Reflections on Spirit
Note 4: Spirit in a Stone. 12/17/98
This is a story told by Coyote:
The old man came to me just before the hot summer wind begins to turn the desert air to dust. I try to avoid him as much as possible but this time he was more than just a little determined and would not allow me to get away from his need. He said there was a day coming along in a few weeks, which would give me plenty of time to prepare; a cool day, he said, with rain or a threat of rain, rare enough that time of the year in the northern Sonoran desert where I make my home, and would I be so kind as to assist him in a little project he and the others had been planning for several years. With the old man you never know what that means. Several years could be 2 or 3 or 500. He has a way of being imprecise where verbal representations of time are concerned; while, in the same breath, is so meticulous in calculating a recurrent cycle of life and duration that he has probably not misplaced more than a few seconds in the numberless days he has already seen and counted.
Time matters to the old man but not in the way you might think. He never worries about how much of it might have passed, how much more there is to get through before an end is reached; instead, he walks around in circles dropping small polished pieces of stone in lakes and rivers to count the number of days it takes for the water to wear them completely down to their last atom of substance and space. I have no idea why he does such things. All he has ever said about it is that the spirits in the stone must be released by water before they can be returned to the world in a form that includes their natural power. My first question has always been: what spirits? His work is tedious, if you ask me, though there must be some reward in it, some sense of accomplishment, that I cannot see because how else can you account for the fact that he has been doing it for so long.
So, anyway, he comes to me for help in facilitating some trick or joke against this poor human soul he has been tormenting for god knows how long and I am supposed to drop everything, run off into the desert some hundreds of miles outside of my usual territory, which I keep and maintain against all invaders, and who precisely is going to watch it while I'm gone, to do some slight-of-hand trickery against no one in particular who has ever done me any personal or general wrong. Ordinarily I don't mind a trick or two for the sake of keeping fit and in practice but this business of the old man's made me uneasy. Every time he has come to me in the past with one of his so-called projects, especially the ones that involve the other members of his tribe, I have lived to regret giving in to his solicitations. These people can't be trusted. You never know what they are actually doing or trying to accomplish. Mostly it doesn't make any sense, if you get an explanation at all.
Well, this time he tells me a story about a person who has been disconnected from the tribe of the elders and needs to be brought back into the community even if some trickery is required to accomplish the task. Naturally, I wonder why a single person who is lost matters enough for him to bother himself over the recovery. I know perfectly well that many of his people have been lost over the years and he has not lifted a finger to get them back. He says this one did not willfully abondon the tribe, as most of the others did, does not know he belongs to their council, to us, so to speak, and has developed a unique perspective that can be quite useful to them in the future. I tell him not to include me in his "us" because I am not technically one of his tribe either and resent the implication of being drawn too closely into his schemes just in case there is a price to pay for helping him pursue another one of his lost people. His tribe seems to lose more members than most others have to begin with and that also makes me wonder what exactly they do for a living that drives so many of them out.
I ask him again about that and he brushes me off with a wave of his hand, like the question itself is so inconsequential that it needs no answer. "Enough questions," he says, "I don't have time right now to explain things that don't really concern you. Are you going to help or not?" Like I have a choice? I think that in response to his impatience but don't actually say anything. I do pause for a few seconds, just to irritate him a little, and pretend to be weighing my decision against some imponderable consequence neither of us has the capacity to anticipate. "Sure," I say, "what's to lose." He smiles: "More than you can imagine if the plan doesn't work out the way I intend." Oh, great, I'm thinking, just what I need. He comes out here with this nonsense of his, pretends it's more important than time, and puts me in a position of making the impossible happen, just so he can blame me when it fails. Cuts another inch off my tail is all the reward I can see down that road.
"What do you want me to do?" I ask. He starts in this time talking about these stones he has gone out to collect from the four corners of the world, so to speak, that he needs to pass along to the lost member of his tribe. That sounds reasonable enough, even if it makes no sense to give the kind of stones he collects to someone who has no idea what they are. I ask him about that. "That's why I need your help," he says. "He needs to find them for himself, believe they came to him from the actions of a spirit-guide, so I can't do that personally myself." I ask him why not because I had always been under the impression that he was a spirit-guide, at least some of the time in his endless walking around in the earth. "It won't work this time," he says as he draws out a small pouch tied carefully around the top with green, red, and black cords that terminate on the loose end in three feathers he somehow got from Crow. That bothers me. Crow doesn't part with feathers willingly.
The old man begins walking slow circles around the thorn tree we have been standing next to. I can see he is chanting to himself. One of those songs of his that I would rather not hear to clearly, which I can't, because he keeps most of the words close to his lips. He has started to untie the cords as he walks and sings, ignoring me completely as he moves in an uncoiling arc that carries him more and more distant from the heart of the tree. He reaches the apex of his outward arc and begins to come back into the center again. By the time he is standing next to me, he has finished with the cords, has the bag open in one hand, and with the other somehow manages to retie the cords in his hair at the back of his head.
He inverted the bag over the open palm of his left hand and shook it gently once or twice. A thin stream of yellow powder trickled into his hand. I could tell from the odor that his bag had contain a substantial amount of yucca pollen. Speaking words I had never heard before and did not understand, he threw the pollen into the sky. I expected to see it float away on the breeze; instead, a shower of small stones, polished of course, fell in a geometrical pattern at our feet. The old man studied them for a few seconds, walked to the center of the array, and kicked one of the stones back into the sky. It flew about twenty miles to the southeast and landed in the middle of the river that breaks out between two peak in the mountain range at the southern edge of the desert. A small, perfectly round, depression had been formed in the sand where the stone had been. "Don't need that one, after all," the old man murmured to himself, as he stepped back to stand beside me again.
The stones were colored in traditional fashion according to the cardinal directions (white, red, yellow, black) in which they had fallen out of the sky. They were supposed to be retrieved in the same order by the person to whom the old man was sending them. How I knew that cannot be readily explained because the old man himself did not tell me anything about his actual intentions. The place he had chosen for the dispersal of the stones, a place I had never seen before, a place I had never visited, appeared in my mind's eye with such detail and precision that I was fully confident I would be able to find it without the least bit of trouble. Only one problem occurred to me: how was I supposed to carry the stones across two hundred miles of open desert? The old man smiled when I asked the question.
Before I could think a single thought beyond that impossibility, before I could move, or breath a breathe of air, or run for my life, the old man had replaced every one of my teeth with his collection of acursed stones. He had put my teeth in his bag, tied it up again with his feathered cords, and told me I could have them back after I had taken the stones north and seen to it that his lost soul of a tribe member had managed to collect them all from the desert.
He did not speak again, before leaving me to my own devises in pursuing my immediate goal, which was to find a way to survive without teeth while I accomplished his task; but, nevertheless, made it perfectly clear in his silence that I was expected to distribute the stones in the exact configuration in which they had arranged themselves on the sand when they fell, one by one, from the yellow cloud of pollen he had thrown into the sky.
In all the years I had spent traveling around with the old man, I had seen some wonderful sights; mountains, valleys, deserts, plains, rivers, forests that stretch as far as the eyes can see, but this time the journey to the northern edge of the desert was, and became, almost more than I could bear. The stones in my mouth, which seemed to be attached to the bones of my jaw like ordinary teeth, were not ordinary stones at all, of course, since why would the old man have them if they were, why would he have given them to me in the way that he did, and why would he want to pass them along to his adept if anyone at all could go out and collect them on any given, ordinary day?
They were uncomfortable and didn't fit right in the spaces where my other teeth had been. I could't bring my jaws together without pinching the insides of my lips and cheeks. I couldn't eat properly because I couldn't chew or tear any of the food I ordinarily consume. I could barely drink water. Starvation, hunger, and thirst became my companions as I worked my way north over the empty sand.
On the second night of the journey (I usually travel at night if I have a distance to cover), I began to hear the voices. They were coming from the ill-fitting stones in my mouth, of course. If I moved my lips in a certain way, if you were looking at me when I did it, and if you could hear the voices the way I could, you would believe I had been empowered with the gift and faculty of human speech. The voices were human ones for the most part, as far as I could tell. They were making chants, singing songs, reciting poetry, telling stories, making threats (against whom I could not say), and cursing various people and animals who had wronged or offended them in the past. All in all it was a strange collection of angry and joyful people bound together in the jaw-bones of coyote traveling light and moving along more deeply under, if not into, the northern sky than I had ever been before, moving along a path carrying all of us together more and more deeply into the old man's incomprehensible scheming against the natural order of history's charted course.
I could not escape the feeling that the old man's plot was another attempt to change the course of events that had previously shaped the way things were. He seems to have little respect for history, for the way things happen, and tries to change them into something else that suites his own perceptions of the real. For someone so involved with the courses of time, that seems an odd sort of way to behave. The old man is always telling me he does these things to broaden my horizons, as if my horizons are the real object of his meddling. If you ask me, he only does it to torment me, to make me crazy, to make me vicious and small minded. After the visions started up in my head, I began to see and discern the faces of the spirits who were trapped (?) in the stones, I decided the old man deserved some of what he had been giving out. I devised a plan as I drew near to my goal, the place where the old man wanted the stones put down, whereby I would reverse the order of the stones from the one the old man had told me to use. He had already informed his human toy, he plays with people like a pup with a bone, where to begin the ritual of gathering the stones back into their original configuration and all I had to do was drop them on the ground in reverse order, first stone at the end of the harvest, so to speak, instead of at the beginning. That way the adept would get it backwards since he would pick up the last stone first.
That is exactly what I did and that is exactly what he did. The old man never returned my teeth and I drowned myself in the river when the hunger became unbearable. The water is reducing my bones to their last atom of substance and space. When they are finally gone, which they will be some day, my spirit will return to the earth with all of its power intact. My clan, in the mean time, of course, goes on, lives well and thrives in all the old and new places made for it in the world.
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