Chapter Eight: Spirits in the Fire
Graydon stood balanced on his skis, his ski poles planted firmly to each side. He felt that he was hanging suspended in space.
His legs ended at his boot tops. Nothing of snow or shadow or outline or slope or mountainside could be seen around him. He stood lost in a perfect "whiteout," that rare condition of light in which snow and sky fuse together. He saw no trace of shadow or highlight, no visual clue of slope or horizon. He stood suspended in pale white light.
This was serious. The condition developed around him while he traversed the snowy slopes across the flank of Thompson Ridge. A lowering cloud cover, lit by the overhead sun, created perfectly diffused light coming from all directions with no shadows. His ski tips might be safely on the snow, or hanging over the lip of a steep precipice. There was no way to see. Upslope he could see evergreen trees. Across the valley he saw scattered barns and ranch houses and clumps of trees and cottonwood bottoms on the valley floor. But the entire landscape was hanging suspended, detached from any dimensional reference. Everything lay isolated in shadowless white.
Recalling the shape of the mountainside and its slope, Graydon eased forward, gliding slowly, advancing one ski then following with the other. He braced himself with his long poles as he moved in slow, gliding steps. A moment of panic gripped him when he fell, his skis plunging downward from under him. He landed on his head in the snow. He'd skied off the steep cut bank of a jeep track gouged out of the hillside and fallen onto the roadbed. He got his skis straightened, levered himself up, and dusted the dry, powdery snow from his pants and jacket. Steadying his nerves, he realigned himself to cautiously resume his trek to the hidden winter lodge.
A fire blazed in the great stone fireplace; his heavy wool outer pants and nylon ski jacket hung from crossed ski poles leaning against its rock face to dry. Graydon lay on a pad of folded blankets, stretching out in the light and warmth from the fire. The whiteout had resolved itself once he'd reached the edge of the timber and could use the trees for guidance across the snowy track. He'd eaten a hot meal, soup and beans and franks with a slice of homemade bread, and was sipping his second cup of hot tea and honey. He would stay overnight and resume his ski trek after an early breakfast of bacon, eggs, and biscuits.
He did not bring his rifle on this trek. Winter was a hard time for animals, small and large, and he had no wish to kill anything needlessly. Deer, snowshoe hares, grouse, ravens, weasels (ermine in their black-tipped winter white coats) were companions on his solitary treks. He didn't need the rifle. There was nothing to fear that was not more afraid of him as a human than he of them; only cougar and bear could pose a possible threat and they had been pushed back miles beyond the valley region.
He used the firelight to update his journal, writing his impressions of the day, then he lay down for sleep. He used a folded wool blanket as a pad. He unfolded and wrapped himself in a second blanket, using his rolled ski sweater for a pillow.
Graydon slept on the great hearth. The amber glow of coals half buried in ashes bathed him in their warm light. Their warmth let him slumber in comfort while outside, in the silvered light of the half moon, the winter landscape lay in frigid slumber. The cold, in the lower 20's, kept the snow in a dry powder state. Not a breeze stirred. All was wrapped in silence.
Dancing flames cast moving lights on his eyelids. They merged with moving images of light and shadow in his mind. Dream state is the free realm where the mind wanders not in ordered paths as the traveler will, but streams through scenes springing out of unconscious depths, those fountains of the deeper consciousness that wakeful realities cannot command.
He woke in a pit house on a hard-packed dirt floor surrounded by circular stone walls. The air was stifling, smothering, fetid with centuries of smoldering fires and sweating bodies. It mingled with scents of herbs and pollens, scorched grains, barks and oils and feathers.
His mind reeled. He was a dancer, his head low, his painted chest heaving with gasping exertion, his knees thrusting high while his moccasin-clad feet pounded onto the hard-packed clay floor. Throbbing, hypnotic drumming drove him forward and back, his body spinning in tight circles around the fire. He whirled past a naked figure hanging from leather thongs. The man's arms and wrists were lashed to a peeled pole frame, bound to twin posts between the fire circle and sacred figures painted on skins hanging from the kiva wall. As each dancer passed the man they spun and shook their feathered fists and shell rattles in his staring face, to ward away hostile spirits. His delirious eyes stared unblinking, glazed, into the flashing light and shadows.
The crashing drums and keening, ululating, ear-splitting chants rose in pitch and volume, then fell to unearthly, muttering growls. A shaman stepped forth. The dancers dove out through a low exit hole. The shaman strode forward to look into the man's face. He stared into his eyes, probing the man's soul.
In a moment of choking, gasping terror Graydon found himself falling into the shaman's eyes, plunging into the blackness of their depths. Darkness swallowed him as he fell, and at that moment he felt the ripping pain of a black obsidian dagger, its edges scalloped and sharper than any surgeon's scalpel. It slashed into his chest and sawed downward, splitting him open to expose his furiously beating heart. In a flood of pain and horror, his eyes blurred. A bright point of light opened in his eyes, expanding, forcing him to look up from the torn opening in his chest. The light burst into a night hawk that flung itself at him, flaring up in a whistling rush of wings, fluttering inches from his face.
The shaman dropped his bloodied dagger into a shallow clay basin, into steaming water crusted with herbs and pollen. It sank down through the matted crust to lay submerged, the blood drifting away. He reached into a pouch at his side, drawing up a pinch of shredded leaf fragments, sacred wild tobacco native to the pueblo canyon region. Chanting tonelessly, the shaman bowed to the four quarters of the earth, then flung his head back and in a shrill voice, sang imprecations to protective spirits. He brought the pinch of tobacco dust up to his face and blew it into the gaping wound. At that moment the whistling rush of the diving night hawk's wings and its shrill cry erupted in the space between them, and the man's head was thrown back, his mouth wrenched open and his lungs filled with a gasp. The obscene, gaping wound in his chest was gone, as if it had never been. His hidden heart pulsed and throbbed, beating as steadily as the drums had throbbed before.
Graydon's eyes gazed out through the shaman's eyes, through a misty haze of dancing kachina figures in a landscape of canyon walls and shadowed depths. He felt his face relax into a satisfied smile. With astonishment he recognized the naked man bound to the poles. It was the white man who had killed the attackers and saved the children. He was different now. His eyes blazed a brilliant sapphire blue, deep set and piercing in their focus like the far-seeing gaze of a hawk, and his hair, which had been short and dark, was long, to his shoulders. It hung in long, alternating bands of black and gray.
Graydon woke, shuddering, shivering in his blankets. Outside the lodge a riot of coyote howls shattered the night silence; so many and so close, circling, crying just outside the lodge. Graydon rose from his blankets to stir the embers of the dying fire. He added kindling to fuel new flames blazing up to light the room. He pulled his blanket over his shoulders, wrapped it snugly behind him while leaving the front open to the fire to capture its warmth. Despite the renewed heat, he shivered violently, the dream images vivid and frightful in his mind. Outside, the coyotes drew away, their frantic yips and calls fading into the distance. The night fell silent again. Graydon again stirred the fire and added lengths of thick pine limbs, laying them carefully so they wouldn't roll. When the fire blazed higher his face grew warm and his eyes heavy. He leaned towards his rolled sweater pillow and before his head reached it he was fast asleep.
Morning brought the first low rays of sunlight streaming through the lodge windows. A bright shaft illumined Graydon's face. He jerked awake and the dream terrors fell away into a vague uneasiness. He gathered buried embers from their ash bed into a glowing heap, and fueled a smaller, more restrained fire. When water began to roll to a slow boil under several scoops of ground coffee, he added a dash of cold water to settle the grounds and he set the pot aside. In a few more moments a split English muffin lay toasting in his sheet steel skillet. He spread the browned halves with a dollop of marmalade and wolfed them down between gulps of heavily-sugared camp coffee. He wiped out his pot and skillet, burned the scraps in the dying fire, and smothered the coals under cold ash from the sides. He left the fireplace to cool down in its own time. A few moments later his blankets were rolled and tied under his packsack flap, and he stepped outside to strap on his skis. He needed company, the reassuring smiles and comfort of close friends who were like family to him. He desperately needed some way to get a grip, an understanding, some counsel that might temper his wild visions that he could control the fear, the terror, that gnawed at the edges of his mind.
The barn atmosphere was dark, warm, humid, and filled with the rich smells of horseflesh, hay, and steaming horse manure. Outside, the drifted powder snow lay in heaps and mounds over the barnyard and meadows beyond. Inside, in his flannel shirtsleeves, Graydon shoveled the manure from behind the massive haunches of the two workhorses and pitched it through the open barn window onto a heap.
"It's a pleasant surprise, you showing up this morning," the tall, white-haired, ruddy-faced man said from the hayloft above as he forked another bunch of sweet-smelling grass hay down to the waiting horses. "I always welcome a hand with Babe and Jenny. Thank you for cleaning up down there."
Graydon grunted acknowledgment as he tossed another heavy shovelful. Seeing that he'd cleaned the last of it, he put the shovel back in its corner and moved to grab a pair of water buckets.
"I'll start haulin' water for 'em, Mr. Brightman." He walked the snowy path to a sawdust insulated enclosure that held the barn's water tap, fed by the ranch well that served both house and outbuildings.
Graydon skied directly from the lodge that morning, across Wolf Creek and up the mountainside to the Virginian Ridge ranch, home of James and Violet Brightman, an elderly couple who were the closest thing to grandparents that Graydon had. Jim was more than a grandfather figure; he had become a mentor, advisor, friend, and confidant. In a very short time a close bond had formed between the elderly rancher and Graydon.
The team of workhorses seemed as old as their owner, but like him, they were strong and active and wise. Jim and the horses worked the hayfields of their 300-acre dry-land ranch, making two cuttings of sweet grass hay during the short mountain season. Wagon loads of hay were pulled to the barn by the harnessed horses and stacked for winter feed.
Graydon helped Jim harvest the hay. He learned to drive the team while pulling a dump-rake to gather the mown grass into long windrows to cure in the sun. Two days later he was walking the windrows with a pitchfork, its polished tines glistening in the sun. He gathered the long grass hay and formed it into mounded stacks. He stacked a shock of hay about every six paces as he walked the windrows.
After a few more days, Jim hitched Babe and Jenny to the hay wagon and went to the fields to bring in the cured hay. Jim stood on the wagon bed, pitchfork in hand, while his team walked slowly down the row. Graydon walked from shock to shock, plunging his pitchfork into each to swing it up in an arc, up onto the wagon where Jim spread it in place on the rising load. They worked in a steady, flowing rhythm: Jim clucked to the team to start and stop; Graydon paced, thrust, and lifted each forkful up to the stack. Jim trod back and forth atop the growing load as he skillfully laid each layer of hay in its place on the load. He taught Graydon the skill of stacking the hay in flat overlapping forkfuls, or "leaves," tied in at the edges and corners. Laid up that way, the stack would not fall over but could easily be forked apart for feeding. A good haystack was never a tangled mass; it was built of orderly layers, as a good bricklayer would lay bricks.
Graydon found himself sweating, straining his muscles as the wagonload neared its full height. Each forkful had to be lifted in a high arc, nearly at the limit of Graydon's reach with the pitchfork extended high overhead, raising the pitched hay to land at Jim's feet.
It was intensely satisfying, being in the warm barn beside the horses while they fed, stamping their huge feet, their winter coats rich and thick. The weeks of harvest work were rewarded with sweet hay and comfort through the barren winter months.
"Come into the house. There's coffee in the pot and I think Vi has got some pie in the warming oven."
Jim stamped along the snow-packed trail to the house, nudging Graydon along before him. The morning chores were done, the animals fed and watered, and firewood gathered from the woodshed to fill the back porch wood boxes. Their coats and caps were hung on pegs. They stepped into the bright and wonderful world of Vi's kitchen.
"Hello, Graydon. What a pleasant surprise! You must have left early this morning, to get up here while Jim was still doing chores?"
"Yes'm, I did. The snow has settled some, and it was easy going. I made good time, skiing up from the creek."
Vi bustled about her glorious wood range, warmth coming off in waves that filled the kitchen with good smells and radiant comfort.
"There's apple pie and cold milk and fresh coffee. I guess you two men could handle that alright?"
Jim and Graydon smiled happily, and each pulled out a high-backed kitchen chair to sit down to the bright red-and-white checkered oil-cloth covered table, nestled against the kitchen windows. They looked out onto forests of fir and pine covering the ridges above Wolf Creek canyon, and beyond that, the shining peak of Gardner Mountain standing high in the Cascade range. Apple pie and mountain living — life was good.