The Silent Prayer Stick

An Anasazi Story by Jeff Posey.

The old man scoured the ground below the largest piñon tree looking for the perfect stick. He needed strong wood, not rotten. About the thickness of his little finger. As long as his elbow to his middle finger.

He felt light-headed and weak. For two moons, he and his family had eaten only tiny rations of corn cakes or corn mush. Their beans and dried squash had given out, and they had already pulled every edible wild plant they could find from the canyon. There’d been no game, even desert rats, for two seasons.

He bent and picked up a stick that felt good to him. The right thickness and length. He gave thanks to the big tree and turned back home.

There he sat in the dim light of the single boxy room where his entire family slept to keep warm. With rough stones, he scraped the bark off the stick, exposing its white flesh.

Using a broken shard of arrowhead stone, he carved a spiral down the length of the stick, then carefully painted the groove he’d cut using a single strand of his own gray hair as brush.

For four days he worked on the stick, beginning the night he judged to be the longest of the year, the winter solstice. The first full moon after the longest night was what spurred him to find the stick and work it so carefully. It was an auspicious time for prayer, and he and his family needed a blessing.

He made a fine string of dried yucca fibers, and tied a single hawk feather, his most pristine, to dangle from the stick. Finished, he held it up and made his family listen.

“This prayer stick is for all of us. Take it and put your spirit into it and pass it on.”

Each member of the family, even the baby, held it a moment. Then the old man took it and said words so ancient no one understood them, and he went outside. He watched the moon grow in size each night until it rose full.

Slowly, he marched in a one-man procession to the opening of a small cave beside the spring where the women gathered water. He raised the prayer stick to the full moon, then crawled into the cave placed it upright between two stones. He backed out of the tight space and stood a moment, as if to speak, but no sound emerged from his mouth. He swallowed, glanced longingly at the full moon, then returned to his starving family.

# # #

Most Anasazi skeletal remains show signs of malnutrition and starvation. Only the highest elite citizens escaped the ravages of occasional hunger.

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The Matron of the Spring

An Anasazi Story by Jeff Posey.

The matron of the hot spring inspected new people as they arrived and assigned them a reed mat, a cloth of cotton, and a robe of cotton or animal skins, depending on their rank. When an arrival impressed her, she bestowed the buffalo robe to them.

When the latest old man came to soak in the hot water, she watched to see if he behaved as if a crazy spirit had replaced him, or if he carried himself with lucid wisdom. This one seemed aloof to the physical things going on around him, yet completely aware.

She handed the buffalo robe to him.

“I’m not worthy of a top robe,” he said. “I just wish to lie in the warmth and watch the sky for a few days.” He coughed and cleared his throat and struggled with his next words. “And wait for my grandson to return.”

The matron offered the robe to the old man’s companions, an unusual albino woman and a boy. The albino woman took it with a grateful nod. The boy turned and gazed at the highest mountain north of the hot spring.

The matron had seen this before. Old men from all the surrounding clans would bring their sons or grandsons to climb the peak of the mother of hot water, while they suspended their bodies and spirits in the fragrant waters and mud of the springs.

“He’s older than he looks,” the albino woman, called Nuva for “snow,” told the matron. They watched the boy, Tuwa, set off for the mountain in the first dim light of the next morning.

“I’ve seen smaller boys go to the mountain,” said the matron.

“Do they all return?”

“Most,” she said. “Very few fail. It is more difficult than dangerous. I myself have been close to the top.” She didn’t want to alarm this odd white woman who tended the regal old man. People who became panicked because their sons and grandsons did not return invariably failed to pay her, which meant less food and meat and clothing for her family.

When she learned they were from the Village of the Twin War Gods, and that Grandfather was its famous Sky Chief, she quietly made the other soakers leave the big pool to Grandfather alone. He lay in the heat with his head propped on folded animal skins and watched the sky without speaking.

Finally, the boy returned, staggering and babbling wildly, and the matron tried to appear to leave them in private while staying close enough to overhear. His story had more profound meaning than most, and she shrank from the blasphemy Grandfather spoke against Másaw, the great spirit preferred by the High Priest of Totec Canyon. Glad that no warriors were here from the canyon, she helped clean the mud from the old sky watcher and dry him off to prepare for their return walk to the Twin War Gods. She felt no personal allegiance to Totec Canyon and its new religion, but trouble would hurt her trade.

The Sky Chief approached the matron with a self-effacing bow. “You have helped the bones of this old man,” he said, and handed her a small plain pouch.

When they were on their way and out of sight, she shook the contents of the pouch into her hand: fifty well-worked turquoise beads. She quickly poured them back into the pouch and hid it between her breasts. She’d never received a richer payment.

She looked around, but no one watched her with any particular attention, and she thought about the boy’s story and the interpretation by his grandfather. Someday, she thought, this will become a problem. But she also felt obliged to the old sky watcher, his grandson, and the albino woman. Their generosity demanded it. She squinted in the bright sunlight to watch three new people approach her spring. People will always come here, she told herself. Regardless of changing leaders and religion and the unspeakable acts of warriors she heard whispered by her visitors. She just hoped that all of it left her spring and her people alone.

When the new visitors arrived, a skinny-legged old man, a woman, and a boy who said, “This place smells funny,” she handed the old man a worn cotton robe.

# # #

These are the hot springs of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and the Village of the Twin War Gods is the nearby Chimney Rock archaeological area. The peak climbed by the boy is Pagosa Peak, north of Pagosa Springs. “Pah-gosa” is Ute for “water boiling.”

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Fall!

An Anasazi Story by Jeff Posey.

The forest rang with calls of “Fall! Fall!” Then the slow pounding of stone on living wood resumed. Men and boys worked two to a tree.

“Look!” shouted the old man. “They have fallen their first tree!” He pointed across a wide glade of grass to another encampment of tree-cutters who had arrived the day after the old man’s crew.

“Our trees are bigger. Harder to fall,” said the half-wit, a man with one eye that googled out of control. The men tolerated him at a distance and rarely responded to anything he said.

“Work, don’t talk,” growled the old man, rumbling his voice like a bear’s. “By dark I want more trees fallen here than there!”

The wood-cutters picked up their pace. They took turns, each pounding their tree with a dull river stone until their arms hung limp.

“Fall!” called the half-wit in frustration. Soon all the men joined in. “Fall! Fall!”

The first tree fell and the men cheered. More began to fall and the old man danced in circles when they had one more tree on the ground than the crew across the prairie.

At dusk, the only tree still standing belonged to the half-wit and his partner.

“Tree too big,” said half-wit, gasping. He beat at it ineffectually and the other men gathered around to watch. The crew from across the prairie walked over to socialize and they, too, watched.

“Why don’t you help him?” asked a man from the other crew.

“We will. But not until he passes out. We have a Grandmother who believes he accidentally casts spells when you help him.”

So they watched until, by moonlight, the exhausted half-wit had whimpered himself to sleep. The men gently moved him out of the way and had the tree down before the women’s camp called them to dinner.

# # #

Can you imagine cutting timber this way? Think of a world with no steel axes, only river stones hafted by wood and leather and yucca string. That’s the Anasazi.

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Unblemished Snake Boys

An Anasazi Story by Jeff Posey.

The boys hustled out of the village and climbed the short cliff to the broken ground above.

“We saw three sunning themselves up there, remember?” The oldest boy led them and did the talking. The middle boy nodded.

The smallest boy said, “I don’t remember anybody sunning themself.”

“You were sick then, I think,” said the oldest.

When they came to the rock with the black hole yawning beneath it, they slowed and stepped more carefully, except for the youngest, who skipped from rock to rock. “How are we going to catch it?” he asked.

“The priest said no blemishes,” said the middle boy. “What are ‘blemishes’?”

“It means we can’t pierce its skin or cut it or anything,” said the older boy.

“Why not?” asked the youngest.

“I don’t know,” said the oldest. “To keep its spirit from leaking out or something.”

The boys saw it at the same instant and froze. “Wow,” said the older boy. “That’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen.”

“It must be the grandfather,” said the middle boy.

“The great-grandfather,” said the youngest.

The snake turned its head as if it saw them and raised its rattle but didn’t make it buzz. The boys squatted and watched. After a while, the snake settled and lowered its tail.

“How do we get it?” whispered the youngest.

“Run up and grab its tail,” said the oldest.

The eyes of the youngest grew large. “I’m not doing that. It’s bigger than I am.”

“It’s bigger than all of us put together,” said the middle boy.

“We’ll wait until it crawls away and I’ll grab its tail,” said the oldest. The two younger boys looked at him as if they’d never truly seen him before.

After the day warmed, the snake slid off the big rock and began winding its way through smaller stones. The oldest boy surged ahead, wrapped both hands around the tail above the rattle and pulled. The thick snake coiled, its head anchored in the rocks, and pulled the boy forward. “Help!” he called. The middle boy came and pulled the older boy’s waist. Together, they straightened out the coil, the snake’s head still firmly among the rocks. The youngest boy jumped around behind them, waving his arms.

A stone broke loose and the boys fell back as the snake coiled its head back toward them.

“No!” yelled the youngest. He lunged forward and kicked the snake’s head just as it began a strike toward the oldest boy’s thigh. The boys scrabbled away on all fours, the oldest still holding the tail, and he dragged the snake behind him. The middle boy helped, and they ran toward the village, the body of the snake bouncing behind, its head coiling toward its tail but not able to reach the boys. The youngest ran behind flapping his arms, shouting, “We got it! We got it!”

When they ran into the village, women screamed and ran up ladders to the rooftops and the men formed a circle around the boys and laughed and shouted instructions. The snake had become more lethargic, but still tried to arrange itself into a tight coil. The younger boy danced around the head flapping his arms as if the snake had cast a bird spell on him. The boys continued to drag the snake in circles to prevent it from coiling back on them.

A man threw a stick near them and the younger boy got it behind the head and stood on it while the other two boys pulled it out as straight as they could. The snake’s muscles bulged and turned beneath its shiny skin.

While the boys huffed and puffed, the priest and village chief inspected the snake from head to tail.

“This is the biggest, most impressive rattling snake we have ever had,” said the priest. The chief wrapped twine around the snake’s jaws and other men helped the boys stuff it into a large clay pot with a lid.

That night around the fire, the boys told the story over and over, the men laughing and the women squealing at the appropriate places.

Then the priest stood and quieted everyone and called for the boys to stand before him. He smudged their foreheads with cedar ashes and in a solemn, chanting voice gave them new temporary names until they reached puberty:

Suqlanga, Snake Tail Puller, for the oldest.

Suqaya, Snake Helper, for the middle boy.

Suqtava, Snake Head Kicker, for the youngest.

Decades later when migration time had come, the three once again caught a big, unblemished snake, brought it back to the village, cut off its head, and arranged its still-writhing body on the floor of their childhood kiva. The entire village watching, they set the roof beams on fire, which were hard to ignite. They stood around the flames that night until the roof caved in after first light.

Then they turned and walked away without looking back.

# # #

Is the ending too abrupt? Note that many (perhaps most) Anasazi villages look like the people just suddenly walked away after burning their kivas. In one ruin near the Four Corners area, the skeleton of a rattlesnake appears to be ceremonially laid out on the floor of the kiva before the roof was burned. This incomplete snippet of a story is part of my grand attempt to grapple with what it looked and felt like to live in a society that migrated so much and, apparently, so easily.

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Sumtovi, Son of the High Priest

An Anasazi Story by Jeff Posey.

Before the High Priest came to power, a long line of sky chiefs declared the supremacy of the center place as defined by the movements of the sun and moon and stars. This, they claimed, meant that the sky gods insisted upon the ruler of The People to reside in a specific site inside Totec Canyon.

But the sky chiefs ruled by knowledge rather than power. When refugees from collapsing societies far to the south arrived in the villages south of the canyon, the man who became the High Priest saw the potential of skilled warriors. He enlisted the help of Pok in channeling the ultra-violence of the southern refugee warriors into a revolutionary force that crushed the dynasty of the sky chiefs and took control of the entire region. The southern villages outside Totec Canyon embraced the new guard, and they formed the Southern Alliance.

Cracks in the solidarity of the Southern Alliance first appeared in the Village of Black Stone, childhood home of the High Priest, and the place to which Pok migrated from the north. Sumtovi, eldest son of the High Priest, believed he should lead the Másaw warriors, not Pok.

“He is not even from the South,” Sumtovi argued to his father. “His blood is that of the sky watchers!”

“I need you here. I must have unquestioned support from my own home village.” He had just been elevated to High Priest by enthusiastic acclamation of the Southern Alliance, with reluctant assent by the weaker alliances to the west and north. The east had been left intentionally uninhabited to give the rising sun unfettered approach to Totec Canyon.

“Pok will turn against you,” Sumtovi said. Age had not yet softened his anger.

“You want to sit with me in power in the Great House, I know that,” said the High Priest. “But you can do me far more good here.”

“But who will protect you from Pok? He will turn on you. He is loyal to nothing and no one.”

“That is exactly why he is right to be the top Másaw Warrior. He believes only in the power of violence, and all subtle things are lost on him. He has no allies and no friends, he has killed every wife and child given him, and he dismisses every god but the one of war. His warriors fear and therefore respect him. Yet he has no spiritual power. I will rule that realm completely.”

“But how will you protect yourself from him?”

“You and the Southern Alliance will protect me from him. And the household workers I select. Never underestimate the power of the cook, my son. A few choice herbs from a plant master placed into food can make a man do almost anything.”

“Then perhaps I should be there to protect you from your cook.”

The High Priest laughed and slapped his son on the shoulder. “You become the supreme leader of this village and the first voice in the Southern Alliance Council, and I will become the supreme spiritual ruler of Totec Canyon. That’s how we will gain and hold the most power. That will protect us. Pok is just a tool.”

Sumtovi sighed, then agreed. He watched his father and his large entourage leave for a new life at the Great House, just recently cleansed of the sky watchers by Pok and his army. Sumtovi vowed to find every way he could to keep track of Pok and to protect his father.

# # #

This is a completely different take on Sumtovi than in last week’s FridayFlash. It feels more solid to me as an element in my bigger story. If you read last week’s story, what do you think?

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Sumtovi Sends a Spy

An Anasazi Story by Jeff Posey.

The perfect gathering of men, two times the six directions, sat knee-to-knee in the round room, a glowing fire in the center. Twelve groups of twelve attendants camped in a ring around the underground room, eyeing each other, waiting for the first to break protocol and begin the exchange of news and gossip. The twelve largest villages in the six directions, each without its leader and top twelve men, were themselves surrounded by small clan villages of farmers. The younger farmers, especially, resented the tribute they paid of more than half their crops. Nothing particularly good happened when they delivered their contributions, but if they should fail to satisfy the High Priest, they suffered punishment more horrible than anything in their long tradition — entire villages destroyed by crazed warriors.

Like their attendants above ground, the council of twelve sat in silence, waiting for the first man to speak. No chief ruled them. No administrator cajoled them. No servants waited on them.

“I have a matter,” said one. All eyes went to the man, Sumtovi, chief of the Village of Dark Stone, the closest to Totec Canyon, the center of their world. “In the Great House of our High Priest, the woman he calls his Goddess of the Future and an albino healer woman advise him behind our backs. We must do something.”

“What do you propose?” asked another elder.

“We need a spy who will tell us what these women are doing and if they are misleading our High Priest,” said Sumtovi.

The men of the council agreed having more information made sense. One of them spoke a question. “What do we do if we discover they are evil of heart and are working to undermine our High Priest? And what do we do if they are good for him?”

Another elder from the village farthest to the south said, “If they are good, we should bring them to the council and find out what they know. If they are evil, we must make them into woman corn and feed them to our enemies.”

“Who do you propose for our spy?” another elder asked Sumtovi.

“I have a grandson who is as fleet of mind as he is of foot. We shall send him.”

They agreed without dissent and the council became once again quiet as they waited for the next man to speak.

Days later, when Sumtovi’s grandson left the Village of Dark Stone to spy on the High Priest, a stranger followed, the youngest son of a farmer whose entire village had been eliminated for failing to deliver enough corn.

In the middle of the moonless night, the farmer boy captured, tortured, and interrogated Sumtovi’s grandson and his two attendants. He took the better clothes of the grandson and left their bodies in an abandoned badger hole. He told the guards at the Great House that bandits had killed his servants and that he had barely escaped with his life.

The High Priest sent a runner escorted by warriors to Sumtovi, who verified that he’d sent his grandson on behalf of the council to sit for a time in the High Priest’s court.

“I see you,” the Goddess of the Future told the farmer boy, and described what had happened to his village. He burst into tears and the albino woman held him like a baby.

When Sumtovi sent a runner for a report from his grandson, the farmer boy refused to meet him, but sent a message that Sumtovi and the council had nothing to fear from the Goddess of the Future and the albino healer.

# # #

When I lose my vision or get bogged down in my novel-in-progress, I write FridayFlash scenes to try and gain clarity (that’s why I have as many as a dozen of these prepared at any given time). This is just such an exercise. Next week, I explore a different scenario for Sumtovi, a new character.

I’m also toying with tone and POV here. This is a highly impersonal tone, almost distractedly removed from the characters (except, perhaps, when the farmer boy breaks into tears and Nuva comforts him). Is it too distant?

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The Hoona Alliance

An Anasazi Story by Jeff Posey.

When the sun dagger pointed its blade of light at the mid-summer’s mark, the village chiefs from the Southern Alliance met with the village chiefs from the Northern and Western alliances. For a month, workers from the clans within the alliances scent stonemasons to build their ceremonial kivas in the foundation block of the Totec Canyon great house, which had been under construction for a generation.

Three days before the feasting began, each alliance responsible for one day, the Northern Alliance last, in honor of The People’s origins from the north.

But the true power discussions began hidden in a dim but cool back room of the great house, where the top chiefs and their top advisers smoked dried hoona plant supplied by the southerners. The first day they laughed uncontrollably and got nothing done. The second day they mastered their laughter but consumed all the sweet corn dumplings that had been prepared for the last day of the feast. The last day, they mastered their hunger and gave themselves new names.

Southern Horizon claimed he should rise to the top seat of power, and after a whispered conversation between Northern Star and Western Glow, they agreed, under the condition that special runners be sent to them during the snow-free months to keep them supplied with hoona plant.

“It will be so,” said Southern Horizon, standing to emphasize his rank over the others. “In exchange for hoona, those from the west will supply timbers for constructing this great house and those from the north will supply game and labor.”

Western Glow, his eyes glassy, said, “We will fell the timber, but you northerners must carry it.”

Northern Star, who had drunk a considerable quantity of corn beer in additional smoking several large bowls of hoona, said, “The clouds are dark,” and passed out.

Western Glow and Southern Horizon looked at him with envy and power-quaffed corn beer and kept bowls of hoona glowing until they, too, passed out. The advisers followed suit, save for one, a straight thin man with a crude tattoo on his forehead showing a full moon rising between two columns of stone. He stood as still as a column of stone until the light faded with evening and Southern Horizon woke with a start and sat up. He blinked his eyes at the standing man.

“Who are you to be standing over us?”

“I am Kwa, sky watcher from the Village of the Twin War Gods.”

“Sit down before you embarrass yourself.”

“I stand.”

“Sit down!” Southern Horizon bellowed with such volume that it woke the others except for a couple of advisers.

“What?” asked Western Glow. Northern Star glared at Kwa, but said nothing.

“This inferior sky watcher has the nerve to stand over us,” said Southern Horizon.

Western Glow rubbed his eyes and looked at Kwa. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I have something to tell you,” said Kwa.

“We discussed this,” said Northern Star. “Now is not the time.”

“Now is the time,” said Kwa. “I am leaving now. I have more important duties back at the Twin War Gods.”

Northern Star made a slashing gesture, indicating he cut himself off from anything Kwa might do.

“Supplicants must come to us on their knees,” said Southern Horizon, his voice as rough as gravel.

“Through the cliffs of the Twin War Gods,” said Kwa, “I have recorded the movement of the moon over eighteen-and-one-half years, when it repeats its cycle.” Kwa spoke with his chin up and did not make eye contact with anyone. “Falcons, messengers to the stars, nest on the cliff faces of the Twin War Gods. There is more there to see and learn of the spirits in the sky. In lieu of logs and labor, we will offer knowledge of what we know of the sky spirits.”

Southern Horizon shook his head. “We have the light daggers on Sun Mesa. We need no more knowledge.”

“As you wish,” said Kwa. He turned to go.

“Wait,” said Northern Star. “He is wrong to be so brash, but what he says is important.”

Southern Horizon made a hawk-and-spit sound.

“I will trade labor for your knowledge,” said Northern Star.

Western Glow looked from Northern Star to Southern Horizon, and finally nodded. “I will trade logs for your sky spirit knowledge.”

“And I will not trade hoona for your insolence,” said Southern Horizon.

Kwa looked them each in the eye then and held their gaze. Southern Horizon looked away quickly and pouted. Northern Star narrowed his eyes, but finally nodded. Western Glow held his look only a moment before nodding and looking away.

“We will build a bonfire when anything of significance happens,” said Kwa. “If you are interested, send runners.” With that he left their presence and did not look back.

# # #

I use Twin War Gods a lot in these stories. Do you realize this means a pair of twin cliffs or spires, known in the present day as Chimney Rock, Colorado (see the picture at the top of my blog)? Or am I losing people by this reference?

Note: Hoona is derived from the Hopi word for “intoxicate,” hoonaqtoyna. Kwa is derived from kwa(’at), in which the ’ indicates a glottal stop, and which means “Grandfather.” Kwa is the father of the main character of my novel, called “Grandfather.”

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