story has appeared in my hardcover short story collection JUDGMENT DAY
AND OTHER DREAMS (Fantastic Books, 2009). It is one of 15 unpublished
and previously published short stories in the collection. See Home page
for details. This story could be called a near future fantasy
story, or a magic realism story.
by T. Jackson King
In the still quiet of early morning, something woke me.
now stood watch over our high desert campsite. Inside the dome-tent, I
heard nothing. Not even coyote howls. Nor the sighing rustle of the
wind, which tends to die down just before the false sunrise. What had
awakened me? Saying goodbye to the warmth of my bedroll, I pulled on my
jacket, put boots on and laced them, rubbed at my beard stubble, then
stumbled out of the tent, searching the darkness.
was Mary? She had relieved me on the midnight watch with a kiss, a
comforting hug and a push to the tent. Kate, our Mormon hitchhiker, had
earlier bedded down inside the golden barge of our two-door sedan,
comforted by a couple of quilts. The darkness near the car was empty,
as was the rest of the dry arroyo we’d pulled into. Where was she? I
sniffed the cold night air, searching for her scent.
nearby stood Mary, guarding our sleep as we sought refuge in the
desolate New Mexico countryside of sagebrush and cinder cones. Still
early in our trip to rescue my three children from social chaos in
Virginia, we had camped in this place of dry arroyos and slumbering
volcanoes, not far from where the extinct Bison antiqus
had been hunted by Folsom man. We had thought ourselves safe from the
National Guard, other travelers, the Time of Changes. Safe from the
earth magic raised by Mary’s charmbag, wand and wards. Safe from
fearful people who did not understand why satellites fell from the sky
and electronics had failed. Safe even as Gaea turned over in her sleep,
mumbled to herself, and the rule of science gave way to rule by the
spirits of land, water, mountains and sky. We were fools to believe in
was still black as soot outside. No street lights. No Northern
Lights—not this far south, at least not yet. The moon had set earlier.
The fire was long dead. Shivering, my breath puffing whitely, I looked
of eyes surrounded me. Surrounded the tiny camp of the tent and the
car. In pairs they ringed the upper edges of the arroyo, nearly
motionless, looking down at us. At me. At Kate in the car. At Mary,
wherever she was. But where was that?
down, I felt for a pebble, found one and tossed it back at the car’s
windshield. It took three before the window rolled down.
“Whassa’matter?” Kate growled.
“Shhhh,” I whispered. “Look around us.”
There came the faint hiss of indrawn breath, the muffled sounds of
movement inside. Then the car door opened with a slow clank. Kate moved
up beside me, quiet in her walk. “Where’s Mary?”
spoke softly, hesitantly, not sure if loud noises would make them
stampede, attack, retreat, whatever. “Don’t know. Should be at the far
end of the camp. Where I sat on the flat rock.”
me, something glowed in the night’s satiny blackness. “She’s that way.”
Kate’s own charmbag glowed pearl-white in her palm, brightening as she
fixed on Mary’s location. “Coming, Thomas?”
course.” I followed long-haired Kate into the moonless dark, trying not
to trip over my own feet, one hand resting on her jacketed shoulder.
She chuckled softly. “You know, for an archaeologist, you sure don’t have much night vision.”
funny.” The cold of the high desert night made her teasing unwelcome.
And I was worried by Mary’s absence. “Slow down,” I said as I stumbled
Kate’s shoulder tensed under my hand. “Shut up. Please. I’d rather not irritate them.”
Them? What were they? The eyes seemed to follow us wherever we went. They made the night unlike any I’d ever experienced.
in the high desert of the Southwest have a distinctive character all to
themselves. There is a dryness not found in the South or the East.
There is a dustiness, of course. A dry earth smell that mixes with the
sage aroma of sagebrush, leavened by the occasional tincture scent of
cacti, so effervescent it can hardly be smelled. Unless you spend
enough time in arid lands, where the odor of water is that most
distinctive of elixirs. An elixir whose honeyed scent draws all life to
it. To the tinaja waterholes
in sandstone rock formations. To the hidden seeps below cliffs where
water hits an impermeable layer, travels horizontally for miles, and
reappears in a place where the march of time has cleaved open the
multi-banded pillars of frozen stone. The night carries many messages.
The pounce of predatory hunger. The sudden squeaking of rodents on
their way to digestion. The sinuous slither of snakes towards the
infrared warmth of prey, or to the enclosing insulation of their
burrows when winter draws nigh. The sharp snap and crackle of leafy
branches against each other as a wind gust dips out of the starry night
sky. And distantly, one can even hear the thundering roar of small
pebbles rolling down arroyo slopes, trailing sand behind, as
temperature fluctuations cause minor frost-heaving and bulging,
disturbing the neatness of a place between heaven and earth where most
things are basic. Like survival, hunger, and thirst.
of us, a nimbus of white light glowed. No, it flared. Flared like a
highway torch might burn. Except this one was white, not red or yellow.
the white light of the Healing Wand, Mary stood before something
incredible. She stood, pillar-like, before the largest, most massive
bison I had ever seen. With both arms outstretched before her and her
back to us, she gripped the Anasazi shaman’s wand and just stood there.
The bison looked only at her, its shaggy shoulders towering over Mary’s
blond head. Its obsidian black eyes seemed fixed on the pearly-white
glow of the wand held by my wife.
Stopping only a few feet behind her, with Kate at my side, I whispered. “Mary?”
quartz crystal tip of the wand, barely visible inside the milky-white
glow, wavered slightly. Mary’s head jerked. “Be still!”
bison flickered a glance at me. Around us, on the arroyo rims,
thousands of other eye-pairs seemed to drill into us. Kate’s dry, cold
hand sought out mine. In the corner of my eye I noticed her charmbag
glowing brightly as it hung from her neck, resting atop her jacket.
Monster swung its head toward me, nose sniffing, tiny ears twitching within its dark black mane.
“Thomas, step forward,” Mary said softly. “But slowly.”
Letting go Kate’s hand, I did as directed. “What, who . . . who is this??"
wife’s arms seemed to shake from the strain of holding the Healing Wand
upright, mesmerically emphatic, seeming to hold at bay the hordes
around us, and yet also attract them. “This is Black Mane,” she said,
her voice sighing through the night, like a dove rising to the
sunlight. “He asks why we are here. I have explained about the
children. Stand still so he may smell you.”
still I would most definitely do. No questions asked. No sireee! I felt
mild hysteria coming on. Wondered why. Wondered why not. Then I
wondered nothing as the massive black shape of Monster, or Black Mane
as he called himself, glided up to me.
have stood before elephants. They are larger than bisons. But none had
the predatory presence of Black Mane. None seemed as intelligent. And
none were so . . . visceral an experience.
Mane sniffed me. Dark pig-eyes squinted at me in the pale white glow of
the Healing Wand and the supplemental light of both women’s charmbags,
as a faint glimmer of pale blue touched the eastern foothills. Black
Mane pawed the ground with one elephant hoof, snorted, then butted my
“Touch him, Thomas,” Mary said urgently. “On the forehead.”
How do you touch a behemoth that towers over you? A behemoth who could,
in a second, trample you into a pile of bloody screaming bones? A
behemoth whose hoofbeats must make thunder pale by comparison?
Cautiously, I assumed.
Mane’s forehead felt . . . different. Like fur. Like curled bristles.
Like a sponge, as if it was not quite there. I refrained from
scratching behind an ear. This was not some cat. This was a thinking,
perceiving, evaluating entity. Not an animal. Whatever it was, this was
“He has found you,” Kate said, her gruff voice sounding awed.
you, He,” Mary said tiredly, lowering her glowing wand to waist-level
as the strain of calling on her Gaean powers drained her energies.
Shush,” Kate whispered. “Look up. Look out at his herd.”
me, on the high rim of the arroyo, shapes took form in the pale
half-light of early morning sunrise, that light which reflects off
distant mountain peaks, which seeps high above, past the eastern
horizon. The light which heralds the coming of the sun.
In that light, my hand still resting on Black Mane’s forehead, I saw about me the shapes of the night.
of buffalo stood about us, their massively muscled heads looking down
on us, the patchiness of trailing hair scattered here and there on
undersized flanks—by comparison to Black Mane—with a small patch on
most tails. They are animals that seem all front-end, at first. Animals
whose massive shoulder and neck muscles allow them to thunder-gallop
along for mile after mile of endless prairie and meadow, roaming their
homeland. Only there were no buffalo farms in New Mexico. The nearest
was in Colorado near Denver, others up in Montana and South Dakota,
none down here. Only their bones had been found.
in Pleistocene kill sites where my Amerindian ancestors had driven them
over bluffs to a painful death on rocks and hard earth far below. They
were also found in mounds left behind by the buffalo hunters of the old
West of the 1870s, who sought mainly the hides, leaving behind much
meat, and who decimated entire herds with rifled, .500 caliber big bore
thunder-guns. Guns that elsewhere became known as elephant guns. Firing
shells almost as long as my hand, my western ancestors had—in twenty
years—nearly extinguished the critical food chain of the prairie, a
food source upon which many Amerindians had long depended. A food
source that gave life in return for special ceremonies, ceremonies
which propitiated the life-spirit of that which must be taken for food.
For one’s children. For one’s home. For warmth. It seemed as if all
those long-dead bison now stood about us.
They were, I saw, not all alike.
were Plains bison, six feet high, nine feet long and over a ton heavy.
They had been hunted nearly to extinction a hundred and thirty years
ago. There were Woods bison. There were also the extinct bison antiqus,
hulking one-third larger still than the modern Plains buffalo. And
there were others, brown and black-maned, with broad, wide horns.
Others who could not be. Others whose white calcined bones I’d seen
during a dig in soil well below the Anasazi levels of the Dolores River
valley site I’d once visited. Those bones had dated to 14,000 years ago.
the most deadly of Cape water buffalo, the middle-sized shapes of musk
oxen moved among their brethren, survivors of a time when moister
woodlands must have stood above the banks of the arroyo and nearby
foothills, a time when the arroyo had flowed riparian with water,
yielding bushy green vegetation suitable for these ancients.
They surrounded us. A great herd of times before. Many times. Come back now, in the Time of Changes.
As the night began to lighten before the pale blueness of sunrise, Black Mane snorted, a querulous sound.
Mary licked her lips. “Do you accept him, Thomas?”
Accept him? What did she mean? “Of course.” It was a safe answer.
Mary sighed, her voice exhausted. “Then stand aside. He is joining us.”
Mane shouldered past me, a moving mountain of sweaty, sinew-bound hide
that moved tons of flesh past me on minuet-stepping hooves. I turned to
us, the great herd shimmered in the rising sunlight, turning half
transparent. Black Mane also shimmered. Through his form I saw
sagebrush, the tent and an isolated boulder. And the sedan, just
beyond. He headed for the gold-painted car.
“What? What’s he doing?”
watch,” Mary said, moving up to lean against me, her body shuddering
with exhaustion and her arms drooping. I gripped her waist and held her
close, thankful for her love, her support in my quest to save my
children, yet worried by the price she always paid whenever she
summoned the spirits of Gaea.
Kate moved to Mary’s other side, supporting her. “Will he shift?” she said wonderingly, her query directed to Mary.
My wife nodded slowly. “Yes. Now behold wonder.”
Black Mane sauntered forward, drawing near to the sedan. I thought he would stop and sniff at it. He didn’t.
he passed into the car, his massive towering shape overlapping it, like
two photographic negatives placed one atop the other. He turned round
and faced me, his massive upcurved horns covering three feet from tip
to tip, his body centered in the engine well of the sedan. Then he
slumped down on folded-under feet, coming to rest within the car.
Became part of the car. But more than the car.
“Look,” Kate said, nodding at the arroyo rim above us.
herd of thousands fluttered, losing form, and seemed to disappear in
place. Much like the Anasazi shaman had vanished, after he’d given Mary
the Healing Wand during our visit to the ancient kiva hidden deep in
Arches National Monument. Around us there rose a thunder, as if
millions of hooves now moved. I looked back to the car.
as the sun’s golden orb crested the low mesas and cinder cones to the
east, Black Mane’s deepset eyes glowed a blood-red. He bugled, sounding
like a freight train. Then his form became one with the car.
In the cold morning wind, I shivered uncontrollably. “What the hell was that?”
Kate looked over, smiling wryly at me. “Thomas, don’t you know a totem when you accept it?”
lifted her face from my shoulder, nodding tiredly. “Yes, accept.” Her
blue eyes seemed sunken. More wrinkles showed about her eyes. She’d
aged even more than earlier, when facing down the vision of the Klamath
shaman east of Crater Lake. Two strands of gray now streaked her golden
curls. She smiled tiredly, her entire body looking wrung out. “Thomas,
I asked if you accepted him. You said yes. As I did years ago to
Raven.” She glanced aside to Kate. “As did Kate to . . . the fiery
phoenix of Revelation.” Mary looked back to me. “Didn’t you understand?”
suddenly realized what had happened. What I had done. And what I had
opened myself to. Did the implacable thundering spirit of the bison fit
me? Was it my totem? Was I its natural earthly manifestation?
a new world overrun with Gaean manifestations, it pays to be careful of
the words you speak. And the wishes you wish. I gulped. “I do now. What
will its price be?”
chuckled sympathetically. “Whatever it wants. You saw it. Black Mane is
a natural spirit-force. Something implacable, but friendly to those who
respect it. You have gained a powerful totem-spirit, Thomas.”
I had. But why? Why had it sought me out? Why had the long-dead spirits
of millions of bison joined us last night? I knew they had, in some
mysterious way, joined us. I knew from looking around our campsite.
Hundreds of hoofprints littered the sandy soil.
I had never heard of ghosts or illusions that left behind hoofprints.
the Gaean changes were becoming more real, more solid, more a part of
the new reality the further east we traveled. I wondered how long it
would be until these new forms did not disappear with the sunlight. But
instead walked openly the Land, asserting a shared place in it
alongside a two-legged primate that called itself Homo sapiens sapiens.
much longer would we rule the planet? Had we ever? Had there always
been other . . . Presences? Other spirits of field, stream, grove and
mountain peak, but sleeping the sleep of an interrupted dream?
looked like we were about to find out. And perhaps, with my totem, I
could rescue my three children from the grip of a Virginia where
druglords ruled the night, Uzis crackled down bloody streets, and a
nation once whole slowly came apart as the electronic sinews that had
bound it together now parted. I would pay any price to save the lives
of my children.
the golden-glowing body of the sedan, a bison snort sounded like a
trumpet call to the Apocalypse. Nodding to my two women of power, I
walked to the car, feeling comforted by the presence of Black Mane. I
had found my totem. My totem had found me. And the world would never
again dawn quite the same as before.
For now I walked in Gaea’s dreams.
Copyright retained by T. Jackson King 2009