written by: Kayt Peck
A tourist dressed in wrinkled khaki shorts and an equally wrinkled t-shirt used the camera on his cell phone to snap a picture of an ancient cliff dwelling. Kidwell Brown stood patiently behind him. His bulk occupied most of the width of the paved trail, giving her little choice but to wait for the path to clear.
“Mort will shit a brick when he sees this,” the tourist said. He switched from using the instrument as a camera to a telephone. “He loves all this Indian stuff.” His teenage son stood waiting near the entrance of a structure that had once been a home for a culture that no longer existed.
“Yeah, Dad,” the youth said, not trying to hide the boredom in his voice, “can we stop at the casino on our way back to Santa Fe?”
The man ignored his son as he held the phone to his ear. After a pause, he lowered the device and looked at the display.
“God damn it,” he said. “How can people stand to live here? There isn’t even cell signal.”
The man returned the phone to the case on his belt and lumbered along the trail, finally opening the path. He huffed and pulled himself up using the handrails when the trail became in the least bit steep. Kidwell suspected that the man spent his days in an office building, his only exercise being a regular walk to the break room. A woman whom Kidwell assumed was the man’s wife leaned out a doorway just a short climb above them. A replica of the ladders originally used by the structure’s inhabitants allowed visitors to climb into that part of the dwelling. As the man detoured toward his wife’s call, the mildly sadistic urge to watch him struggle up the ladder tempted Kidwell. Instead, she smiled to herself and continued down the path.
When she was younger, Kidwell would have been angry and offended at the man’s lack of awareness of not only the people around him, but of the sacredness of the place where he now walked. Years and experience gradually cured her of most of her once strong need to convince others how they should see the world. Life was too short and too precious to waste her energy on such a futile effort.
Besides, she had no time for such foolishness this day. A magnetic urge drew her to one of her strongest sacred places. The intensity of that urge lessened any distraction caused by a passing tourist. Kidwell had first discovered Bandelier National Monument and the Anastasi in her youth. It felt like home the first time she climbed a rough ladder into the interior of an Anastasi dwelling. Twenty years passed before she dared tell anyone of the voices she heard while inside that room. The echo of voices and laughter from the valley below brought tears to her young eyes. Despite the fact that the language was none she knew, she felt warmth, love, and a sense of belonging at the sound. Only Anna, the soulmate she had once despaired of ever finding, knew that story or that a similar experience happened to Kidwell with almost every visit to an Anastasi site. Kidwell had not needed to explain the details, for Anna shared the experience, and had since her own youth. Such memories drew them both to the Land of Enchantment and finally to meeting each other. Anna felt free to share her story over the decades, but Kidwell remained silent. During two decades in the Navy, such tales would likely have landed her a psychiatric review.
Today, Anna was not at her side. Kidwell awoke that morning, knowing she must walk the path to the Ceremonial Cave at Bandelier. As Kidwell told her sleepily languid lover of the need, Anna had been equally certain that her fate was for a quiet day in the backwoods home they shared. That had not been a problem. Independence was much of what assured the two women’s togetherness.
Kidwell had nearly bypassed the paved path to the dwellings nearest the tourist center, but she could not resist the urge to weave through the tourists and seek an empty room, a place to listen quietly for a few moments. She found her moment about one hundred feet farther along the path. She climbed into an unoccupied room, moving toward the cool and inviting shadows at the back. It felt like slipping into the earth’s womb when she entered such a place. She sat cross-legged on the floor and sought stillness. A whisper came, not the voices from the valley below as she usually experienced. It was nearby and mildly urgent. The words were foreign but she knew the meaning.
“Go on,” it whispered, “she waits.”
Kidwell’s heart rate increased. Her experiences before only involved a feeling of familiarity with the voices she heard. Never before had she had such clarity in the meaning. So the Ceremonial Cave it was. Kidwell eased herself down the ladder and onto the path. She increased her pace and took the shortest route possible from the paved path and onto the trail used by day hikers and backpackers more than passing tourists. The Ceremonial Cave trail did not draw the large numbers of tourists seeking sites high on experience and low on effort.
What is this all about? she wondered. She did not doubt her sanity, although she had in her younger days, before she accepted her “gift.”
Although she kept her sense of purpose, Kidwell enjoyed the hike on the trail beside the river. It was a nice hike before she reached the fork where she’d turn to the northeast, taking the path to the ladders that were the precarious last effort in reaching the Ceremonial Cave. As she walked, she enjoyed the lush green smell of the willows, horsetails, and a smattering of pine trees in the growth that followed the stream, a trickle of water bringing life to the desert lands. There was little similarity between the ecosystem of the streambed and the rising canyon walls just a hundred feet higher. There was even less of a resemblance to the desert land stretching above the canyon rim. When she heard the movement of a large animal in the brush beside the trail, Kidwell wasn’t surprised. She stopped, looking intently toward the sound, striving to identify the creature. Probably deer, she thought, but she remained watchful. She didn’t have the panicky fear of bears that plagued most people, but she did have total and utter respect for the usually gentle giants. She and Anna had achieved a peaceful coexistence with the bears living in the forest surrounding their home. They were careful not to leave dog food out overnight, and they hung birdfeeders in trees several yards from the house and high enough so that a bear could not reach them. Leaving such calling cards was a hazard to humans and an injustice to bears. Such carelessness offered an invitation for a bear to live off human food and, in time, a likely signing of a death warrant for the animal. When a bear threatened a human, Fish and Game would do what they must.
While Kidwell and Anna sought to discourage bears around their home, they regularly encountered the magnificent animals while hiking or cutting firewood in the surrounding forests. They met one large female so often that they’d named her Gerty, enjoying sightings of the bear and her current cub or cubs which Gerty nurtured until they were ready to go out on their own. Gerty knew Kidwell and Anna, and they knew Gerty. Hence Gerty did not threaten them when they rounded a bend and surprised the bear and her two cubs as they scratched through a deadfall log, eating paws-full of assorted insects and grubs. In surprise, she’d risen on her back haunches, preparing to threaten, but then Gerty recognized her intruders. She dropped back to all fours, and then nuzzled her two cubs to the forefront. She sat and looked at the two women, as though to say, “See my children. Aren’t they beautiful?” Although Kidwell and Anna kept a tight grip on their walking sticks, they each spent a few moments complementing Gerty’s beautiful cubs. Then Gerty rounded up her young and herded them down a path running along Cabo Lucero Creek. Now and again, Kidwell and Anna retold the story to each other—and to anyone else who would listen—just because the event was such a pleasure to relive.
Today would be a much less hazardous encounter. Kidwell watched two white tail does as they grazed their way through the brush beside the stream. Kidwell smiled a soft smile of deep pleasure and then continued her walk to the cave.
When Kidwell reached the base of the first of two ladders, she took a deep breath and readied herself for the climb. While in the Navy and not long after she’d retired, Kidwell had barely noticed the exertion of climbing the hundred feet to the cave above. She laughed quietly at herself as she mentally promised herself to return to “fighting fitness.” She laughed because she knew she wouldn’t, but that she would be forever compelled to have the same thought every time she faced this ladder.
Exertion or not, the climb was well worth it. When Kidwell stepped off the last rung and into the cave (not more than a large alcove actually) that protected and housed the kiva, she paused, partially to catch her breath but mainly to enjoy the view of the valley below and to feel the holiness of the place. As she looked down to the trail below, she saw a young man hiking her direction. She estimated he was only twenty minutes from the kiva. A feeling of disappointment and urgency caused her to turn from the view and walk rapidly to the kiva entrance. Kidwell looked down into the opening in the earth and grasped the top of the ladder.
When she reached the third rung, her life forever changed.
Blindly, Kidwell finished the last few steps to the floor of the kiva. Kidwell saw light but not much else. As her eyes adjusted to the brightness, objects clarified in her vision. She was not at the foot of the ladder but hovering a few feet from the floor. She looked at the body lying near the ladder. She felt no surprises or shock even as she realized her own body lay beneath her.
Am I dead? she thought, amazingly undisturbed.
“Welcome,” someone said.
Actually, “said” is not entirely correct. The word was clear, but Kidwell had a sense that neither a voice nor her ears were involved in the process. As she turned to face the voice, Kidwell sensed floating, a movement powered entirely by will and intent instead of mind and muscle.
She saw a figure hovering, as she was, just a few feet off the floor. The figure was the source of the light, and, in the brightness, Kidwell could make out the shape of a woman.
“I’m honored,” Kidwell answered, surprised at her own sense of calm.
“Do you know who I am?” the spirit asked.
Kidwell did, but she was at a loss as to how she knew. There was an impression of long, dark hair, and the fringe of a doeskin dress, but those clues would not have been enough alone.
“White Buffalo Calf Woman,” Kidwell answered.
“That is the name some give me,” the spirit answered, the voice deepening as it spoke. As the voice deepened, the shape changed, becoming male, bearded, and wearing a coarse one-piece garment. “I have others.”
“Jesus,” Kidwell said. Somewhere inside her, a place where she was still capable of simple human emotion, she felt a deep reverence and awe.
“Does the name matter?” the spirit asked.
“No, it doesn’t,” Kidwell answered, knowing that whatever form the spirit took, she would know it for what it was. In that instant, she knew she had been in its presence many times, during a sunset or while cruising in the middle of the ocean; the time she’d witnessed the birth of a child when she and the senior-chief she was with had stopped to aid a Saudi woman by the side of the road. She knew this feeling. She knew this awe.
“Why did you call me?” Kidwell asked.
“You are needed.”
“Me? I can’t do anything. Why me?”
“Because you listened.”
“What do you need of me?”
“Tell all that Desert Lighting has no power.”
“You must go to the land of the Red Raider to meet your ally.”
“I don’t understand.”
“When you seek truth with an open heart and an open mind, you will find it. Trust what you find there.”
“I…I don’t think I’m worthy. I don’t understand.”
“Answers will come as you need them. The time has come for a healing, or an ending,” the spirit said. “Humanity will be given what it needs for healing, but it must choose.”
“But,” Kidwell started but failed to finish as reality shifted once again. The light was gone, and she no longer hovered above the floor. She opened her eyes to stare at the wood and earthen ceiling above her. A deep lethargy filled her, and she felt incapable of moving even her eyes. She lay unmoving, rattling thoughts seeking some form of clarity. All sense of time had deserted her. Had it been moments or hours she floated in the presence of eternity?
Finally, in her line of vision, a boot appeared on the top rail above her. She saw the face of a young man looking anxiously down at her. The sight of another person rooted her back in the world. He hurried, jumping the last few feet and kneeling beside her.
“You okay, lady?” He looked around. “Where are the others? I heard voices, and”—he glanced around the kiva, mystified—“I could have sworn I saw light.”
A laugh broke Kidwell’s lethargy. She felt wonderful, truly alive.
“You did,” she said. I’m supposed to tell all, she thought. I guess this is a good place to start.
Sometime during her story, the young man dropped from a kneeling position to a seat in the dirt, too weakened by shock to remain upright. He would be the first, the first to join the cause.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
“The Kiva” is the opening chapter to the magical realism novel, The Kiva and the Mosque. It is the first in a trilogy followed by The Painting and the Pyramid and completed by The Past and the Present.
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