Box of Sky

Kyle Hemmings

I held my breath. The limbs of the pinyon pines stiffened. Behind closed lids, I saw the scrublands, the austere blueness of the sky, the fig trees past ridges. They all spoke a language I could only begin to understand. I opened my eyes and everything could turn into a miracle: sand into water, blasphemous tongues into instruments of worship. You just have to believe strongly enough.
I was one of five orphans of the Gran Quivira Mission, raised on hard bread and long penances. Now that I’d reached manhood, it was time to leave.

Frey Hernando, before he died, had made an arrangement. Arguing with a man of God would only leave me weary. And who was I to argue against whatever dictums, dogmas were handed down from a mountain? Frey Hernando had chosen a girl I never met for me to marry. I was to take a simple path to find her.

I could tell by the length of shadows that it was time. Within the stone walls of the San Buenaventura Church, I was to meet Padre Francesco. Walking lightly along the flagstone floors, I eyed the roof, the corbels and vigas, the beams strong enough to hold heaven, until I found the Padre kneeling in silent prayer.

“You wish to see me, Padre?”

He swept one hand to the side. “Yes, Andrew. Wait until I finish my prayer.”

He crossed himself and stood. His eyes smiled. On other days, they could pierce through the darkest of one’s internal rooms, deceptive mirrors.

“Even though it is time for you to leave this castle of God, you will not travel alone. Come. Let’s talk in the kiva.”

Downstairs, the kiva’s chambers were cool, drafty, dark. You know when you are not dead when you can still tell the difference between a place that is cool and one that is not. I had seen a dead body once, belonging to a man who spoke Tiwa. He died from thirst. His body was stiff, cool. I could tell his soul was no longer with him. After that experience, I grew feverish for days.

I had a hard time keeping up with the Padre because his legs were so much longer than mine. “What is her name, Father?” I called out.

He did not answer.

“Father, what is her name? I need to know.”

There was silence. He stopped abruptly.

“Maria,” he said, without turning his head. “Maria, the daughter of the Laughing Woman.”

I shook.

The Laughing Woman was well known to the peoples of the Salinas Valley, the Chaco Canyon, the Gila Cliff Dwellings. It was rumored she lived alone somewhere along the trail to Manzano. She had gone mad, or so the stories told, and her voice could imitate that of a hyena’s in the dead of night. Some said that she was given that name by the Southern Apache who believed she kept dark secrets of the mountains, and held them together by the magical powers of her voice.

It was true she could work miracles, bring about good. She had given the horse soldiers of the 17th cavalry information as to the whereabouts of Jose Artiguez after he and his men plundered several villages and left many Pueblo men and women dead. He had also wounded two bank guards during a raid at Albuquerque. One day, I had seen Artiguez, escorted by that cavalry, his hands tied in front. He wore a proud face that day, as the women of our village threw stones at him, and soon, I thought, his soul would sink far beneath the desert.

In a warm tone of voice, Padre spoke of his recollections of The Laughing Woman. She had a child once with an army officer. He did not return. She discovered she was to soon give birth, and perhaps it was then that she started to go mad, her utterances growing stranger, more menacing. The baby was taken away from her by the women in nearby dwellings nestled between limestone hills, a village named Quari. I would head there. The daughter could not be much younger than I, and already I could feel our souls as hungry as the Laughing Woman’s, her shrill cries in the night.

“Other than her name, Father, how will I know her?” I sat across from Padre in the darkest recess of the kiva.

“She will be the girl with green eyes. How many girls in her village could have such eyes?” He laughed softly. “And she is like you. She is half Tompiro. But there is an obligation you must fulfill.”

He described the terms of the arrangement. I was to be given a box of white lace and cloth. The box contained the materials to make a wedding dress. I was to give the box to Maria after reaching Quari. She would sow her own wedding dress with the help of the village women. It was village custom, and we would be married the next day when the shadows were the strongest. If the dress was not completed by the following day, then Maria would be destined to remain alone, perhaps turn into a laughing hyena, much like her mother.

I had five days to reach Quari. My only guarantee of survival consisted of one canteen and a handful of bread.

“Once you run out of food and water, you will fast. It will be a test of endurance. I have faith in you.” Padre smoothed out the wrinkles in his Cossack.

"That means I must walk almost all day and night.”

“The fastest path is the main trail through Mountainair.”

“But Father, that trail is visited by coyotes! They will eat through my flesh. How can I sleep with the thought of those animals?”

“If they approach you, then you must look into their eyes and show them you are not afraid. Fray Hernando blessed a certain coyote and its litter. Look for that one. It will have blue-green eyes, the color of the limestone hills where Frey Hernando worked a miracle. Then, that coyote will be your friend and will lead you if you lose the trail.”

“I will never make it in five days.”

"Think only of reaching Maria. Once you have found her, you will be the boy with silver eyes.”

“And if I die before I reach her, will my soul go to heaven?”

“Think of it this way. Your people once gathered salt into leather bags, taking them in caravans to Mexico, Hidalgo del Parral and even beyond. The salt was used to process silver. You, on the other hand, will be carrying cloth across the desert to make a miracle. Maria will perform one half of it, and you, the other. To make a miracle, you take a simple path.”

* * *

Over two days, I trudged along the trail, stopping briefly when my legs felt like rubber, a poor brand of caucho. Along the way, I passed men and women speaking in Tiwa of a recent raid by Commanches from the east. A kind man offered to take me back to his village, saying that he would feed me and replenish my canteen. I politely refused. I would not dilute my soul. If I were an alloy of precious metals, my soul would stay pure.

At night I dreamed of maize, buffalo meat, and water. I could make a shelter of flint and limestone and think of Maria. By the night of the third day, I had run out of water and the bread was too hard to eat. My Tompiro blood, I felt, was beginning to evaporate. Above, I heard the echo of stars, the galaxies like the strange fingers of many hands, and I studied their positions over the blue-green mountains. I knew then that my Tompiro blood still flowed through me.

My legs wobbled worse than ever, but I held onto the box like a nervous altar boy at his first mass. My life was in that box. My life was a sea of sky and I would not drown. Exhausted, I wandered from the trail and surveyed the sand for an area I could claim as a bed. It was then when I heard the shrill cries in the distance and I wondered if it could belong to The Laughing Woman.

A pack of coyotes now came closer, circling. I held the box more tightly than ever and ran with whatever stores of energy I still possessed. Would I be able to outwit my predators? I faltered, fell, landed face down, tasting the metallic qualities of sand and stone, spitting out, revolted by the aftertaste.

One coyote pranced up to me. It must have been the leader. Growling, it bared its teeth. I shook, thoughts of vines shaking in a storm, and how I would never survive the night. I could tell the animal was hungry. It drew closer and I looked into its eyes. They never flinched, and were not dark. This must be the one the Padre spoke about with those greenish-blue eyes from the miracle of limestone.

I turned my face away and felt its paw upon my back. It nuzzled closer and sniffed around my head. Afraid to open my eyes, I sensed the other members of the pack steadily encroaching. Their leader, the one close to my head, barked at them. I heard the rumblings grow fainter, then, nothing. Feeling so weak, I fell asleep. If the animal would tear me apart, I hoped it would be in the deepest drop of my sleep-life, or when my spirit took the shape of a cloud.

I did dream. I dreamt of Maria under a canopy of cottonwoods, crying over her unfinished dress, humiliated by the old men of the village. Soon her cries would turn to laughter and she would wander into the desert, mad. I would curse this earth and myself.

I woke up. Did I sleep for hours or years? I rose, not able to feel my legs, and followed the coyote. Suddenly, the ground sunk and I descended through many levels of earth, its dark tiers. Somehow, I was able to breathe. Maybe something was breathing for me, pumping air into my lungs.

During my descent, I recalled the stories Father Francesco had told of the fortress of Alcazaba, built by the Moors in Spain. King Ferdinand had built a church there long ago, one very similar to the one at Gran Quivira. I dreamt of entering past its marble walls, walking along its shiny floors. I would be greeted by royal guards of the King and Queen. They would give me a room all to myself with a private view of an outdoor court flanked by a cerezo, a manzano, an olivo tree. Each tree could speak to me and I would taste their fruits.

In exchange for the hand of their maid, Maria, I would give the King and Queen the quickest routes for shiploads of silver and salt that were very much in abundance in the New World. They would make me a very rich man.

I now felt something grabbing me, teeth digging into my flesh, dragging me upward. It may have dragged me for miles, I did not know. I couldn’t open my eyes or was too afraid to. Then, all movement stopped. Listening very closely, I heard the sound of something being dragged across sand. There was the patter of small feet, and then, silence.

I awoke for a second time. The box was still there but I was in a different area of desert than I had been before. I looked up. There was the sun, a bright knot in the sky, and a cloud, low and stationary. I felt that the cloud held my spirit and that now I was truly awake.

I trudged on for several miles, abandoning the main trail. The village now came into view. The pueblo settlement seemed a magic city to me, perhaps much the way Quivira once seemed to the Conquistadors. But my magic city was real and I continued walking. My guide, the coyote with the blue-green eyes, sat still at the bottom of the village’s hill. I slowed my pace and stopped. The animal looked at me, then, vanished like a whisper. My fingers tingled, perhaps out of fear that I was now alone.

I climbed up the large stone hill, almost falling several times. I must have looked so haggard, my face, sand-caked. It was funny to imagine that I reached the village by the internal compass of a blessed coyote. Entering an open area enclosed by the pueblos, I could feel the sky very near, almost whispering to me.

There were women, women talking, washing clothes, rolling flour, carrying baskets of dried meat. I wished to ask one: How can I find the girl with green eyes? At first, the women took little notice of me, as if I were invisible. They seemed so involved with their own activities. Distracted by so many of their voices, I had difficulty thinking. Then I recalled what Padre had said: Take a Simple Path.

Dazed from the heat, I loped towards the center of the yard. There was the sensation, as before, of my feet sinking. I pulled away and spun around. The faces of the women flashed around me. Which one could she be? I skirted around the center, still studying their faces. My head felt dizzy, the air too thin or perhaps filled with a strange magic too thick to breathe.

I now recalled the eyes of that coyote, felt them upon me. Over me, that low cloud still hovered with a spirit all of its own.

“Maria! Maria! Maria!” I yelled, turning in a complete circle.

The women froze. They studied me as if I were an apparition; they approached me, circled around, and eyed me head to toe. No one said a word. I looked into each of their eyes. None of them were Maria. On the roof of a pueblo, I imagined the coyote watching. No, I swore it was.

One woman spoke. Then another.

“Boy, how far have you come?”

“What village you from, boy?”

“Boy, your arm is bleeding.”

“Are you the boy from Quivira?”

"What do you hold in your hands? What is inside it?”

The coyote was somewhere near. I felt its hot breath.

A stout woman with deep wrinkles stepped forward. There was a cautious rhythm to her gait. And behind her came a girl, long hair in braids. Her walked sheepishly and she wouldn’t look up, as if I was carrying the spirit of one of their dead in the box between my hands.

The woman stood in front of me. She must have been the girl’s madrastra. Then the girl stood at her side. I could see her eyes clearly now. They were green.

“I am Maria. But in this village I have another name. These women allowed me to keep the name given to me by the Apache.”

I spoke to her in Tiwa.

“I have come from Quivira. My name is Andrew. I am named after a saint. Like you, I have another name also. Here, in this box, is your wedding dress. You must sow it together and make it perfect. I have been chosen by God to be your new husband.”

There was a silence, a conspiracy of it--the desert, the sky, the plains beyond. I was still dizzy and I imagined somewhere that coyote understood every word I had said. Maria looked down at her feet, bare, scattered with sand.

Then, a joyous outburst and the women began to sing and dance. Some climbed to the roofs and made song. I handed the box to Maria and she in turn gave it to her madrastra. She clung to the woman as they went off to make the dress.

Two other women brought me inside their pueblo. One washed, and dressed my arm. The other gave me water and maize.

“How long,” I asked, “how long will it take them to make the dress?”

“It will be finished by tonight,” said one woman. “The mother of the Little Cloud has wondrous hands, her fingers like so many fine needles. You will be married by the morning.”

“I have one request. I ask that several of you go into the mountains and find The Laughing Woman. She must be at the wedding. She must see her daughter married.”

“For what reason?”

“It was a request from Frey Hernando. It is only right. Or else, he will no longer send the Padre to bless this village. It will no longer be protected.”

The woman smiled.

“Then it will be done. We know where she stays and we will take the best horses into the mountains.”

“And if you cannot find her in time?”

“Then, at the moment you are married, you will hear a cry from the mountaintop. It will mean she has fallen. It will mean that in her madness, her desperation to see her daughter happy, she will jump. But we will find her. Trust me.”

And so it will be.

Tomorrow, I will be married in the blue green mountains of the Salinas. There will be a long procession, the women in ceremonial dress trekking a happy ascent into the mountains. We will get a head start while the sunlight begins to glitter through the trees. And with the sun in my eyes, I will be the luckiest boy on earth. I will walk under the silver lining of a cloud, and in the distance, the howl of a coyote, a simple song coming from the mountains, traveling on the dry wind. I will return all the salt to the earth. I will be the boy with the silver eyes and laughing heart.

© 2010 Kyle Hemmings. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey. His work has been featured in such journals as Abyss and Apex, Aphelion, Nite Blade, The Horror Zine, The Lorelai Signal, and upcoming work in Sex and Murder.Italic