Henry ran his long dark fingers over the carved silver square. He opened one of the small drawers at the top of the mahogany chest and took out a polishing cloth. The figures on the two inch square winked in and out of view as the light blue fabric rubbed them gleaming.
He saw his reflection in the mirror above the chest of drawers. The white shirt he wore offset his skin. Black hair pulled tightly from his face, already in a neat braid down the middle of his back. Carefully, he took a black hair band from the dish on top of the dresser and threaded it through the hole incised at the top of the square. Secured it at the top of his braid, just at the nape of his neck.
The silver shone at the place spirit came. The place the ancestors whispered. The place of vision, light, darkness, and sound.
The square was a sign of his dedication to the Gods. It was inscribed with symbols that showed he was favored of Ilyana – She Who Walks the Crescent. Lady of the Gleaming Knife.
The bedroom was simple. Wooden bed frame holding a queen mattress, covered with cotton sheets and a burgundy blanket. The mahogany chest and mirror. A closet for the remainder of their clothing. Everything else was contained in the altar room: his drums, rattles, offering bowls, scrying mirror, bones for divination, herbs for sacrifice and to induce Seeing. And the paintings. The paintings made by his beloved Paco, whose bright eyes saw everything so real, so clear. Paco, whose head tucked just inside his shoulder when they slept at night. Paco, who would bring him cold tea in a green glass in the middle of August. Paco, whom he cooked for, laughing. Who would swing him away from the stove to dance to the music always blasting through the kitchen speakers.
Paco, who was gone. Missing for seven days. He would wander sometimes, it was true. When a vision took him he could get a little lost, but he never was gone for more than the time it took for the moon to go from dark to the size of a baby’s smile. When Her knife appeared again in the sky, he always came back home. Not this time.
Henry walked into the kitchen, emptied the old grounds into the metal compost container on the tiled counter. Tamped new ones in. Added a shake of cinnamon. The smell of the grounds alone woke up his mind. They cleared his head. He placed the old silver espresso pot on the stove, turned on the gas and lit a match. His mother had used the battered pot daily when he was a boy. Now she drank green tea. The burner whoomfed into flame. Someday, when they had more money, he’d get a new stove. Paco had been bothering him for one for two years. “I like old things” was all Henry would say. But really – the painter slash substitute teacher and the priest – they just never had the cash to hand.
He brought his coffee outside to the terra cotta deck just off the kitchen door. A saguaro lifted arms in praise to the morning sky. The small flowers were just starting to give soft color to the bushes. Henry took in a deep breath of the desert air, drawing in the scents of sage and earth. The earth here was almost as red as the tiles. A far cry from New York City, but he loved this place like home. It wasn’t just because of Paco, though that was what drew him in the first place. The desert had seeped into his pores. It honed his stillness, sharpened his gaze. Ilyana was alive here in a different way than the Williamsburg streets. There, she was about cutting through the crowd, slicing up the bullshit. Living hard as steel, quick as the flash of a blade under a streetlamp.
In the desert, She showed another face. Here, She pared him down to work and love. He read the bones and ground the herbs. Ran a small shop that catered to the working people who needed a little extra help to get by sometimes. Guidance. A prayer for money. Health. Enough rain.
The clamor inside him had died down enough that he caught Her other lessons: simplicity, clarity, clean lines in and out. The horizon was a blade drawn opening between earth and sky. The shadows showed Her contrast: bright and dark. He had learned that the city judgements were the byproducts of living in close quarters, trying to carve out a deeper way to feel and see. Things were so muddied there, he’d had to use more force to hear and see. Part of that was forcing things into shapes they didn’t hold naturally – like calling something good or bad when it just was.
Out here, day and night, cool shadow and searing sun were just that. And Paco just loved him, no agenda.
He sipped at the rich espresso with the hint of cinnamon. The white cup was tiny. Paco would tease him. “Your hands are so big, Henrico. Why don’t you make a regular cup of coffee in a mug?”
“I like old things,” he would reply again. He loved the connection to his mother every time he used her old espresso pot. He also secretly liked the delicacy of the cup, the way he had to grip it between two fingers with care. Delicacy was a teacher, too. It was another way to hold the Lady’s knife.
He hoped he didn’t have to pick up Her knife tonight.
He was out under the night sky, listening, rattle ready, knife strapped to his hip. The breeze that crossed the desert during sunset had died down. Ilyana’s blade was on the rise. A nighthawk trilled off to the west. Something small rustled in the sage, shifting the scent toward Henry’s nostrils. He closed his eyes. Turned his head, one ear toward earth, one ear toward sky, head beginning to nod. The hand holding his rattle began to shake in time with the nodding. His right foot stomped the rhythm, soft at first, as Henry let his body accustom itself to the energy. The dance always took its own time. Nothing he could do would change it. After sixteen years he had finally learned to just listen and let go.
A low keening rumbled in his throat, rising into the air. He felt the square of silver begin to buzz. The ancestors were gathering around. He could feel their whispers starting, “What is happening? How are you? Do you know what little Henry is doing? I love your new dress, chiquita! Do you think he needs our help?”
The rattle grew louder. Now both of Henry’s feet were marking time, stomping on the packed red earth. He was dancing. His head raised to track the knife blade crescent of the moon. The ancestors were all well and fine, he would feed them later, but for now, he was waiting for the one who came out of the night.
He danced in a circle, shuffling and swooping, stomping and rattling. The air began to bend, putting pressure on his skin. He kept dancing. Kept moving clockwise then outward, clockwise, then out. Marking the directions on the ground. A sunwheel pattern danced under the moon.
It was getting harder to breathe, like he was dancing underwater. But it wasn’t quite here. Not yet. Not yet.
Sweat pooled on his upper lip. He could feel it there, and in the small of his back. A warm prickling sensation as the water beaded on his skin. Ran down into his jeans. Henry looked at the moon. She was wavering. No. The air was stretching and contracting. The moon was constant.
Henry danced faster, more precisely. He made sure his feet touched the red earth just so. The pattern was exact inside him. He danced out that exactness. The rattle wound its sound around his head, he met it with his singing. The pressure grew stronger and stronger, like it was coming from outside and inside, ready to bust out through his chest and into his belly.
He couldn’t hold it anymore. He dropped, knees and palms hitting the ground, rattle rolling out of his right hand. He’d feel this later. Right now, he was just relieved to be able to take in a heaving breath. A coyote walked out of the shrub, silvery gray in the darkness. It trotted right up to where Henry was crouching, still gasping to take breath. The coyote touched a nose to Henry’s forehead. Henry looked into it’s eyes. And fell in.
Red rock rising from the desert floor, pale tips lifting to the sky. Sunlight. Full day. Paco's spirit, struggling with something. Paco was there.
Henry fell face down onto the dirt. The vision left him. The coyote touched a paw to Henry’s head. He rolled to one side, staring at the fur on its legs. This close, he could see white, gray, tan. As varied as the desert flowers when you took the time to look.
“You’ll be wanting water,” he croaked out. “Me too.” Henry crawled over to the cluster of rocks where he’d stashed a small day pack. Pebbles ground into his hands and knees, but he couldn’t muster the strength to walk. Not quite yet. He pulled out the bottle of water, and a small offering bowl. Henry always came prepared. Pouring water onto the earth first, he muttered a prayer to the ancestors and the spirits of the place, thanking them for the vision. He then filled the bowl and set it around a foot away. Coyote drew closer. Drank. Henry drank himself, wincing at the pain in his cheek where it had slammed into the ground. Damn. He washed the coppery taste of blood and saliva from this mouth. Spit it out into the desert, another offering of water.
The silver square buzzed against his braid. “Shit. Shouldn’t have done that.” It was dangerous to spit out blood when spirit was this close. Too easy for anything to track him down, if they had the mind, or wanted a taste of priest dreams. He crawled to where the spit had landed and washed it away with more water, tracing a sigil in the mud for good measure. A confusion glyph. A symbol that said “Look away.” New York City magic. Sometimes it worked.
That was the best he could do. He pushed himself up off the ground, testing his legs. He should be able to manage a walk back home. The coyote was gone, the crescent moon was heading toward the west. Henry put the water and bowl in his pack, found his rattle, and began limping.
His heart was still enough of a New Yorker to want to charge off and find Paco right away. His mind and body knew better. He’d set out after first light. After more water, food, and sleep.
Henry had decided he’d need help getting Paco home once he found him. He called Lupita, Paco’s cousin. She’d stay clear headed about the whole thing, both the physical rescue and any metaphysical elements that might arise. They were cruising through the desert in her jeep, heading for the mesa. The one with the tower of white tipped red that rose even higher than the table itself. The Praying Rock, Paco called it. Henry should have known he’d be up there.
Paco liked to go out walking with a Camelback water pack, a small sketchbook, and a little tin of watercolors. Throw some protein bars, a jacket and bandana in, and he was good to go. But not for seven days.
Sometimes Paco’s visions gripped him. That’s why his paintings were so powerful. He painted what he saw, alright, he just saw things that the rest of us never would. Once, Henry found him scratching giant figures in the earth. Ten feet long, some of them. He was working methodically, carefully. It was clear he’d been working for several hours every day, because there were around twenty of the things out on the desert floor. “My sketchbook was too small this time, handsome. You know how it gets.” They took pictures of the figures with Henry’s phone before he dragged Paco back home for a shower, some beans and tortillas cooked on that old stove, and then to bed for twelve hours.
Henry did know how it got, he thought, staring out at the red desert as the jeep ate up the road. They’d be off the tarmac soon, onto one of the dirt roads that criss crossed the vast spaces out here. To get to the Praying Rock, they’d have to leave even those. Lupita’s jeep had handled worse.
He knew how it got because sometimes the Gods and Goddesses were too big for his head to handle. He would be rocking on the patterned rug in the altar room, trying to breathe as they spun through his body, cracking open the back of his skull. Once, Paco had found him there, whispering nonsense syllables and tracing the pattern on the carpet with his hands. The silver square at the base of his skull was white hot. Paco had poured blessed water over it before wrapping his fingers in a shawl to slide it off, and loosening Henry’s braid. Sometimes the Gods used Henry. It seemed like a fair trade off. He had been known to use them, too.
“Where you think he’s at?” Lupita asked. Her dark hair whipped around her face where it had escaped from her baseball cap. She had a great profile. Beautiful like a falcon. Paco sketched her when she would sit still long enough, which wasn’t very often. She drove with precision, hands always at nine and three on the wheel. Eyes always looking for what was coming.
“I saw him at the very top. We’ll have to climb.”
“You have your walkie talkie?”
He nodded. They shouldered their packs and moved toward the red giant rising toward the merciless blue sky. When had he ever expected mercy from the land? Henry’s skin was dry as a porcupine’s quill. They started up the footpath, worn from years of teenagers looking for a place to drink beer and pilgrims seeking a vision that they couldn’t find behind the safety of their doors.
Thirty minutes into the climb, Henry was beginning to regret the fact that he didn’t go hiking much. His boots were wearing blisters on his heels and his thighs and calves were starting to complain. Lupe barely looked winded. She was one badass woman. Trained in Kenpo for a decade. Roped horses for her day job. She caught his look and paused. “Drink some water,” she said, holding out the flexible tubing attached to her pack. She was carrying the bulk of their water. Henry had a canteen attached to his pack, but the bag was filled with medical supplies, just in case, and a long coil of Lupe’s rope.
He drank, then poured some water on his kerchief, and wiped his face before tying the damp cloth around his neck. Looking up the tower, he saw that they were almost there. Another fifteen minutes should do it.
He began to chant a prayer inside his head, keeping time with his steps. The incline was getting steeper and he was starting to wish he’d worn gloves. He grabbed at some scrub to steady himself, and pulled himself up the last five feet.
Paco. Henry’s breath whooshed out from his chest. Oh Lady, look at him. He was lying stretched out in full sun, face up, arms and legs spread like a golden eagle’s. Henry could see the blisters rising on his face and the palms of his hands. Thank the Gods he was wearing a long sleeved cotton shirt and jeans.
Henry and Lupita scrambled toward him. Henry dropped to his knees, barely wincing as last night’s bruises hit the rock. Lupita crouched at Paco’s head, fingers on his neck, checking for pulse. He laid his ear on Paco’s chest. Felt it rise.
“His heart is beating.”
She dribbled some water into Paco’s mouth, then wet a clean handkerchief to lay over his burning face. Henry ripped through the pack, looking for salve and bandages.
“You’ll have to rope him to me, so we can get him down. We can’t wait up here for rescue to arrive.”
They had gotten him down, strapped to Henry’s back. It took too long for Henry’s peace of mind, Lupe leading the way, helping him when the path got rough, bracing him when he started to slide.
Paco was finally out of the hospital. He’d been in the burn unit for awhile. Henry visited every day. Sometimes Paco was lucid, other times, he was in dreamtime. Henry could catch occasional words: Luna. Deusa. Demon. Sometimes Paco was smiling. Other times he shook. Henry sat, hands on Paco’s legs to get some contact. He couldn’t hold his ravaged hands.
Nights, after a small dinner of pozole, or nopales, Henry would retreat to the altar room, burning sage, and lighting candles. He took down his biggest drum and called upon the Gods to heal Paco, and to show Henry what the lesson was. “What do I need to know? Whom shall I avenge? Some spirit? Human or divine? Malevolent, mischievous, or just brutally unaware?”
He knew sometimes, when the spirits came, they didn’t understand the skin and bones that humans wore. They could be hard on flesh, being made of light or wind, emotions or fire. He’d seen priestesses whose bodies finally broke. Artists who raved.
He never thought Paco would be one of them. If anything, Henry thought it would be him.
The moon had waxed to full and waned to dark again, three times. It was the night of Ilyana, the Lady of the Gleaming Knife. Her crescent was just rising in the sky.
There is nothing to avenge, the spirits had told him, night after night. This is just the testing Paco needs. Henry knew all about testing, but he hated seeing Paco’s pain. He lay so careful next to him, trying not to hurt the new pink skin. Their lips were denied the kisses they so loved. But Henry could kiss him elsewhere. He placed his lips on Paco’s breastbone, and the hollow of his neck. He kissed the space inside his elbows, and the spot above the knee. He kissed the rise of hipbones. And sometimes he suckled at his cock until Paco arched up on the mattress, crying out. Sex was good for the spirit, for the healing of body, mind, and soul. Henry knew this, as a priest and as a man.
Tonight, he’d left Paco sleeping, brought his rattle to the desert once again. His rattle, and his heart. He was seeking Ilyana. Seeking Her knifeblade. There was wisdom in the cutting. There was wisdom in the healing of the wound. He wasn’t sure exactly what he needed anymore. Though he had appreciated the pared down, spare lessons of this place, of his work and love, in some ways, honoring Ilyana in the city had been easier. He didn’t have to be so pure.
Before he even began, he heard a rustling in the sagebrush, smelled the scent of the leaves as something brushed against them. No coyote stepped forth this time. This time, it was a barefooted woman in dark jeans and a crisp white shirt. A wash of black hair fell across her face. Her face was pale and sharp. She moved lightly, her posture straight as a cactus spine.
“Lady.” He bowed. Dropped to his knees again. Ouch. He had to stop doing that.
“Rise up, priest. There is no need for kneeling between equals.”
He pushed off the earth and stood. “I am no equal to you, Lady.”
She smiled, and gave a sharp nod. Pleased. She cracked her hands together and two nighthawks flew out from the darkness, speeding past his head. Henry ducked, throwing his arms up. She laughed then, like crystal breaking. A rough sound, sharp and beautiful.
“You still have fear. That is good. It will protect you. But not so much fear that you refuse to come out at night to pray. You throw up your arms, but stand your ground.”
She walked closer to him. Henry felt the hairs along his arms quivering. The silver square at the base of his neck began to hum. “Shit” he said softly.
“Paco’s lessons are not yours. You have mistaken your love for him for your work. His visions are his own. He walks the path of earth and water. You walk the path of moonlight touching earth and air. Together, you make fire that warms body and soul. You may drink of him sometimes, but the way of water is not yours.”
She placed a single finger on his lips. Her hand was cool against the blood that rose to meet it, beating in his upper lip. Her eyes. Black, with fingernail crescents of white. The Lady’s knives were everywhere. The wind increased, just slightly, began tugging at the hairs wrapped in their braid. He could see the moon rising higher from the corner of one eye. The red dust puffed lightly around them. He could taste it, clay-like, at the edges of his mouth. He could smell it.
“Feel the air. Taste the red dust and the night. Call back the birds.”
His mind had a moment of confusion, then stilled itself. He closed his eyes and felt the sure, smooth stone inside his belly, so quiet above the blood circulating from legs, to sex, to heart. Nighthawks, his mind whispered.
And they came. Alighting on his shoulders. He could feel their weight there, and the gripping of their feet.
And a release of the soft pressure on his lips. Eyes opening, he saw the Lady drop her hand.
She looked around. “I like it here,” she said. “This is a good place. Different than New York or Soweto. I haven’t visited here in a very long time.”
He caught a flash of mastodons, tusks gleaming, running between red earth and brilliant blue skies.
“Find the way to practice here. Your way. Not exactly the way of this land, but not the ways the city knows. Your way. The way you speak the wind. The way to call the birds at night. The way you hold the knife. The way you sheath it. In the city? You were an apprentice. Clumsy. Here? A journeyman. Pretty good.”
His breath was slowing down. Evening out. The birds preened on his shoulders, nibbled at his ears, letting him know that they weren’t his exactly, but they would come to call. The silver square was still, quiescent, tucked up against his skull. The space inside his skull? It was growing. He could feel himself grow larger as he stood before her.
“Are you saying I’m a master?”
The breaking crystal sound again, she threw her head back and laughed.
“Not yet. Not yet. But you will be. If you give yourself the chance. Hold out your knife.”
He undid the catch at this hip. Unsheathed the blade. Quick as light, she grabbed it from his hand and slashed his left palm. Licked the blood off from the blade. Then she pressed that hand in hers. “You hold the power of the moon now. Always think before you choose. But never be afraid to do the choosing.”
She dropped the blade and he reached out to catch it, right before it touched the earth. The hilt smacked into the palm of his right hand.
“There will be more tests to come. Make sure you pass them. And Paco? He’s a good man. A good choice for you. But don’t let your pathways become confused.”
Holding two fingers to her lips, Ilyana kissed them. She held them out toward his forehead. And disappeared.
Henry breathed out in the night. Held the knife up to the sliver of the moon. The birds lifted, took one turn around his head, and flew.
Week Eight of the Story-a-Week challenge, 4055 words