why is it the same?"
"It isn’t the same."
And suddenly he knew Grandfather was right. Nothing was ever the same. He needed to look more closely, to be less impatient. "Will you tell me what these dreams mean? What is to happen to me?"
"Yes, Hattepaa kwa'stik, it is time for you to know."
The old man picked up a long white feather and began to chant. He brought the tip of the feather next to the boy’s wound, then drew it along his skin in long, gentle strokes.
"Grandfather, will this feather heal me? Is this feather from the white bird of my dreams?"
The old man frowned and renewed his chant. After several minutes, he paused. "The white bird in your dreams is a white woman."
Coyote moaned and lifted himself onto his elbows. Anger surged through him, and intense pain followed close behind. "No!"
Grandfather pushed his hand firmly against the boy’s chest, and forced him to lie down. "Listen to me, grandson. Soon a white girl will come to you in your dreams, and she will take the white bird’s place."
"Tell me why."
The old man nodded his head. "Listen to what I have to say, Hattepaa kwa'stik. I rode the wind two suns ago to save this girl. Now, it is you who is destined to keep her safe."
Putting a finger to the boy’s lips, the old man quieted any more questions. The rising monotone of his chanting echoed against the walls of the cave as he continued to stroke the feather along the boy’s entire body.
Finally, Coyote stilled. He drifted away from consciousness, sinking into a state of relaxation far from the pain and fear and poison that threatened his life.
He stared at his grandfather’s face through half-closed eyes and tried to focus on his lips. He could see they were moving, but the words were too soft. With the last of his strength, he strained to hear what the old man was saying. And a moment before he floated away he thought he heard one word, the one his grandfather’s lips had been forming: "Kuseyaay.
"Robin, are you there? Please pick up if you’re there...it’s Suzanne...." She waited, her pulse racing. Please be there...please be there... Finally she heard a click that interrupted the proverbial beep at the end of the answering machine message.
"Suze, I’m here--what’s going on?"
"I had the dream, but this time I remember some of the details...you said to call--"
"Indeed, I did. Have you written it down yet?"
"You said to call..."
Robin’s voice dropped to a whisper, "Just a minute, I’ve got....company."
"Oh, jeez, Robin--why did you pick up?"
"You should have heard the sound of your voice--you would have picked up too."
"Sorry. It’s just that I’ve never remembered this much and--" Suzanne listened to muffled voices, guessing her friend had put a hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. She should have waited. Glancing at the clock, she groaned. No wonder Robin sounded half asleep, it wasn’t even seven yet.
"Okay, I’m back."
"Robin, I’ll let you go--"
"Forget it, he’s gone for a jog--he’ll be gone at least an hour. I’m all yours now, so start talking."
"Say it again and I’m hanging up, my friend."
"Right. Okay...it started the same, at least I think it did because usually I just don’t really remember the beginning part and--"
"Suzanne Lucas. Just talk it out. Leave your blasted logic in your left brain and let your right brain do the communicating, okay? Now, breathe...then start. Repeat after me: at the beginning, I was..."
She took a deep breath, grateful for the guidance. "Okay. At the beginning, I’m young--maybe fourteen or so; the young guy wasn’t there in the beginning of the dream. I open a door and then all of a sudden I’m in a cave--but it becomes a tunnel and I follow the old, gray-haired Indian out into the open. He’s showing me some pictographs he’d just painted on a wall."
"Good. Tell me what they were."
Suzanne closed her eyes to take herself back to the dream. It was already getting fuzzy, and felt more and more distant as the minutes passed. "I’m losing it, Robin."
"You have paper and pencil there? Sketch while you’re talking to me--we can do this," she encouraged.
Suzanne took a pad of paper from the kitchen counter, found a pencil in a drawer, and began to draw. "A circle, and kind of spiderwebby inside the circle." She paused and brought the eraser to her lips. "And lines stuck out all around the circle."
"Like a sun?"
She stared at the symbol she had drawn on the pad. It was like a sun. "What does it mean?"
"We’ll come back to it later. Any more pictures on the wall of the cave?"
"Two hands; one black and one red."
"The outline of hands?"
"No--more like you would put paint on your hand and make a handprint. They’re next to the sun-thing--and then two stick people. One’s black and red and white. The other’s red, but with white lines coming out of the head."
"Like the sun-thing?"
"Okay, and what were you and the old man doing?"
Suzanne pinched the top of her nose, then pressed on the inner corners of her eyes. Her head had started to throb a little from one too many margaritas from the night before. The celebration had been a total act of coercion. She’d tried her best to argue the festivities were premature, but her esteemed fellow faculty had successfully ignored her. She’d finally given in to the happy hour soiree, figuring her colleagues needed an excuse for a party, and her enviable job offer certainly fit the bill. After a couple of drinks, she managed to at least temporarily bury her dislike of public jubilation, especially one that made her the center of attention.
They had toasted her good fortune and praised her eminent worth through countless pitchers of margaritas, until the manager of the Cantina Diego finally shooed them all home. And during the evening, each had confessed their professional jealousy but also how they believed no one deserved the opportunity more than she did.
When they’d challenged her hesitation about immediately accepting the job, they’d shaken their heads, bewildered. Each one of them claimed they’d do almost anything for the chance to start an Ethnobotany department anywhere--but especially at the small private college in northern California recruiting her. None would ever understand that part of her would give almost anything not to have to move a thousand miles away, even if it was for the perfect job, the job she’d dreamed of all her life.
"I’m here. Let me think--I don’t remember the old man talking to me...just him showing me the paintings. Then--oh, and he kept touching my hair. Does any of this make sense?
"Keep talking. I’m taking notes."
"Then we go back through the tunnel and out the other side. I remember seeing a full moon, and a rabbit drinking from a pond. And then the old guy stops and pushes me forward...and the young guy’s standing by the water. I’m older now...pretty much the age I am right now, I think. And the young guy seems about the same age as me, maybe a little older."
Suzanne looked at the pad of paper. Below the pictograph symbols she’d drawn a simple landscape; a pond surrounded by fan palms, and a full moon in a shaded sky.
It looked like something a child would draw. A feeling of déjà vu brought chills to her skin, and she had the distinct feeling she had drawn it as a child.
"Sorry--got side-tracked for a minute. So, he’s standing there. I still can’t see his face--I can’t really see him clearly at all...I just have sort of a sense of him. Tall, good build..."
"But, the same guy from your other dreams, right?"
"Yes, I’m sure of that part. I just wish I remembered more about what he looked like. Every time I’ve been to the Barona reservation I feel like there’s a chance I might run into him, you know?"
"Well, I remember something flying just above our heads, and when I turn to look, it’s an owl. When I turn back, both the young guy and the old man are gone. And then I woke up and called you."
"Okay, I’ve got my laptop right here--give me a minute to pull up a Web site I want to check."
As Suzanne listened to the clicking sound of her friend’s fingers on keys, she realized it was the most she’d ever remembered about a dream fully awake. Through the years she’d found if she kept perfectly still after she woke, it was like she was still there--with everything crystal clear, her senses still filled with every sight, sound, and smell. But the minute she moved or opened her eyes, her precious dream world rapidly faded.
"Almost there," Robin said.
Cradling the phone against her shoulder, Suzanne pinned the drawing to the bulletin board, just above the offer letter from the University of Spring Lake. She ran her fingertips over the gold-embossed image at the top of the letterhead--several peak-roofed buildings surrounded by tall pine trees. A forest surrounded the elite private college, and it was about as far from San Diego as she could get and still be in the state of California.
She should take the job. It offered her both the challenge and the opportunity of a lifetime, and it was a logical next step for her career. And her career was her life. As a student she had discovered the blessed sanctuary of university life, and she’d stayed in the environment through graduate school, then landed a teaching job there.
Her life was completely on track.
And she loved it there. Her existence within the education milieu was logical, dependable, and predictable. And it perfectly suited her every need. She’d worked hard to have something tangible to hold onto that belonged only to her, and deep down, she knew exactly what she should do. And she’d have to give them an answer, and soon.
"Okay, Suze, I’m ready." I wanted to check on a site that also has Native American symbols so we could compare your dream symbols to them."
"Okay, dream guru, tell me what you think."
"The first pictograph--the sunburst--could be a supernatural sign, like something a shaman might paint. Handprints are also considered magical--symbols of strength, and for keeping evil spirits away."
"And the stick people?"
"It’s the colors that seem the most important. The one that’s the combination of colors indicates someone of high status--a chief or a healer, maybe. I think the red one with the white hair might be you. Red is a sacred color, usually female--and I think the white hair is important. In your dream you said the old man kept touching your hair, right?"
"Yeah." Suzanne tried to run her fingers through her long, wavy hair, a tangled mass of blonde curls because she hadn’t bothered to braid it before she fell into bed after the party.
"In dreams hair symbolizes physical and spiritual strength, and can also refer to knowledge and reasoning. I think in your case, it symbolizes you to him."
Seemed logical. "And..."
"And the whole idea of you walking through a door into the cave is very interesting. Doors are passageways, sometimes from one plane to another, or from one state of consciousness to another..."
"Don’t go woowoo on me--"
"Hush," Robin interrupted, "and so, when you go through the door into the cave--which I interpret as a place of refuge or sanctuary for you--when you go through, you are passing into this symbol of safety and maybe to a new life. Then the old man takes you outside to the pond, right?
"The only symbolism I could find for the rabbit was personal lack of awareness. And the full moon is there to make you feel secure. The moon is also feminine energy...and sometimes means romance and passion. So tell me, girlfriend, has there been any romance between you two in other dreams? Have you been holding out on me?"
Suzanne stared into space. She considered if she was ready to share the intimacy that had escalated in her dreams as she and the boy had grown older. No. Too private. Too intimate. "Another day, Robin."
Suzanne listened to the sound of more keystrokes.
Robin continued. "Ah...the owl is considered the eagle of the night--change is on the way."
"Well, that makes sense." As usual, her friend’s interpretation seemed to always contain a grain of truth. Robin was the only one she’d ever confided in about her vivid dreams. For years she’d kept them hidden, dismissed any hidden meaning that might be in them and simply enjoyed them for what they seemed to be, her only real creative outlet...and her sanctuary. The first time she’d mentioned her recurring dreams, Robin had listened with serious concentration, but had used the word obsessed instead of enjoyed. It was kind of embarrassing, she’d confessed to her that day, to have a part of her prefer her dream world to her reality. But Robin had been fascinated and made her promise from that moment on to tell her details of her dreams when she remembered them.
"So what if you have to stretch that logical mind a little and believe in the unbelievable?" she’d said to her that day. They had been close friends ever since, and her friendship with Robin had been the only other constant in her adult life besides her career.
"So, you are taking the job, right?" Robin asked.
"I’ll let you and everyone else know for sure when I get back from the desert."
"Taking your favorite students on another plant identification field trip?"
"No, we’re on break. This trip’s just for me."
"Might be the last one for a while, huh?"
"What about you--you still leaving, or have you come to your senses?" Her heart still ached from Robin’s announcement she was following the current ‘love of her life’ to New York to support his acting career.
"Life’s supposed to be about taking chances, Suze."
"But you’re sacrificing everything for something completely uncertain." Her words were followed by the sound of Robin’s cheerful laughter, so loud that it forced her to pull the receiver away from her ear for a few seconds.
"Someday," Robin said, "even you might have the opportunity for adventure. Not everything can be wrapped up in some nice little package the way you like it."
"I happen to believe that most things can. Besides, you haven’t even known him that long."
"Contrary to your belief system, sometimes people do fall completely and totally in love in an impossibly short period of time. You’ve just had some bad luck over the years."
"I don’t think I’m destined for long term relationships. It just never fits quite right."
"Luck changes sometimes."
It was their oldest argument. She didn’t believe in luck, she believed in taking an active role in one’s life and it had served her well. "I’m just afraid you’ll get all the way to New York and things won’t be what you expect."
"Then I’ll do something else--why are you being so miserable about your best friend’s happiness, anyway?"
Suzanne nibbled on her lower lip. Robin was exactly right. She should be happy for her and she knew that--it just seemed so dangerous to give in to love or lust or whatever her friend was in. Too dangerous.
"Hey--the dude’s back," Robin cut in, "I gotta go--call me when you get home from camping, promise?"
"Of course, Robin. I am happy for you, you know."
"And thanks for the dream analysis--it’s always interesting."
"My pleasure. Talk to you soon."
Suzanne hung up the phone and headed for the shower. The days before the summer semester started offered her the invaluable gift of time, and a solitary camping trip to her beloved desert would provide the safe seclusion she craved. Even though she knew in her heart of hearts what she should do, everyone would just have to wait a few more days.
With binoculars in hand, Suzanne stepped out of her tent. The rocky red vistas that surrounded the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground always took her breath away. Carefully adjusting the focus, she scanned the sides of the mountains, but there wasn’t a Bighorn in sight. Either they were getting more and more scarce, or her eyesight was getting worse. She hoped for the latter, or maybe the sheep had learned to stay more out of sight, out of danger. The reality of their scarcity alarmed her, and if more than half the nation’s population supposedly lived on the rocky slopes she stared at, the sheep were probably in trouble again. She made a mental note to check at the Visitor’s Center on her way back home for current stats of the rare animal. She felt truly obligated to keep herself informed, and not just for her students’ knowledge, but more for the stewardship she felt for the park itself.
Her gaze shifted above the rocks. In vivid contrast to the rugged rusty peaks, the sky was a clear, almost impossibly bright blue. Cloudless. Smogless. So beautiful. And it promised a spectacular night sky. Even with the full moon the stars would be dazzling, and the Milky Way would be a wide snowy streak across the heavens.
She breathed deeply, slowly. It felt so good to be back. And, as always, there was that indescribable something in the air that replenished her, or maybe it drugged her--a happy desert addict come home again--and she wished it could be forever.
It perpetually amazed her that even though she’d probably stood in that same spot over a hundred times through the years, it always seemed different. Something had always changed. Plants were larger, or absent if the winter had been especially dry. More desert critters, or less. Nature always changed the desert, but the essence of what she loved about it never changed, and it was that enduring feeling that drew her back again and again.
The bits and pieces she remembered of her desert dream world also motivated her to spend time there. And she’d discovered it was when she was in the desert that somehow she was able to look beyond herself a little more easily. Over the years she’d realized that her rationale was better, clearer there than anywhere else on earth, especially when she was hiking.
With sunset still a few hours away, she had plenty of time to squeeze in a short hike.. And the walk would serve to prolong the welcome tranquility that already blanketed her, and hopefully it would extend well into the night. Often she struggled to sleep the first night in the desert--too saturated with energy and enthusiasm to relax. The hike should tire her out a little so she might get a decent night’s sleep, making it easier to get up early for a long day of contemplation about the university’s job offer.
Her stomach tightened at the thought of the trip’s real purpose. The decision she would make would affect her more deeply than anyone could understand. She knew she shouldn’t be having second thoughts, but she was.
"But you understand, don’t you?" Her gaze followed a Red-tailed Hawk as it soared through the azure sky; its deep russet-colored wings boasted at least a four foot span as it floated along the ridge. Then the hawk tipped its wings and caught a strong thermal rising above the hot desert floor, providing the lift it searched for. The majestic raptor circled skyward, eventually disappearing from view.
Reluctantly, she pulled the binoculars from her eyes. She’d gladly trade places with the hawk. She envied his aerial view that always provided him with the proverbial big picture, something that sometimes eluded her--but especially in times like this, when her heart and head disagreed.
Suzanne stepped back into her tent to tuck the binoculars into their case, and picked up her jacket. Reconsidering, she dropped it back on her sleeping bag. It was still warm and she’d be back long before things had a chance to cool down. The temperature all day had been hot, but comfortable--only in the low nineties instead of the triple digits more typical for early June. And according to the last report she’d heard on the radio on the drive in, the nighttime temperature should be a comfortable sixty-five degrees. She’d be fine in her sleeveless top, jeans, and hiking boots.
Outside, she glanced around as she zipped the tent door shut. She still had no neighbors. The campground had been pretty empty when she’d arrived and she’d had her pick of sites, quickly settling on one of her favorites. It looked as though this trip she wouldn’t have to suffer from nearby tents of partiers with their kegs of homemade beer, radio-controlled cars, and endless bocci games. She’d had her share of visits in the past when the state park filled up with weekend warriors determined to bring the city with them; campsites devoid of hiking boots and backpacks and, instead, filled with portable hammocks, flip flops, and stereos. Over the years she’d learned to camp during the week when she could, just to avoid the assault of people and noise in the sacred place she selfishly claimed as her own.
She grabbed a bottle of water and walked toward the Borrego Palm Canyon trailhead. As she walked, she stretched her neck from side to side and tried to work out the tension that still lingered there. Pausing at the mouth of the trail, she extended first one leg, then the other, stretching each against a giant granite boulder. Then she bent over at the waist, and dangled there, stretching her spine, hoping the last remnant of stress would leave her body.
Her head still hanging, she looked between her feet and watched a Zebratail lizard first dart between a barrel cactus and a tiny fishhook cactus, and then skitter beneath a Brittlebush. After several deep breaths, she finally pulled herself upright. A few torso twists, and she was ready to begin.
With the first step onto the trail, she made the conscious decision the walk would be less destination-oriented and more a meditation of remembrance. The mile and a half of gently winding trail tended to be her first hike when visiting the 600,000 acre park. It never failed to spark a sense of nostalgia, taking her back to her childhood and cherished memories of walking with her foster parents to the native palm grove oasis at the end of the trail. When her adoption was finalized and her new mother and father asked her to choose an official family trip, it was the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park that she chose without hesitation. It had remained her most favorite destination.
Setting a leisurely pace, Suzanne walked the well groomed path and stopped often to check on favorite plant specimens. The large ocotillo had responded nicely to the wetter than average winter season. More than a foot of rain had been recorded since December, and it certainly showed.
She stepped off the trail to get a closer look. The plant had sprouted many more long stems from its base, and the single spines on each stem were longer, the remaining leaves greener. Intensely red flowers tipped every long stem and proved the moist season; the plant towered over her with vibrant growth. She shook her head, wishing she had brought her camera. The ocotillo had never looked healthier.
Next she crouched at the sign that marked a Cheesebush and rubbed the stem between her fingers, then sniffed the pungent aroma that gave it its name. She couldn’t walk past her favorite plant without stopping for the age-old ritual.
She continued, delicious memories washing over her, and keenly aware that this particular walk would generate its own new memory. It could very well be her last trip to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for a long while. With that thought, concentrating on the sights and sounds grew in importance, and she didn’t want to be casual about anything she saw or smelled. Every image was filed away in her mind for later retrieval. Could she ever feel this way about the pine forests where the private college was nestled?
Pausing at a bend in the path for a water break, she leaned her back against the cool, rough surface of a huge boulder. When she pulled the bottle away from her mouth, the air stilled, and there was a very odd and total absence of sound. The songs of the birds and even the faint rush of the stream had faded away to nothingness. She looked up and down the path. No one in sight, and she hadn’t passed anyone on the path since she’d started. There had been no sounds of other hikers since she’d been walking, the crunch of only her own footsteps on the trail.
A roaring sound pulled her attention upward, and as she looked at the lofty rock walls that surrounded her, she noticed puffs of dust along the face of the cliffs. A rumbling sound gradually built, and then a slow, rolling vibration began under her feet.
The water bottle slid from her hands as Suzanne headed in a dead run back toward camp, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. She needed to get away from the rock cliffs, get back into the open and hope for the best.
Dust filled the air, and soon forced her to stop. With her fingers shaking, she managed to untie the bandana from around her neck so she could cover her nose and mouth. Her eyes stung from the dust and she felt sweat dripping down her forehead and trickling between her breasts.
She pushed on as she dodged falling rocks and debris, and tried desperately to keep her feet under her as the earth continued to shake. Finally she reached the trailhead and looked toward her camp.
But there was no sign of her tent. Or her car. Nothing was where she’d left it. Had she taken a wrong turn?
The rumbling resumed as a strong aftershock began and she spun around to see huge boulders sliding down the face of the cliffs.
She turned again to where she should see her tent and squinted at the scene that now unfolded instead. A man and woman stood next to a silver teardrop trailer still hooked up to an old Buick. They seemed to be screaming and pointing toward her--no, past her toward the face of the mountain. When she turned to look, there, a small girl--maybe five, with long blonde braids--stood frozen between two large boulders, her eyes huge with fear. Suzanne stared in horror as a fist-sized rock bounced through the air directly toward the little girl’s head.
"Look out!" Her scream was quickly lost in the thunder of the aftershock that seemed even more violent than the initial quake.
Then, out from behind one of the boulders near the girl stepped a gray-haired man, bare-chested and dark-skinned, wearing a simple loincloth. The old man from my dreams? Impossible. She shook away the thought, blinked hard, and prayed the scene would change to something normal, something that made sense.
In one smooth motion he caught the little girl before she crumpled to the ground from the blow of the rock.
Suzanne gasped, and repressed memory of the moment filled her mind in a painful flood. That was me...that happened to me!
She stared open-mouthed as the old man turned toward her for an instant, and their eyes locked. In her mind she clearly heard his voice.
You will always be safe.
Then he looked up the mountain and ran, the child limp in his arms.
Dust clouds billowed everywhere, choking the air and, with her next breath, her lungs. As tears streamed down her cheeks, Suzanne hugged her ribs as she coughed violently.
What had just happened?
Then, not listening to reason or logic, she climbed up the face of the mountain toward the trail the old man had taken. Without any rational grounds, she knew she must follow him.