Sunday, April 22, 2018

Chap. 16: The Second Bead

 In the past
The ravens protected the bracelet, pecked from the woman's pocket after the first fight for the world. For many years it lay tucked into different nests, lined with downy feathers, warmed by eggs and at times baby birds. Passed down through the generations it traveled far from the old woman's home to a place near Four Corners, a region made up of the southwestern corner of Colorado, southeastern corner of Utah, northeastern corner of Arizona and the northwestern corner of New Mexico.

The Navajo Nation makes up most of the Four Corners region. The ravens liked this area and dwelled here for many years. They soared in the open skies, looking down on Monument Valley, admiring the massive red rocks.   Only the Navajo lived here, with the nearest towns being Durango Colorado or Farmington New Mexico. It was peaceful and they had all but forgotten their mission, the bracelet. It was older now, with only two red beads but in recent days the beads had taken to glowing. They didn't glow constantly, instead flickered on at odd moments, shining at times brightly, other times only a dim tint caressed the beads.

It was around the time of the first glowing that the ravens noticed a strange man in the area. The sun beat down on the dusty ground, strong and hot but this man always wore black. The ravens, being black themselves, enjoyed his choice of clothing but were puzzled because this garb had to be suffocating in the overwhelming heat. True, the nights were cooler here, when the darkness wrapped the landscape in a silky blackness but they never saw the man at night, only during the day.
He would walk along the dusty road, stopping in at a Navajo house to talk for a short time and would often make his way to the small market, stopping to buy a bite here and there, perhaps a piece of dried meat or fry bread. Sometimes in the marketplace one of the vendors would chat with him, offering him a glass of cool water. They would nod and smile as if old friends.

The children, in particular, liked the man, reaching into his pocket he would pull out all manner of goodies, gum and candy, or perhaps even a balloon which the children would snatch with relish and caper off to blow up and play for as long as possible before a sharp rock or cactus popped it and ended their fun. He would watch their excitement and smile before moving along the path through the market.

The ravens were puzzled by the arrival of the man, he seemed different, he didn't belong to the Navajo but they treated him with respect, as an elder of the clan. They wondered if he was the seeker, whom they had waited for through many generations. They had no knowledge of a seeker, many years had passed and neither of these ravens had lived in the time of the first bead, knowing only the stories that had been handed down. It was because of this that they only watched and did not act. That would soon change and later they would come to regret not acting faster. The deaths would start and that would change everything in this forlorn, isolated place.

They had been watching the man daily over about a span of two months. One night as darkness crept across the land they settled into their nest in a pinon.  Was he this seeker they were to watch for?  They had just ruffled their feathers and allowed their heads to droop in slumber when they were startled, the thumping of feet on the rough ground carried for miles, so they strained, twisting their heads from side to side, trying to determine what direction the sound came from. As suddenly as the sound came to them it was gone, probably boys playing in the dark, under the moonless sky. 

When the first red light streaked the morning sky they were again startled by a sound. This one more ominous then thundering feet. This was a wailing, a high pitched screeching carrying to them across a mile or more. They took flight, allowing the mourning wails to guide them. It only took a couple minutes for them to find the source of the agony. Below them on the ground was a smallish figure, unmoving and silent, a young Navajo boy, his head cradled in his mother's lap as she sobbed over his body. In the distance, several village men were running toward the pair. 

The ravens circled, until the men carried the boy away, carrying him on a makeshift stretcher, the mother trailing behind, slowed by her grief. They followed the caravan back to the woman's hogan, perching in a small pinon tree, watching, the man in black arrived quickly and embraced the woman, wrapping her in his big arms and covering her with his black garment. He sat by her, in the old rocker on the tiny front porch, holding her hand and murmuring something.  

It was late in the day when the man left, with the sun already dipping onto the horizon. By that time many families had gathered at the hogan, sisters, and cousins taking over the comfort of the woman. Sober, he trudged along the rocky road, alone, lost in thought, saddened by the woman's loss. The boy had been one of those that joyously greeted him in the marketplace, smiling and laughing, full of life. No more. Now he lay cold and stiff, awaiting the burial rites 

The man kept his eyes on the road, at his feet, discouraged. It was as he walked along a shrub dense part of the road, he felt a tingling sensation creep up his back, turning quickly he peered into the brush. The gentle breeze picked up as day prepared to become night. He saw nothing but he picked up his pace just the same. He never ventured out at night. Unbeknownst to him the ravens still circled high above him watching. They too had sensed something lurking in the increasing dark countryside. Suddenly they knew the time was upon them. This man was indeed, the seeker, the one they had waited through the years for, the claimer of the bracelet, the chosen to battle in the second fight for the world. 

Dark Travels

He had traveled many miles, through dark and desolate places that reminded him of the world he had left behind. Hiding in caves and crevices in the large red boulders when the blazing light had rolled into the sky, he simply existed, not questioning his direction, although feeding was next to impossible in this barren land.

A few days back he had started to notice buildings scattered across the land, here and there like rocks thrown at random. Rotting wood, broken, dusty windows, empty, abandoned in the search for something better, or perhaps something closer to water. As he traveled the hogans became more frequent and a day hence he had come upon one with windows filled with light. He had crept closer, quivering with hunger, settling next to a large boulder, watching with gleaming red eyes. Waiting while his stomach rumbled.

He had trembled in anticipation of a feeding, daring to creep closer, hungry, he failed to notice the two large dogs chained near the front until they lunged at him growling, bare teeth dangerously close to him. Their massive paws, spewing dirt and dust, creating a thick dusty coating on the front porch. They reminded him of hellhounds with their gnashing teeth, slobbering wet on their jaws.

He paused, turned his massive head and retreated. It was not in his nature to retreat so he was filled with rage at being denied. He moved on knowing that he must feed soon. When he had been birthed into this world, he had returned to the old ways, the forbidden practices, the magic that the elders had abandoned because of the wars that threatened to overwhelm them.

There was comfort in the old ways and he thought the elders had been mistaken to give them up. They hadn't realized the potential. It had done little good either, the betrayals and violence continued, creating the labor pains of his birth into this shallow and empty world of light.

He had happened upon the boy by chance, there in the ebony world of the Navajo night. He was startled as much by the unexpected encounter as the boy, but what a delicious morsel his soul was. His only regret was that he had gulped it so hungrily that he hadn't savored the tastiness of it. A meal consumed quickly does not satisfy. He had waited in the area for some time, hoping to find another unsuspecting soul wandering in the night, thinking themselves safe only to realize too late how wrong they were. When the first pink streaks of light caressed the horizon, he loped off toward a grouping of large boulders to hide from the coming light.

He had only started to doze off, still annoyed that he was less than sated by the feeding when he heard the first high pitched screams and the wailing. He considered emerging from hiding to take the woman also but reconsidered when he heard calls off in the distance. Others were coming.  Having just arrived in this area, he still realized it would be tricky hunting here in the open, the eye could see for miles save a few scrawny trees and outcroppings of rock.

His mouth filled with saliva as the smells of the others drifted toward him, what a feast of souls they would make, he let his mind play over this, filling himself with a tingling. He would feed again when the ball of fire sunk beneath the horizon. This area, although desolate and filled with dusty rocks and sand, was inhabited. He drifted into a restless slumber, filled with dreams of appetizers and entrees. Perhaps even a luscious bit of dessert.

He awoke as the final rays of light painted the horizon. He cautiously moved closer to a path, watching for others in the distance. After traveling in the open a bit he started to tingle, a warning perhaps? He looked around, turning in a circle but seeing nothing he continued. His refined senses made him wary, finding a small row of shrubs he squatted behind them. In the deepening darkness he heard a sound, tilting his head from side to side, he could make out voices in the distance. He was close to a dwelling.

A smell came to him, an aroma that made his mouth water but also caused his stomach to recoil. He waited, listening and sensing the approach. Peering from his hiding spot, he saw the man coming in the distance. His clothing the color of the night, his gait slow and weary, head down, he walked faster as he drew near. The creature pulled back away when the man stopped momentarily and gazed directly at the bush he lurked behind. The beast felt the urge to lunge forward, to pounce, but something held him in place and he moved not a hair.

The man continued on his way. The moment had passed. he could still charge out and overtake him but for some reason, he remained in the darkness, out of sight. He tilted his head and thought about this man, both a stranger and oddly familiar. He barely noticed the circling ravens in the dark sky. They always seemed to follow him and thus he had ceased even having conscious thought of them.

He waited for hours behind the shrubs, hoping for another chance, but the voices he heard in the distance never ventured in his direction. He swatted at bugs and occasionally caught one, scooping it into his mouth, crunching it between his massive teeth. Now he was regretting the man, the missed opportunity, yet his instincts washed over him, guiding him, even when he did not understand the purpose. He was not a great thinker. He did not ponder things. What was, was. He still existed

The next morning the ravens flew in circles high above the house of the man. Occasionally they rested in the small scrawly tree in the front yard, only to grow restless and soar once more into the blue sky. It was growing late into the morning and they grew restless in their waiting. Choosing this time to land on the rough and cracked window ledge to peer inside at the dimly lit interior.

Inside the man knelt on a rug, with a small table in front of him. Open on the table was a large book, surrounding him scattered across the floor were twigs and twine. As they watched he lifted his bowed head and stood. Taking a bag from the table he started toward the door, only stopping to pick up his cross from the table next to the front door. He lifted it and pulled it over his head, tucking it inside his shirt.

As he walked down the dusty road, the ravens followed. He stopped once to wipe the sweat from his face with a white handkerchief and it was at this point that the ravens landed in the dusty road in front of him, quite close, only an arm's length away. They cocked their shiny heads to one side and looked at him. One held a piece of twine in its beak.  As the man stood, puzzled by their bold behavior, the raven dropped the twine in the middle of the road. He could see something red shining in the morning sunlight. He reached for it and the ravens backed up but did not take flight.

He picked up the object, smiling, a trinket, a bracelet with two red beads that the birds had somehow managed to snatch from an unsuspecting soul. The beads felt warm in his hand, tingling against his skin, shimmering in the light. He frowned, thinking of the story of the three beads that his grandfather had shared. Folklore from long ago about his great-great uncle and the beads bathed in holy water. He shook his head, reminding himself that he didn't have time for ancient tales; he had gifts to deliver, important ones. Swinging the bag in his hand, he slipped the bracelet into his pocket and started forward again, startling the ravens into flight.

When he grew close to the boy's home, the children in the yard shouted and ran down the dusty road toward him. Some with red eyes, swollen from crying greeted him, tugging at his arms and welcoming him. With great effort he smiled, walking in the group of them until they arrived on the rickety porch, where they urged him to sit. As he rocked in the old chair, he opened the bag and began handing out the wooden crosses he had spent the night making, simple crosses made from whittled twigs, wrapped with twine. Placing them around each child's neck, blessing them, he told of faith and protection. Wide-eyed the children listened, promising never to go out without one.

As he gave out the last one he stared into the disappointed face of a young boy, about seven, eyes locked on the man's face, waiting, trusting.  Horrified, the man realized he was short one cross, so solemnly he removed his own silver cross and placed the chain around the boy's neck. Beaming with pleasure the boy bounded away to join the others in play.

The man felt strangely vulnerable without the silver cross, having worn it daily for years, heavy around his neck it had offered comfort in times of despair and joy in times of celebration. He knew it was his duty to comfort on this day of mourning,  sighing, he arose from the chair, opened the door and joined the family inside.

The day passed quickly and he was startled to discover it had already grown quite dark outside. Saying his goodbyes hastily, uneasy with the darkness, he started home. Weary, he pulled the beads from his pocket and caressed them between his thumb and forefinger, thinking of his rosary. He wished he had brought it today of all days but exhausted from the late night he had left it on his bedside table.

Deep in thought, he was surprised to hear a low growl behind the shrubs to his left and even more surprised when the red beads of the bracelet started glowing red in the darkness. Surely he was imagining this but none the less he picked up his pace. He had just broken into a run when the creature burst through the shrubs, pouncing on him, tearing at his shirt. Shocked by the size of the animal, barely comprehending that it stood on two legs, he clutched at his neck for his cross, only to remember his gift to the boy.

He struggled with the beast, it clawed his face and pried his mouth open. The man felt his heart lurch in his chest and a searing pain ripped through him, sweat poured from him. Before the black bead was thrust into his mouth, his heart burst inside his chest and his soul slipped calmly past the grasp of the Evil One. No soul would be claimed tonight but as he collapsed one of the red beads broke loose from the twine and rolled off to be buried in the dust. Roaring in frustration the creature raged but there was nothing he could do, it was too late.

In the early morning light, the ravens discovered the man's body, circling it and cawing in agony. One of them dipped down, retrieving the bracelet with only one red shimmering bead left. The second bead was gone, the enemy engaged but the battle lost.  It had happened too quickly, the seeker had not been prepared. They mourned for they knew many more lives would be lost in the coming years, maybe not here, perhaps not in this location, but elsewhere.

They stayed, guarding him until some men happened upon him there in the road and using their shirts they carried his body away. The children cried but they remembered the crosses and even in old age did not leave their homes without them. The ravens, carrying the bracelet away knew it would be many years before a new seeker arrived, they would be long gone, bones in the dust before the third and final fight would transpire.

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