At the right time, in the right place, words have the power to change the world.
Each man is good in the sight of the Great Spirit. It is not necessary that eagles should be crows.
—Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota (1831–90)
No person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English.
—Proposed Amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006
Tabitha Hoarse Raven, not yet thirty years old but already the last of her tongue, inhaled the cool air of the desert. Though she’d lived in hiding for nearly eighteen years, it had been a long time since she’d actually slept out beneath the stars, and she felt a strange thrill to be doing so again. If nothing else, she was excited to see the sky at night, free of the dissolving bubble of cityglow, free of the slashing scars of neon and steel, free of the burntrails from uplifting ships. A sky full of stars.
She’d forgotten how many there were. Tabitha chose a blank spot of sky, an ebony rift between twinkling lights. She stared until her eyes watered, and she saw more stars.
She thought of her old grandfather, who’d come to the Sky City to die when all hope had left him. And others of that last generation, who’d all come to die.
I’ve come, too, she thought. Do I have hope?
She took the carbuncle stone from her pocket, shook it into luminescence. Small creatures skittered away from the sudden glow, and a moth flitted white across her sight. It was a risk to use the stone, but her campsite was isolated in a thin, bending canyon. Not like the wide-open plains she would cross in the morning, a vast expanse where there was nothing to hide her light. Out there, a searchskiff would already be bearing down on her. Up here, she felt confident and safe.
And that was assuming the authorities were even looking for her.
Paranoia, she was sure. There was no reason to believe the unity government knew of the cycle or even remembered the old pueblo atop the high New Mexican cliffs. There was no reason to think they might expect someone to come out to its ruins, to try to talk to old gods in outlawed tongues.
The next morning, Tabitha awoke to the scents of brushed sage, clay dust, and wispy juniper smoke. She opened her eyes to see that already the sun was tipping over the edge of the horizon and pushing the crisp shadow of the east wall slowly down the west. The line of sky above the thin canyon was clear, pale blue. She heard little pops and cracks of wood burning. She smelled flatbread.
Tabitha peeled herself out of the light thermthread bag. Her canyon guide, Red Rabbit, was squatting nearby, and he offered a pad of the warmed bread. She took it, felt stronger with its heat against her flesh. She imagined for a moment that she could actually see kneading ridges along its surface, just the size and shape of a woman’s fingers. But she knew such things were only a memory: the flatbread was the result of metal machines churning in some far-off factory. Every slice the same. One slice no different from any other.
There was a small fire in the pit, surrounded by ashen rocks. Red Rabbit stood, then walked to the other side of it and sat down. He fished a package of cigarettes from his worn plaid vest, knocked one out, and then lit it using the end of a stick that he poked into the little dancing flames. He rocked back, puffing, and when he smiled, his teeth were yellow and broken. “We’ll need to go soon,” he said.
Tabitha nodded, bit off a piece of the bread. It melted against the roof of her mouth, washing her tongue with flavors of wheat and wood.
The shadowline crept further down the west wall. The juniper burning between them cracked, spat. The thinnest of snakes, a gray tendril of smoke slithered toward the morning sky, but it did not break the lip of the canyon.
Red Rabbit looked up at the blue. “You will really go to Acoma, to the old pueblo? The new town isn’t far away. On the Rio San Jose. Good bars. More to drink than Acoma.”
Tabitha said nothing. Only nodded as she ripped and chewed.
Not for the first time, Red Rabbit frowned at her plans. “Why? No one lives there. It’s dead. Has been since the times of Gray Feather. Since after the skiffs came, painted it red.”
Gray Feather. Red paint. Tabitha had to fight the urge to wince with each of the words. Red Rabbit couldn’t know that Gray Feather, old as he was, had been her father. That he’d symbolized his name with a single goose quill among the contrasting colors of his Tsitsanits mask: green for sky, yellow for earth, black for night. Red Rabbit couldn’t know how fine he’d looked in that mask, with its eagle feathers and buffalo horns, its white buckskin eyes, corn husk teeth, and fox-fur collar, or how well he and the rest of the katsina dancers had prayed with body and soul on that last day. Red Rabbit couldn’t even know what katsina meant. He didn’t know Keresan. All he knew was the diya tongue of the whites.
She alone remembered.
She remembered through a little girl’s eyes watching them dance to Tsichtinako on the last turning of the great moon cycle. She remembered the mixture of sadness and hope in their steps. Even then, they’d known they were the last of their tongue: rebels to uniformity, no longer even useful to the linguists who’d documented their speech for closed-door studies of dead things otherwise forgotten.
Tabitha had snuck away from the dance in childish impishness that day, crawling down a thick-runged ladder into the darkness of the kiva, the kaach, where the chaianyi men would come for their final prayers after the dance. She’d wanted to hear them. She’d wanted to watch her father calling the gods.
Instead, she’d heard the engine-roar of the federal skiffs landing outside. And when she’d reached the top of the ladder and looked out, she’d seen the lancers pouring from the airships, uniformed men with uniform guns. Marching. Corralling her people like cattle. She’d heard the officer in his blue suit clearing his throat to read the Writ of Unity, the death warrant for those who dared to disunite the power of the one state. “One language, one people,” he’d said. Just like they all did. Just like the posters.
She’d slipped back down into the kaach while he read, though she could still hear him. There were boards across part of the floor, covering the Tsiwaimitiima altar: boards so holy that only chaianyi could dance upon them. She’d lifted them up without hesitation and wedged herself beneath them, curled up in a dusty darkness that smelled of old cornmeal. “One culture, one country,” she’d heard the officer say in the distance. And then, in response, she’d heard the voices of her people rising in defiant, ancient song.
So the killing had begun, and soon the only sounds she heard over the screams were of fléchettes singing high in the crisp air. And when the lancers searched the buildings for survivors, Tabitha did not cry.
She’d wanted to hear her father’s prayers. Instead, when at last she climbed up and out of the darkness and peered through a thin crack in the wall out into the square, she’d heard him dying, coughing down the wrath of Father Thunder even as he lay in a pool of his own blood. His legs twitched as if they meant to complete the dance despite him. His white-and-black eagle wings were painted red.
He’d called until one of the last of the lancers came back, stood over his bloodied body, aimed his flechemusket at Gray Feather’s left eye, and pulled the trigger. Her father’s legs stilled. The dance was never finished. Father Thunder never came.
Tabitha blinked away the images, blocking out the sounds of remembered death until all she heard was the burning of the juniper before her, and all she saw was Red Rabbit, rocking and puffing on his fading cigarette. “What would God be,” she said, “if there was no one to call his name?” No one to hate him.
“Why call him now, though?”
“Do you remember nothing of the old ways?”
He shrugged. “I remember the old ways through the canyons. That’s why you hired me, yellow woman.”
It was true enough. Since the killings, she’d lived in the cities. She knew nothing of the wild places anymore.
Tabitha sighed. “The moon doesn’t rise in the same place every day. It moves along the horizon. Every eighteen or so years, it reaches its northernmost point on the horizon, rising as far north as it will rise before returning south to begin the cycle again. A lunistice, it’s called. And during that time, the moon, for just a little while, appears to rise in the same place. Some people call it a lunar standstill. It last happened a little over eighteen years ago. When I was eleven. It took me a long time to understand the why and the when. So, I know it’s about to happen again.”
“The moon?” Red Rabbit looked as if he was trying not to laugh. “You’re going through this for the moon?”
“Yes. It may seem strange to you, but it wasn’t to our people.” She ignored the look of exasperation in his eyes, kept talking. “Many of the pueblos were built to observe the cycle. Chimney Rock, for instance. Why would they build the pueblo so far above the plain? Far from water, wood, food . . .”
“Maybe they liked the view. Pretty place. Casino there now.”
“True. But if we were there tonight, and we watched the moon rise, we would see it come up between the two great rock spires to the north. We could watch it just as our ancestors did when they first built it over a thousand years ago.”
“Why’d they like the moon so much?”
“It wasn’t just our people. You could see the same thing at Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the pyramids in Egypt. When Tsichtinako created—”
“Tseech-tee . . . ?”
“Tsichtinako. Thought Mother. Our legends say she created the universe through the hand of Uchtsiti, the All-Father. He built the world by throwing a clot of his own blood into the heavens. The chaianyi, what the whites would call medicine men, they taught that the sun represented Uchtsiti. It was the male. It was father. The moon was the female. We might call it mother. Both male and female are needed for life, but the male drives away what he most needs, so the moon flees to the north, toward death. It was said that if man does not call back the moon, she will leave us forever. The father’s consort will be gone. He can have no more children. What is will wither and die. Nothing new will replace it. It was said by the chaianyi that Thought Mother taught this much to the first peoples when they emerged from Shipapu, the darkness beneath the earth.”
“You believe this?”
It took her a moment to answer. She was remembering her father’s footfalls, his leather moccasins shuffling in the clay as he danced and sang, danced and sang. “My ancestors believed,” she said at last. “So it’s important to me.”
“I don’t believe in gods,” Red Rabbit said. Suspicion flashed in his eyes. “I believe in money.”
“Which is why you won’t get the rest until you’ve taken me to the top of the rock.”
Whatever had been in his eyes vanished. “Then eat, Hoarse Raven. The trail to the Sky City is long.”
She swallowed the rest of the bread, then stood and looked out through the canyon opening to the flat plain. Spread out before her, the patched and faded land reminded her of one of the woolen blankets her grandmother once made for her. And kilometers away, she could see where the mesa broke from the plain like the thumb of God struck through the parched, sage-strewn flats. Lifting a scope to her eyes, she could just perceive the outline of the blocks scattered upon the table of its summit.
“We can’t leave yet,” she said. “I must prepare.”
Red Rabbit had stood, too. He laid a hand on her shoulder. His fingers smelled of coals. “For what?”
Now it was her turn to smile. Greedy and atheistic though he might be, she appreciated her guide. She enjoyed the simplicity of his life. She looked down at her tan jumpsuit and plain boots, the modern vest of factory-built fabric. “For one thing,” she said, “I cannot meet an old god in new clothes.”
“You need to change?”
“Yes. And I must prepare my soul.”
Tabitha stood naked beneath a circle of sky, her back to the multi-toned sandstone wall surrounding a well of rainwater. The crack leading to this place had been too narrow for her pack, so she’d pulled out what things she needed and left the rest outside with Red Rabbit. He would have helped her carry things in, she knew, but somehow it seemed best for her to carry it all in herself, as if the clothes were some sort of offering, brought to the sacred pool.
Silly, of course, but fitting: Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new sweet earth, and the Great Silence alone.
Ohiyesa had said that. Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman, the whites called him. Brought up among the Santee Dakota, he’d managed to get into Dartmouth, then earned a medical degree from Brown. He’d helped to establish the Boy Scouts and the Camp Fire Girls. Ohiyesa had verified the burial place of Sacajawea. He’d been the only physician to tend to the injured at Wounded Knee.
So much irony, Tabitha thought as she slipped the simple fabrics over her body.
It had taken her a great deal of time to find someone who could still make clothing in the old ways, using the old materials. The search had been so difficult that she’d often found herself wondering if she might risk jumping onto the grid for a minute or two, just to find what she was looking for, to find out where it was. But if she accessed the grid, they would know where she was, too. They would know that a speaker was indeed still alive, and they might even know what she planned to do. So she’d been forced to search on foot, by word of mouth, moving quietly through the slums of the cities. Always wary, always cautious. Never asking too many questions. Never answering many. It took over a year, but she’d found the old woman just in time, on her last search of Albuquerque’s Old Town.
New old-style garments in hand, she’d looked for a mercenary-minded person who could guide her through the city screens, out into the wilderness, out to the old, forgotten places—someone who hated the lancers as much as she did and knew how to keep his mouth shut for the right price. A far easier task. She’d hired Red Rabbit only two hours later.
Tabitha slipped on the moccasins, then stepped forward. Foot by foot. Leather roughing on sandstone. She summoned up prayers that hadn’t been uttered since the morning of the last dance. Prayers no one else alive could speak.
When she reached the edge, she knelt and scooped the cold water onto her face, breaking its sheets against her skin. She rubbed it across her cheeks, into her eyes. She stood, faced the sun as it crossed the horizon of her sunken place. As it did so, she offered a final, unspoken orison. To the water, the rock, the sun, the sky.
The Great Silence. Alone.
The sandhills began near the entrance to the secret well, and Tabitha and Red Rabbit followed a winding path over and between them, pausing only briefly in the semi-shade of piñons. Tabitha felt growing impatience, wanting to get there, wanting to be done with it all one way or another. She had a hard time not watching the sky, and several times she tripped on exposed juniper roots, causing no small amount of pain to feet already aching from the new moccasins.
An hour after departing the well, they left the sandhills and entered the flatlands. And although the sage and sparse-grass plain was more exposed to any passing skiff, they were able to take a more direct path toward the waiting mesa. Tabitha felt her mind begin to ease. There was no place to hide now. No place to run. If a skiff came, she’d be dead. Red Rabbit, too, probably, though he did not seem concerned about the possibility as he trudged ahead of her through the dirt.
The wall of Acoma mesa, towering higher with each step they took, was rusted clay, a deep and rich color. Dark streaks ran down its many faces. The stains of ten thousand tears.
Farther in the distance along the horizon, almost five kilometers northeast of the Sky City, she could see where yellow sandstone cliffs rose one hundred and twenty meters out of the dusty sea. The old stories told how the people had long ago lived atop those cliffs. It was a beautiful village, but there was only one trail to the summit. One day, the people went down to the plain to gather the harvest. Three women, though, were sick and couldn’t go. That day, terrible rains came. The waters washed away the trail to the village. The men tried to find another path up, but there was none. There was nothing anyone could do. Weeks passed, and the women grew quiet as they starved to death. One of them died. The other two, who did not want to die of starvation, walked to the edge of the cliff, looked down upon their families and their friends, then jumped, hoping to find the arms of Great Eagle or White Hawk. It was said that their cries could still be heard among the crags sometimes. The place had been very holy among the people.
The whites did not understand this story. They called the place the Enchanted Mesa. To Tabitha’s people it had been Kadzima, the Accursed.
Tabitha and Red Rabbit found a little farm at the base of the Acoma mesa. Dry farming. Her family had done the same until the skiffs and their crews of lancers had come.
The farm was little to look at. A shanty of four weathered adobe walls, not more than four or five meters on a side, covered over with corrugated sheets of scrap metal, with two windows: one cracked and grimed, the other clumsily boarded over. Desiccated posts made of piñon branches marked the perimeter of a small yard in front of the building. Two chickens and a rooster, still contained within a battered wire mesh strung between those posts, were the only signs of life.
At Red Rabbit’s urging, Tabitha stayed some distance behind him as they approached. He had an old-style gun in the holster at his hip, and Tabitha noticed that he kept his hand close to it and that he walked with a sort of balanced crouch. “I don’t think anyone here wants to hurt us,” she said.
He didn’t turn around to answer her. “I don’t take chances. Never know who lives out here.”
“Probably just poor farmers.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But there’s lots of crazies outside the cities. People like me.”
Tabitha looked down at the ceremonial knife tied to her belt with leather thongs. She fingered it for a moment, then thought better of it. Instead, she cupped her hands around her mouth and called out. “Hello?”
Her voice echoed back from the building and the silently brooding rocks. The chickens clucked in senseless reply.
“Is anyone here?”
Red Rabbit had turned to glare at her, but the sound of shifting rock spun his attention back around. There was a native woman standing among the jumbled boulders beyond the shanty. Her arm was extended to her right, disappearing into rock.
“Show us your other hand!” Red Rabbit called.
The woman hesitated, then drew in her arm, pulling a little cloth-covered basket into view. Tabitha waved, friendly. The woman waved back, more unsure, but slowly she began to walk back down to the building. Red Rabbit relaxed a little, though he kept his hand close to his side. “We don’t want any trouble,” the woman said when she came near.
“We won’t give you any,” Tabitha said.
“You’re not lancer scouts?” The woman’s weather-worn skin was the color of old saddle leather, coursed over with crisp ridges and furrows. There were long needles of wood in the braided hair at the back of her head.
“Not hardly,” Tabitha said. “Just hiking to the old pueblo.”
The woman nodded, but a new expression had come over her face as she listened to Tabitha speak. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so. My name is Tabitha Hoarse Raven.”
“You used to live on the mesa.”
“I did,” Tabitha said, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice. “How did you know?”
“I was young, but I remember your father when he was the chief.”
Tabitha involuntarily cringed at the term. It reminded her too much of what the diya whites had done to her people. “My father was tsatia hochani.”
The woman looked as if she’d seen a ghost. “You can speak—”
“Keresan, yes. Can you not?” Tabitha tried to hide it, but even she could hear something akin to hope in her own voice.
“No. I lived in the city back then. I know only English.”
“I came to the pueblo only a few times. But I remember Gray Feather. He invited us out for some of the dances. I remember his daughter.”
Tabitha fought to ignore her own emotions and Red Rabbit’s sudden gaze. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember you.”
The woman had relaxed a little. “It’s okay. You were even younger then. My name’s Malya Prancing Antelope.”
“I think my uncle told me we were Badger Clan. But that was a long time ago. There aren’t any clans anymore, Tabitha Hoarse Raven. There’s just people. One people. And you, of course.” She stuttered a little at that and turned from them, blushing. She addressed the building. “They’re not scouts!”
There was noise inside, and the door opened inward. A young man dressed in worn blue jeans and a tattered gray shirt stepped into the sun. He was young—Tabitha guessed him to be perhaps twenty years old—with strong native features: tall, with red-brown skin over a face of long and sharp angles, a wiry build, and black hair tousled in careless mats. But while Tabitha found him ruggedly handsome in his way, most of her attention was riveted on the shotgun he was carrying in his hands.
“My son,” Malya said. “Joseph Man of Sorrow.”
Joseph shouldered the weapon and offered his hand to Tabitha, who shook it at once. His long-fingered grip was strong. Red Rabbit, too, shook the young man’s hand. “We thought you might be scouts,” Joseph said. “There’ve been more of them around lately.”
“Why?” Red Rabbit asked.
The younger man shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe they’re looking for you. Funny to hike with a revolver,” he said, nodding towards Red Rabbit’s pistol.
“We thought it best to be prepared,” Tabitha said before Red Rabbit could reply. “You never know who’s out here.”
“Just us,” Joseph said. “No work in the cities this season. Came to the old farm.”
Red Rabbit motioned to Malya’s covered basket. “What’s in that?”
“Seeds,” she said. “I was going to plant.”
“Oh,” Red Rabbit said. And he looked away, out across the plain they’d crossed.
Joseph turned to Tabitha, smiled. “You’re pretty far from the cities, Tabitha Hoarse Raven.” He looked her clothes up and down, seemed to linger. “And you’re not dressed like a tourist. Why’re you here?”
“I grew up here.”
“Doesn’t answer my question.”
“Enough, Joseph,” Malya said. “Fetch water for our guests.”
Joseph’s smile faded, and his cheeks darkened. He started back toward the building.
“Please don’t,” Tabitha said. “We have water. We’ll just be on our way up.”
Joseph stopped walking, half turned. “You’re going up?”
Tabitha nodded, even as his mother started to ask forgiveness for her intrusive son.
“It’s okay,” Tabitha said. “I don’t mind. Yes, I’m dressed strangely. Yes, we’re going up. It’s time for the moondance.”
Joseph looked confused, but Malya was shaking her head, her eyes furtive. “It’s not allowed,” she said.
“Neither is speaking in Keresan.”
“Bad enough to do that. But to do the dance. . . . You know what they did, don’t you? The lancers? My husband wanted to dance with the others, with all the defiant ones. He came out here with them. To rediscover his ancestors, he said. He died with them that day.”
Even from several meters away, Tabitha could see the new expressions of emotion passing over Joseph’s face. She ignored them. “I’m not asking for you to help,” she said. “But I won’t lie to one of our people. I’m going to perform the dance.”
“One of what people? Who? This man here? Me? Joseph? Your ‘people’ is the same as anyone else’s now. It’s the law.”
“Not for me,” Tabitha said.
“Then you’re alone. And you’ll die like the rest of them. Then what will have become of your people? Nothing but a few genetic quirks like us, absorbed soon enough. Maybe a troupe of half-breeds who fake dances for tourists in Santa Fe between night gigs at the poker tables. Some old crones making beaded necklaces to sell on street corners. Nothing more.” The woman turned away from Tabitha. She began to walk back toward Joseph and the building. “Dance. Die. Take your words with you, sister. No one will speak them when you’re gone.”
The story was well known to Tabitha’s people: how, in the winter of 1599, Spanish troops had come to Acoma, almost one hundred of them strong in their steel, to capture what they called the Sky City.
The Acomans went to the edge of their mesa when they arrived. They hurled stones and launched arrows at the Spaniards one hundred meters below. Yet the invaders climbed. Up and up.
When the Spaniards reached the top, they leveled a cannon at the Acomans. They filled it with small stones and began to fire. To the people, it was as if Father Thunder himself had turned against them, spewing the bone-rock of the life-giving Earth into their flesh, ripping and breaking. Eight hundred of them died that day, and their city was turned to ruin. Of those taken alive, all males over the age of twelve were made twenty-year slaves. Those older than twenty-five had their right feet cut off. Some few of the dispersed managed to return over the years. They rebuilt the pueblo. They returned to sing to the Mother, to beg for her return.
It had taken the Spaniards three days to fight their way to the top. It took her and Red Rabbit less than three hours.
Of course, it was easier now. When the Spaniards came, the only ways up were the steep stairways, hand-cut into the sandstone surfaces of the mesa walls. But twentieth-century ingenuity had seen fit to cut a road to the top, to what was then the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States.
At the top, she and her guide found what was left of the pueblo that those who’d returned had built. First was the church, the old mission of San Esteban Rey. It had been a tourist attraction once. Now it stood derelict, fiercely ravaged by time. The twin towers flanking the nave were broken, crumbled away to stubs rising above the wind-scarred roofline. Most of the windows were missing. Hard spring rains had carved great gouges into its plastered facing, and the series of steps leading to the gaping hole where once its oaken doors had stood were worn to a jaggedly rounded slope. But the church still stood. Tabitha didn’t know if that should mean something or not.
She pulled a small bag tied with sinew string from the pouch at her side. She felt the hard plastic inside, then tossed it to Red Rabbit.
He looked at it. “You’re done?”
“I’ll dance. And I’ll sing. For the memory. But, yes, I’m done. You’ve done exactly what I asked you to do. For that, my thanks. And an extra payment.”
Red Rabbit opened the bag with his calloused fingers. He whistled. “More than a little extra,” he said.
Tabitha shrugged. She wouldn’t need it anymore. One way or another.
“You sure I can’t do anything more?”
“You’ve done plenty,” she said.
She walked alone into the crumbled labyrinth of Acoma.
The rest of the pueblo hadn’t fared as well as the church. Much of it had been ruins even in Tabitha’s youth, when only a few holdout families lived on the mesa. But after the killings, after the skiffs were airborne once more, the lancers had begun the work for which they were so aptly named: they’d sent charged particles down from their cannons, slashing furrows across the summit and blasting holes through to the bedrock. There’d been no reason for the desecration. The lancers had searched the pueblo on foot. Tabitha suspected it was merely target practice for the men. Slaughtering traitorous Indians hadn’t been enough fun for their day.
The destruction that the lancers had begun was taken up by the elements. The scars they’d ripped through buildings had further eroded over the years, the wounds becoming gaping open sores. Dozens of structures had collapsed to rubble that turned the streets of the old town into a maze. Tabitha could see that as many more were on the brink of failure.
Only the kaach remained as it did in her memories. Where she’d hidden in her youth. The place from which she’d watched her father die, watched his murderer absently wipe a splattering of gore from his hand as he walked back toward his waiting skiff and the sky. The building looked as if the weather had never touched it. Even the ladder protruding through the opening in its roof seemed solid—though she didn’t attempt to climb it yet. Maybe after the dance, she thought. Father was going to pray after the dance.
She summoned memories as she wandered through the ruined pueblo. Soon, she could almost hear the laughter of old women, see the sad eyes of young men. She could almost step to the shake-crack-shake of rattles keeping time to the beat of a stretched-skin drum. She could almost smell the scents of kettles that steamed with chiles, corn, and shredded meat.
She summoned them until she was with them, until the ghosts of the forgotten swarmed about her. Words. Rhythms. Voices. Drums. And when she found the central square where her father had died, she closed her eyes and fell away into a world that she alone could know—dancing in circles, like a dream-thief, through the red dust and mud-stone rubble, turning on isles of sand.
The Great Silence. Alone.
When it was done, when her father’s dance was complete, Tabitha Hoarse Raven stood at the edge of a darkening sky, listening for the voices of her gods. The evening wind ran like wild horses up the cracked face of the mesa, smoothing her loose garments against the front of her body, molding them to the contours of her arms and legs. It flowed over and around her sweat-slicked skin like rushing, rising water—spreading her long black hair into tendrils of crow-night that reached with waving, furtive grasps for the relative security of the shattered pueblo behind her. She breathed deep in her exhaustion.
Voices should have been carried upon that wind, sounds swept up from the plains: the laughter of children weaving through the brush, heading for the steep and crooked stairways with rabbits over their shoulders and baskets full of corn; the chatterings of women and their clay jars, porting water; the lower tones of the men on watch, calling across the rocks along the way. . . .
No more. She heard nothing of the world beyond the echoed cries of a lone eagle balancing on split-tip wings and floating wide against the deepest blue of the sky. She saw nothing of the world beyond the light of the sun, lowering to stone reaches stained watermelon and blood red.
Tabitha heard nothing. She saw nothing. And she was not surprised.
Her gods were dead, too.
Darkness approached from the east. Far out to the west, where vacant pueblos slumbered in silent canyons, the sun seemed to hesitate, to hover in expectation of night. Brilliant swaths of red-yellow-turning-blue layered ribbons upon the sky.
“Come back to us, Moon,” Tabitha said, expecting the returned silence. “Bring us life. Bring us rain. Za’tse katch, Tsichtinako.”
She wondered what her grandfather had expected when he’d come to this reach and prayed, too—that last time, just five years after Gray Feather was killed for dancing, for singing an outlawed language. She wondered if it was when he had heard nothing that he jumped. Like the two women of Kadzima. Sudden death before starvation.
Tabitha looked down toward the base of the cliff as if she were tracing his fall with her gaze. The shadows were already thick down there, slow-moving in silence.
Tabitha slipped a single gray-and-red goose feather from the long leather pouch at her side. She smoothed it to a point, then stretched her arm out into the great void of air and wind and sound and sight and scent and possibility and used the feather-edge to trace the sign of the Spider across the plains far below her.
And in that moment, from somewhere in the distance, from somewhere beyond the horizon to the west, she heard a rumbling sound. The waking of an angry god.
Tabitha turned at the throaty sound of the approaching skiff. It was coming down behind her, kicking the sun-dried clay into clouds of choking dust that blurred away the fading adobe walls. Lights flashed. Another skiff circled loudly overhead.
Doors opened. A ramp crashed. Even through the sudden haze of backlit dust-fog, she could see the dark helmets of the lancers making their way through and around the pueblo. Surrounding her. Some of them were already in place, already aiming.
Tabitha looked away from them, her gaze sweeping out to the horizon, where billow-black clouds rose up from the dry canyons to meet and swallow the setting sun.
To swallow them all.
Tabitha’s arms were outstretched to the void. Feather in hand. Visions of Great Eagle swirled behind her eyes. But a gust of wind pushed back against her. She felt the wind, and she knew it for what it was.
She stepped back from the edge, opening her eyes as she turned to look at the gathered lancers. “Za’tse katch, Tsichtinako,” she said to them.
There was an officer among them, standing nearest the ramp. He stepped forward into the cleared, dry dust between the flechemuskets and the condemned. He was wearing a gray-to-black uniform emblazoned with two bars that attested to his good service to the state. A captain. His hair was close-cropped, peppered gray. His grin was full of vanity and loathing pride. He held a d-reader in his hand and he lifted it up. “Ms. Hoarse Raven, yes?”
Tabitha looked around at the flechemuskets, most of them pointed at her head. She glanced back over her shoulder to the west. Clouds were moving fast across the sky, carried on the wind. Already the first reaches of them stretched overhead. “Ha, diya hatch,” she said to the captain.
He blinked at her, caught off guard for a moment, before he smiled. “Then I suppose you’re admitting guilt.”
“Ha,” she said.
“You shouldn’t have come back here,” the captain said. “Not on the anniversary with the moon and all, especially.”
Tabitha shrugged. “Sa’ma.”
The captain smirked, then keyed a button on the d-reader as if he was initiating an injection. A part of Tabitha, a small and shrinking part, thought it unfortunate that a recording was used these days. She would’ve preferred the personal touch of a reading.
“One language, one people,” the d-reader said, its disembodied voice deep with authority.
Tabitha stood in half-amused silence, listening to the litany. Halfway through, great raindrops began to fall to the parched earth, impacting like soft bullets, pounding out little craters in the dust. Father’s tears, falling to Mother.
Some of the lancers looked upward. Tabitha did not. She was watching the walls of the pueblo behind them, where the blur of dusk was turning to sharp shadow and light as the moon came up and shone its light beneath the storm. She needed to raise her voice to be heard over the d-reader. “Ta’-u-atch,” she announced.
Only the captain was listening, and he didn’t care. He didn’t understand.
The water was cold as it soaked into her linen garments, but at the same time, it felt good. It felt right. Thunder rolled in the depths of the clouds thickening overhead, the low growl of Black Bear Mother protecting her cubs. Tabitha felt it vibrate around her ribs. She felt its tone quickening in her chest.
At last, she looked up through the drops of rain into the dark and churning clouds that had gathered over the mesa. The lights of the circling skiff looked obscene against the belly of the storm. “Ho-ak’a katch,” she said, for the sky was, indeed, raining.
The d-reader ended its speech, which had always been more about helping those doing the slaughter than those being slaughtered. “One culture, one country,” the recording intoned.
“One culture, one country!” the lancers replied. The sights of the flechemuskets re-centered.
Tabitha felt the hairs on her arms perk up, the gooseflesh raised by something more than the cold rain on her skin. She breathed deep of the ozone washing through the curtains of water. It was raining very hard now.
“Ho-ak’a ma’-me katch,” she said. She eyed the skiff in the air, and she began to sing a new song, with new power.
As Tabitha’s voice split the air, Father Thunder’s first strike hit the skiff above her, a whip cracking down from the heavens. The airship flashed white-hot, turned left, right, left, then nosed down and fell earthward like a child’s broken toy. Ripples of electric fire coursed across its surface, the energy crackling in audible static as the craft plummeted.
The crippled skiff came down at a sharp angle, hitting one of the outbuildings. It fragged the adobe, blasting the ancient mud-brick and wood into splinters and rubble. The ship pounded deep into the hardpack, momentarily cratering the earth, and then it was airborne again, metal screeching as it bounced back off the bedrock and flipped through the air. Many of the lancers on the ground began screaming, trying to run. The airship that was already on the ground tried to move, bucking on its pads as its engines kicked into gear, but all too late. The hurtling, broken thing punched into its side with a terrible crunch, a spear breaching a wounded deer.
There was a half-second pause, a heartbeat of realization. Then a second bolt of lightning branched down from the clouds into the bundle of freshly twisted metal. The knot of the two ships exploded in an eruption of red light and redder sound.
A wave of force slapped Tabitha back from the fiery skiffs, knocking the wind and the song from her chest as it sent her flying. The few flechemuskets still aimed at her went off, and she sensed the angry hornet buzz ripping the air around her. But then she hit the clotting mud and slid into rock as the next concussive detonation wave rolled forward across the mesa.
Tabitha looked up and saw men in flames, trailing smoke. They were screaming, but she couldn’t hear them now. Tangled, shadowed shapes of machinery popped from the wreckage as remaining stores of fuel combusted. The captain was only a few meters away, sprawled sideways in the mud. Fragmented bits of metal protruded from his back, but he was moving. Lightning coursed across the sky in great pulsing veins. Waiting.
Tabitha gasped air back into her lungs, began to sing again. She couldn’t hear her voice, but she could feel it, reverberating in her core. She felt it as sure as the wind and the rain and the mud and the sky.
One of the lancers had stumbled through the mud, had somehow avoided the scattering shrapnel. He came and stood above her, eyes fierce and determined. He raised the gun.
Tabitha stopped singing so she could smile at him.
Bright light flashed against his face, and an instant later, his chest caved in and out all at once and he fell backward into the mud.
Joseph Man of Sorrows knelt beside her, chambering another shell. Beams of moonlight had somehow pierced the churning veil of the clouds overhead, illuminating his face. He said something to her, but she couldn’t hear it. She knew there was no stopping this now. Not after what had come before. Not with the power of Tsichtinako in the air.
She nodded. He smiled grimly, then stood and walked over to the still-twitching officer. He lowered the barrel to the back of the man’s head.
Pulled the trigger.
Walked to the next dying man.
By the light of moon and lightning, Tabitha could see a small group of the few remaining lancers firing fléchettes at a low building not yet in flames. Its thick adobe walls glistened with the tiny slivers of plastic, but still, from a little window, an old-style handgun flashed, one-two, one-two. And down they went.
A handful of remaining lancers, scattered around the wreckage, saw their skiffmates go down by the little building, and they ran in that direction. But already a third shape was rising where the others had fallen. Malya had picked up one of the flechemuskets from the ground, and she trained it on them slow and steady. The military men stopped, hesitated, then dropped their own weapons one by one. Red Rabbit came out from the little building, and he, too, picked up one of their weapons.
The lancers circled up, hands raised. Lit by the burning wreckage and contorted with fear, their faces were the red of blood. Malya and Red Rabbit marched forward at them, pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the mesa. Tabitha motioned at them to stop. Great Eagle would not welcome the lancers. And this hunt was over. There had been enough death.
The others nodded. They began to herd the men toward one of the stronger buildings away from the fires. Perhaps, Tabitha thought, she would eventually teach them new ways of speaking. Or perhaps she would just let them go, let them explain to the world that gods grew old, but they didn’t die.
Joseph came to her side, and when sound finally began to return to her senses, the first thing she heard beyond the roll of the thunder and the tremor of the sky was his voice, speaking her name.
Beating war drums, the voices of gods thundered in time to the strikes of lightning that fell in a living rain upon the mesa: heavy, pounding, unrelenting. Occasionally, another skiff tried to approach the old ruins, but the flashing anger turned each of them back. Alone, Tabitha and Joseph knelt on the floor of the kiva, which sat untouched in the conflagration atop the mesa. The fires of the gutted skiffs poured heat through the walls, and their naked bodies glistened with sweat. There would be time to leave, they knew, time to reach the old forgotten canyons far to the west and there make a new home. Others would come. “We are few and weak,” Red Jacket once said, “but may for a long time be happy if we hold fast to our country, and the religion of our fathers.”
The dance her father had left unfinished, the song he’d never ended, was done. More storms were coming. They needed only to follow them.
But not yet. Not this moment.
For now, in the darkness, Tsichtinako was between them. And they thanked Her for what they had.
Malya’s basket sat at the foot of the ladder, near the tsiwaimitiima altar that marked the place of emergence. The basket held many different kinds of seeds.
Together, Tabitha and Joseph went about creation. He was no longer a man of sorrow. And the raven’s voice was soft, like fresh butter in spring.
And many moons later, when the next tsatia hochani would be born, she knew what they would sing to him.
At night, when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.
Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, I say? There is no death. Only a change of worlds.
—Chief Seattle of the Duwamish (1780–1866)
“At the End of Babel” copyright © 2015 by Michael Livingston
Art copyright © 2015 by Greg Ruth