After ninety-eight years of hard living, the only mystery Grandfather could not crack was how to die in peace and leave this world in a gentler way than he endured it. He harbored many secrets, including his true heritage: he was not a Jemez Indian. He and his thirty-five year-old granddaughter were the last of their kind, survivors of the ghost pueblo of Pecos. The lines on his face traced a family tree. Often, he led her in a funeral dance across the branches by pointing out which wrinkle on his face sprouted after a relative's death. He waltzed across creases of his great-grandparents, grandparents, mother, father, stepmothers, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, in-laws, children, relatives she never knew. His lineage crisscrossed his features like a New Mexico roadmap. He masked his soul's potholes with poetry he recited in their native tongue Towa.
“Granddaughter, you are but a splinter from the pine trees of Pecos. I dreamed that from a splinter a tree would blossom with many branches, but I quake in my moccasins that the Pecos people will die with you.”
“Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. You jabber like a broken record, old man; family, ghosts and a fallen pueblo relic.” Hollow-Woman blew on her manicure and two fang marks on her forehead opened and closed. He could see right through her snake scars and believed he had the means to save her. Lord knows he tried ever since saddled with her at four days old. Her parents died and abandoned her to the care of this imposing sorcerer who never taught her how to be kind.
“Geronimo!” blared from the speaker and she sighed with relief that he forgot about barren women and extinction.
He peered with bloodshot eyes at the twenty-six inch screen that broadcast a tad fuzzy due to rabbit ears and poor reception at Jemez, isolated like most pueblos.
A woman reporter, dressed in navy blue suit and stiff collar, wiggled about in snow. “A letter written in 1918 has been discovered in the Sterling Memorial Library archive that refers to Yale University students stealing Geronimo's bones. The Apache warrior's bones vanished in 1918 from his grave at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and bragging rights have circulated at Yale for decades that his bones were at the elite Skull and Bones Society's headquarters. It is said that Geronimo's skull is displayed in a glass case and used to initiate new members into the secretive order. One of the thieves is purported to be George Prescott Bush, the deceased father of George H. W. Bush, former President of the United States. The letter, written from one Bonesman to another Bonesman, reveals details of the 1918 theft and may be proof that the rumor is true, as the Apaches have claimed for years, that former students stole Geronimo's bones as a Yale prank.”
He seemed bewildered at the woman's report. Hollow-Woman acted as his English interpreter since seven years of age, after returning at summer break from St. Mary's Boarding School for Indians. Her head had reached his waist and English as choppy as a category-five hurricane blew from her lips. She had since grown enough to look down at him and graduated to a category-one. She sat him down, like a child, and explained in Towa the deer meat and legumes of the news.
“The white man is not content with having chased us to the ends of the earth in life. They must come after us in death. Even our president,” he said, turning white as a sheep.
“These are not the old days, Governor. In this case, justice will win. Geronimo's family can file with NAGPRA to get his bones back,” she said.
“What is NAGPRA?”
“NAGPRA stands for Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. I think Congress passed the bill in 1990. Using that law, Geronimo's family has the right to get his bones back.”
“Geronimo's family and I have a bone to pick with rich white men, or in my case, many bones. So much lost time, nine years. I am a man teetering on death's crevice, and I must have a word with the ghosts of Pecos.” He raised his eyes to the ceiling and ripped his shirt in two. He chanted the lyrics from a funeral song and wailed.
“Calm down, Governor.”
He smiled in his mysterious way, which caused his eyes to appear as two slits, carved into cracked mud.
“Crazy old man,” she said under her breath.
He leaned against their other heirloom, a royal ceremonial silver staff King Philip III of Spain presented to their clan in 1620. At that time, Pecos Pueblo was the biggest town in what is now the United States. The silver was so tarnished the staff was black, though she could see the reflection of her eye where he rubbed his thumb across the staff for decades. Today, he was governor of the ruins. He claimed their conquerors did not vanquish them to the point of extinction, but a dying fire cursed them and their feathered serpent hid from them.
Other than the times he drank or smoked handmade cigarettes, his mouth remained closed. Usually he grunted. Normally his grunt revealed whether he hungered, boiled over, froze or whatever, but a sorry grunt never came from him. He now gave a pathetic grunt mixed with a whine. He wobbled away from the television on legs bowed from nearly a century spent riding horses. His petrified toe peeked through his canvas high-top tennis shoes, the modern Indian moccasin, only he was trapped in a time warp of the glory days of the pueblos, before the invaders came. He pounded the royal staff against the cracked tile as if he was somebody, king of the ghost pueblo of Pecos. His long sleeved khaki shirt hung half-way out of his pants to his knees because he had shrunk half an inch every year since he turned ninety. Oil and grass stains dotted his clothes. A gallon of bleach would not make his grey t-shirt white again.
“Crazy as a loon,” she grumbled. They struggled on washing day. He claimed his magic's perspiration seeped into the threads of his clothes and detergent weakened his wizardry. It seemed they always locked horns. Ever since she was a little girl, his sorcery scared the hell out of her. His powers could do with a bit of dilution and he could do with a bath.
She wrinkled her nose at his greasy braids that swung around the wall, tucked her bare feet under her legs and went back to watching the news. The report switched to the coming of the Millennium in nine months, a panic that claimed the world was due to end because all the computers would come crashing down due to the birth of the Y2K bug.
He wasted no time returning to the living room and blocking her view of the television with his five-foot three-inch frame. He waved like a swaying tree with his urine-stained mattress slumped across his spine.
She rose to help him but the mattress slid off his back.
He swung his neck and took a swig from a bottle of wine encased in a paper sack; as if he could fool her into thinking he drank Kool-Aid. He smacked his lips and shoved the cork back on. He nudged her shoulder.
“Drive me to Pecos. Bring my mattress; I would like to ride in comfort on my own bed for my last journey home.”
“You can't call Pecos home. The ancestors deserted the pueblo a century and a half ago. Even you can't claim to be that ancient, Governor.”
He filled her childhood with horror when he first took her to the godforsaken family pueblo and spoke about the Spanish Inquisition, church torchings, beheadings, blood spilling, ghosts, witches, and poisonings. She screamed whenever he wanted to go to the haunted Pecos ruins. Last time her dragged her to Pecos she was twelve and swore then never to go back but now, he pleaded with his eyes and he was so damned old. So, she heaved his mattress and hauled the saggy, smelly thing behind her, stopping now and then to smack at the fleas. She zigzagged to her pickup-truck, pulling his mattress through the mud holes, just to be ornery.
Huffing and puffing, she lifted his mattress and shoved it into the bed of her pickup. Her head spun from the odor of wine that wafted from the faded grey and white stripes. Her truck lived up to a junk man's dream with cigarette butts, cans, bottles, rags, and other sundries scattered about. Like him, she never threw anything away, a habit nourished by a childhood of poverty.
She jerked open the passenger door, but he lifted a leg over the back and plopped down on his mattress. He stared at the sky with glazed eyes. His head appeared like a shriveled cranberry. His hand shook when he clutched a blanket to his chin, and spittle dribbled down his neck. He had few teeth to speak of and his skinny body did not even dent his mattress. He just lay there with his arms and legs spread wide, croaking like a frog.
“But, Governor, you'll catch a chill. Why don't we wait until Steve's day off so we can travel in his car?”
“Death stalks me like a sunset shadow but I shall outfox the pale horse and with bridle and lasso, ride fifteen minutes more after the sun skis down the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Remember, Granddaughter, build my coffin from pine trees of the Sangre de Cristos.”
“Don't speak of dying,” she whispered.
“Do not weep like a willow in the snow. Reunion with the snake clan is like a dance at winter solstice. Like the prodigal son in the Bible, family will join hands and dance around me to Masawkatsina's drums and the Keeper of the Dead will welcome me with open arms.”
“Stop talking nonsense and ride in the front with me. It's mid-February. You'll catch pneumonia.”
“I long for the wind blowing on my face. I wish to breathe crisp air into my lungs. I will be confined in a box soon enough, and the elements will not kill me but my body's weakness. Your new truck must be good for something, to carry my coffin.”
“Eight years ago a new used truck, now my truck free and clear,” she said, lifting her chin proudly but regretting choosing a black pickup since he equated her truck to a hearse.
He banged the damn staff against metal; she jumped.
“Bring my knapsack, it has my ceremonial pipe,” he ordered.
With black hair swinging around her waist, she marched into her mud house made of adobe blocks that resembled all the other houses at the Jemez Pueblo making it appear like a village from the Stone Age.
She stuck her tongue at the mirror and wished she did not always give into him, especially when his health was at stake. She lacked the courage of a Pecos warrior though her Native American ancestry shone from her naturally tanned skin and high cheekbones.
She stomped back carrying his knapsack, and threw it on the front seat.
“Drive,” he barked and whopped that frickin' staff as if heir to a kingdom and not a curse.
“Quit having a tantrum,” she said, fitting a pair of fluffy earmuffs on his ears. She wrapped his neck with a muffler, pulling the wool to just below his nose. She shoved his hat on his head, wrapped him in a blanket, and tucked his legs and hips into a sleeping bag. She yanked up the zipper so the bag wouldn't fly off him.
The governor of Pecos laid wrapped like a papoose, a forgotten mummy, the royal ceremonial staff beside him. He had spoken of his impending death. He was old and the bright sun was deceiving; over to the east towards Pecos grey clouds gathered.
“What if it rains?” she said.
“It will not rain. I have not brought forth any storms today.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and his lower lip trembled. The tip of his nose was wet.
“I'll take you home to Pecos, Governor, if this is your wish,” she said and sighed, stroking his withered cheek. Thank goodness his skin wasn't hot.
He jerked his head away from her fingers.
She climbed on the driver's seat and slammed the door, cussing under her breath. Stubborn old man refused to ride up front with her. She hated the Pecos ruins, the most depressing place ever. Years had passed….
She cranked up the engine to drive from the Jemez Pueblo, the eighty miles to the Pecos Pueblo. The tires wobbled along the unpaved sections of Blue Bird Mesa. She peeked at the rear view mirror and cocked her ear for any groans coming from the back. The gas pedal vibrated beneath her foot, whether to speed up her pickup towards the paved New Mexico highway Four or slow the truck down; prolong his agony or worsen his pain while they sped along the bumps. His urgency when he mentioned Pecos made her shove her foot harder on the pedal.
She merged onto I-25, headed north towards Santa Fe, and passed the capital. The truck climbed towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A bit of snow covered the pine trees and hopefully, the truck bed and sleeping bag would keep the cool air from penetrating his bones. She should have covered his entire face with the blanket but feared smothering him.
“We're here, Governor.”
She jammed her foot on the brakes and climbed out of the truck. She stood on tiptoes to see if he survived the journey.
Almost a century nibbled away at his muscles, yet he found the strength to reach his shriveled fingers over the side and sit while she unhooked the tailgate. He unzipped the sleeping bag and with her help climbed down. He covered his shoulders with the blanket.
“You took off your earmuffs,” she said.
“Bah. Why would I want to silence my ears?”
“What happened to the new hat I bought you?”
“The wind gave the hat wings,” he said, thrusting his chin out.
“You flung your hat away on purpose.”
“My old hat suits me like bottle rockets.” He yanked a blackish round hat from around his back. “The sweat of my magic fills this hat. It serves me in spring when Brother Rain soaks my beaten path; in summer when Father Sun sweats my ivory tower; in fall when Brother Wind blows me contrary; and in winter when Brother Snow powders my lashes like a vintage whore.”
She shoved the brim lower on his head and rolled her eyes at his hat that did not appear enchanted because Father Time smashed and crushed the feather. He wore this hat for more than five decades, with his head growing bigger each time he rose in pueblo status, so the hat now reached his white bushy eyebrows.
“You are vintage wine turned to vinegar so we better wrap you good,” she said, twisting the blanket tighter around his shoulders and sniffing the wool. She knitted this blanket when a teenager with five thumbs and the patches as rough as the road between them yet, the old man cared for it all these years, and prized her gift as a most cherished possession. He never once told her he loved her. Perhaps his heart broke into so many pieces; maybe he feared getting too close in case she died before him like the rest of his family. She most resented him for the deepest dents on his cheeks that he never dragged her fingers across. These lines cast shadows of her parents' lives. Even a wrench wouldn't pry him open so she knew little about her mother and father.
At five foot six, she was tall for a Native American woman and towered over him. She supported his left arm, resisting the urge to stretch her long legs while they walked.
Dust swirled like brown ghosts around her ankles, causing her to shiver. Wind howling through the rubble chilled her to the bone. She cursed his senility and kicked the red dirt, this precious dirt he loved so much, this place filled with broken dreams. Ever since she was a small child, he drilled into her the story of how God created man in Shipapu. Man made his way up from Shipapu to the Fourth Womb of Existence, the red earth of Pecos, where Father Sun and Mother Moon smiled upon their children for the very first time. This Garden of Eden had always disappointed her, which, besides the ruins, consisted of cholla cactus, pinion trees and juniper. There was beauty only in yellow flowers on the chamisa bushes.
What had not eroded of her inheritance included about twenty ceremonial kivas, holes in the earth big enough to hold a couple dozen people. No one but him could believe the spirits of the gods once dwelled below. Pecos Pueblo appeared deserted by not only the gods of the Indian but also the God of their Spanish conquerors. The jagged adobe rust-red remnants of the Spanish mission still dominated, but what remained of the Spanish Catholic Church were merely ragged pieces of adobe wall yet...yet if she closed her eys, she heard church bells ringing. She could see Franciscan friars clothed in monks' robes, rosary beads clanking against their knees, hoods bowed and chanting novenas as they entered the church. This was no mere church but the first cathedral in New Mexico with three spiraling towers on each side and hollow walls so thick, the Franciscans held services in not just the main church interior but between the walls where the congregation spilled over. Now, only ghosts worshipped at this site and the towers were...well she plopped down on one of the towers and crossed her knees. She clasped her gloved hands and tongue-in-cheek, blinked her eyes at him.
“Let's go. I've seen enough, Governor,” she said.
He stared at her as if hypnotized; his eyes bugged out of his head. He clawed at her neck and whimpered. Perhaps he needed to piss but then a howl rose from so deep within his being; it seemed his very soul cried out. He dug his fingernails into her shoulders and shook her. “We must bring home the ones stolen from their graves,” he said.
“There aren't any marked graves here.”
“Bah. Don't treat me like a child, Girl,” he said, slapping her hand away.
“You are wrong, Woman,” he roared and pounded the earth with his staff. “There are graves buried deep below this earth. Six centuries of death and of living, joys and sorrows are sifted into these ashes. Strong winds may have mixed the dirt of other pueblos with ours, but deep beneath this layer of dust our family is buried. Like dew on my heart, you have bellyached that your friends had cousins, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and you had no one but a tired, old man. Here is your family, in the red earth of Pecos.” He scooped a handful of dirt, opened her hand and spilled the dirt into her palm. He closed her fist and squeezed.
“Your family lived on this red earth since the year 1300. Before that time we were known as the Forked Lightning people who climbed from the arroyo to this ridge and built an impenetrable fortress. Our people were born here; they married here; they made love here; they died here. You say this is a ghost pueblo and you are right. Pecos chimes a death knell since the thief stole the others and took them far away from the land that nourished them. Tears flow from the skies for thousands ripped from the earth. Can you not feel the earth shudder like a body racked with grief? Can you not see how tears, of those left behind, moisten the earth because they mourn the missing? Can you not hear the wind sigh with longing?”
He shoved the royal ceremonial staff into her hands and squeezed her fingers around it. “Feel your people's pride and imagine this staff must have been something to look at in those days when the Pecos governor pounded it against the rich dirt, surveying their bounty. Now, the staff is dull and can you not see their disenchantment with their invaders?”
He pushed the staff to her ear. “Listen to your inheritance and the cries of your people.”
He lifted the staff to her nose. “Inhale their blood.”
He finished his speech and the wind blew a silence across the ruins. He communed with the wind and the earth so that his emotions swirled with the pueblo remains. He appeared made from Pecos dirt, his skin reddish-brown.
She pushed the staff back at him and he looked like he wanted to throttle her.
“As you know, pueblo is the Spanish word for people. My Pecos Pueblo, which you scorn, is proof of a forgotten people, save what I hold in my heart. Our people were the chosen ones. Each year more of Pecos vanishes until one day there will be nothing left. Look at rings that still show upon the earth from tipis set up for trade fairs over centuries of prosperity. Ah, my home is melting back into dirt from which it was made.”
His eyes glowed with the delirium of peyote. He was just coming down from a high.
“I don't believe you about the stolen corpses; how could you possibly know?”
“I know,” he said, thumping his chest with his fist.
“But Pecos was a ghost pueblo sixty-two years before your birth,” she said.
“I was thirteen winters old when I watched thousands unearthed from the rich soil that nurtured them. I wondered if I knew any of the skeletons. My father? My grandparents? My great-grandparents? Mother? Brothers and sisters? We no longer lived at Pecos then but always we returned where our roots were planted. Like a coward, I hid behind a tree and watched the grave robbers. I told myself as the last of our people, I had a duty to survive. I stood over there.” He teetered on tobacco-stained khakis and pointed with a shaky finger to a ridge lined with trees. One tree appeared to wilt compared to others. He squeezed his eyes shut and spasms racked his body.
Surely his tears will petrify into more wrinkles.
“With my death you are the last of the Pecos. A heavy burden falls upon your shoulders. Promise me, you will bring the bones home.”
He jabbed an imploring finger at her and the scar on her forehead throbbed. At the age of seven, a rattlesnake slithered across her bed, locked eyes with her, jerked its head back, opened its fangs, and marked her right above her nose. She always rubbed her scar when nervous and jumpy, and Grandfather hissed at her so that poison snaked through her veins. She dug her fingernails into her palms; she could strike out just as hurtful.
“I feel nothing for old bones and a pueblo abandoned a century and a half ago. What do I care for roots, when I may be the last branch to fall? Our tree's dry, Governor. Live with it,” she drawled.
He thumped his heart with his fist and accused her of being hollow. He preached as unforgiving as the rain, snow and wind that ravaged the family pueblo for one hundred and sixty-one years. Even her husband Steve could not fill the cracks in her heart. She let Grandfather down so many times and put more wrinkles on his face. All her life he was old, but her earliest memory of him was with grey hair. His head whitened because of her. Now she could not promise to look for some ancient skeletons he claimed stolen from Pecos. He sent goose bumps across her spine when he spoke about missing bones.
“I see I have not touched you, Granddaughter, by bringing you to Pecos. I raised you since four days old, but failed to teach you about your ancestors. You were born with a spirit as wild as the Río Grande rapids, and I am not a patient man. In vain, I tried to make you appreciate the bond of one's blood. How do I get through to you that Pecos is our home?”
He clenched her hand and shocked her with his strength but then he always blew in like a force of nature; even old as he was, his eyes shone with invincibility.
“Look with your heart, not your eyes, and see that our pueblo's spirit yet lives. Even Moctezuma could not crush the heart of a people,” he said.
“He answered to Montezuma,” she said, yanking at her wrist but he stubbornly held on, like all the other Pueblo Indians who insisted the legend was true.
He could tell by her eyes that she really did not believe and he flung her wrist from him.
“Look around you and see the proof of Moctezuma's curse,” he said, sweeping his hand across the earth.
“How many times must I tell you that Moctezuma was a witch born at the ancient Pose Uingge Pueblo in New Mexico? After he grew up, he traveled to the Pecos Pueblo where he changed his name to Montezuma and ruled. Under Montezuma, Pecos flourished and became overpopulated so he decided to form other New Mexico pueblos with the surplus. He then flew on an eagle south and founded more pueblos in New Mexico and then the great Mexico City. Before he left Pecos, he lit a fire at the Altar of the Sun. He demanded twelve virgins tend the fire, so that Pecos would prosper until his return. The people promised him they would keep the fire lit and wait for his return.”
“Yes and Montezuma never returned to Pecos because the virgins who tended the fire fell asleep one balmy night and let the fire die out. The pueblo then burned less bright and weakened with each passing year, until the day the flame that was Pecos snuffed out and just ashes remained. Blah-blah-blah,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Look around you at the wreckage and see this is no legend but truth.”
Her shoulders sagged and the wind pushed against her. How ironic the bloody earth of Pecos appeared so healthy and able to nurture life while she loomed so pale and lifeless. It seemed as if the people's blood flowed in the earth, turning the dirt a rich red in color, while in her own veins weak blood circulated.
“Governor, if you're so concerned about my being the last then I should try harder to conceive instead of trying to find some old bones no one cares about except you,” she said with a resentful voice. She turned her back to him and wiped her damp eyes. She squeezed her waist with her elbows and held back her memories but her losses seeped through her brain like a sponge soaked with afterbirth. Her first baby she miscarried in her first trimester. The second, a little girl, was miscarried in her second trimester. The third flowed watery blood that burst from her womb at two months. The fourth kicked vigorously at six months, then stilled a week later. The fifth baby, a girl, delivered stillborn. The sixth, a boy, breathed for four days, the same amount of time her father lived after her birth. The seventh, she never even told Steve about her pregnancy; ditto for her eighth attempt. The ninth was lost at seven weeks, a year ago. She and Steve were so heartbroken, they reconciled to a childless marriage, unknown to Grandfather. False hope would only shatter her fragilely mended heart, and she no longer had the strength or time to heal.
He surprised her when he let the blanket drop from his frail shoulders.
Her teeth clinked in her mouth like piano keys because the cowardly sun darted behind the mountains as if sensing the tension between them. She bent to pick up the blanket.
“Leave it,” he said.
“Old man, you're going to get sick from your passion for these missing bones. If the bones mean so much to you, why didn't you find them?”
“I could never make my way in the white man's world.”
“But your powers...surely….”
“If I, born in 1901, am so out of place in the white man's world then our bones, some centuries old, are even more lost. The people do not answer when I cry out to them. Our family circle is broken. You must find the bones so the people can be one again. If we must die out, then let us all join together.”
“You want me to search for a bunch of skeletons, people dead and buried long before my birth, most before you were born? I have no idea where to even begin to look. Their bones may have scattered to the four corners of the world. Dust blows across the tracks of time and buries a cold trail. Which corner of the world shall I start, Governor?”
“You're a sly girl; find a way to bring the missing bones home with this NAPGRA.”
“It's NAGPRA but I can't just up and quit my job to seek skeletons you claim stolen from Pecos.”
“Perhaps this will help.” He opened his burlap sack and handed her what looked like an old leather case.
She peeked inside the case filled with papers.
“I snuck down from my hiding place and took these papers that belonged to the grave robber. I cannot read but perhaps the thief left a clue to help you recover the bones.”
“Why did you never speak about any of this before today?”
“I remained silent because I feared they would come for us, too. You would have listened with the wooden ears of the Kachina dolls you collect. My death has crawled slowly as a desert box turtle, but perhaps when my spirit leaves my body's shell, you will listen like Big Ears Kachina and want to learn more about your people.”
“Don't speak as if you're already dead. These haunted ruins give me the jitters. I can feel the ghosts stirring and it makes me afraid.”
“Never say the ghosts of Pecos frighten you. If after death, I drift in like the morning fog for a heart-to-heart in my sweat lodge, will you be scared?”
”No, I would not be panic-stricken at your ghost. You are my grandfather; why would you spook me?”
He must have known she lied because he looked even wilder. His face reddened and he clenched his fists.
He terrified her in life with his meanness. He never struck her but he had such a temper. He screamed at her when she first blundered across his rattlesnake den. He shook her until her teeth rattled. He barked at her to stay away from his beehives. Later, when older and wiser, she realized he only worried about her, but his presence commanded, and she cast a shadow under his feet. Well, she refused to make any effort for some old bones and if his ghost stalked her, then she would close her eyes to him. Pecos ravaged him all his life. This place of ruin would not wreck what little grasp of happiness she forged with Steve.
“I promise,” she said in a flat voice merely to calm him so they could leave this land that chilled her blood.
She despised him for coercing her, and he knew it. He pleaded with his eyes for her to search for the bones, and cursed her with his lips. The threat in his voice had been real. He was most considerate friend to Masawkatsina so he possessed the means to haunt her in death, even more than he haunted her in life, if she did not find the bones.
Her only defense against his magic was a defiant look. Make him think he did not make her hands sweat. Look at the ground, so he could not see her eyes water. Take a deep breath so he did not hear her heart thumping. Yet, the ruins spun around her and made her dizzy. She stumbled, fell, and clawed the dirt at something flat and hard. What...the... yuck...a petrified toe attached to an ancient sandal.
“Don't touch the toe else the owner will follow in your footsteps,” he said, jerking the sandal from her hand.
She scraped her fingernail across the ancient toe.
The now toeless sandal sailed through the air.
She ran after it, dropped to her knees and dug with her fingers, throwing dirt about, not caring if dust struck her face. But nothing, the sandal and toe vanished.
She wrapped her arms around her waist and rocked, cuffing her hands to her ears and screaming. Oh, God, a toeless Pecos ghost will haunt me. Her vertigo worsened so she stayed plopped down, crossed her arms and fooled him so he did not know she pressed against her chest. He must have tied her with a dozen invisible rubber bands.
His damn promise will be the death of me.
“I'm not Pecos; I'm Jemez,” she said as if this sort-of fact would grant her absolution.
Acute pain crossed his face at her words.
She lowered her head and picked at a thread on her blouse, but her eyes stung like needle pricks.
Damn this guilt. Damn him.
She sprang up, dragged him to the truck, yanked open the front door and pushed him onto the front passenger seat.
His blanket caught on the door so the corner dragged against the ground.
She forced the key into the ignition and floored the gas pedal. The engine roared to life. The red earth of her ancestors blew around the spinning tires and she got the hell out of there.
The old troublemaker bounced beside her on the springy seat, him too short to hit the ceiling with his head.
She turned on the radio to drown out any more lectures about family ties, nor bones, nor ghosts, nor death.
Soon, his light snoring blew puffs of air between his lips. Spittle dribbled down his chin.
She rolled down the window and breathed the fresh air of life.
The heater blew on high for the old man whose chin rolled around his chest. He did not look so almighty when he slept nor so scary, so she shoved his hat low on his forehead so only his stubby eyelashes, crooked nose, and toothless mouth showed.
The truck descended away from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
She merged onto I-25 and headed south towards Santa Fe.
The lights of the capital vanished from her rear view mirror miles back...When did his snoring stop?
She stole a glance at his still chest.
She poked his arm.
His head fell against the windshield with a crack.
She jerked the steering wheel over to the shoulder and slammed on the brakes, bringing the tires to a screeching stop.
“Wake up,” she begged, shaking him gently. “Please wake up.”
The sun was just beginning to set. The spittle on his chin was frozen. He was already beginning to stiffen.
She threw items out of her purse until her fingers grasped her cell phone.
Moonlight lit up the numbers 911. “He’s dying,” she cried out.
She cursed in Towa. The operator couldn’t understand her choppy English accent and asked her not to grunt into the phone. The phone trembled as she slowly repeated, “He’s dying. I think he’s dead. He’s not responding. Please hurry. What? No, I don’t know exactly where I was when he died.”
Three times she recited a description of her truck, her license plate number, more or less her location, then pressed the end button on her phone.
The disconnection sounded like a heart monitor flat line.
She pounded her face against the steering wheel and moaned. She whizzed by about sixty miles of the eighty miles between Jemez Pueblo and Pecos Pueblo and could never backtrack to discover exactly where they were when he left her. She only knew that he left his heart at Pecos.
He claimed death shadowed him, yet he had no kind last words for her, no confession of eternal love, no begging for her forgiveness, no words of wisdom about life, only his damned promise to search for wretched bones.
With shaky hands, she reached for a paper sack and the shimmer of an unbroken seal of a whiskey bottle, but a pain so unbearable slammed gainst her chest that she grabbed for him instead.
“I’m sorry, so sorry,” she said, rubbing her damp cheek against his soft white braids.
She wrapped her arms around his cold body and cradled his head to her breast, berating all the times she lashed out because she had no family except for him.
“Old man, old man, the only father and mother I have ever known,” she said, rocking and howling like a wounded dog. She had not told him she loved him for such a long time, not since he screamed at her when she stood too close to his snake den at seven years of age.
I should have listened to your life. I could have watched for your death. I would have touched your heart, right there. She placed her hand over his chest and swore she felt the heartbeat of a Pecos warrior but it was probably the trembling of her hand.
“Even in death you smell like magic, Governor.”
He proclaimed he would die how many minutes after sunset? She glanced at her watch and shook her wrist, as if she could turn time back.
“Oh, Grandfather, when did you die so silently beside me…and so alone?”
“He’s not dead; he just had a heart attack,” Steve said.