The Death of Annie One-Horse
by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Annie One-Horse leaned against the rock escarpment, her hand grasping at the rough, crumbling surface. Small pieces of stone flaked under her fingers and skittered to the ground disappearing into the red earth under her feet. The tall black walking stick, veteran of a thousand walks into these hills, rested loosely, temporarily unneeded, in her left hand.
Her breath was labored, as if the air had thickened into syrup. Her lungs scraped at it in short, sharp inhalations, each a painful gasping at life. It made her dizzy, and she could feel the life crumbling inside her, like the stone crumbling under her hand.
She waited, the patience of too many years too well ingrained to do this last, most important thing hastily. In time the dizziness faded and her breathing eased. Then Annie straightened. Grasping her stick firmly she forced her feet along the familiar trail.
The walking stick was vividly dark against the long blue skirt that swung from her ancient hips; her blouse shone glaringly white in the sun. Around her neck hung the ancient medicine necklace her grandfather had given her. In the pouch on her back the sacred pipe and her flute were wrapped in their coverings of leather. Next to them was the small drum she used to call Ithoi, Elder Brother, and Tcivut Makai, Earth Magician.
The passage of years, losses of husbands and children were graven in the deep lines and weathered skin of her brown face and hands. Her eyes, reflecting her English great-grandfather, were as blue as the skirt that swished quietly as she walked.
In the sky, far ahead of her, she saw a hawk drop in a sudden silent dive and rise again with something small and kicking in its talons. Despite her age, her eyes had lost none of their keenness, and she smiled grimly at the inevitable pattern of life.
The sky was an endless bowl over her and it was hot. The heat bounced among the rocks and desert plants and bored its way into her eyes and skin. She reveled in it. For once, her bones did not feel cold. She chuckled, thinking that on this day at least her granddaughter was spared her endless requests for blankets and more wood for the fire.
The dizziness came again and she stopped to let it pass. Lately, it had taken longer to recover. The sharp, shooting pains in her chest had grown worse and she had little desire for food. Soon, she had known, it would be time to make the journey to the spirit land, this time to not return.
She was not afraid; she had not been for years. She had prayed, as she often did, to know when it was time to die. Until now, Ithoi had refused, telling her there were things yet to be done. But yesterday evening Ithoi had told her it was time. So, at the rising of the sun she had gone to the little garden in back of the house and said her prayers. Then, calling her granddaughter to her, she had imparted her final instructions.
Her granddaughter had cried and clung to her. She and Annie had lived together for many years and were very close. It was she to whom the medicine would pass when Annie died. Eventually, her granddaughter accepted what was to be, as Annie knew she would, and the few preparations that were necessary were completed.
Her granddaughter helped her dress and gather her medicine bundles. Then, with a final deep glance, her granddaughter had gone to pray and mark the time of Annie’s passing. Annie took no food — she would not need it — and only enough water to get her to where she was going.
Annie stopped in the shade of an enormous chaparral bush; she was in no hurry. In 102 years of living she had hurried many times, but there seemed to be less and less reason to hurry the older she became. Where was there to go? In the end, one only became one’s self and found, eventually, the long rest. This day she would take her time and savor the last bits of her life.
Many of the old ones nowadays let themselves be taken by the reservation doctors and died undignified deaths in white square boxes with pieces of metal sticking in their arms. Annie preferred the old way.
In her youth, when she had taken the medicine way, her grandfather had taken her up into these hills to seek her vision. At that place and time her life and purpose had come into being. It was at that place she wished to leave this life, just she and the sweet earth and Ithoi, Elder Brother.
In her youth, she had run along these trails with the effortless stride of the young. Now she crept where she once flew. Laboriously, Annie straightened and once more began making her way along the nearly invisible trail. In the distance, the hawk let out its piercing call and was answered by its mate hunting on the far side of the hill. The vegetation was sparse in this section of the desert, but life was all around if you knew how to see. Annie felt it surge and flow, the hunters and the hunted, the sleeping and the waking.
She remembered her grandfather teaching her so long ago. She remembered how he had shown her the ways of the desert and of life. And she remembered the day of her visions. The memories hung in her mind as clear and fresh as yesterday: the young girl she was, alone in this forbidding place, seeking the touch of Ithoi and her guiding spirits.
* * *
She was afraid, and her mouth was dry. The distant rain clouds were a sham. Though she could see the dark vapors of rain drifting down, she knew it was evaporating far, far above the desert floor. It would never make it to where she sat, waiting for her visions. Though she had talked with her grandfather often as this day approached, though he had answered her many questions, she was still afraid. Her fine ceremonial clothes had been made lovingly by her mother, the moccasins sewn and decorated by her aunt. She was ready, but she did not feel ready.
She and her grandfather had walked in silence, far to the west of her home, into the lands inhabited only by Ithoi, Tcivut makai, the spirits of the dead, and, of course, the demons. Her grandfather had searched far to find this place of vision and had spent many days making it ready. The prayers had been said, the ceremonies conducted, her people participating and making the way ready for her. But this time she would stay alone in the land of Ithoi and the demons. This time she would face Earth Magician without help.
Her grandfather walked ahead of her, leading the way. His body still tall and straight despite his age. She felt nothing from him. In this land of demons, he kept his thoughts and feelings carefully concealed lest some stray bit of himself be noticed by them. Through such thoughts and feelings they sometimes gained entrance to a person’s soul. Many illnesses were caused by this, he had told her. The medicine way meant being able to face demons, the dark, one’s fear, and the naked face of the gods, Ithoi and Tcivut makai, and survive.
From birth, as he had told her, she had had all the signs of one called to the medicine path. When she had become of age, he began teaching her. Now, at the end of the first year of her training, she was ready for the vision quest. Or at least her grandfather said she was ready. So he had taken her to that far, far place and left her alone.
She remembered his face. So lined, so strong. She had thought then that there was nothing he could not do.
* * *
Annie paused as deep racking coughs tore through her chest. She held on to her walking stick, the knuckles white, thinking nothing, letting the spasm pass. Finally, it lessened and she took deep breaths, regaining her strength. Hell, she thought, some of this growing old I just don’t like. She shrugged her shoulders and began walking again.
* * *
Her grandfather had dug into the desert floor. Into the tiny hollow Annie would go and seek vision. He had roofed it with poles brought from the mountains, covered it with cedar branches, then covered them with the good earth he had removed from the hole.
They sat together in front of the entrance. At their back, Black Mesa rose up a thousand sheer feet. In front of them the desert lay, stretching out, out, out... until it touched the skirts of the mountains over sixty miles away. The stone people had taken on a thousand, thousand shapes here. Her people said that these were the first people, become stone when they tired of this world.
* * *
Annie walked on and her memories continued to unfold.
* * *
Camber Hawkins was roused from deep sleep by the ringing of the telephone. He stifled a curse, rolled over and grabbed for it, knocked it to the floor. The curse came out. He found the cord, pulled it to the bed. “Hello!”
“Camber? This is Margie over at Social Services. Are you awake?”
Camber looked at the clock. His eyes were bleary; it seemed to say 6:15. “What do you think?”
“Yeah, well, sorry to get you up so early but we need the horses.”
Camber lay still a minute. “What for?” he finally asked.
Margie hesitated, then said, “Old Annie One Horse has taken it in her head that it’s her time. She’s gone out into the desert to die. I need you to take me out to find her.”
Camber felt the old rage come up again. “What the hell do you want to bother her for? She’s a hundred and two, for chrissake.”
Margie sighed, “I know you don’t agree with Social Services on this, but we can’t have these old ones going out there and dying. We’ve been through all this before.”
“I don’t like it. I don’t like having to go after them. It’s wrong.”
Margie’s voice came over the line, tired. “Look Camber, like I told you last time. The state owns the horses. Part of your job is to go get these people when Social Services calls you. If you don’t like it, quit. Otherwise shut up about it.”
Camber thought about quitting again. Weighed being unemployed against this one thing he hated about the job. Decided again to compromise.
“Okay. Twenty minutes.” He hung up, got out of bed, and began getting dressed.
By the time the he arrived at the barns, Margie was already there. She was dressed in the usual uniform of people in the desert: jeans, boots, hat, and flannel shirt. From the tightening of her face and shoulders Camber could tell she was defensive. He decided to ignore it.
Margie strode over. “Camber.”
Camber nodded. “Margie.”
He walked over to the barn, Margie tagging along. He opened the doors and began to get the horses ready to travel.
* * *
Annie had spent a cold night. She opened her eyes as the sun was just breaking the horizon, then groaned. “Ho! Ithoi,” she called. “Don’t you know its impolite to keep an old woman waiting?” She felt Ithoi smile. Humor was always a part of it but she didn’t have to like it.
“Yeah, yeah. So you got plans for this old woman. Okay then.”
Annie levered herself up painfully on her elbows then worked herself to a sitting position. Hell, she thought, these old bones are just about worn out. Then the sun came over the rise and shone on her. She began to take in its heat. She closed her eyes, lifted her face to its rays, felt her bones start to loosen up. Pretty soon she got to her feet and began her morning toilet.
* * *
Camber looked down on the barns and corrals from the knees of the sacred mountain. The two old barns, saddling enclosure, and corrals looked small and insufficient, he thought, to cover a thousand square miles of desert. Add an old, worn-out Vietnam copter pilot still caught between the war and civilian life, he thought ruefully, and you don’t have much more.
He looked at Margie. “Which way?”
She leaned close, “Black Mesa.”
Camber looked at her, “How long’s she been gone?”
Camber didn’t say anything, just headed the horse in the right direction and let it go.
Black Mesa was about as desolate as you could get, he thought. Not enough water to keep a mouse alive. About as ornery a country as you could find. He laughed a little to himself. Leave it to Annie, he thought, to have the worst of the demon places for her deathbed. At that, he reminded himself, she’s most likely dead anyway. Margie knows it but she just can’t let it be. Damn Social Services anyway. And, he thought, she’ll insist on bringing the body back, too.
They rode on in silence.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen Harrod Buhner