Excerpts, General

What mother does not fear for her child?

cover by Charr Crail www.charrcrail.com
cover by Charr Crail
www.charrcrail.com

How far would you go to save your own child? In the excerpt from my new novel, Spiral, a mother is fighting to save her infant son from the tyranny of a group of Elders, those “wise ones” who rule Chaco Canyon and sacrifice children in the name of the Sun God.

____________________________

One afternoon just before dark, the three of them had just returned home when Owl Watching noticed a small object on the hard-packed floor. He picked it up.

“What is it?” asked Willow as she carefully took off the heavy cradleboard with the sleeping child inside.

“The Elders have been here,” he said, scowling as he held out the little copper bell. He grabbed Willow.

“We must hide him before it’s too late.”

“Too late? What do you mean? What should we do? Where can we go?” she cried.

When her mother found out, she took the bell to the Master Pot Maker, and they threw it in the hot kiln. Together the two shaman women made powerful secret magic, chanting, threatening and howling with the wind to twist the Elders’ power and render it harmless. The bell melted in the fire, turning into a small dull stone.

Now Owl Watching insisted Willow he and the baby leave his relatives’ house each morning. This way, he said, the Elders would not find them at home when they came back. Stepping gingerly over the icy brittle snowy ground, their little family traveled up and down the canyon in the frigid air, paying visits on the Coyote Clan. The baby was held out, admired and feted. People discussed a good time for a naming ceremony. Names were suggested for him.

by Wyoming George
by Wyoming George

The winter was worse than any Willow could remember, the wind blinding, ripping through the canyon, and the daylight too short to stay any length of time at her mother’s house or to make pots. Owl Watching grew more worried with each day he ushered Willow and his son out into the cold. They both knew it was only a matter of time. Finally, Willow refused to leave the house. She was just too exhausted.

Owl Watching said he was going out one morning to search for more kindling while Willow ground corn and the child slept close on the warm hearth. The baby boy was wrapped in his bunting, adorned with the necklace of turquoise and bird bone she had fastened around his tiny neck. How sweet he looked! Willow was daydreaming, admiring her baby when the Elders came again, the staggering men stomping and dropping snow and ice on the floor. She jumped up but not soon enough, for Thin Nose had already grabbed the infant out of her arms. The baby let out a scream.

“No!” Willow cried, reaching for the child wailing in the Elder’s scrawny arms.

“I’ll take that blanket too,” Thin Nose laughed, picking it off the floor. Surrounding them, the others began to chant, skipping with their bells around and around in a little dance. Afraid to pounce on him or grab her crying child for fear she might hurt him, Willow grabbed for the blanket instead. Thin Nose let it go as he held the baby higher in the air. The child began to scream.

“Pray with us, sister,” said one Elder.

“You should be honored we have chosen your child for the sun dagger,” another said.

“Aeeeeah, Aeeeeah,” Willow screamed, choking, emitting high quivery gasps like a stricken coyote.

“The perfect sacrifice!” Thin Nose called out, stumbling toward the door with his prize, Willow following, kicking at his boots wrapped with delicate metal bells.

“Stop!” She screamed, lunging after him. Suddenly she saw Owl Watching hovering behind the deerhide door, which was flapping in the wind.

“Help me!” Willow cried.

Owl Watching rushed past her, shouting to the Elders, “Just the blanket!” He pulled it out of Willow’s hand and thrust it at the Elders. “You said you only wanted the blanket! Here! Here it is!” he cried, holding it up in front of Thin Nose and the screaming baby.

“Give our child back!” Willow screamed.

Holding the blanket, Owl Watching attempted to take away the baby. But he too hesitated for fear of harming him. The Elders’ feet tinkled as they pounded the ground, forming a circle around the child.

Suddenly Willow leaped onto Thin Nose’s back. They swung around as if in a dance. Owl Watching tried to grab her. Tipping back and forth, the rest moved in closer, pushing, pushing. Thin Nose stumbled, almost letting go of the child and knocked Willow off his back. Lunging for the baby, Owl Watching fell sideways to the floor with her. Thin Nose held out the screaming baby in front of him for all to see as he and the Elders danced away.

Owl Watching looked up just as they spirited his child out the doorway.

“No!” he wept. “No!”

“You brought them here!” Willow screamed, twisting out of his arms, turning on him.

“They said they only wanted the blanket!” He sat up, desperate, dazed, still holding the blanket.

“You fool!” She jumped up. “When have they ever told the truth? When?”

“He said they needed the blanket,” Owl Watching groaned. “Forgive me, Willow.”

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Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Excerpts, General

Between the covers of Spiral

Order Spiral, the prequel to Sundagger.net, now!

“Just ordered my copy.  I so enjoyed Sundagger.net: such vivid depictions of place & time and such interesting characters. I lost many hours of sleep staying up late to read because I just had to know what happened next. “— Sarah F.


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Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

“The Center of the World”, Chapter 1 of Spiral by Margaret C. Murray

It was the most special of days, the fall equinox, a time of equal day and night in the canyon, the center of the world, and above the canyon too on the flat mesa tops with their sinkholes, badlands, scarce pinyon and twisted juniper.
Willow waited by Chaco Wash in her best deerskin skirt, biting her lip. She stood very still, small for her age, fourteen, and sturdy, with long shining black hair falling to her waist. Each time Willow bit her lip, the single dimple in her cheek deepened. But what did that matter since Water Hunter was not there to admire it? She threw her sandals at a sagebrush tumbling by in the wind.
What if Water Hunter did not come? But he must. She could not bear that possibility and so put it quickly out of her mind. Hoping for any sign of him, Willow squinted on tiptoe in the sunlight, her eyes following the sage, as her mother taught her, until it disappeared into the horizon. “Become the rolling sagebrush to find what you are looking for,” Mother had counseled.
The soft autumn wind behind her blew her skirt out and away from her strong, taut body, but she didn’t feel the pleasure of the wind. Willow was troubled. The tumbling bush reminded her that her mother did not approve of her waiting here at the Great House, Pueblo del Arroyo, for Water Hunter. But more troubling was that the sagebrush had not shown Willow where he was.
Nothing seemed to move in the haze beyond the wash. Willow scanned all the way to the south mesa gap where the People were gathering for the great celebration.
She clasped her hands to her chest to stop them from trembling. Today the powerful and frightening Elders were climbing the Butte, as they did at each turn of the year, to implore the sun to bring rain. At the top where the sun dagger appeared, they made sacrifices so that the sun would bless the People. Soon Willow would hear their ominous shriek-chanting and the beat of their foot drums as they danced and prayed to the sun to return them to that perfect balance of light and darkness that their ancestors saw when they crawled out of the sipapu, a hole in the third world leading to this sacred canyon.
Abandoning the thought of finding the disappearing tumbleweed, Willow focused on thinking like Coyote, scanning east, west, north and south.
“Coyote, help me find him!” she called.
After all, she was named after a coyote cub. Her secret, never-to-be-spoken name was Srahtzee, meaning Close to the Ground, an attribute of the clever coyote. But Coyote wasn’t helping her now. Willow blushed with pleasure and shame, recalling that she had told her secret name to Water Hunter. How then could he have forgotten she was waiting for him? Her heart dropped.

Coyote in Chaco Canyon
Coyote in Chaco Canyon

She rubbed her eyes, hoping to see him loping over the desert; she would recognize him by his powerful frame and his uneven gait.
“I have made friends with my one short leg,” Water Hunter had told her in his slow, quiet way the very day they met. She vowed his lame leg would be her friend too! She loved his one short leg as she loved all the rest of his big hunter’s body. Willow shivered with longing. How desperately she desired him this very moment. She ached to have him stand next to her now. Her mother would never understand.
The sun of midday streaming down swallowed Willow’s compact shadow along with the shadows of the Fajada Butte and the Great Houses of the canyon. Behind her and across the grassy bottomland, the block-long, five-story complex that the Spanish centuries later would call Pueblo Bonito was marking the sun’s trajectory. It had been built to match the path the sun took across the landscape this very day, when all the shadows hid, and day and night were equal.
At this moment everything was perfectly aligned. Every year at this time all the clans from far outliers journeyed to Chaco to see their shadows disappear too. And as always, Willow’s own Coyote Clan, and her mother especially, made the preparations for the Elders’ supplications on the Butte. Her mother’s people were shamans in their own right and once had been favored allies of the Elders, but no more.
Oh, when would he come? Willow gave a little cry and pushed her fists into her eyes to hold back her tears. Carefully she placed her bare feet on the ledge of the gully above the wash and peered across toward the broken south mesa. A great fissure cut through the middle of the mesa, and through it the crowds were coming, chanting, blowing conch shells, and dancing with tinkling footbells. There were so many people! She hoped Water Hunter wouldn’t be coming from that direction. He never had before. Besides, he was of the Bear Clan, and everyone knew they came from the North where they served the High Ones on Standing Rocks Mountain.
But he would come! He must. It would be like the first day when they met on the Great North Road, one full moon ago. She had been holding her little brother’s hand. Her mother was carrying her best bowl. Behind them traveled the entire Coyote Clan on their way to the Giving Place, laden with offerings to the ancestors in their best jars that they would smash when they reached the great hill of shattered potsherds.
Willow had trusted Water Hunter at first sight when she saw him walking with the Bear Clan. She had heard of this famous diviner who found water where there was none, thus attracting the big game that followed the water. She was amazed when he singled her out, smiling over the crowd at her alone. Even her mother noticed and stopped to introduce her daughter to him, saying that the Coyote Clan welcomed the Bear Clan as cousins. It was the Bear Clan who, before migrating north, had laid the foundation for the newest of the Great Houses, Kin Kletso, where Willow and her mother and brother lived before the Elders forced them to move further away down the canyon.

Heading North to Chacra Mesa
Chacra Mesa

That day Willow felt so special. She had felt even more special when Water Hunter motioned her to walk beside him. It was midday then too and she could not see her shadow. The sun had been a shining orange ball in the sky, the land bleached and brown from summer drought, and dead stalks of flowering cacti spotted the sandy ground.

They were walking slowly, she following his lead, enjoying the sunlight warm on her shoulders, bare breasts and arms. Facing ahead, her gaze was steady in her deep, dark eyes. Balanced, straight-backed, Willow paced herself to the hunter’s slow, up and down gait. “I will walk in a way that we will be together,” Willow had thought then.
Her unspoken words filled her with satisfaction now as her eyes skimmed the brown rocks, the fissures and outcroppings, twiggy bushes and cacti, the whole landscape in harmony with her and the sun above. She felt her heart sing again. He must come. He promised.

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Dear Diary, Excerpts, General, Journal

The Poet & The Baby

The Poet & the Baby

A Short Story by Margaret C. Murray

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—W. B. Yeats

Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod
Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod

Blue ocean, white dunes, strong wind, fall leaves. Provincetown shimmers emerging out of the translucent Atlantic. At the window of The Anchor Cafe, I sit writing in my notebook. I am on my break from waiting tables. Today, as usual, I see P-town’s famous young residence poet and an older bearded man in tweeds walking down Commercial Street. Judith Woodchild is taking slow measured steps like an egret stalking in still marshes. Maybe she’ll come into The Anchor again?

I glance down at the story I’m working on called “The Icebox”. The last paragraph reads:

“Ice. Myself. The doubt image of constancy and playfulness twists my face in a pose of betrayal. I will come through. I must. The jealousy melts on the other side of the trick door, my coffin, my cage.”

As quickly as I write, I cross out–whole lines, paragraphs even, as if instant obliteration confers value on what is worthless.  Each time I cross something out, I stop and look out the window.

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Pilgrim’s Monument, Provincetown, MA

The picturesque street is too quiet. Shop owners have shipped their inventory of jewelry, objects d’art, bikinis and Givenchy purses back to Greenwich Village. Fancy restaurants are opened on weekends only. The beaches are empty.

With my fingernails I scrape at the built-up residue on the edge of this small table by the window. I can see Judith’s slight, compact figure posed against a background of blue sky, wild waves and glittering sand. What does she think about? How many of her riveting poems materialize out there on the dunes, jutting into her consciousness like small-jeweled crabs. I wonder if she carries a notebook in her pocket or maybe her purse. Does she even carry a purse?

Sipping coffee, I look up just in time to see them come in. Banging the door behind them, Judith and the bearded man enter. Countertop rumor has it that this man is her lover.

“Good morning. Do you have any herbal tea?” she asks Don, The Anchor owner.

Don looks to me so I get up and go behind the counter to get the teapot and tea bag.

How neatly the red Pucci scarf is tied around Judith’s long nearly black wavy hair. How clean her diction is, how delicately she crosses her legs in their smooth brown high-healed leather boots. Instantly I see the thread of her passionate writing life and follow it, each one of her days like a pearl-white line of a new poem.

Provincetown Beach
Provincetown Beach

Rising early, walking to the beach where she meets her lover, stopping at The Anchor for tea, writing until three or five, her poetry flying off into bookstores like flames atop the apostles’ heads. She’d be attending book readings where she’s featured, going to those literary parties about which I overhear wild drug-filled stories at The Anchor counter.

After setting down the cup, saucer and a full teapot with teabag, I stand over her table with my pad and pencil.

“I don’t know if I dare eat,” Judith says, looking sleepy-eyed and seductive like a baby at the man who has just suggested they order omelets. He has crinkly blue eyes, a strong chin, and big hands. I wonder what his name is. He must be her lover.

“I feel like I’m gorging myself,” she says, a dimple showing in one cheek. “Maybe that’s why I threw up last night after that lobster dinner.”

They both laugh conspiratorially.

“Tell me,” Judith looks up inquiringly. “Do all women feel like they’re gorging themselves whenever they eat?”

“You asked the wrong person,” I say. “I don’t eat much.”

“May I ask why?” Judith crosses her legs the other way.

“Working here. . . you get tired of food,” I say.

“You look so thin, doesn’t she, Eric? Isn’t it awful what our work forces us to do,” she says. As she speaks to him, I noticed how Judith’s eyes jump away, how her mouth, the soft red lips, tense as if to say, “This is so difficult but I must make the effort.”

He smiles too brightly at her question. I back off, realizing I’ve been dismissed. Hurrying back to Don calling from the kitchen, I miss out on the rest of their conversation.

That night in my rented room on Pearl Street, I reread my story, “The Icebox”.  In it, Celine, a big girl of five, hides on the porch in her grandmother’s old-fashion wooden icebox. Celine suffers from a bad earache. Her new baby sister has just been born that night. She’s frightened and wants her mother to come home from the hospital. She’s ashamed of crying too and angry with her father and aunt who are arguing inside the house about whether or not they should get the doctor.

Inside the icebox, Celine discovers a trick door that leads her to. . . . Where? I’m stuck again.

I have a sister too but we’re not close. She’s a statistician at the University of Pittsburgh. I think it started with grandma’s icebox. My mother always referred to my grandmother as Grandma-in-Heaven. I only knew her from the small picture on my mother’s bedroom dresser and her old ice chest that sat out on our front porch on Foliage Street for years. She died four years before I was born.

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Excerpts

Sundagger.net excerpt

“Bring in the ones who are waiting!” Two Crows shouted to Stonekeeper from inside the sweat lodge. “Bring in the stones!”

Passing the Christmas lights shining above the buffalo skull on the altar, Sara McClelland walked toward the lodge and went down on her hands and knees in front of the entrance. “Mitakuye Oisan,” she said, kneeling in the doorway. In English that meant “All My Relations,” traditional Lakota words of reverence.

“From the doorway in to the doorway out, I welcome you,” answered Two Crows in his warm deep way.

Sara’s eyes began to adjust to the darkness as she crawled clockwise inside the lodge. “Sorry I’m late. The bridge traffic was at a standstill for two hours,” she apologized.

“Uh-Huh!” said Two Crows in a comforting tone of voice.

Sara felt as if she’d entered a safety net, as if Two Crows would protect her now. The lodge was crowded. She looked for space to sit. Sometimes Two Crows had the men sit on one side and women on the other. Tonight everyone appeared to be placed at random. Two Crows said the spirits told him what to do. He often mentioned seeing the spirits during a ceremony, acknowledging them, or speaking to the energy they were bringing.

“Move on! Move on!” Two Crows commanded. “Everyone get tight. Your knees should be touching your neighbor’s. Let’s get intimate tonight. There’s space over here in the West.”

Sara stopped in the West, directly across from the doorway, the hottest part of the lodge. She wedged herself tightly between two men in swim suits panting from the heat.

Little bags of tobacco tied in red cloth hung from the rafters and also encircled the pit where the stones would go. These prayer ties were offerings, holding the hopes and wishes of those entering the lodge. Sara wished she’d had the time to make some prayer ties for her son, Dan, but she’d had to work all day—a Saturday no less—to finish a writing job for TekGen. It was a document only she could edit, since it had been her boss—no, ex-boss—Rowan Lightfoot’s network, which Sara knew all too much about.

Behind her crawled the young woman Sara had met while changing in the bathroom earlier. What was her name? It was a strange brittle techno name like the network Sara compiled documentation for. She watched the girl stop and squeeze in close to the pit where her legs were sure to be scorched by the hot stones and steam. Sara wanted to warn her, but it wasn’t her place. The girl wouldn’t listen anyway she thought.

Stonekeeper shoveled in the stones for the second round. “More, more,” Two Crows kept saying despite all the “newbies,” as Two Crows called the new people who had never been to a sweat before. As the hot stones were shoved in, Sara smiled, thinking of the hard lesson Two Crows was teaching them. How glad she was she had finally come. The sweat lodge felt like home.

***

This lodge was where she belonged. Maybe that’s what the gulls were telling her on her way here tonight.

“Take me away with you! I dare you,” she had cried, taunting the gulls. But the slim-winged gulls overhead glided by unheeding while she sat in her brown Toyota behind an old VW bus waiting in heavy traffic to merge onto the Bay Bridge. It was dusk, mid-December, and Sara was listening to an old Enya tape from the early ’90s. Now the Irish soprano voice soared with the gulls, the harp and flute overlapping like bay waves echoing the birds’ cries.

“What kind of a woman talks to gulls?” Sara said, laughing aloud.

She had driven through San Francisco on Highway 101 North and was merging onto 80 East approaching the bridge. On her left was the glass and shine of the steel skyscrapers poised like elegant space station minarets, on her right the bowl of the new stadium, home of the Giants, set in China Basin like an upturned catcher’s mitt. Her son, Dan, had been a Giants’ fan since second grade; she had kept his collection of baseball cards in marked shoeboxes dated 1988, 1989 and so on in case he ever wanted them. But now it was only her daughter, Elana, who ever looked through the shoeboxes, and only now and then.

“Mom, it would serve Dan right if you threw all these out,” Elana had said, but Sara couldn’t do that. Tears came to Sara’s eyes at the thought of Elana. What if Elana left in a few years like Dan, so carelessly and irrevocably? She rubbed her eyes.

Just then a speeding motorcyclist hurled by on her left, rushing ahead between lanes. Sara’s heart stopped and she shut her eyes seeing the scream of wheels, the smash of crashing metal. When she looked a second later, the motorcycle was gone and the old rundown VW bus still motionless in front of her.

Sara put her hand to her heart to calm herself. The roar of the motorcycle and the stench from the exhaust obliterated the music and the gulls, leaving her alone in heavy traffic, the usual Saturday night backup from San Francisco to the East Bay where the sweat lodge was. This congestion was why she didn’t make it to the lodge more often anymore. But tonight she had to come. It was special—the Winter Solstice, the night when darkness was at its fullest, and when the light began to return.

An hour later Sara was hurrying up the driveway to the sweat lodge which had been held at her friend Vera’s house in the Oakland Hills for the last ten years. She wore jeans and a long-sleeved gold sweater and held her baked lasagna dish to her chest. Her black and brown canvas drum bag hung from her shoulder. The bag bulged with her drum and the African orange print caftan, a long-sleeved tent dress she always wore for sweats. She had two large towels, one old and frayed to sit on inside the sweat lodge, another thick one for afterward when she would be streaming with sweat, and a pair of shapeless cotton underpants that she didn’t mind getting soaked and dirty from sitting on the ground of the sweat.

It was five o’clock. The sun was about to set. Two Crows was punctual with his sweats and always started at sundown. Once the doorway was closed, he wouldn’t open the lodge until the round was over. She loved Two Crows, not in a personal or romantic way, but as a teacher. Sara knew little about his personal life; she guessed he was about her age, fifty, divorced, with a long gray ponytail and golden-brown sinewy limbs. He worked as a carpenter all around the Bay Area, lived in Martinez, and claimed Ohlone ancestors.

As she walked, her drum in its deerskin bag banged against her side. It was a big drum, fifteen inches in diameter, with a clear rich tone, the head made of deerskin. There were scratches where she had carelessly dropped it, and a few water stains from splashing during the ceremony. Every drum had a sweet spot which, when hit, sounded fuller and more melodic than all the other spots on the face, but Sara’s drum had more than one sweet spot. This she loved—the idea, the taste, of more than one sweetness.

Sara pushed open Vera’s rotting gate at the bottom of the overgrown yard and rushed up the broken steps. She had been coming to this house well before the huge Oakland fire of 1989. Back then there were many secret areas to the hills and many large ramshackle estates like this one. Since the fire, expensive houses had taken their place, and now only a few old estates remained. It was after the Oakland fire that she had met Two Crows. She and Vera had each sat next to him at the Leonard Peltier benefit and he had told them he was looking for a place to hold Indian sweats. Vera had offered her house. How many times since then had she and Sara helped rebuild the lodge, cutting down the willow branches from the hillside.

Like Sara, Vera was not Native American, but she had been adopted by the Lakota tribe at Pine Ridge in 1974 after all the pro bono consulting work she did for the American Indian Movement, better known as A.I.M. All the sweats Two Crows led followed the Lakota ceremonies because, as he explained each time for the newbies’ sake, “The Lakota Indians were able to keep their traditions alive and their rituals have come down to us complete, while the California Ohlone, my own ancestors, were almost destroyed by little brother.”

Little brother was the white man, Sara’s Irish ancestors or ones like them. It wounded Sara’s heart whenever she thought of her ancestors’ complicity in the Indian genocide.

Just before Sara went inside the house, she looked up into the early evening sky, hoping to see a hawk or a vulture, “Thunderbirds,” the Native Americans called them. There were no gulls. All she saw were several ducks flying toward Lake Temescal, reminding her of Rowan and his obsession with ducks. Sara sighed. Rowan and his ducks—it was both endearing and annoying. He had been crazed by them and by his pet phototonics project, oblivious to the forebodings surrounding the Futuristic Communications R&D department he headed. Rowan was working, he imagined, to transform the world. It was ludicrous, but she wouldn’t dare laugh at Rowan. Not to his face. Yet there was another side to him. He took the most beautiful pictures, like his photos of ducks in the Bay wetlands, or the ruins of the Southwest that hung on the TekGen walls. They brought tears to her eyes even now. Rowan had taken a shot of her standing by a huge indoor office plant, laughing, her hair light and long, framing her face. It was the only photo in which she looked truly beautiful, she thought. She had it framed and kept it on her bedroom dresser.

While Rowan was off on his latest business trip, Sara had been reassigned to a new boss, Deborah Yu. Deborah was a tiny, pear-shaped woman with a Ph.D. from Stanford and a huge family in Hong Kong. The rumor was that Futuristic Communications was history. After all the effort she’d put in for Rowan’s telecom projects, Sara felt betrayed—and not just for herself. She didn’t even know if Rowan knew what had befallen him, but she didn’t want to be the one to tell him.

Sara banged the door as she went inside Vera’s house.

“Who is it?” she heard from the kitchen. Anna. Sara smiled at the thought of her beautiful young friend.

“It’s Sara,” she called out. “I have to change.”

“I’ll be here,” Anna called back. Hearing Anna gave Sara a feeling of security and happiness she didn’t try to understand. Sara felt she could share anything with the younger woman, as if they were familiars, as if she and Anna had come from the same place a long time ago.

Sara changed her clothes in the small yellow bathroom in the main house. The bathroom smelled like the sweat lodge when you first crawled in, and was just as cold and damp. The house itself was built on three levels and the foundation was crumbling. The bathroom reeked of dry rot and mildew and fungus. The faucets leaked, the toilet was usually plugged up, the shower dripped, the linoleum floor was discolored and cracked around the tub and shower stall, and the grout was stained black.

Sara hurried, untying her hiking boots, pulling off her purple jersey, her black Levis, unhooking her black lace bra. The door creaked as one of Vera’s seven cats, an all-black streak of fur with one white paw, slipped in and meowed. Sara threw her thick green socks in the duffle along with her clothes and slipped on the caftan. She left her hiking boots on; she didn’t want to walk barefoot up the hill through the thick underbrush to reach the sweat.

She saw herself in the mirror with her caftan ballooning around her ankles. Before she had the time to disapprove of her big-boned face, her bright blond dyed hair, long and fuzzy, unraveling from the batik scarf she’d wrapped around her head an hour ago, she spied the gleam of her silver earrings and turquoise choker. Quickly she took them off as well as her watch and Australian opal ring, a gift from her ex-husband, Paul, the year Dan was born. Sara dropped her jewelry in her cosmetic bag along with her car keys, picked up her bag full of clothes and rushed out, nearly slamming into a young woman outside the door.

“Hi!” Sara said, surprised. “I guess you’re next.” She swung the door wide to let the young woman by. She had a perfectly oval face, smooth peach skin, and almond-shaped black eyes. Her thick shining black hair was twisted up in a gold and feather hair ornament.

“Do you know where we go?” asked the young woman. The question sounded like an order and reminded Sara of Deborah Yu at work.

“The path is right outside that door.” Sara pointed to the sliding glass doors beyond where oleander grew among the madrone, bay and pine trees.

“I don’t see anything,” said the girl peevishly, looking past Sara. She wore a tiny orange halter and skintight blue jeans showing her perfect belly button. Sara couldn’t help thinking how Deborah Yu alternated between wearing similar designer tank tops made of silk with Calvin Klein jeans and logging boots and wearing beige Jones of New York suits and open-toed heels. The worst thing really was that both women were twenty-five years younger thought Sara, wincing with some humor and chagrin.

“You can’t miss it,” Sara said. “Follow the Christmas lights.”

So here was another newbie—they were mostly women anyway, mostly in their twenties, who invariably wore skimpy bathing suits or tight short-shorts and T-strap tops without bras. This girl’s firm smooth body curved seductively, reminding Sara of her own fifteen-year-old daughter. The thought of Elana made her feel gentler, kinder.

“I’m Sara,” she smiled, extending her hand.

“Tracine,” the girl said, without taking it.

“Nice to meet you, Tracine. Is this your first time?”

“I’ve been to sweats before,” said Tracine, looking away. “I was told it would be really hot in there. Do you think this is okay?” She picked at her strap as if it were a twig and she a bird.

She was probably a graduate student from Berkeley. “Fewer clothes make you hotter, I mean if the heat bothers you,” Sara answered. She tried to imagine she was talking to Elana so she could feel more kindly. But she was irritated with the girl’s deceit. She would have known what to wear if she’d been to a real sweat, Sara thought.

“I hear we’re all so close together,” Tracine wiggled her nose in distaste. She looked both excited and fearful, her pert breasts bobbing beneath the orange jersey top.

“Only if there are a lot of people,” Sara snapped. “Also there’s a Native American tradition about modesty,” Sara added, looking at Tracine’s thin bare arms and cleavage.

“Oh, sorry,” the girl said, her voice trailing off as she lowered her exquisitely shaped eyes. “They didn’t tell me. I didn’t bring anything like that.”

“Next time I’d wear something long with sleeves like this,” said Sara pointing to her own caftan. “You’ll feel better. The stones feel much hotter on bare skin. Most of the women who are regulars wear long flannel nightgowns. You can buy them at any secondhand store.”

“I don’t like heat. I probably won’t come back, to tell you the truth. Hey, like, do I have to pay anything?”

“You could give a donation. We all bring food donations for the communal feast after the sweat. It isn’t really a feast, more like a large potluck.

Without responding, Tracine closed the bathroom door on her. Feeling diminished, Sara went through the long dark living room furnished with black matching leather sofas. What had Tracine done wrong really? Or done to her? Just because she reminded Sara of TekGen and Deborah Yu didn’t mean anything. Sara sighed, thinking she’d have to make more of an effort to be helpful to the girl after the sweat was over.

She hurried past two huge brown and black mastiffs lying in front of the large fireplace. She stooped to pet the biggest dog, Maya, whose pink tongue lolled out of her open mouth, spittle hanging from her gleaming teeth. Maya’s head shot up and her tail began to wag, hitting the hardwood floor in big flat thumps. Sara used to bring her dog, Oregon, over to play with Maya, but Oregon was too old now, too cranky, and snapped at other dogs.

“You big bozo,” Sara said and hurried into the kitchen, nearly slamming into Anna.

“I don’t mean you!” Sara cried.

Anna held out her arms and hugged Sara, taking her casserole dish.

“What a sight you are!” Sara said, hugging the much younger woman back, smoothing down her black hair that grew nearly to her waist. Anna wore feathers tied with a dangling red ribbon. Her face was flushed, her full lips red as the ribbon, cheeks smooth and silky, framed by her long beautiful shining hair. Sara felt grateful to Anna for being so happy to see her, so unlike that Tracine girl.

“How are you, girl?” asked Anna.“Still have that tough job?”

“You mean TekGen? Yes, I still have that job, but I lost my boss.”

“How do you lose a boss?” Anna laughed, showing a dimple.

“Hmmm, have I told you about Rowan Lightfoot?”

“Maybe. His name is familiar.” But Anna wanted to talk about her boyfriend and she changed the subject. “Herman’s here tonight.”

“Good,” Sara nodded. Anna usually came with Herman who was from Flagstaff, Arizona, a Navajo, and a deaf student at Ohlone Com­munity College in Fremont. Anna taught American Sign Language part-time at the college.

“He’s going to AA now,” Anna said.

“Wonderful.”

Sara and Anna had talked about how Herman was struggling with dependency issues, made worse by his divorce and child support problems.

Anna put down Sara’s lasagna on the filthy counter. Beside the food offerings were piles of dirty dishes, open cartons of soured milk, exposed containers of refried beans, rancid butter, and broken cloves of garlic on breadboards covered with crumbs. “I see Chris came home this weekend,” she finally said.

“Yes.”

Chris was Vera’s seventeen-year-old son, a freshman at Sonoma State College. He often came home with his friends to party now that Vera was in San Diego and they usually trashed the house.

“I wish my son would come home,” said Sara.

“Have you heard anything from Dan?” asked Anna sympathetically.

“Four emails in one month after nothing in the past twelve!” Sara flushed. “The last one was from some country I can’t pronounce ending with a ‘stan’. Not Pakistan, thank god. I can’t believe it.”

“He’s a big boy,” Anna replied. “From what you’ve told me, he can take care of himself.”

“I hope so. When did you get here?”

“Oh, a while ago. I came early to help Herman bring in the stones.”

Sara nodded.

“Do you know where the detergent is?” Anna said.

Sara pointed to a cabinet under the nonworking microwave. She felt resourceful and necessary suddenly, happy to be back. “You’ll get your beautiful dress dirty,” she exclaimed. Gathered beneath Anna’s large breasts, the gauzy material of her long white dress of Grecian design flowed down over her belly and hips, dropping to her bare feet. With her hair pulled up, she looked like a goddess.

“No I won’t. I found this,” said Anna, taking down a full-length apron hanging from a hook by the Dutch doors. She put it over her head, being careful not to mess her hair and tied the strings behind her, smoothing the top down around her white lacy bodice.

“Aren’t you going up to the sweat?” Sara asked.

“No. But I’ll be outside supporting you.”

“Now why am I not surprised at that?” Sara opened her wide-set eyes, sometimes green and sometimes hazel. “You are always supporting someone, Anna.”

“I’m on my moon time,” Anna explained.

Sara smiled, feeling nostalgic, wishing she were still menstruating. When she first began coming to sweats, she and the other women who thought of themselves as feminists had objected to the practice of not allowing a menstruating woman into the lodge. The reason given by Two Crows was not that women were second-class citizens when they had their periods. It was not that they were defiled or unclean, but rather that they were “too powerful” he said. Vera had called that revisionist history, but Sara had shrugged, feeling that they were simply honoring the old tradition. Honor was something she had very little of in her own life. She barely knew what the word meant. So why not honor this Lakota tradition? In any case, now she was in menopause and beyond moon times.

“There’s another woman changing in the bathroom,” Sara said pulling her long blond mane off her neck. “A newbie.”

“Okay, I’ll look after her.” Anna laughed, flicking away the feather and ribbon, and then said, “But first I have to deal with this mess.”

“Yeah, I know.” Sara stared out the kitchen window at a large, twisted pine tree on the hill above. It was jutting out at a precarious angle. It could fall down anytime, crash into the house. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before.

“Did you hear the news?” Anna asked, interrupting her thoughts. “Two Crows wants to do a Vision Quest in the desert. Isn’t that exciting?”

“When?”

“He’ll let us know. We all want to go. Do you want to come?”

“How can I?” Sara said. “I have my job.”

“It will only be four days,” said Anna.

“Where?” asked Sara, despite herself.

“Somewhere in the desert. Two Crows won’t say where or when. But we can ask him after tonight’s sweat.” Anna laughed, showing her perfectly shaped white teeth, her deep dimple. Her dark eyes widened and sparkled, and her face lit up.

“I’m not ready for a Vision Quest,” Sara said. “I’m too wimpy to fast for four days. I like my McDonalds greaseburgers. I like to drink alcohol.”

She’d passed up her usual glass of wine last night because she wanted to smoke the pipe tonight, something Two Crows discouraged when you had alcohol in your system. She wanted to make sure her prayers for Dan would be answered.

“It won’t be soon. Remember, Two Crows injured his back on that construction job at Stanford,” Anna replied.

“That’s right. Anyway I’m too busy for visions!” Sara’s visions, if you could call them by that official name, disturbed her sometimes, but only if she thought about them, which she avoided doing as much as possible. Maybe that’s why she had avoided the sweat she thought. Maybe it wasn’t the traffic after all. She picked up her drum case and towel.

“Hurry, go on up. You’ll be late,” Anna said, leaning over the sink.

“Yes, Yes, Okay, Mom, I’m going.” Sara teased. Wrinkling her pug nose, she left the kitchen with her drum bag.

She walked outside and through the underbrush. She heard drumming and Two Crow’s deep call, then a faint chorus of voices responding, singing the ceremonial Welcome Songs. By the end of the sweat, the voices would be much louder and deeper. At the top of the hill, she saw Johnny the Stonekeeper with his back to her, pushing at the red-hot stones inside the oven with his long-handled shovel. Everyone else seemed to be inside the lodge, except for Tracine, who was following her up the hill. The door to the sweat was closed.

Sara took off her boots and placed them under a tree. A smudge stick of sage and cedar was smoldering on an abalone seashell by the doorway. She felt, rather than saw, Johnny look at her as he prodded inside the fiery furnace with his shovel.

She paused at the altar and, taking all four copies of Dan’s emails out of her towel, she laid each open on the rug by the jewelry and several pairs of glasses. Sent to her TekGen address, these few electronic letters were the only communication she had received from Dan, all from different and unknown Internet addresses she could not reply to. Though Rowan often told her not to worry, she was terrified for Dan. How could any American travel safely in the Middle East after 9/11?

The altar consisted of a strip of Navaho rug in yellow, maroon, black and white stripes that ran between the lodge and the furnace. On the rug lay a buffalo skull shining white in the evening gloom flanked by blue, green, white and red waving flags on sticks to signify the four directions: East, West, North and South. Two precious and illegal eagle feathers blew around in the center surrounded by painted gourds, shells, beads, and other sacred objects.

Sara bent over and picked up the smudge stick, feeling the cool night air rush under her caftan. She blew on the smoldering tip of the stick while weaving her hands to direct the smoking cedar and sage up her legs and body.

She took her drum out of her deerskin bag. Sitting down on a bench, she began to drum with the others inside the lodge. She let the smoke waft over her face, shoulders and arms. With eyes closed, she breathed in the strong scent and the cold night air. When she opened them, there was Tracine breathless and shivering, this time in a sleeveless skin-tight tank dress of blue tie-dye. A towel was draped around her bare shoulders.

“Are we too late?” asked Tracine breathlessly, interrupting her. That, too, reminded her of Deborah, who kept reassigning Sara to write different documentation each week, and not giving her enough time to finish it. Sara stopped drumming.

“We have to wait for the next round,” she said carefully.

Remembering her vow to be more helpful, Sara put down her drum and showed Tracine what to do to prepare herself. Sara told her to put out her arms and began to smudge her, using her hands as a feather, covering her with the smoke. “This is called smudging,” Sara said. “It’s a kind of cleansing. We do this before each sweat.”

“I know,” said Tracine.

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot you’ve been to sweats before.” Sara tried not to sound sarcastic.

Tracine nodded too quickly, her jet black hair falling into her porcelain-smooth face. Her lips shone blood-red in the firelight coming from the furnace.

“Do you think this is really okay?” Tracine asked, pointing to her tie-dye dress.

“It’s better,” said Sara, tight-lipped. Could Tracine see her half-century-old crooked teeth full of old silver fillings and all the wrinkle lines around her eyes? If only the girl would leave her alone! It was as if she were being baited on purpose, like at TekGen. Stop it! Sara told herself. You are being really petty and paranoid.
Yet Sara felt like shaking Tracine for her blind carelessness and raw neediness. Putting the smudge pot back in the seashell, Sara sat back down on the picnic bench and wrapped the towel around her shoulders. The wind had come up from the Bay. Soon the fog would blow in. She faced the Christmas lights hanging from the pole, keeping her eyes lowered to avoid Tracine leaning heavily against the pole. Instead, she listened to the chanting and drumming. She recognized the Four Directions song.

“Wiohpeyata etun wan yo!” Sara heard Two Crows’ deep voice.

“We-yoke-pay-ya-tah-lay-tune-wye-oh.” The group repeated the foreign words, which Sara translated to herself, ‘Look toward the West.’ A few years ago Sara had researched and written out the Lakota words, mimeographing copies of all the sweat songs. She had made it her job to translate the Lakota chants used in the ceremony.

The chanting was interrupted by a cell phone tinkling unpleasantly. “Oh!” Tracine exclaimed, grabbing for her leather bag. “Hello, Hello?” She held the phone to her ear, and then snapped it shut.

“You need to turn that off,” Sara said and began to drum again.

Tracine pouted, but took out the tiny silver phone piece and turned it off. “Sorry,” she said. “I really like your drum,” she added.

Sara nodded, but kept drumming. She imagined drumming in front of Deborah Yu. She smiled.

“Where did you get your drum?” Tracine asked.

Sara stopped. “I had it made for me.”

“Where? I’d like to get one.”

“It was a long time ago. I had it made by a group of people who lived in a remote place called Spirit River Lodge up north on the Mad River.”

Tracine straddled the pole, and the lights shook. “Old Hippies!” she proclaimed. “I’ll search for Spirit River Lodge on Google.”

“You do that.” Sara took up her drum again just as the pole Tracine was leaning on toppled over. Strings of lights dropped to the ground.

“Oh, shit!” squeaked Tracine, pulling at the stake as the lights flickered on and off. Sara held herself back from jumping up. She didn’t want to help Tracine; that was mean-spirited, she knew, but it was the truth. Instead, she closed her eyes, waiting for the end of the first round, and drummed along.

Two Crows began the final song. Soon she could go inside. When Sara opened her eyes, Tracine was putting two large lava rocks at the base of the pole that she had wedged upright and deep into the ground. The doorway to the lodge was opened, signaling the first round was over and the second about to begin.

“More stones!” called Two Crows and more were brought in.