The healer
by 
susan j. kroupa

     
This story was first published in Writers of the Future Vol X
and reprinted in Vision Quests and Undiscovered Country

 

  Nahutiwa was asleep, for once, when the call came.  Asleep and dreaming the

  Nahutiwa was asleep, for once, when the call came.  Asleep and dreaming the
 dream that made him put off sleep until his body rebelled and took it anyway. 

     He opened his eyes to find Elsie's uncle, old Charlie, and her mother, Nan, 
each tugging on one of his legs.  It was the ancient way to rouse someone, 
shaking  the legs and leaving the upper body untouched, so that if the spirit were
wandering  it could return through the head. He was surprised, though, that Nan
knew of it. He hadn't thought she much valued the old ways.

     Scowling, he kicked his legs free and sat up slowly, feeling his age in the
complaint of his joints.  Charlie jumped back as if he'd been burnt.  

     "What do you need, disturbing an old man's sleep?" Nahutiwa 
asked sourly.

     "You're sweating," said Nan with a questioning glance at the coals barely
flickering in the stone fireplace.  The room was chilly.

     For a moment he could have sworn she knew about his dream.  Was she a
 two-heart, then, and he hadn't known it? 

     ".  .  .and she's been screaming for two days, and still the baby won't come."
Charlie, speaking earnestly, slid a glance to Nan for support.

     They wanted him to help at a birthing?  Nahutiwa hid his astonishment and 
said to Nan, "Why are you here?"

     Charlie began sputtering, "We told you, it's Elsie, her baby. . ." but Nan knew 
what he was asking.  

   "I know when I've done all I can do.  I need your help."  

  Nahutiwa heard the implied criticism, heard through her voice her words at the
last council -- "Nahutiwa wants too much power.  He has studied about the old
gods so much he thinks he has become one."

     He looked hard at Nan.  "Who's the father?"

     "The bahana," she said, using the Hopi term -- and just in case he didn't get 
it -- "the white boy."

     Nahutiwa's scowl deepened. As if he hadn't learned Hopi before he knew
English.  But because his father was the Hopi and not his mother, he knew Nan
considered him Navajo.  Considered his taking a Hopi name a sham because
Nahutiwa had not gone through a Hopi initiation.  But initiations required people
qualified to initiate, and she knew as well as he did that there were none left.  

   "The bahana?" he said, not showing his surprise. Nan nodded, her eyes fixed
on his face, daring him to comment. And so he said nothing.

     Still, she must have wondered at her daughter's judgment.  He knew, of course,
about the white boy who had collapsed at the bottom of the mesa, so starved that
two men had to carry him up to the village.  But the boy had disappeared as soon
as he ate himself strong, without even a day's work or a story for thanks.  Evidently he'd left something behind after all. 

     "And we need more bahanas in this world?" he said. "So they can destroy 
what they missed last time?"

     "The baby didn't cause the war," said Nan.

     "No, but it's bad blood. Warring blood."  Worse than my Navajo blood, and 
it's your own grandchild.

     "The child will take after the mother."  Nan said this so calmly, so assuredly, 
that Nahutiwa wondered again if she might be a witch.

     But she looked toward the door with real fear in her eyes.  "Please," she said.
"We don't have much time."

     Sighing, he wrapped his blanket over his shoulders and slipped on his sandals
 made from yucca fiber.  He couldn't put them on  without remembering. Shoes.
Forty years since the war and still in his dreams when he ran, he was wearing them.
Thick-soled, canvas, with cotton laces.  He used to sit in Mr. Hudson's fourth
grade class at Polacca Day School with his feet on the desk and fiddle with the
strings while Mr. Hudson droned on about multiplication tables.  The day the
bombs fell, the class was learning the timetables for eights.  After that there was
no school, and the only thing being multiplied was death and death and more death, and those who didn't die from the radiation spent every waking hour
grappling for a scrap to eat.  After a decade or so, the few that were left had
relearned how togrow the corn and keep the sheep healthy and scavenge from 
the old town sites but by then there were no more shoes, just as there were no
more t.v.s or radios, or electric lights, or flush toilets.  

   Now, as always, he most missed the shoes.  Nahutiwa slung his medicine bag
over his shoulder, hoping he wouldn't need it.  The crystal that hung in its pouch
round his neck held more healing than all of the herbs and amulets in the bag put
together, but it had a mind of its own.  He could never predict when it would
refuse to work.

     "Hurry."  With a gesture to follow, Nan ducked through the doorway followed
by Charlie.  Nahutiwa threw a handful of sticks and a log on the fire to ensure a
warm homecoming, then followed them out into the bitter night.

     It wasn't far, maybe half a mile, from Nahutiwa's home to the neighboring
village, but the ice in the wind made every step long. Nahutiwa bent his chin to 
his chest and trudged past the stone houses.  Before the war, these houses 
perched high on second mesa, which rose a hundred feet or so off the desert 
floor, had belonged to the Hopi.  Now they belonged to whoever lived in them --
Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Ute -- it didn't matter. The few who were left had banded
together in two small villages and rarely saw any other people.  The white boy 
had been the first of his kind since the war.

     By the time they reached Nan's home, Nahutiwa's bones ached from the cold.
He followed Nan and Charlie through a blanketed doorway and was struck with 
a lush, enervating warmth.

     But as he dropped his blanket by the door, Nahutiwa decided the room was 
too warm. And too crowded. Four or five women, not counting Nan, were
gathered around Elsie in the far corner of the room while three men sat on the 
stone bench that ran along the opposite wall.  What had Nan got him into?  
Were they here, he wondered, to enjoy the warmth or to watch the show?  

Elsie lay on her back on a bed of fresh sand covered with rags.  As Nahutiwa approached, the attending women hurried out of his way, eyes averted.

     He squatted on the dirt floor beside Elsie, took one look at her and silently
cursed Nan.  Elsie's face had the pallor of death. There would be no healing
tonight, unless, somehow, he could save the baby. No healing and Nan had 
seen to it that there was a room full of people to watch.

     "Why isn't she on her hands and knees?" he asked sharply, but he saw the
answer in the fatigue on Elsie's face.  Ignoring the flurry of explanations from 
he women, he took the crystal out of its pouch, gently opened the blanket that 
was Elsie's only covering, then held the stone against the protruding belly. 

     He closed his eyes as he always did, and let the stone see for him.  Look, he commanded.  Look into the womb and see this child that can't or won't come
into the world. 

     Elsie twisted under his touch and for a few moments he saw nothing.  Then a
dark oval gradually lightened, became transpa­rent, a shape -- no -- two shapes!
He froze, feeling as if his heart had stopped, then jerked his hands back and the
vision faded.  Two shapes. Twins.

     His stomach lurched and he remembered the dream. It was always the same.
Lost in a cave, he wandered deeper and deeper along the steep path that, no 
matter which direction he turned, always led him further into the earth.  And then,
suddenly, the path leveled out and opened into a cavern, a great dark hollow that
perhaps was
the underworld itself.  Just as suddenly, he knew that the path leading
out of the cave lay on the other side of the cavern.  To get out he would have to
cross it.   Never once in the dream, though, had he made it across. For the twins
lurked in the shadows and each time he tried, they leapt out at him from opposite
sides, grabbing him.  And as he struggled frantically, they dragged him down and
down into the suffocating darkness.

     Now he drew a shaky breath and rising to his feet said,  "It's too late.  She 
and the babies are filled with death."  He knew it was half a lie. The crystal, warm
in his hand, spoke of healing.

     Every eye in the room was on him, but only Nan seemed to have understood 
what he said.

     "Babies?" she asked.  "Twins?"

     "They're in the wrong position, lying crosswise.  There's no room 
to move them."   

   Nan's eyes narrowed and he felt the heat of her disbelief.

     "In the old days," Nan said, in a voice loud enough to carry to the adjoining
house, "the medicine men had power. They could merge the bodies of twins into
one.  Two babies dying merged into one child living.  At least the Hopi medicine
men could."

     She pointed to Nahutiwa. "Every time we have a council, Nahutiwa tells us
that he knows the old ways, that he wants to bring back the old ceremonies.
He's taken a Hopi name that means `medicine man'.  He has a crystal. He says
he is a healer, but now he says he cannot heal."

     He hated her.  Murmurs ran through the room spawning doubts that he knew would grow in the people's hearts like the cancers so common among them.  He 
could have killed her, could have crushed her two- heart witch face right then,
but the challenge had to be answered.

     He had the power; the warmth of the crystal told him that.  More power than their fathers or their grandfathers ever had, for in the days of the white man the
power had withered like an uprooted weed in the summer sun.  Didn't they know
that?  But he had searched it out, bit by bit, learning from anyone of any tribe
willing to teach, begging the wise men, groveling for knowledge like a dog
begging scraps, finding what had been lost, discovering what had been hidden.

He had more than the powers from the crystal; he had knowledge -- bits of
ceremonies and rituals that he had written down before paper had become so
scarce.  Prayers from his father's Hopi clan, dances remembered by an old Zuni
chief, Navajo cleansing ceremonies.  All he wanted, all he could ever remember
wanting, was to restore these ceremonies to his people.  But to do that he needed
a different kind of power. The power that came from the villagers' belief in him,
from their trust.  This healing could give him that power.

     But if these were the twins. . .he shut his eyes wishing he had time to think. 
If he merged the twins into one -- into one half-white man -- would they still have
the power foretold by his dreams?

     Elsie moaned and the murmuring stopped as the eyes in the room went to 
her and then fixed on him. And he knew then that whatever his fears about a living
child, if the twins died in the womb, their death would destroy him.  One way or
another, this night was going to live in the memories of the people.

     "Have it your way," he said fiercely to Nan.

     He lifted the crystal from its pouch round his neck, aware of the sudden
stillness in the room, and squatted once more beside Elsie.  He began moving 
the crystal in ever-shrinking circles around her belly, visualizing the two infants
merging into one. As he repeated the pattern, the vision washed over him,
consumed him, until his whole body burned with will, till every part of him
demanded compliance.  When the crystal flared and seared his hand, he knew 
it was done.  

  "Help me turn her."  He gestured to the women who had been attending Elsie, 
but it was Nan who took her daughter's head and arms.  Together they put her in 
the proper birthing position, on her hands and knees.  He gently massaged her 
belly, pushing, prodding.  Turn, you bastard, he ordered silently, get your head 
down.  And stay out of my way for the rest of your life, because I know who 
you are and I'm ready for you.

     And then Elsie screamed and shuddered and the baby came sliding out so 
fast  that Nahutiwa almost didn't catch it.  The baby cried its greeting to the world
while Nan quickly pulled a hair from Elsie's head and tied it around the umbilical
cord.

     Nahutiwa sat back on his heels, drained, dazed, only half watching Nan's 
efforts to expel the afterbirth.  Then he looked at the squalling infant in his arms
and almost laughed out loud.

     It was a girl.  All his fears, and it was only a girl.  She might become a 
two-heart like her grandmother, this half-bahana troublemaker, but he could 
control that.  

    
He handed the infant to one of the women and rose to leave.  Nan was still
working with Elsie.  A futile attempt, he thought for death was on Elsie's face
and the grief in Nan's eyes showed she knew it.

     He strode from the room conscious of the awe in the faces of those who had
witnessed the birth.  Only a girl.  The thought warmed him on the icy journey
home.  He entered his room, fell down on his mat, and for the first time in months
slept deep and long, untroubled by dreams.

*    *    *  

     "Grandmother, tell me again how I got my name," said Movi.  She was 
snuggled down deep against the soft expanse of Nan's bosom and her face
bounced with the rumble of laughter that came from her request.

     "Again?" asked Nan.  "Always you want the same story."

     Movi felt the vibrations of Nan's voice, soft and low, as the story began of 
her mother's death, of Nan's great love for her (even though, Nan always added, 
Movi was fussy and stubborn as an infant and occasionally even now).  As Nan
talked, Movi ran her hand across Nan's neck, cracked and lined like a dry bed of
clay, but somehow soft.  Nan's arms, smelling faintly of wood smoke and corn
dust, were wrapped around her, shielding her like the shucks round a growing ear
of corn or the cocoon round a caterpillar.

     Nan's voice droned on and Movi's eyes grew heavy.  She tried to force them
open, to stay awake for the part about the yucca root, how it was tough but the
suds that came from it were gentle and had, in times past, formed an essential part
of Hopi ceremony.  Then would come Movi's favorite part, how Nan had called
that feisty infant after the yucca root.  Movi.  But long before Nan got to her
naming, Movi had fallen asleep.

*    *    *

     Movi watched the red juice run down the corners of Johnnie Begay's mouth 
as he sat against the stone wall of his house eating a melon.  Her own mouth was
dry with longing for a taste of it, but Johnnie merely grinned at her, spat out the
seeds, and then dipped his face back into the juicy red pulp, smacking and
slurping.

     A big piece.  Big enough to give a few bites away without missing them.  The
day was hot, too, even in the shade cast by the row of houses.  It wasn't as if,
whenever Nan gave her a pouch of parched corn, Movi didn't give him half of it,
scrupulously counting out the pieces so they would each have the same amount.

     A stunted yellow puppy, it's skin stretched tight over its bones, sidled up to
Johnnie, who was too engrossed in the melon to notice.  Movi wondered whether
to warn him, but the dog moved before she decided, snapping off a good-sized
chunk of the fruit and barely missing Johnnie's nose.

     "You maggot-brained coyote!"  Johnnie kicked at the dog, which shied out
of reach and then sat down, tongue hanging, eyeing Johnnie and his melon.

     Johnnie gave the dog a murderous look, then set the melon on the ground.
"Keep an eye on it," he said to Movi.  Grabbing a handful of stones, he took
off after the dog, his shouts and the dog's yelps mingling into one sound as
they tore round the corner towards the plaza.

     Movi looked at the melon.  It was mostly gone, less than half left, the half
that should have been hers anyway.  Johnnie had kicked some dirt on it when
he chased off after the dog.  She picked it up and brushed away the dirt, her
fingers sticky with its sweetness, then licked her fingers, dirt and all. That was
a mistake, because it only made her tongue ache for more. Deep red, the melon
was one of the last of the season.  No more until next summer, and Johnnie was
going to come back and eat every bite.

     I'll just eat it, she thought, and raised the melon to her mouth but grew 
suddenly self-conscious.  The eyes of the houses bored holes through her.

     She clutched the watermelon to her side and bolted between the houses out 
to the trail that led down the mesa.  She had every right.  It was her share.  
Johnnie owed it to her.  She half-jumped, half-slid down the steep trail, knowing
that a false step could mean a broken ankle.  When she was about a third of the
way down, she heard a shout.  Johnnie stood at the edge of the mesa above her,
arms flailing, yelling something unintelligible, though she had a pretty good idea
what he was saying.

     And then to her horror he twisted and swayed on the mesa's edge and pitched
forward over the cliff, his scream cutting through her.  Then he hit the ground.

     With a little sob, Movi dropped the melon and tore back up the trail, then
turned and ran along the face of the cliff until she came to where Johnnie lay
crumpled on his side, his head twisted unnaturally.  Blood flowed out his nose,
lining the corners of his mouth where the watermelon juice had run earlier. At 
first she thought  he was dead, but when she put her hand against his neck she 
felt a faint pulse.

A pulse, for what?  To push the blood slowly out of his body, to drain away 
the traces of life that were still in him?  She couldn't think, but stared at him 
without hope.  She had meant only to take his melon but along with it she had
stolen his life.

     She stood and looked toward the trail, wishing for help but dreading the
explanations that would have to be made.  And then a voice behind her said,
"Crush me."

     Movi whirled around.  But no one was there.  She turned back to Johnnie, 
watching him closely.  Could he have. . .?

     "Crush me."

     Johnnie hadn't moved, hadn't spoken, she was certain.  She turned again, 
heart pounding, and slowly looked in all four directions.  Nothing.

     "Crush me against the rock with your hands."

     Then, on top of a boulder the height of her knees, she saw a wolf spider, 
as big and black as a tarantula but smoother and more delicately built.

     "Crush me and heal the boy."

     "I don't understand," said Movi.

     The spider didn't answer.  

  "Help me," Movi cried.  "I don't understand."

     She thought of her hand against the flesh of the spider and shuddered.  
As if it read her mind, the spider began moving away from her.

     Johnnie was dying and it was her fault and the spider was just walking away.

     "Help me!" she screamed at it, and her anger rising, black as the spider.  She
bent over and thrust her hand against it, feeling the crunch as its body gave way
beneath her weight.

     She stood there shaking, staring at the dark stain on her hand, then pushed 
her other hand against the pulp on the rock.

     Crush me and heal the boy, it had said.  She knelt beside Johnnie, her hands
black with the spider's lifeblood, and laid them on his head.

     "Heal."  It was a command, a plea, a yearning, a prayer.

     The blood cleared from Johnnie's nose and mouth.

     Movi moved her hands to his neck, still skewed at an impossible angle.  
"Heal," she whispered.  And Johnnie's neck straightened.  Slowly she worked
her way down, touching every part of his broken body with her own hands bloodied from the spider's broken body.

     Before she had finished she heard shouts and running footsteps and knew 
that others had finally come to help.  But she couldn't stop.  Her hands 
compelled her. She couldn't stop until his body was whole.  At last, she lifted 
her hands from Johnnie's feet and raised her head, only to see Nahutiwa looking
down at  her, his face rigid with anger.  He had not come alone, and Movi
recognized Johnnie's mother among the others with him.  Johnnie moaned, 
opened his eyes, and then sat up.

     Nahutiwa's eyes flicked to Johnnie then turned back to Movi. "What are 
you" doing?" he asked.  And, as if his voice had given them the permission, everyone began talking at once, their questions and accusations pelting her like stones.

     It was too much.  How could she explain it when she didn't know herself 
what had happened? Her very bones ached with exhaustion, more than if she |
had worked in the sun all day weeding corn.  She wanted Nan's arms around 
her, stroking her hair and murmuring comfort, easing the strange grief in her 
heart.

     She jumped up and with only a glance at the surprise on Nahutiwa's face,
darted around him and the cluster of people. Back to the trail she ran, back up 
the mesa, to her own house, startling Nan who, after one look at her, opened 
wide her arms. Movi inhaled the familiar scent of corn dust and wood smoke 
and burrowed deep into Nan, safe once more.

     But safe in Nan's arms, Movi still heard Johnnie's voice as he had shouted 
after her hoarse with anger.

     "Thieving white witch!"  

  Now she wondered what he had meant. Why had he called her white when
everyone knew her mother had been Hopi?  And did the healing of Johnnie 
(the spider's healing, really) make her a witch? Pressing deep into Nan, she 
asked  her, then felt rather than saw Nan's frown and long sigh.

     It was time for a new story.

*    *    *

     "I tell you, she's a two-heart."

     Johnnie was showing no effects from his fall, thought Nahutiwa. He was 
talking non-stop as they walked slowly back up the mesa.  But Nahutiwa hardly 
heard him. Johnnie, healthy, vigorous after his fall off the mesa was an example 
of a type of  power Nahutiwa had never had, and the envy of it burned like hot 
coals in his stomach.

     "She stole my melon and then ran down the mesa, and when she heard me 
yelling at her, she took the form of a whirlwind and pushed me off the cliff."

     Nahutiwa doubted it, but Johnnie's mother and aunt, flanking him protectively,
made shocked exclamations.  

  "You should bring it up at the council," said Johnnie's mother, a sour-faced
woman with a reputation for laziness. "We don't need a two-heart here in the
village. She can go live with the whites."

      "And where is that?" asked Nahutiwa dryly. As angry as he was about Movi, 
it seemed to Nahutiwa that Johnnie and his family were manifestly ungrateful.

     His question brought silence even from Johnnie because no one knew.  
Delbert Polacca's son was the only one who had left the village since the war, 
and he had never been heard from again.

     Johnnie finally found his tongue. "If she's a two-heart, she can find them."

     "She's only eight, and she did save your life," Nahutiwa reminded him. 
Expulsion was as close as the village got to a death sentence. 

     "If she hadn't pushed me she wouldn't have needed to," he said so callously
that Nahutiwa wondered, not for the first time that morning, why Movi had
bothered.  He was relieved when they reached the top of the mesa and separated.

     He came to his house and stopped at the stone box beside his door.  The women of the village often left food here, payment of sorts for the services he 
gave them. Inside the box, with its heavy stone lid, the food was safe from the
half-starved dogs that gleaned the streets. He pried off the lid and was rewarded 
by the sight of some corn tortillas and an earthen bowl full of mutton stew.

He carried the food to his table, a crude affair with twisted juniper legs that sent
his mind back to the pre-war days of his childhood. Formica tables, microwave 
ovens, and food that knew no end to its variety.  In his memory, that way of 
living seemed more magical than the crystal he used for healing.

     Movi hadn't used a crystal.  As far as he could see she hadn't used anything.
A lifetime he'd searched to find stones that held healing power and an eight-year
old girl did it without anything.

     Last week the twins had suddenly returned to his dreams and now he knew 
why. He had thought that a half-white girl wouldn't be a threat -- the only talent 
the white people had was for war, not healing. He should have remembered, 
though, that twins came from the antelope people and that a child such as Movi, 
formed from twins, had the antelope people's healing powers.  How could he
have been so blind? 

     Because on that night eight years ago he had had no choice.  Nan had made 
sure of that, challenging him in front of everyone in the room.  The crystal had 
left  him no choice either, for to have refused it when its warmth told of healing
would have been to cut himself off from its power.  And he had come close to
doing that  very thing.  He thought, grudgingly, that he ought to be grateful to 
Nan for preventing him, but he still didn't trust her, those dark eyes that saw too
much.

     He opened one of the tortillas, still warm, and poured some of the stew into it, 
his mind reeling with ways to discredit Movi and the healing.  Given Johnnie's 
attitude, it wouldn't be hard.  Why should she steal away the respect and power
he had worked a lifetime to earn?

     And then, he remembered how she had bounded past him and run up the mesa -- 
as frightened and as agile as if she were indeed an antelope.  Thin and dark, with
nothing to show her father was white, she hadn't looked like a witch or a great healer.
She had just looked scared.

     Nahutiwa stared at his plate and sighed.  It was too complicated.  Was he
supposed to fight a child?

     He rolled the tortilla around the stew and took a bite, but found, after all, that
he had no appetite.

*    *    *

     Movi heard the voice outside her door shrilly calling her name.

     "Come in," she answered reluctantly.  Lately, the only visitors were people 
in need of healing and today she didn't want to be interrupted. She was making
pikami, spooning blue corn pudding onto dried corn leaves and then tightly
wrapping them to be ready for steaming. It was one of Nan's favorite dishes.

     Lucy Yazzie pushed her way through the blanketed doorway.  At ten, a year
younger than Movi, she was chubby and usually irrepressibly cheerful.

     Movi listened to Lucy's tearful account of her father's illness, though her heart
sank at the thought of having to interrupt her cooking.

     "Nothing's worked, and he can't stop coughing, so he can't sleep or get any 
rest or hold down any food." Lucy rubbed her eyes with a dirty hand.  "My 
mother sent me to ask you to come."

     Movi gave a despairing look at the unfinished pikami.  She had wanted 
it in time for supper, to tempt Nan, who seemed to eat less every day.  "You 
understand that I might not be able to help."

     "I know. But please, just come," said Lucy with such pleading that Movi 
knew Lucy had missed what she was trying to tell her.  That Movi only could 
heal when a spider appeared, that it had nothing to do with her own power or 
desire.

     "I'll come," she said, flinching at Lucy's ecstatic response. On the way out, 
she picked up the medicine bag that contained the herbs Nan had taught her to 
use.  Just in case.    

     "I brought her," Lucy announced happily as soon as they had both ducked 
through the doorway into the room.

     Silence, then the sharp barks of a man coughing.  A faint smell of vomit and 
sweat hung in the air.  

  Lucy's father lay on a mat in the far corner of the room. A man, squatting 
beside him, had his back to the door. Lucy's mother stood behind the man.  
Her eyes rested on Movi briefly, then escaped to the floor.

     The squatting man turned and stood up. "Who?" he asked in a deep voice.  
And Movi saw suddenly, as recognition darkened the man's face, that it was 
Nahutiwa.

     She hadn't even considered the possibility that Nahutiwa would be there.  He
disapproved of her healings; everyone in the village knew that, though Nan said
he had never made a formal complaint to the village councils.

     "Did you send for her?" Nahutiwa asked Lucy's mother in a tight voice.  She
shrugged, her eyes still lowered.

     Nahutiwa fingered a transparent stone that sat in leather netting and hung from
a thong around his neck.  "For three days I've sat beside him and not once has 
the crystal warmed." His voice challenged her -- dared her to heal where he had 
not been able to.

     "I didn't know you were here," Movi stammered, and fled back toward the 
door. Nahutiwa's wisdom and knowledge about healing were legendary. How 
could she succeed where he had failed?  She needed to get back to Nan.  But 
as she bent to go through the doorway, she caught a motion on the floor. 
wolf spider.  She
drew her breath in sharply.  Not now.  Not in front of him.  

  She shut her eyes tight and opened them again, hoping the spider would be
gone. But it wasn't.  And she thought of going through the door as if she had
never seen the spider, but then the death of Lucy's father would follow her home,
would eat and sleep with her.

     Unhappily she sank down on one knee and pressed her hand hard against 
the spider.  As always, she felt a wrenching inside her, as if a giant hand were squeezing the blood from her heart.  Though it happened at every healing, the 
pain of it always took her by surprise.  She rubbed her other hand against the
crushed spider, then walked quickly over to Lucy's father, head down, avoiding
Nahutiwa's eyes.

     She laid her hands on the sick man's head and chest and throat, each time
commanding him, in a low voice, to heal.  She dared not look up at Nahutiwa,
but she felt his anger anyway, scorching the room.

     Lucy's father stopped coughing, drew a long easy breath and then his face 
split in a huge grin that told Movi where Lucy got her smile. And for a moment, 
just a moment, Movi basked in his relief and happiness and forgot the pain and 
the anger that had gone before.

     "Thank you," said Lucy's father, but before Movi could reply, Nahutiwa's 
voice cut through the room.

     "How are you doing this?"  

Movi finally met his eyes.  Anger there, as she had expected, and outrage, but
a genuine puzzlement, too. That more than the anger surprised her.

     "I don't know," she stammered.  "If a spider comes, then there's a healing."  

     "Spider?" he asked incredulously. "Why a spider?"

     Movi shook her head and felt her face go red.  She didn't know why the 
spiders came or where they came from. Or why one hadn't appeared for Nan.

     "If you don't know the source of your power, it could be evil." The anger
surged back into Nahutiwa's voice.  "It could be witchcraft."  And with that 
he turned and strode out of the house.

     He left a silence in his wake and a room full of people who suddenly wouldn't
meet her eyes.

     Movi stole a last look at Lucy's father, then left the house without a word. 
Once outside, she ran all the way home.

     The aroma of steaming pikami hit her as she came through the door, and Nan,
slumped against the wall on the stone bench that ran along the west side of the
room, sat up.

     "I thought I'd finish it for you," said Nan.  

  But what it had cost her was all too evident.  She seemed almost too tired to
speak. Lifting the lid off the pottery bowl on the wood stove, Movi flipped a
couple of the wrapped bundles into a flat dish and carried it over to Nan.  They
sat in silence for a moment, gingerly unwrapping the hot leaves.

     "Did a spider come?" Nan asked.

     Movi nodded and almost told Nan about her encounter with Nahutiwa.  But
 instead she asked, "Where do the spiders come from?"

     Nan's fingers stilled; she leaned against the wall with her eyes closed.  
"Nobody remembers the old ways anymore," she said, and to Movi's dismay
Nan's eyes began to water. It had been this way lately; the tears that Movi could
scarcely remember seeing on Nan's face came easily now.  And the soft words
Movi had grown up with were more often now sharp ones.

     "My mother or my grandmother would have known," said Nan.  "They 
were healers, too, though they didn't have your gift.  But we. . ." two more 
tears tracked down her cheeks, "we have forgotten everything.  Nahutiwa's 
right about that."  

     A long pause.  Then Nan opened her eyes and said, "I think they come 
from Spider Grandmother."

     Spider Grandmother had a shrine in front of a cave on the east side of 
the mesa.  That was all Movi knew about her, except for the stories that had 
circulated among the children in hushed voices, that Spider Grandmother 
guarded the cave jealously and that anyone who entered it would be swept 
to the underworld.  

  "Tell me about her," said Movi, but Nan shook her head.

     "I can't remember."  The despair in her voice unnerved Movi "I can't remember
the stories."  She set down her bowl and rose stiffly to her feet, walking with tired,
heavy steps to her mat. She lay down with her back to Movi, pulling the rough wool
blanket over her shoulders.

     The blanket moved, shuddering in the rhythm of tears though Movi heard no
sound. And Movi felt her own heart contract with each movement.  When was it
going to end?

     Nan's pikami was virtually untouched.  Movi rewrapped it as tenderly as if she
were blanketing Nan herself and carried the bowls back to the wood stove, forcing
her gaze high, forbidding it to drop to the floor and search for a spider, as it had
searched day after day until her eyes hurt from the looking.  This time she wouldn't
look, because she couldn't bear not seeing it.

     Tomorrow, she would go to the shrine and ask Spider Grandmother to send 
a spider.

*    *    *

     Spider Grandmother was keeping her own company.  Movi had visited her
shrine daily, had piled it high with offerings of cornmeal and dried ears of corn. 
But the birds and the chipmunks seemed to be the only ones interested in the 
corn atop the mound of rocks in front of Spider Grandmother's cave.  If Spider
Grandmother noticed, she gave no sign.

     One desperate day, Movi had even entered the cave. That morning she had
come early so that she could be at the shrine to greet the sun's rising.  The sky to
the east above Antelope Mesa changed from indigo to pink to gold and suddenly
the sun flashed on the horizon, catching Movi by surprise and blinding her.  She
turned away but the light still played in her eyes and she thought she saw an ear 
of corn. A young ear of corn. And as she watched, she saw its shucks being
ripped off one by one, until, stripped naked in the unyielding sun, the ear dried 
up and died.

     "Please," she whispered to the shrine, "I can't live without her.  Please, send 
a spider."

     Silence.

     In the silence, her eyes kept coming back to the cave's entrance.  All the 
stories she had heard about the cave, stories about the underworld and Spider
Grandmother and her tricks, flooded over her.  But she had no more time for
silence.  Each day Nan's skin hung on more loosely on her bones. Slowly, 
Movi walked to the entrance of the cave.

     The hole leading into it was so low to the ground that she had to kneel to 
crawl through but after a few feet the ceiling arched and she stood up, her heart
pounding. For all her fears, the cave seemed ordinary -- sand and bare rock.  
No underworld here, she thought, relief mingled with disappointment.  And then
she realized the walls weren't bare after all.  Hundreds, thousands of webs lined 
the cave's interior as uncountable spiders wove their silk homes across the dark
cracks and crevices in the rock. No wonder people thought the cave belonged 
to Spider Grandmother.

     She searched, her eyes straining in the dim light, for the one spider she knew 
she wouldn't find.  When she finally gave up and crawled back out of the cave,
the brilliance of the morning made a mockery of the darkness inside her.

*    *   *

     Not everyone who had died in those numbing years immediately after the 
war had been buried.  So many died so fast, frequently whole families at the same
time, that often there were no survivors to care.  Corpses rotted on the ground. 
And the stench -- for the few left to be aware of it -- the stench made the very 
earth and air seem unclean.

     But in those early days after the war, Nahutiwa had journeyed twice to the 
edge of the mesa for a burial.  The first time he and his younger brother Eldon
staggered under the weight of their father's body, until they came to the crevice
picked out by his mother. They dropped him down the split between the rocks
then spent the rest of the afternoon piling rocks upon the body -- protection 
from predators.  Nahutiwa's mother had watched with a face as hard as the
grave-stones, not speaking until they had finished.

     "It's not right," she said then. "There should have been corn pollen and
someone to do the prayers."  Shoulders sagging, she walked in silence back 
to the village.

     Neither boy had answered her.  What could they have said?  The clan leader
who knew the prayers had been among the first to die.

     Now, as Nahutiwa piled stone after stone into another crevice, he was 
reminded of the second time.  The weight had been less for it was Eldon he 
had carried.  And his mother, seeing Eldon's small frame against the rocks, 
hadn't had the strength that time to remain silent.  She had wept just as Betty
Yazzie wept now as she looked now into crack where her nine-year-old son 
lay.  And Nahutiwa felt as helpless in the face of Betty's grief as he had that 
winter day standing beside his mother. As empty-handed. Nothing to give -- 
no ritual, no ceremony to ease the passage of the dead one and offer even a
tenuous strand of comfort to the living.

     Then he had been a boy.  But now, past his sixtieth birthday and facing old 
age, he still stood by the crevice as empty-handed as he had been when he was
ten.  All that knowledge, so painstakingly collected, even the power that came 
from the crystal, failed to gain him the villagers' confidence.

     "How do you know?" they asked again and again at the councils.  "How do 
you know that these will be the ceremonies the gods want."  He was a scholar 
and a healer, but they wanted a prophet.

     And when he died, his knowledge would die with him, and still the villagers 
would have no comfort at their burials.  The enormity of it overwhelmed him.

     He reached out to Betty and pulled her to him, clung to her as she shook 
against him.

     "I'm sorry," he said, his own eyes watering. "I'm sorry."

*    *    *

     Movi kept going to the shrine.  What else could she do?  One day she 
returned to find Nan wrapped in a blanket in front of the stove, looking like 
death itself, but with a smile dancing in her eyes for the first time in weeks. 

     "Movi!" Nan's greeting vibrated with joy, with life, and Movi's heart leapt.
Maybe Spider Grandmother had heard her after all.  

Nan's hair, coarse and grey, hung loose reaching almost to her waist.  She 
pushed it back from her face, grimaced ruefully, then asked, "Help me?"

     Nodding, Movi moved behind Nan and ran her fingers gently through her 
hair, smoothing it in preparation for putting it in a bun. A thousand times she 
had done this, only this time her hands were shaking and she wanted to bury 
her face in Nan's hair and squeeze her hard and shout for the joy of seeing her
smile. But she forced her hands into the old patterns and pulled the sides back 
and twisted the hair into the oblong bun shape, then began securing it with a 
piece of cotton string.

     Until what she saw made her hands freeze in midair.  A lump on Nan's neck, 
a lump the size of a turkey egg lying just below her ear.  It was death she was looking at. Death growing on Nan's neck, hiding like a coward under her skin. 
And now Movi knew what was devouring Nan, eating the life from her.

     Nan turned and her smile faded; her eyes filled with pity.  "So you've seen it," 
she said at last.

     "I'll heal you," said Movi. "It'll go away. You're better today."

     Nan shook her head.  "I'm not better, Movi, I'm happier. Because I know . . . 
I  had a dream, Movi.  I saw Spider Grandmother. She told me to get ready, that
my journey to the underground was soon."

     "No!" She hadn't meant to shout but that's how it came out. Was Nan just
going to give up? Nan, who fought for everything, who was the only one in the village with the courage to stand up to Nahutiwa, was she just going to lie down 
on her mat
and die?

     Nan reached out to Movi and drew her close, holding her tight, rocking 
slightly as she used to do when Movi was a small child.  Only now the strong
brown arms were trembling sticks and the breath foul. 

     "I dreamt of the underworld," said Nan, and the joy crept back into her voice.
"Spider Grandmother was there.  Did you know she dresses as a Navajo?  My
mother and your mother, Elsie, were there and I remembered all the old stories."

     Movi found she couldn't speak.

     After a long silence Nan said, "My poor Movi," and Movi felt the warmth 
of tears dropping on her hair.  Tears for her, for Movi, not for the pain and death
that lay ahead for Nan.

     Movi pushed free of Nan's arms. "I'll heal you.  I'll heal you or I'll never 
heal again."

     "Don't say that," said Nan, the old fire flashing in her eyes. "How can you 
say
that? You've been watching for a spider ever since I got sick.  And have 
you seen one? No. Because I am to make this journey."

     Had she seen one though her eyes had searched the stone floor, searched 
every crack in the stone walls, searched until they ached from the searching? 
Suddenly the room was suffocating her; there was no air left to breathe.  She 
ran out the door, and then down the trail that wound down the mesa, ran in a
furious, mindless descent. Her breath came now in ragged gasps but she didn't
stop until she reached Spider Grandmother's cave.

     No more sitting in silence.  No more begging.  She dove into the entrance 
of the cave and scraped across the rocks, heedless of the flesh she was leaving
behind.  

     "I hate you!"  She whispered first, then screamed, pounding her hands into
the webs on the rocks, smashing the spiders.  She would kill them, as Spider
Grandmother was killing Nan.  She beat her hands against the rocks, ignoring 
the blood that ran down her arms, ignoring the stab in her heart as each spider
died. She would search them out, just as she had searched for a wolf spider in
vain,  and she would crush them all.  Her hands throbbed from the beating; still 
she slammed them against the bodies of the spiders.

     "I hate you," she screamed, and suddenly realized it was Nan's face she was
seeing, Nan she was pummeling with her bloody hands.  And the horror of it was
a knife cutting her in two, but she could not stop. She killed spider after spider,
pounding the rocks again and again and again. How could Nan leave her? Did the
cocoon dissolve before the butterfly was formed?  Did the shucks fall off before
the ear was ripe? 

     Finally she dropped face down on the ground, too tired to move.

     How long she lay there, she couldn't tell but suddenly she felt a movement 
of air. Turning on her back, she gasped. The cave had vanished and she stared 
at the stars in the night sky. And even as she watched, a part of the sky began
to glow, and it intensified and took the shape of a woman, tall and graceful, 
wearing the gathered skirt and blue velveteen shirt of the Navajos, her silver hair
swept back gracefully into a bun. Her mouth was tender and compassion
flowed like rivers from her eyes. She extended an arm and from it floated a 
thread that fell with silken grace from the sky. A mountain sprang from where 
the thread touched the earth.  Another thread covered the mountain with trees. Another brought bluebirds, sparrows and hawks to inhabit the trees. Movi 
watched as the woman sent thread after thread until the earth was a jumble of
threads, a web so intricate that only its maker, connected to it in every way, 
could comprehend it.

     Then the woman reached out, and from the maze of threads netted about 
her, she pulled a single one, hand over hand on the silver thread, she pulled it 
to her. At the other end was Nan. And as Nan, drawn by the silver strand, lifted
from the earth and began crossing the gulf of sky between her and the woman,
Movi saw that another thread extended from Nan to the earth. She strained to 
see where it led and then, in astonishment, found it coming from her heart, a 
thread of silver, sticky to the touch.  And then she saw that there were many
threads connected to her, sparkling in the starlight, but two shone the brightest:
 the one to the woman and the one to Nan.  

     It is Spider Grandmother, thought Movi. And she watched as Nan completed
her journey across the sky and into Spider Grandmother's embrace.  Movi's 
thread to Nan was still intact; Movi felt warmth pulsing through it and when she
touched her fingers to it, she smelled wood smoke and corn dust.

     But then the sky darkened and Spider Grandmother faded and Movi breathed
the close, stale air of the cave. The pain in her hands and arms throbbed to life.

     "Come back," she called, but her voice echoed unanswered.

     Then in despair she cried out to the empty cave, "If you won't help me, who
will?"

     And out of the darkness came a woman's voice, faint but distinct.

     "Ask Nahutiwa."

         *    *    *

     When Nahutiwa awoke, sweating and shivering, frightened and reassured all 
at the same time, he was certain he had dreamed the last dream. Never before had
he been able to see the faces of the twins.  This time, though, they dragged him
deep into the cave and began to devour him, starting with his feet and eating their
way slowly up his body.  Suddenly they were at his head, looming over him large
as the night sky, swallowing him in their immensity.  One face belonged to Movi.
The other was his own.

     What puzzled him most was the sense of well-being he had felt at the end of 
the dream.  Only the gods would make being eaten alive seem like a good thing.  

    
But what did it matter?   If there was one lesson he'd learned, it was that
whenever he thought he knew what the gods had planned for him, he was wrong.
He had thought some powerful twins would threaten him but instead the gods had
sent a little girl to steal from him the villagers' confidence he had tried so hard to
win.

     He had given up trying to understand.  Given it up the day he found a lump
growing at the base of his neck.  Once he thought he walked the path of a great
healer, a restorer of ancient rituals, but now he knew where his path led: to death.  

    
He rose and washed the sweat off his face from a bowl of water he kept on 
his table.  The light was fading; it was almost time for a fire.  Nahutiwa scowled.
What was supposed to have been a short nap had taken most of the afternoon.  
He began breaking up some branches, starter for the fire, when he heard a knock 
at the door. A timid knock, so soft he thought he might be imagining it.  But when he opened the door, he saw Movi.

     He tried to cover his astonishment.  She was filthy, caked with dirt and blood,
her face tear-streaked, her hair wild. . .

     "Your hands," he gasped.  "What have you been doing?"

     He was even more astonished when, in a broken voice, she told him that she'd
seen Spider Grandmother, who had sent Movi to him.  What did he have to do
with Spider Grandmother?

     "Help me," she pleaded, fresh tears in her eyes.  She looked on the verge of
collapse. "Please. Please come with me."

     He stepped toward her and she evidently took that as consent for she turned
and started back down the alley.  He had to stretch his legs to catch up with her.
He followed her without speaking to her home, into the house he had last entered
at Movi's birthing.

     Nan lay on a mat in the far corner of the room, the corner where Elsie had lain
twelve years before. One look at her, emaciated, struggling for air, and he knew
why Movi had brought him.

     "Please," Movi's low voice didn't conceal her desperation. "Heal her."

     Nahutiwa touched the crystal on the thong round his neck, but he knew even
before it chilled his fingers that it was useless.  He knelt beside Nan and circled
the stone, cold and lifeless in his hand, around her body.  Nothing.

     He turned to Movi, who stood rigid with hope, and hated the words that 
came from his mouth.  "It has no power," he said with a touch to the crystal. "She's dying, Movi. Tell her goodbye.  Send her in peace."

     He thought she was going to refuse, but at last she went over and cradled 
Nan's  head in her arms.  She spoke in such low tones that he couldn't hear what
she said, but soon she didn't speak at all and the movement of Nan's breathing
stopped.  The silence was taut with Movi's grief.  

A motion caught his eye.  A spider, a black wolf spider, crawling across the
stone floor.

     Nahutiwa heard Movi gasp, saw her ease out from under Nan's body, saw 
her  squat beside the spider. She crushed it and rubbed her hands in it, then
quickly  returned to Nan.  She laid her hands on Nan's head. "Heal!" she
commanded.

     Nahutiwa watched, his heart breaking.  For now he finally understood what 
the  gods wanted. He watched as she tried again and again, losing confidence 
with each command.  When at last she turned to him, stunned incomprehension 
on her face, he said softly, each word a stone in his mouth, "I think the spider 
was meant for me."

     She stared, not understanding.  He pointed to the lump on his neck.  She 
stood motionless for so long that he thought she still didn't understand.  But
then she came to him and lifted her hands towards his neck.

     "Wait," Nahutiwa said.

     She paused, hands in air.

     "I'm sorry," he said.  "The gods don't consult us in their decisions.

     A ghost of a bitter smile and then her hands rested on his neck. And, as he 
felt the surge of life flow from them, he knew the meaning of the dream.  They
would heal each other -- she the disease that ravaged his body, and he the grief 
that crushed her soul.  And together, they would heal the spiritual wound left gaping by the war.

     For they were twins, two healers, one who talked with the gods and one who
had preserved the knowledge that came from them. Two that together could bring
his people an understanding, a ritual of comfort and binding and healing.  He was
old, but the gods would grant him the time.  Already, his strength was returning.

     Movi dropped her hands, the healing completed.  Now it was his turn.  He
pulled her to him, encircled her with his arms, with his love, with his protection,
and held her against his chest while she wept.

 

#   #   #  

 

© Susan J. Kroupa 2001