To: Ishi and the meek inside all of us.
Fire is very primal, it strikes a certain chord inside of us. I imagine that it was one of those earliest of things which gave us a comfort from the harsh environment. For that short period of time while we sat by the fire we did not have to think about staying warm or staying fed. We could let our minds drift a little bit and share our thoughts and stories with those people closest to us; our tribe. It sends us back in time across our ancient collective consciousness. That story we humans have created for ourselves. There are other things which can do that to us, sexuality is probably the most powerful and persistent pull of our ancient collective consciousness. But the fire is the more meditative. Where sexuality is a powerful overwhelming ocean wave, watching a fire is like being a leaf caught in a swirling eddy in a small stream. Just circling lazily around and around.
I think most of the old stories we have created as people must have been shared around a fire. They are essentially the same stories told over and over again. But the stories don’t exist as words alone. Our minds draw images before the words are spoken and after they are heard. Just as the Stone Age cave painters most likely used the fire of their torches for working light over 30,000 years ago. The light flickering on the walls of the caves and lighting faces and bodies just enough to create the canvas and the settings for the thoughts needed to create these paintings. The words of their stories are lost to us, but the images still speak to us. And perhaps remnants of their stories are passed down to us in our own stories.
When the boundary between dreams and experience melt are we closer to reality? or farther from it?
I am an old man, hiking up a rocky path, past the few weather-beaten trees and into the sun. I know this path well, and I pace myself because there is a steep uphill grade ahead. I walk carefully, even tenderly because I can feel the rocks and gravel under my feet. My feet are covered only with thin leather. I take a moment, stop and look out over the land. With each stop I can see more and more land around me. Everywhere, I see green trees and granite. But each patch of trees and each rocky outcropping means something to me. There is a memory in almost every bit of land I can see. I stay here looking out and thinking until I hear a Stellar Jay screeching at me. It tells me to move along. When I reach the top I can see in all four directions. Here I unload my bundle of wood that I have been carrying on my back. I feel the lightness of getting rid of the load and the soreness in my shoulders from carrying it. Then I set down my traveling bundle. I search around me, I am looking for rocks about the size of a skull. After I find five of them, I roll them into a circle on the windless side of that large boulder which has always been there. Now I have nothing but time in front of me. I climb up to the top of that boulder so I can stand up there and look around. I can see the world all around me. Each direction brings to mind different feelings and different events in my life. At this moment it is hard for me to tell how real those things were. The dreams and memories are so mixed together I can not tell for sure which is which.
My first memory is my mother suckling me. I remember her breasts and how her nipples felt on my tongue and how they smelled. They were not that different than the breasts and nipples of my lovers. I also remember my father. He was a good firemaker, carefully building a tiny hut out of dried twigs before lighting the tinder, then carefully placing more sticks into the flame. There was just a certain way and timing he had for placing those sticks. I remember staring into the fire and imagining. It is a sweet-pain, this remembering. I can imagine my mother, my father, and my sister all sitting next to me, feeling the warmth of the fire and just looking at each other. Sometimes remembering is to heavy and it brings tears to me. But they are sweet tears. The games I played with my sister, making pretend animals out of sticks, feathers and moss. We made raccoons, bears, fish, crows, deer, hawks and then gave them voices so they would talk to each other. They were only simple sticks with a piece of moss or feather stuck to them with pine pitch, but that is all we needed.
It is these memories that bring me back to this mountain. It seems like my life is nothing but memories now. Maybe the end of my days are here. It is not sadness that brings me here, I come here to write a record of my days. I have brought with me a large bundle of blank paper, that I found in the lowlands. It is enough for me to write down my memories…I think. My dreams have been filled with death lately and glimpses of what is on the other side; “the shadowland” as mother used to call it. I will take my time up here, alone with my memories. I might die up here, I am not certain what is next for me.
My father told me many stories of the ghost people. They were the ones who lived everywhere, like the trees themselves. He said that the ghost people were absorbed by the trees. Whenever my father found the bones of the ghost people he would move them next to a tree. It is good to respect the bones of those who have come before. “It will not be long before those will be our own bones lying there on the earth”, he would say. He would give me a small smile and a light touch on my shoulder.
It is hard to live for this; I am alone now on this windy mountaintop without my sister to play games with, my mother to suckle, my father sitting next to me or my lover touching me. I remember feeling this way before. It was after my sister died, I was all alone then. I came here to this same place. That time, I remembered the stories my parents had told me of the people who lived off somewhere in the distance. Then I did not feel like it was an end. Then, I tried to imagine what those people in the distance must be like. That is when I decided to go search for them.
The night is coming and I am beginning to feel cold. I build a fire in the same way my father used to. I brought both tinder and coal along with me in my traveling bundle. But first I build a tiny hut over the top of the tinder before adding the coal and then blowing on it. My father used to say, “this hut is like the people who once lived on this earth, so build it carefully and make it look good.” Then I sit down next to the fire with the boulder protecting me from the wind. The wind almost always blows in from the west. That is the direction of the endless waters. That is what my parents called it when they spoke of it. I know it by a different name now, after living next to it. As I sit watching the flames I think it would be good to play my whistle. So I pull it out and I play the song of yoshi, the thing my parents called the endless waters. After watching the moon rise as I play, I decide it is time to play the song of the woman, that is all I ever called her. She was my lover for so many years.
I add a bit of wood to the fire every so often as I play. Playing helps me to remember things about her, things I want to remember.
There was a story my father used to tell about the endless waters. He said there was a wide river that flows into the water. The fish were so many that an entire village could never eat them all. In this place there was a village of people. They swam in the waters like fish and warmed themselves in the sun. I thought about this place all the time. I wondered if it was still the same as how he described it. If it was, why didn’t we go to this place. I planned on going there someday and see it for myself.
When sister died, I was left all alone, there was nothing left for me in my home. I was still very young and strong. Everywhere I looked, I saw only shadows and the ghosts of my family. Sometimes I wished I could join the ghosts, and the pain of my loneliness would end. But then I remembered my father’s stories of the village by the endless waters. So I began thinking in my head… planning.
Long ago I sat on this boulder behind me now and I planned my journey to the endless waters. I looked out over the land and I traced a path in my mind. I looked at the curves, the rocks and the gentle places, looking for the easiest path to follow. I wanted to avoid the jagged canyons and steep mountains.
I began by walking in the direction of the setting sun. At first I only saw those places familiar to me, the lake where my family lived in the warm months. They named it after a bear that killed one of the family, so long ago; bad bear lake. Then I followed the stream which trickled out of the lake. We call it singing creek. I stopped there for some time and listened to the sound of the water. I played my whistle along with the sound.
This was the creek where the mountain fish lived, the silver and red-sided fish of the cold snow-melted water. I hopped from rock to rock as I walked. It was a slow and dangerous way to travel. But when we are young the danger enlivens us. Sometimes the brush on the side of the creek became thick and impassable and sometimes I had to walk through the cold water to get to the next rocks. For most of that first day I followed the creek, until it changed direction. I wanted to always be following the direction of the setting sun, so I began to walk on the trails that the deer used, narrow trails that pushed through the brush. I knew the coyotes, wolves and bear share these trails. I knew this because I had followed them many times before, while hunting with father.
When I look at my old feet now as I sit in front of this fire, I see how bent, cracked and worn down they look. These feet could never hop from stone to stone like they once could. I never wore foot coverings then, I could feel the earth better and grip the stones better.
Towards the end of the first day hiking, I approached the top of a ridge that was familiar to me in a misty kind of way. Maybe I had been there with my father when I was very young. On top of this ridge stood a gnarled, ancient tree with all its limbs reaching out in only one direction, that was the direction of the winter sun. I liked looking at that old tree that was twisted by the difficulty of were it lived.
The sun was getting low in the sky, and I decided to spend the night under this old tree. It wasn’t the most comfortable place, but I wanted to be there looking up through its branches. My traveling roll was mostly the same is it is now: two softened deer skins tied together along one side and rolled up with all my possessions inside. Of course, I carried food; dried meat, pine nuts, and dried berries. My tools were; a fire kit, my bow and five arrows, a knife. But I also carried some things which helped me tell my story. It was mother who talked to me about how it was important to be able to tell our own story. So I carried my small whistle, several small sticks carved in the shape of animals, and a small book I used for my drawings.
The book and the knife were both items I had found on on hunting trips with father. They must have been made by the ghost people. Father found the knife inside of one of the huts made by the ghost people. It was a huge square, heavy hut with many chambers inside. I remember being so scared of of that place. My father had used that knife nearly everyday. The book I found myself while hunting with my sister not long before I left on my journey. There were still many blank pages at the time. Inside our old hut I had many books filled with pictures I had drawn. These books must have been something the ghost people used to draw their own pictures in to tell their own stories. I had seen many of these books filled with their pictures. I learned from them and copied them at first.
I use the ends of burnt sticks to draw stories in my books. I still carry a drawing book with me today, though it is already full and their is no room for anymore pictures. Which is how my life is also.
The whistle was made for me by mother and she showed me how to play it when I was very young. She showed me how to copy the sounds of noises I heard; birds, creeks, or the call of a wolf. I liked to play the whistle at night before going to sleep, it puts me at ease. The bow and arrows I made myself in the manner father had taught me. It took me many, many years of practice to make a good bow and a good arrow. But once I was good I made some that could go farther and straighter than father ever could. The carved animals were toys sister and I had made. They were part of our imaginary games. We gave voices to the animals and moved them through the air, pretending they were moving. Those animals were the most dear to me.
As the sun began to touch the far off ridge, I drank some water from my deer skin pouch I carried around my waist and ate some of my dried venison and berries. I gathered some small nearby sticks and dried leaves for a fire. But waited to start it until later. I held my whistle to my lips and made a few sounds before I stopped and listened to all the sounds around me again. A slight breeze was blowing through the leaves of the tree above me. There were small birds making their end of day sounds as they flitted around on the limbs. I made some more sounds on my whistle and thought about the ghosts that had once lived here on this land. I saw these ghosts often and spoke to them sometimes. But that night I saw none. I only stared into the dark limbs of the tree which stood over me. Once it was dark, I started a small fire and began to draw in my book. The stars were thick in the sky above me as the moon was not up yet. I used the light of the fire to draw with. My first drawing of that journey was my sister.
I remember having many dreams on that journey. And many of those dreams stuck with me as well as real events stuck with me. Underneath that ancient tree I dreamed of a woman. It was the first of many dreams I was given, with many different types of woman playing a part.
That night there was a dream of a woman who touched me like my mother used to touch me. I walked on orange-colored earth hand in hand with the woman. All the trees around us were orange-colored. It felt serene, I can still recall that serene feeling after all these years. When I awoke I realized it was only a dream and I tried to return to my sleep and recapture my dream, but it would not come back. I thought of how the woman touched me in my dream, as I hiked down the ridge and continued my journey toward the setting sun direction.
I can’t remember how many days I hiked until one day I noticed the soil I was walking on, was orange like in my dream. Then I looked around and I saw the orange-barked short trees growing all around me. Above the short orange trees were the tall oak trees with limbs that reached out so far. The ground was littered with their leaves and broken acorn shells. I thought a family could eat very well in such a place. There in that land full of acorns.
The curves of the ridges around me and the shade of green in the bushes and trees looked like nothing I had seen from my high mountaintop on a very clear day. It was a new unseen place to me and I felt excited to wonder what was next. I listened carefully and looked carefully hoping and also fearing to find signs of people.
One day while walking I felt the presence of someone else walking nearby. I heard the sound of soft foot prints but with the weight of a large body. I did not turn to look, but I listened carefully while I walked. I knew that sound. It was how sawat would walk whenever she followed me and sister. I hadn’t heard or seen sawat since sister died, but I always knew that she was there watching. She came so close to me that I could hear her breath and I wanted to turn and look, but I knew sawat would disappear into the brush if he tried to look at her. I wanted her to follow me, I wanted her to stay close, so I just kept my eyes on the path in front on me.
The two of us walked together all day long, sometimes sawat walked so close that I could smell her. Her smell was a woman’s smell, but it was mixed with the dusty smell of the bear hide she wore. It made me feel contented that sawat was following me. I even imagined that she might sleep beside me that night. However, as soon as the sun became low in the sky, she disappeared into the brush. I looked around when I heard her leave, but I couldn’t see her anywhere.
I kept walking, and feeling that sense of aloneness return. I slept alone again that night. I dreamed of coming to a forked path on my journey. Someone had told me about this forked path, they had described it to me carefully and told me which one to take. One direction would take me to the people who lived by the endless waters. Those people whose lives were so plentiful and they would welcome me and embrace me. The other path would lead the way of the ghost people and their skeletons which littered the land all around me. I stood looking at the fork in the path trying to remember which way to go, but I couldn’t remember. I stood there not wanting to make the wrong choice, until I just guessed and followed one path. I hoped that I could turn around and go back if it seemed like the wrong one.
I remembered that dream well when I awoke in the morning and I thought about my dream of a fork in the trail, as I hiked that day. But it didn’t seem to fit my journey. Instead I saw many trail branches going in many different directions. And most of the paths I followed were barely visible, just wide spaces in the brush.
Towards the end of that day I saw something in the distance that didn’t fit with the trees, the brush and the grass. It was one of many of the houses left by the ghost people. They always built things with squares, I always thought of the ghost people when I saw square sides. There were two crystals my mother kept in our hut and whenever I looked at them I thought of the ghost people.
I had passed by many houses along my way and was sure there would be many more. But something about this house made me wonder. It was in better shape then most and seemed to be made out of some kind of square stones. Out of curiosity I decided to go inside.
It was not easy to enter one of the ghost people’s house. They seemed dangerous and foreboding. When you left one of those houses it felt like whatever doom inflicted them, clung to you. I prepared myself with thoughts just as I did when planning to do something dangerous.
The windows were all broken and the doors were broken open. There were scents of wetness, mold, rat and raccoon droppings. At first I stepped back outside to get some fresh air and nearly left. But then I returned holding my nose. There were dishes, forks, spoons, clothing scattered about. I looked through the clothing and found one large covering I thought might be useful. Most of the ghost people wore tight clothes that felt binding, but this was more of a large piece of warm cloth.
I entered a room with a large soft square bed and sat on it for a bit, feeling the softness. There were shelves in this room and some still had books on them but most of the books were scattered over the floor. Among the books on the floor were some folded pieces of paper, which interested me. I unfolded several of them and studied them. I knew they were maps of something. I remembered my father drawing a map on occasion, but these maps were drawn with very detailed lines and colors I didn’t recognize. There were also names on the map which I couldn’t read. My father knew knew what some of those names meant, but I had never learned any of them. Two of these maps showed what I thought were the endless waters and maybe they also showed my home, but I wasn’t sure.
There were also other pieces of paper on the floor which showed pictures of mostly women and men having sex with each other. The pictures were very real looking, whoever drew them was very skilled. Their bodies were strangely hairless and their penises and breasts seemed very large. It made my own penis stand up, looking at these pictures. They really seemed to be some other kind of “people”. But it did remind me of how father and mother would press their bodies together and make their pleasure noises. These pictures showed all the little things, like the little bumps around a woman’s nipple and the tip of a man’s penis as the woman slid it into her vagina.When I left that house I took the two maps of the endless waters, the large warm piece of cloth and about five of those pictures of men and women having sex.
This was more than I usually took from one house. It is a child that takes more than he needs. But I needed more things when I was younger. Now I don’t need a warm covering because my time is done. I don’t need a map because I have nowhere to go. I don’t need to be reminded about sex because I have no interest. All these things only tie me to the world of the living.
I didn’t stop at the house long before I began hiking again. Soon there were buildings everywhere, collapsed, burnt, covered with vines and bushes. I avoided them and even took paths that led away from all these wrecked houses. There were bones of the ghost people everywhere and I was tired of seeing them.
That night I found a wide old oak tree where I unrolled my bundle, played some notes on my whistle and started a small fire. My thoughts were a mix, of the dream of the woman who touched me, and the pictures of hairless women and men with big breasts and penises playing together. I pulled out one of the pictures I brought with me. While looking at that picture in the firelight, I pretended to be the man with the woman sliding my penis inside her. I massaged my penis until it spurted its bit of milky liquid and wondered what made me my mind so crazy just seconds previously. The magic of looking at the pictures of naked people disappeared. As usual, sleep came quickly afterwards.
In the morning as I walked, the animals were everywhere. Birds I rarely saw in the mountains home were common here, blue jays, crows, robins. Deer crashed through the brush as I walked and then stopped to stare at my strangeness. Coyotes walked the paths, sometimes ahead and sometimes behind. I tried talking to them and I think they listened but they only looked at me is if they were looking at a ghost. I must have been a ghost to them, since they had probably never seen a live walking person before. Off in the distance I once saw a bear sniffing the earth. This reminded me to be careful and walk slowly. It was the wolves that worried me. The packs here were larger and they stood taller than the mountain wolves. I walked with a bow in my hand all the time and stopped that day to make a long, strong spear out of the orange barked tree.
After many days of walking I came to the top of another ridge. It gave me a wide view of the land below me. I stood there for the longest time just looking out.The colors were so strong; yellow, orange, and blue of wildflowers covered entire hillsides. Shades of greens covered hills which sank or rose like waves. There were lonesome trees which grew out of the hills. In the middle of this valley stood an immense lake, and at the edges of this lake grew tules that were thick with flocks of birds. I could hear the birds even from my faraway distance. Out of the middle of this lake stood a number of buildings as tall as three or four trees. Flocks of birds flew from one building to another leaving the buildings covered in white bird guano. Trees and shrubs grew out of broken windows and on the rooftops. Islands rose out of the lake with crumbled houses visible beneath the cover of trees and brush. The place was loud with life, but nowhere did I see a sign of a single person.
Before moving on, I looked back at the tall white covered mountains I knew so well. For a moment, my dream of the fork in the path held me. I could return to my home or go forward into the unknown. I was young so it was an easy choice to move forward. I wanted to feel those soft green mountains on the other side of the lake. I didn’t know how I would cross the lake, but I thought the endless waters must be on the other side of the soft green mountains. Surely, this water was a sign of much more water ahead.
I found a spot on the ground there, overlooking the land and water below. I sat and ate, made sounds on my whistle and thought. As the sun sank behind the mountains in front of me, I noticed on a nearby ridge, movements of some creature. I could see the thick pelt covered body of sawat moving down a path. She looked in my direction for a moment, then turned and kept walking.
I had never seen sawat without her bear skin covering and had hardly ever seen her face. I wondered if her face was the face of person or if it was more of a fur covered face like a bear. Father said sawat was part woman and part animal. She was a woman who showed herself when she had a message to tell. She watched over our family, helping us when it was needed. She warned us of bears before they arrived. Once when the snows were too deep to walk we found a deer that had been killed for us, we knew it was Sawat. Mother used to draw pictures of Sawat when things were very hard for our family. When hunger came or an injury came to one of us. That night, in the firelight I drew a picture of Sawat watching over the family. I had not seen her face or her skin so I drew what my mother used to draw.
I’ve carried that picture with me to the mountaintop because it is one that I would like to look at before I die.
I listened to the sounds that night, and I thought of my family. For a moment I saw my family there with me around the fire; father looking down into the fire and poking it, his lean muscles showed as he squatted and bounced lightly on his legs, the light dancing on his skin, mother sat cross-legged stitching something in her lap, her long hanging breasts swayed with her movement and her was face contented as she listened to sister chattering away happily, and sister moving around as usual, and talking. In that moment she spoke of Sawat. I wanted to stay there visiting with my family all night. But the call of wolves in the distance made my dream fade away. Their sounds worried me all night, I wondered how far away they were, how many of them there were, and where they were moving. I was glad Sawat was out there watching.
My dreams that night were of sawat walking beside me, we were holding hands and she was leading the way. She spoke without a sound coming from her mouth. When we the water began to look around for a stick and I watched her. I wanted to touch her breasts. Her nipples were red, like a large manzanita berry. I stood close to her, feeling her skin against my skin. Suddenly we were floating on the stick she had found. We floated on the water but it felt like air. It was like we were together on a feather with a breeze blowing us across a pond.
I awoke in the morning and looked out over the land, thinking about my dream and about my family. In the morning light, the colors of the rolling hills were bright with greens, spots of yellow and blue with the brown behind everything. I looked for the narrowest spot in the lake. That lake seemed to go on forever dividing the tall mountains behind me from the soft mountains in front of me. I walked down towards the lake until the trees and brush became thick again. The heat in this place pushed down on me and sweat came pouring of me. Houses were everywhere, most stood upright, they were just covered with plants and moss. There were wide paths of stone that were cracked, with trees and brush pushing up through the cracks. There were also the bones of many of the ghost people just laying about. And those things which they used to move around in, they were like small houses themselves. Now they were all rusted with animals living inside them. When I looked into the houses there were more bones and inside some houses I could see complete skeletons lying flat on the floors.
The ghosts and the heat made me want to leave this place. The place was thick with the deaths of the people who used to live there. I looked carefully and listened. I imaged I could see bodies being drug out onto stone paths and left behind. There was mostly silence, only weak moans and intermittent coughing filled the air. The blanket of death was so heavy there was no fight, only quiet resignation. They waited for death to come to them, in their suffering they welcomed it. This was how I saw ghosts, if I sat in a place and listened carefully, the past left its faint shadow behind and I could hear it and sometimes see it.
It did not linger too long by the houses. The ghosts were too vivid and the suffering too powerful. I walked toward the lake. As I came closer I saw that my path was blocked by a thick covering of tules, all I could see were the stalks of green. I pushed my way through the stalks until I could wade in the water. The mud on the bottom of the lake billowed up with each footstep I took. The soft muddy bottom felt good under my feet. The water was warm, compared to mountain water. And it gave my some relief from the ever-present heat. I walked out into the lake until the water was above my waist. I looked out across the lake, the sunlight glimmered on the ripples of water. I shielded my eyes from the brightness. Then I crouched down until only my head was above water. Crouching there I recalled my dream of floating on the water, side by side with sawat, touching her breasts. The pleasant thoughts and feeling kept me there for a long time, until I remembered I needed to figure out how to get to the other side. I walked until the water went above my head just to prove to myself I couldn’t walk across.
So I returned to shore and began searching around the lake, looking for sticks and branches anything that might float. I gathered some large, lightweight and straight branches. Ones that seemed like they could be turned into a raft. Then I began to stack them together on a clear piece of ground. I also found some vines that worked well to tie the branches together. They weren’t very strong so I had to use many wrapppings.
Once that part of the raft was complete I returned to the houses looking for a large flat piece of wood. I noticed a large door on one of the houses that would work well. I pulled it off the building and dragging it to an open area, he saw it was dry and clean, it would work for a raft. I lashed some of the large branches to the underside of the large door with some vines I found nearby. Once the raft was finished I drug it down to the lake and into the tules. A cloud of black birds with a red splashes on their wings burst into the air and I jumped. But I kept pushing my way through the tules dragging my raft behind me. Once I was in the open water I stood up on it and rock back and forth to make sure it was stable. There was still plenty of sun left in the day, so I pulled the raft back onto dry land and prepared to hunt for a rabbit or maybe a deer. I strung my bow and brought five arrows with me.
I hiked up a sunny hillside for a better view. I noticed a large stone circle made from large boulders. The boulders were unusually large, bigger than any person could have moved. I tried pushing against one, but could barely rock it back and forth. As I stood near the stone circle I began to feel the presence of ghosts again. They were tall giants looking down on me. I felt helpless in their presence. I sat down on one of the rocks and spent some time taking in the ghosts who had once walked here. I noticed bones strewn about just as they were in the village. But here it was more ominous, there was a skull smashed open as though a person had eaten the inside. In the fire pit there were more traces of smashed and burnt bones.
I imagined a tribe of giants here in this spot. They dragged people here, making a fire to roast and eat them. I saw bodies with their stomachs cut open, tied to long straight tree branches, and roasting over the huge fire pit. The giants kept their prisoners in a pen made from small trees. Twisting their necks when they were ready to roast them on the fire. Smashing their skulls and roasting their brains. These ghosts were killers. The fear blew through me, but I couldn’t move the curiosity held me frozen.
The giants were women with large fleshy breasts, thick arms, large bellies and thick furry crotches. They stood with legs wide apart and wearing fierce expressions. Then I saw myself laying on the ground looking up at a giant woman. I was looking up between her legs and into the thick dark fur of her crotch. I felt hypnotized unable to move. Then I looked into her face and saw the expression in her face. Kneeling over me, she reached down with her hands wrapping them around my neck. Her expression said she would enjoy my death. That is when I startled myself awake, I had fallen asleep on the rock.
But I was unclear on what was real and what had been a dream. I looked around and saw the smashed skull and the charred bones on the fire-pit. Maybe these had been some kind of animals kept in cages and then killed by large people. But ever since my sister died, “reality” seemed an arbitrary thing. So I believed my dreams, I believed that giant women had once set up camp in that spot keeping people in cages and eating them when they became hungry.
I felt uneasy staying in that place. Maybe the giants were still nearby. The bones were old and weathered and grass grew inside the circle. Still, I wanted to get out of that place and out of the heat. I decided not to hunt after all and I returned to my raft among the tules. Pushing the raft through the tules I felt the mud under my feet. I brought along a paddle I had carved and a long pole. I pushed the raft out into the lake, then using the pole I pushed it out farther and farther until I could no long touch the bottom. Then I just let it drift as I lay down looking up into the sky, just thinking.
I looked back at the hillside where he saw the ghosts of the giant women. In that moment I remembered some of the stories father had told me about monsters who lived in the lowlands. My mother didn’t like those stories because they scared us kids, but we loved to hear them and we loved to be scared.
There were any number of various monsters who lived in the lowlands. Some took on a human shape to disguise themselves, others were people disguised as animals and others were just strange creatures. We always thought the monsters stayed down in the lowlands because there was little food for them in the mountains, they needed lots of flesh to eat. We knew his stories were only half real, but just the same we listened carefully. We sat nervously wondering what would happen next as the character in the story, usually a young boy or girl faced a different monster.
I had not thought of those stories for a long time but my dream had reminded me of one story in particular. It was a story about a band of monsters in one of my father’s stories. It was a tribe of giant women who fed on the ghost people by capturing them and then keeping them caged until they were ready to eat them. They killed them by wringing their necks in their bare hands. There was a young boy in this story who was captured by the giants and held in a cage with several others who awaited their fate. He watched as one after another was killed and eaten by the giants until he was alone in the cage. When it came his time to be eaten the Giants began to argue among themselves. Their was one who took pity on him, being such a small boy and another who said he must be eaten. A great battle broke out between these two giant women. It was a battle that raged over the entire hillside. There was twisting of arms, pulling of hair, entire trees were pulled up by their roots and swung around. One giant wrapped her legs around the other until she could breath no more. The victorious one stood over the dead one, looking down at her body. It was the giant who took pity on the boy who prevailed. The band of women feasted for several nights on the flesh of their own who died in the battle. The boy became the winner’s servant. Fetching her water and tools, combing her hair and cleaning her body. He never left her even as he grew to be a man, though there were many times he could have escaped.
I’ve thought back on those stories a lot in my life. There was a time when I thought those old stories my father told were silly. I laughed at how scared I had been listening to them as a child. But now with some many years behind me I see them differently. Now I see them as very real. Not real like a stone but real like a dream. It is a part of a very, very ancient story trying to be told. It is not a story which will grab us and pull us along, like hunger or thirst, it is a quiet story, one that can only be heard if we listen carefully. Sitting on that raft thinking about my father’s stories was just the beginning of me knowing this truth.
As the day passed the shore became more and more distant. My thoughts drifted away from the giant women. I thought of dream of me floating across the water with sawat sitting next to me. I was sorry now about leaving sawat behind me, maybe if I had waited longer, spent the night on the shore, she would have joined me on the raft. I felt a pain inside me. I had never know a time when she wasn’t there somewhere in the shadows. I had only seen her a few times but knowing she wouldn’t be there somewhere was hard to imagine. I told myself I would come back for her after I had seen the endless waters. I would come back and when she saw me she would be so glad to see me she would show herself and wrap her arms around me.
I began to paddled with my stick and it seemed to do nothing… the air smelt slightly of rotting things and bird droppings, but mostly it was the smell of water all around me… I listened to the small waves lapping at the side of my raft, it was a steady unending rhythm…I looked into the water and saw a large fish that drifted near the raft … maybe she thought the raft was a larger fish… a light breeze began to blow and it moved the raft more easily than my paddling…I dreamed of sawat.
Looking back in time I can see the sameness of how it is for me now, sitting on this mountaintop with all of existence surrounding me. It is as though I am all alone floating above. And the people too, we were like a tiny raft floating on a sea of existence. Our awareness of our awareness, it was like a fragile thing that was here and gone in a flash. The stories, they were so many and now they are mostly gone. It is as though the stories wore themselves out.
I sat cross-legged in the middle of my raft just letting the day pass and watching the life around me. Soon darkness came and it finally gave me relief from the heat of that place. I did not whistle or draw nor did I sleep well. I drifted back and forth out of dreams, I imagined myself once again floating on a feather with the sawat next to me, touching me.
I was awake as the sun began to bring a hint of light. Laying on my side and looking across the water I tried to figure out where I was on this huge lake. I could make out something tall and dark in the distance looming over me. I realized that I had drifted far down into the widest part of the lake where the old buildings jutted out of the water. Soon, morning light showed off all the buildings and they were mostly full of birds. As the sun hit the buildings the birds began to sing and squawk. They flew in chaotic groups, up into the air and then back down onto their perches.
The current was moving me slowly along and I could just look around at the sights as I drifted closer and closer to the buildings. I ate some of my dried venison and scooped water from the lake. I came so close to some of the buildings that I could almost touch them. Most were covered thick in bird guano and the windows were smashed out, so that the birds flew in and out of the openings. They perched on every horizontal surface available; in windowsills, on rooftops, and any surface that projected out of the building. When my raft was in the midst of tall buildings, it blocked out the sun which was already beginning to feel hot. I looked into the windows somehow expecting to see people inside but there were none. Just that odd feeling of long dead ghosts. The raft bumped into one of buildings and I had to push off.
The sun was nearly halfway across the sky when my raft made it past the shadow of the bird covered towers. I looked around the lake and tried to judge how long it would be before the current took me to the other side, because that was the direction I was headed. My food was nearly gone, so I thought about catching a fish. I began to carve a fishing spear out of one of the long straight branches I brought with me. I made my spear by splitting the branch into the points at the end, carving a sharp point and a barb on each point. I had often sat silently above a small pool in a quiet stream with that kind of spear in my hands just waiting for a fish to rise to the surface.
I stood on my knees at the edge of the raft, looking into the water holding my spear waiting and waiting. I noticed a large fish raise to the surface and swallow a leaf, which it spit out right away. I gathered a few small wood chips and tossed them into the water. The fish rose again to get a closer look and I speared her, just as I had done so many times before. It was larger than any fish I had seen in the mountains. It did not have the nice silver sides of the fish I knew so well, it was brown on the top and white on the bottom. It smelled like something damp and rotten, but I was hungry so I ignored the smell. I killed it by poking my knife into its head, then I cut it open and removed the intestines. I examined what the fish had been eating…smaller fish, bugs and mud. I cut it up into small chunks so I could eat it raw. It tasted of the of that same rotting smell, so I held my nose as I ate.
As the day began to cool I spent some time paddling. The current seemed to be taking me to a place on the opposite side of the lake and I wanted to stay inside the current. I slept very little that night, my stomach ached from the strange fish I had eaten. Sometime in the darkness I must have fallen asleep because when I awoke the sun was in my eyes. I looked around and could see the buildings far in the distance behind me. And in front of me I could see the tules on the opposite shore…thick, seemingly impenetrable. There was a spot without tules on the opposite shore which the current seemed to be flowing towards. I paddled hard to aim for that spot.
I spent that entire day paddling, trying to stay with the current. I watched the sun shimmering on the water and imagined I was the last person alive, wandering the earth for the rest of my life, seeing nothing but ghosts. I could feel the ghosts even on this lake.
I thought about another story my father had told when I was so young. There was a village which floated on top of the water. This village was like one big raft of logs tied together. The people would travel to the shore in smaller boats when they needed, but most of the time they spent floating. Those people could move through the water with ease… just jump in the water and travel through it like they were fish. There was a mother who lived in that village. When she swam, all the men would look in her direction. She would take off her coverings and pull her long straight black hair behind her. The end of her hair touched rump, just covering the top portion. Her skin was brown, the color of bark, only a shade lighter. And because she went without coverings often, like most of those who lived on the raft, her coloring was smooth all over. She wore a belt around her waist with a spear on one side and several short loops all around.
She would jump into the water with her hands pointing above her head. Then everyone would watch her body as she would move through it with a wave motion… her arms at her side… just how a fish swims. Most of the others would swim by moving their arms and legs back and forth. She would disappear out of view for the longest time and then return to the surface in some distant unpredictable spot. Her head, with wet black hair could be seen in the distance, popping up and then disappearing again. Before she returned to the floating village there were many who were gathered around, waiting. She always had many fish hanging from loops around her waist. She shared with the motherless children first, and then the old ones, but always keeping enough for her own family.
They called this woman “fisher”. She was one of the mothers of that village who often changed their lovers. She would keep a lover in her hut for a few years but then she would tire of him and pick a different one. It seemed like she was looking to hold onto something that couldn’t be touched, like a rainbow.
When fisher’s children began to live on their own, she threw out her last lover and began to live alone for many years. She still swum and brought back fish for everyone. The village still looked on as she prepared herself for her fishing. Some of those people watching her and waiting for her return were now her own children.
One foggy, rainy day she began to prepare herself to go fishing. She removed her coverings and strapped her spear around her waist. But on this day the people watching noticed fisher brought something else with her. A long knife hung down from her strap right between the cheeks of her rump. Fisher swam away, waving her body through the water just as she always did. They could see her knife flashing in the soft foggy light as they watched her rump waving through the water. She quickly disappeared into the fog. Then something large and strange and dark moved through the water in the same direction as fisher. Some of the men said it had the head of a person but the body of a fish.
Fisher never returned to the floating village that day, or any other day, though everyone hoped she would. Fisher became part of their stories. They would build a small fire in the center of the village, twice for each moon. At this fire they would take turns telling stories. One of their favorite subjects was about what happened to fisher after she had dove into the water on that last day. Some stories said she became a fish and finally found her mate in the water. Some said she could be seen walking the shore at times. She had found a village on the shore and became its leader.
Now that I sit on this mountaintop looking back at my life. I can see that the choices I thought I was making I was not making at all. What drove me across that water? I was just playing a role, like fisher in one of those stories. I can’t see the teller of the story because I am inside the story. Even now as I sit on this mountaintop I am inside the story being told. But back then I didn’t know it, but what I needed was the feeling of a woman’s arms around me. My family had always spoken to the animals, the trees and even the stones and sky as though they were people, with the same thoughts and cares. For me that was not enough. Maybe, I would find a village somewhere… maybe I wouldn’t, but I needed the search.
Very slowly the current took me toward the space in the tules. I slept that night drifting and I dreamed of Sawat. I dreamed that I had drifted into the tules. I saw myself floating on a bed of dried tule stalks, a spear in one hand and a thick mist covering all but my hand in front of me. On the shore was Sawat, waiting for me…I climbed down from my raft and stood in front of her…she bent down and put her face close to mine, she said, “I was expecting you.”…I did not answer.
When I awoke then sun was obscured by a dense covering of tules. My raft had drifted right into them, just as I had dreamed. I could not see land or the lake but guessed which way to go from the shadows cast by the sunlight. I pushed my way through the tules with the long pole. Then leaving the raft behind I walked in the soft muddy soil… pushing the tules aside…my legs sunk deep into the mud…I looked down to see mud billowing underneath… it felt good… creatures scurried away in front of me… snakes, birds, small fish. The place was thick with life.
When I finally reached the solid ground I found a place in the sun and lay there on my back with arms and legs stretched out. The mud coated my legs up to my knees, blisters, cuts, scratches and splinters from my paddle and pole stung my skin. But it was good to feel the solid ground again. I just lay there in the morning sun for a long time…it was still fresh with morning shadows. As I lay there uncovered, looking up into the sky, I thought about what father used to say, “we are only specks on the Turtle’s back”. He used to say that while looking up at the night sky filled thick with stars, like soup.
My mind drifted to the story my mother used to say when she heard my father say something like that. They always battled with their thoughts. She said the earth was no turtle, that was just a story for poets. The earth was a huge, round sphere among other huge round spheres floating in space. She said that each star was bigger than the biggest thing you could imagine, and that the sun was just one of those stars that we happened to be circling around as we lived here on the earth. I knew her stories were more real than my father’s stories but his stories brought me sadness, and fear, and anger, and love. My mother’s stories brought me none of those things, but they did help me to predict what would happen next.
Soon the sun became uncomfortably warm, and I stood up and went searching for a creek. I wore only my deerskin foot covers as I walked. I did not have to walk far before he found a rocky creek flowing down the hillside and into the tules. I washed myself and tried to pull out my splinters. I looked for familiar plants and found one with sticky white juice that I knew was good for wounds. It stung for a moment as I rubbed it on. I knew this was a good sign. I unwrapped my bundle and pulled out my the coals I carried with me. Soon I built a small fire and kept it going with nearby sticks. A lizard cooked on the fire was a pleasant meal after the raw dirty tasting fish on the raft. I pulled out my whistle and blew a few sounds, I copied the sounds I heard around me. Those birds I heard in the tules. They were not as scolding as they jays in the mountains, they seemed to be everywhere but in no particular place. There were also sounds of insects I did not recognize, eerie sounds.
I picked up the carved wolf and caressed it with my fingers. Its surface was smooth by the many years of rubbing. Holding it helped bring my sister to my thoughts. They pretend games we would play together. She was always the wolf and I was always a the deer running from her. I stayed in this place all day with my thoughts. And as the sun was low I pulled out my drawing book and drew a picture of the lake and the buildings that stuck out of it.
I lay awake that night staring at the stars, thinking of Sawat. I wondered if she would try to follow me across the lake. It was a warm night, I lay naked under the stars holding my penis with one hand. I imagined the giant woman from my father’s story. I imagined her standing over me… looking down with desire in her eyes… her breasts hanging and moving… her legs leading up to her powerful center… her fur-covered crotch. My penis swelled and I rubbed it, thinking about the imaginary giant woman. I rubbed until that familiar shiver flowed through my body and the foggy liquid splattered onto my belly. Then I felt that pleasant, deep calm and sleep came quickly.
Sometime during the night, an animal walking nearby woke me. The moon was bright enough for me to see it was a raccoon. I always slept with my bow strung, and arrows nearby. I put an arrow into my bow, pulled back the string and sent an arrow flying into the raccoon’s body. She jumped and than ran a short distance before falling on her side. I walked over and plunged my knife into her heart to end her struggles. I did not kill every animal that walked nearby but I was hungry and a raccoon would make a good meal. In the dark I cut out her stomach and hung her body from a tree. When morning came I took her body out of the tree. As I held her, I thought about how much like a person she was. There was still some warmth left in her body and it hadn’t stiffen yet. I looked into her eyes, and for a moment her eyes spoke to me. They did not move, but still they were saying something to me. They spoke to me with a feeling that could not be turned into words. It made me feel comforted and certain that this life of mine was supposed to be.
I cut the flesh of the raccoon and cooked it over my fire, I listened to the sounds around me. I spent that day by the creek, I needed more time to recover from my wounds and to preparing the raccoon, drying the meat and scraping the hide. I looked out over the lake in the direction of my home. The highest mountains were still white with snow. It looked so different from this point of view, I tried to find the exact place I knew as home and imagine what it was like there at that moment. I watched the flocks of birds moving on the lake, they seemed to move like one huge creature quickly changing direction as a single body.
I slept another night, there by the creek, dreaming of sawat. This time we were walking beside each other up a path… out in the open light. We were mates now… we had joined our lives together and touched each other like lovers. She had a face like a person and skin which I could touch. There was a softness to this dream that I wanted to hold on to when I awoke, but as always, it was lost soon after my eyes opened.
In the morning I prepared to continue walking toward the endless waters. My cuts felt better after my day of rest and my body was less sore. As I walk, the land was gentler on this side of the lake, the hills rolled with grasses. The trees and brush were thinner, and paths were plentiful. The paths led mostly uphill, but it was a gentle climb. I continued to avoid the places were ghost people had lived. There was too much trauma and agony in those places. I decided not to look for small remnants of people in places like these. I decided to look only for that village my father spoke of, the one next to the endless waters.
As I walked I looked carefully for what might be food. I carried the dried raccoon meat along with me but leaves, roots, berries or seeds would were always a good addition. I sampled a few roots and leaves just as I had learned, first by placing it on my tongue for a moment and listening to the flavor. The sickness in plants could be tasted if you listened carefully.
I covered a lot of ground that day, but when I looked back I could still see the big lake down below, in the distance. Even from above I could not see its full extent. It was cut off from my view, both to the right of me and to the left of me. I decided to camp in that spot looking down at the lake.
As the shadows grew long, a pack of wolves showed themselves on a distant hillside. Watching…I noticed their heads stand up as they looked in my direction. Soon they were moving toward me. I prepared my arrows and my spear…they began to move quickly toward me. I could count six wolves, though two seemed to be pups, the largest wolf was leading the way. When it was close enough I could see it was a male with a light smoky colored fur. The wolves there were larger than the mountain wolves and their fur was darker in color. As the pack came within range of my arrow…he held it ready, targeting the lead wolf. They stood at a distance…talking to me with their bodies… and I spoke back with my body, standing large with my arms spread high… “I am large, I am powerful, Stand back”. The lead wolf hesitated … looking at me trying to decide whether or not I was bluffing…he charged with teeth bared … I sunk an arrow into his body. The wolf yelped and crumbled to the ground…I prepared my next arrow…but the other wolves retreated. As they retreated I charged the wounded wolf with my spear and sank it into his body…aiming for his heart. The wolf gave some last twitches of life before he went limp. I roared at the other wolves …threatening them as well. They quickly scattered into the distance.
Once they had reached a safe distance they stopped and looked back…I remember feeling a kind of sorrow for them… having lost their bravest member… they looked sad and lost. I looked down at the dead wolf, his face was calm and contented in death. I thought about how one day that would be me lying there with death in my eyes. I stroked the wolf’s fur with my hand, it was so nice and thick. The other wolves still stood a safe distance away… soon they began to howl. I pulled my arrow from out of the dead wolf, then sat and listened to the howling for a while. I knew that kind of pain… those connections… lost forever.
I stayed awake throughout the night watching to see if the other wolves returned…they didn’t. In the morning I carefully began to cut the dead wolf to prepare him to be eaten. When I was done skinning and cutting his meat, I started a fire. I put strips of his meat on a rock next to the fire to dry them out. I prepared the hide to carry with me but I scrapped all the meat off the bones because I would leave those behind. There were no wolves to be seen anywhere. I sat playing notes on my whistle and looking out over the land…waiting for the meat to dry. I watched how the wind played on the waters of the big lake, working with the sun and creating varying shimmering patterns. I could still see the white mountains in the distance. The air was gentle, it felt good against my bare skin. There were very few insects in that spot so I went uncovered most of the time.
While I sat there waiting for the meat to dry I remembered something that happened during my childhood.
We were gathering pine-nuts…my sister, my mother and myself. It was the time of the year when the days are warm but your breath shows in the morning. We were camped by the the big lake…it was a grove of pine trees we knew well… a two day hike from our home. As we worked… toward the middle of the day…. a large black wolf came walking toward us. Her fur was long and gleamed in the sun… her expression was not threatening. She stopped… about the distance of a spear’s toss from mother. Mother stood in front of my sister and myself… we hid behind her legs and looked out between them. She was a lone wolf… there in the forest. Mother did not try to scare her off…instead she knelt down to invite her closer. The wolf walked toward us…her head and tail lowered. When she was within arms reach… she put her body on the ground and rolled on her back. Mother reached out and stroked her fur. Mother squatted… stroking the she-wolf for a long time… the she-wolf had a kind of smile on her face and mother looked at her with an understanding gaze… as though they could speak to each other with their eyes. A sound in the distance spooked the she-wolf and she jumped up… looked around… then ran off. Afterwards we asked question after question about the strange wolf. We asked why was this wolf all alone, where was she going, did she want to eat us? Mother only said she didn’t know to all our questions. “For a moment I imagined there was a woman inside that wolf and we shared something between us”, that was the only thing she said about seeing that wolf.
I had these memories while I held my carved wooden wolf in my hand and while rubbing it with my fingers. There was something so lonesome about that memory. I must have felt like that lonesome wolf cut off from its pack with all her memories behind her and no memories in front of her. But like my mother I really didn’t know, sadness usually comes from thinking you do know.
I set up camp in that spot where the lead wolf died and began to make a long spear, which would protect me from the other wolves. I heard their sad howls during the night… it brought some tears to my eyes. But still I was prepared if they came back for me. My dreams that night were of mother. She was sitting across the fire from me…eating…. the wolf which I had killed. A smile came across her face as she ate. It was the smile which always made me feel easy again. Her skin gleamed as it did in the firelight and her breasts swayed with her movements. “We must put away the pine-nuts before the snows come” she seemed to be saying. And I silently agreed with her.
I was surprised in the morning by the sunlight in his eyes, I had slept later than I had planned. Looking around me, he saw the wolf skeleton and the meat drying in strips. I had fallen asleep while I had intended to watch the meat all night. I spent that morning preparing to continue my journey. I found a place for the dried meat in my roll and I finished scrapping the wolf skin. Before leaving I placed the skull of the wolf on a rock looking out over all the land. As I left I stopped to glance back at the wolf skull overlooking the valley and the waters below.
My journey led me uphill into mountains again, but they were not the kind of mountains I knew as home. They were soft, dirt covered mountains, thick with trees and brush. The earth was brown and loamy. Many of the trees grew with long crooked limbs that reached out like twisted arms. I liked walking under the trees and looking up into the outstretched limbs. They made a dark and shady home for all kinds of birds and squirrels. The animals were thick once again, coyotes looked at me from a distance, rabbits stood motionless and then disappeared in the brush as I walked by. I saw a bear for the first time he looked over his shoulder at me just briefly as though I was a small nuisance. He looked like he was on his way to somewhere important.
The valley and my mountains of home were now far behind me and out of sight. The trees became thicker and the brush thinner as I followed the direction of the setting sun. After another day’s hiking, I came to the top of another mountain. The trees here were giants, their trunks were larger than even the largest I had seen at the big lake. I looked up a could see only their red/brown trunks, branches reaching out and the green everywhere. The sun was completely blocked out. Except there were a few spots where the trees grew in a large circle, I could stand in the center of that cirlce and look up and see the blue sky above and the light streaming down through the branches. It was like walking inside a giant house. It became very quiet, inside that house of giant trees. The animals were nowhere to be seen, only birds flitting about in the high limbs. The air cooled off and smelled of something unfamiliar to me, like something salty and rotting.
Soon I was walking into a thick white cloud which softly covered everything. I found a comfortable spot inside a circle of the huge trees. I laid out my fresh wolf skin and sat on that, it protected me from the many sticks and sharp leaves which covered the ground everywhere. The earth felt spongy underneath my wolf skin. Looking up into the mist at the trees, I admired how their trunks disappeared into the mist. I ate a bit of jerky and drank water from my skin. The air felt cool against my bare skin so I covered myself.
As I pulled my deerskin over my head, I noticed some movement just at the edge of the mist…I froze and my heart raced…through the mist I could make out a tall standing figure watching me. My first thoughts were of a strange person living there among tall trees…but when I looked more carefully I recognized the movements of sawat. She was still covered in furs and was looking straight at me through the mist. This was her way of letting me know she was still with me. We stood silently watching each other through the mist, when I saw her eyes I though she wanted to say something to me. I could clearly see her eyes moving inside her bear mask as she stood watching me. She was big, about the size of the small bear whose skin she wore. I hoped she would walk toward me and we could touch and maybe sit together. We could talk and share our thoughts. But she disappeared back into the mist, leaving me alone again. I wondered how sawat could have crossed the big waters, I considered that it might be a different sawat? But it was her face and her way of moving and I knew in my own mind it was her…it was my sawat the one who has always watched over me and followed me.
The mist began to thin as I walked downhill. It was half sunlight and half mist through the canopy of trees. It was as if the sky and the earth were arguing over who should be in charge. In the distance I thought he heard the sound of a creek. As I walked closer the sound became more clear until I could see the water. It was a misty, fern covered creek with lots of soft soil at its edges. I couldn’t walk down inside of it and hop from stone to stone. Instead I followed the trails which following alongside and above. I listened for the sound of water as I walked.
I found another spot there inside a circle of the giant trees. Laying out my bedroll I listened to the sound of the creek as I played some notes on my whistle. I prepared to spend his night there. I looked upward through the circle of trees into the sky and drew a picture while it was still light.
They were the same stars and the same moon that I am looking at right now, as I sit on this mountaintop. The loneliness then is the same as the loneliness now. We are born as half of something, always searching for the part which can complete us. Without the searching there is no story. And without the story there is only silence.