Week 23: The Writing of Novel Number 10, Medicine Snake
By Jeff Posey
Go to Week 1
My wife and I spent the Fourth of July with friends in Oklahoma. They live on a low, sweeping hill covered mostly in native, unbroken prairie. Peeping over the western horizon is Mount Scott, second tallest of the Wichita Mountains (link to Wikipedia), the town of Lawton and the military grounds of Fort Sill nestled near their feet. The mountains have a wildlife refuge with wilderness areas where I’ve spent countless hours wandering.
On this particular weekend, we bought fireworks from a local stand and, when the sky darkened enough, we began to set them off. Pitiful little things compared to the far more powerful fireworks of my youth. We quickly grew bored and watched the fireworks being set off by others around us. We counted no less than seven within view, one a professional job near Lawton.
Just up the road, at a tiny outpost with the too-cute name of Pumpkin Center, an impressive amateur display lasted for more than an hour. Whoever set that up spent a lot of money on the best fireworks and we watched, enchanted.
Before the last natural light gave out, I watched the dark figure of a man moving about at the launch site, smoke drifting, flashes of explosions followed by a sharp report. Later, after full dark, he became invisible and the show became magical as grand displays of light punctuated the darkness.
As the reenactment of bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that the fireworks magician was still there, my mind drifted to a thousand years ago. Since the dawn of man, perhaps before, there have been individuals who stage shows that draw the eyes and ears and thoughts of observers away from themselves and into the air and sky, providing mystery and symbolism, fear and inspiration. It must have been a form of social cohesion (or control), and certainly an outpouring of creativity and pure joy in pageantry by those who orchestrated the shows.
In the world of the ancients, undistracted by the constant cacophony of modern spectacles, these events must have stood out with even more stark contrast than an explosion of bright light in a black sky.
I imagine the people behind the magic, the stage directors, the high priests and skywatchers and kiva masters, how they used what they had at hand to impress and awe their people. I imagine the power they must have felt when everyone looked up and uttered reflexive “Ooos,” and “Aaahs!” I imagine how some used and others abused that power to influence others.
Here’s an excerpt from my work in progress, Medicine Snake, set a thousand years ago among the Anasazi of Southern Colorado near Pagosa Springs. It begins in the kiva of Tuwa, the chief skywatcher, with Nanatoona, the skinny, oddball bone rattler, taking center stage as master of the magic.
Smoke and Bones
A streak of sunlight angled through the roof hole highlighting dust swirls and smoke tendrils in the air, and spotlighted a flat stone resting on the floor against the eastern wall. At Tuwa’s signal, the boy, Hinti, put green wood on the fire and smoke billowed into the room until a puff of breeze sucked it out the roof hole. Everyone closed their eyes and held their breaths while the smoke cleansed them, and breathed, relaxed, sighed, and rustled after the air cleared.
Tuwa gave an exaggerated flourish one-handed sign handing his chamber to the only man standing in front of a seated Ingta.
“Thank you,” said Nanatoona, his voice high, hands raised cradling a worn pouch tied with a string. Bare-chested, powdered white with piñon ash and wearing only a thin loin cloth, Nanatoona looked as spindly as the spider-limbed boy Hinti. He rattled the contents of the pouch and chanted words Ingta considered childish gibberish:
“Thoughts we have all swirl away, taken away, sucked away, all thoughts we have are blown away, gone away, here no more.”
Though Nanatoona kept thrusting the rattling pouch toward Ingta, his eyes often flicked to the others in the room. Ingta knew what that meant. This was more performance than healing. Or magic. Or whatever it was Nanatoona had convinced Tuwa he could do with a bag of sun-bleached snake bones.
“Now, you take,” said Nanatoona. He straightened his body and slapped his feet on the worn stone, and somehow, without Ingta being able to see how, the pouch of bones fell against his chest. He stopped it from bouncing into his lap and held it. Much lighter than he expected. Not like a bag of stones.
Nanatoona’s eyes scanned everyone in the room starting with Tuwa, his apprentices, and Sooveni, once again without her two parasites. The old grandmother who defended him against the matron of the springs, and most of the village elders were there. Even Gawt sat folded and twisted in the shadow of Hinti’s pile of wood. Tuwa had made the bone rattling of Ingta into a public spectacle. Ingta just wanted it to be over.
“Now,” said Nanatoona in a dramatic whisper. “Cast bones. Easy. Let fall. Open heart. Let show everything.”
Ingta took a breath, untied the pouch, and dumped the contents onto the flat stone. Before he saw more than a pile of brittle bones, Nanatoona dived forward and pushed Ingta away with his forearm. He bent low and stared at the bones in the brilliant sunlight. He went all around avoiding the light, casting no shadow onto the bones. He motioned for Ingta to join him.
Ingta glanced at Uva, but staring at the bright bones had ruined his vision and he couldn’t find her in the shadow. So he looked at the bones. Saw how the thin ribs had broken away from the back bones, which were all disarticulated. A few hair-thin rib bones sprayed together around a darker bone. The jaw and the skull were nowhere near each other. Ingta thought it the barest remnant he could imagine of a formerly living snake.
“This,” said Nanatoona, pointing with a stick. “East. You say what looks like.”
Ingta looked at where the stick pointed, the part of the pattern of bones that lay directly east. “The hip bone. If it had a hip.”
“Ah!” Nanatoona said, slapping the stick to his forehead. He leaned close to the bone and stared at it. “Lizard. Yes! Legs. See tail?” He swirled the tip of the stick along a lose arrangement of bones that looked like a lizard’s tail if you really wanted it to.
“You see?” asked Nanatoona.
“I see,” said Ingta.
“Say. What you see.” Nanatoona whipped the stick to point.
“Looks like a lizard. With a long curving tail.”
“Which way curve?”
“Life way.” From east to south to west to north, back to center, the direction to find one’s way in life, the life way.
“You see belly? Or back? Flip side up?”
Ingta glanced at it. He saw enough white to be the bottom side. “Belly.”
“Eyes. They open? They close?”
Ingta took another look, leaning close to the bones. There was a tiny shadow shaped like an eye, and in the middle a dot of brilliant light glowed. “Open.”
“Hot or cold?”
“What?” Ingta didn’t know what he meant.
“Hot or cold?”
He felt the tiniest of shivers down his back and shrugged. “Cold.”
Nanatoona repeated everything Ingta had said in a voice so loud people cringed. He said it once again, a little softer, like a story teacher. Then he reached out with his stick and swept the eastern lizard off the flat stone onto the floor.
When you gaze into the sky and see a cloud or a twirl of smoke, what do you see? Magic?