The Death of Annie One-Horse
by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Annie sat, thinking. It had been a long time since she had had those visions. It had been a long and full life. Her grandfather was long dead now, though she had visited him in the land of the spirits more than once. Two husbands were dead, too, and many children. It had indeed been a long life.
* * *
Camber and Margie made it a little over halfway that first day. They had pitched camp not far from the second of the four sacred mountains, Hawantohak. There was still water enough for the horses here, Camber thought, but the next day there would be very little.
He watched Margie across the fire. She was bending down to fill her cup with more coffee. Her hair hung along the side of her neck, silver earrings adding a flash of fire. He felt a stir of longing. Pretty for a white woman, he thought, but stupid about human beings, as they often are. As if feeling his eyes and thought on her, she looked up, catching his eyes. He looked down.
“How long until we get there, do you think?”
Camber thought a minute. “Oh, we should be there by noon tomorrow, perhaps a little later. There won’t be any water though, so go easy on what we have.”
She wondered if he thought her stupid. “I know, Camber, you already told me that twice.”
She paused and looked up at the mountain, at the cacti in profusion around them. “It is pretty here, isn’t it?”
Camber nodded. “Yeah. It is.”
Margie pointed to the mountain. “That’s Raven Mountain, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s called Hawantohak, which I guess you can translate as Raven Mountain, close enough. It’s one of the four sacred mountains Elder Brother showed my people in the long ago times. It has been sacred to my people for many thousands of years.”
Margie sat down next to the fire. “Do you practice the old ways at all?” she asked.
Camber thought back to his time of vision. To his uncle, Sam Patches, singing over him. To his preparation as a warrior before he went to Vietnam. To his return, empty inside, and eventually this job.
“Oh, I did when I was little. But not anymore.”
Margie paused a moment. “You don’t like talking about it, do you?”
Camber laughed ruefully. “Not really. That’s all in the past. I just get through one day at a time anymore.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, Margie looked away and up at the stars. “I love it out here,” she said. “I came here to visit with my parents and didn’t want to leave when the vacation was over.”
“So why did you?”
Margie laughed. “Oh, I was twelve, had no way to make a living, things like that.”
Camber smiled, then, “So how did you get into Social Services?”
“I was looking for something to do so I could live here. I’d been impacted by the poverty and alcoholism, and I decided I wanted to help if I could. Both things just seemed to go together.”
Camber looked up sharply, Margie caught the expression. “Oh I know what a lot of the people on the rez say: ‘white wannabe’, ‘making a living off our misery’, things like that. But when I see the look in a little boy’s eyes when I sit with him and read, when I can help a young woman get a college degree and see the pride in her eyes. Well, it makes up for all the crap I take.”
Camber thought a minute. “Our people have been struggling for a long time. Maybe education is the answer to our problems, I don’t know. It frees you up some ways, in others it makes it harder. I just don’t want to see the old ways pass and the white frame of reference be the only thing left. After all, that frame of reference hasn’t done all that well for your people either.”
“Is that why you don’t like the prohibition on dying in the desert? That it puts white ways on the old?”
“Some,” Camber said. “But also, it’s no one’s business how someone dies.”
Camber thought back to Vietnam. Shrugged off the memories. “Life is filled with compromises enough without taking that away, too. I just don’t like a government bureaucracy coming out here and telling people how and where they should die. It’s a private matter.” He laughed ruefully. “I mean what do you have left if you have no say in how you die?”
Margie looked at him silently for a minute. “Well, I don’t agree with you, but I respect your feelings. Sorry I had to override you.”
Camber snorted. People were always sorry for following rules that hurt others. As if that absolved them of responsibility for their actions and choices. Hell with it!
He said merely, “Get some sleep,” then turned over and followed his own advice.
In the morning they had an early breakfast and then mounted the horses again. Camber had hardly said two words to her all morning and Margie, feeling closer from the sharing the night before, wondered if something she had said had made him angry. She looked at his strong, angular face, made stern by his brooding thoughts and noticed again how handsome he was. But there seemed no opening to ask if anything was wrong and, after a while, she quit thinking about it and concentrated on getting her horse over the uneven and treacherous ground.
* * *
Annie had had more trouble getting up this morning, her bones were sharp knives cutting into her flesh. As soon as she managed to sit up, she was racked by that terrible coughing again, this time producing quite a bit of blood. Annie swallowed the sharp iron taste of it, then drank a little water. Ho! she thought, Elder Brother, it will not be long. And again she felt him smile.
* * *
By noon, the sun was burning hot in the sky. They were on short rations now, saving the water for the horses. Camber licked his lips and thought of beer and dark bars. He looked over at Margie. She seemed to be holding up okay, her face set and determined.
He heard something then which caused his attention to shift and focus. He held up his hand and with a finger to his lips they sat silent, listening. There! Faint and wandering, the thin piping of a flute came to them from the rocks ahead.
“Quietly now,” Camber said and Margie nodded.
Carefully and as quietly as they could, they picked their way through the rock formations, searching for what they knew must be Annie.
* * *
Annie sat, comfortable at last. For the first time in many years, her body no longer hurt her, and she was happy. Soon she would go to that land of happy people to stay, no longer only a visitor.
She had begun the preparations and the ceremonies. She was half in the spirit world now and on her flute she played the haunting melodies that the spirits had taught her. In front of her sat Elder Brother and Earth Magician, each keeping time with the music. Over behind the rocks, she could see three or four Apache spirits sitting listening, and talking amongst themselves.
She heard a clatter among the rocks by the Apache spirits and looked up. Two horses with riders were coming toward her. One of them, a young white woman, shouted and began to ride faster. The other, one of the People, shouted at her and reached out for her bridle. She eluded him and came on, faster now.
Earth Magician, his bad temper the same as always, was angry at being interrupted while enjoying the music. Annie saw his face turn black, and then he reached out, growing suddenly bigger, and he grabbed that horse by the leg and tipped it over.
Annie stopped playing and said, her voice was so soft now, “No!” But it would have made no difference. Earth Magician always did what he wanted when he got angry.
The young woman was thrown out of the saddle as the horse fell and rolled. Annie saw her head hit a rock and a dark crack appear. One of the Apache spirits saw this and laughed. He jumped up and ran fast, to her head. He looked up at Annie and grinned, then he got even smaller and went right in that crack and disappeared.
“Damn Apaches,” she said. And slowly began getting to get to her feet.
* * *
Camber saw Margie’s horse fall. Damn foolish to ride so fast in this kind of terrain, he thought. He dismounted and began to run toward her. When he got there, he saw that she’d hit her head on a rock. Gingerly, he touched her head and examined it. There was a lump but no other external damage he could find. He pulled back an eyelid, then the other. Concussion. Well, hell, he thought, this is just perfect.
He heard something move and looked up to see Annie. “Ho, Grandmother. I see you.”
“I see you, too, Grandson.” Then indicating Margie. “We must help this white woman, Grandson. An Apache spirit went into her head. She will die if we don’t get it out.”
Camber sighed, looked up at the old woman. Her face was incredibly wrinkled. Boy, he thought, she is old. He felt the awe that his people held for the old ones, wondered how to tell her about the hospital.
“We need to get her to the hospital on the rez, Grandmother. She has a concussion. You are right about one thing: she might die.”
Annie looked up and saw Ithoi, Elder Brother, standing over the young man. He was smiling in that way he did when he had done something particularly clever. Annie cursed under her breath. She hated his sense of humor sometimes.
“Grandson, you must listen to me. There is no way you can get that girl back to the hospital in time, and you know this thing to be true. She cannot live in this heat, travel on that horse. She should not be moved.”
She stopped talking, and Camber, seeing she was done, looked down at Margie. He remembered his training. Found himself briefly back on the gunship with a dying comrade. Shook his head, wiping out the memory. He looked at Margie’s face, felt his heart go out to her. Knew he did not want her to die, for all her stupidity.
“All right, Grandmother. What can we do?”
“Now, Grandson, there is only one thing to do, and that is to get that Apache spirit out of her. Then she will be okay.”
Camber looked at her.
“Oh,” she said, seeing Camber’s expression, “her head will still have that little crack in it for a while, but it will get better soon. Now she is ill from that Apache, and we must do something.”
Camber sat, still holding Margie’s head. He felt again the conflict between the past of his culture and the white man’s, men-on-the-moon world, and sighed. Felt trapped again between two ways of knowledge, two ways of walking in the world. The conflict burned like a knife inside him. He looked at Margie’s face again. “All right, Grandmother. Tell me what to do.”
Painfully, Annie sat down, made herself comfortable. “Now, Grandson, go over and get my drum.”
Camber laid Margie’s head down gently, got the drum from Annie’s pile of meager possessions, came back. It was a small, hand-made drum, not over twelve inches in diameter. “Here it is, Grandmother.”
“Now,” said Annie, “you must help me. I don’t have enough power to get that Apache out of there without your help.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“You must sing with me, go into the spirit world with me and help me get that Apache.”
“Okay, Grandmother. I do not know how to do these things, but I will try.”
Annie looked up and Elder Brother, still standing behind Camber, was nodding and smiling. Annie took up her drum and began.
She started singing the songs of her visions over and over. And pretty soon that young grandson began singing along with her. They kept it up and she beat her drum as they sang.
Camber liked the beat of the drum and the song, and he let himself go, and pretty soon he began to feel light in his body. Then his eyes closed, his body swaying with the melody. As he sang, he began to feel a little funny, and he saw a light coming from everywhere, even though his eyes were closed.
He knew he was dreaming, and he knew he could open his eyes any time he wanted to, but he didn’t. He just kept on singing. He looked with his spirit mind, and he saw he was standing on a road and, next to him, was Annie One-Horse.
She smiled. “That’s good, Grandson,” she said. “You can stop singing now.”
She took him by the arm and said, “We’ve got to hurry. He’s taking her to the spirit world. We have to catch him before he gets there.”
Camber took hold of her arm and walked with her up the road as fast as they could go. And, pretty soon, they came to a fork in the road.
“Which way?” he asked.
Annie pointed to the right. “Up there. And see, we’re barely in time.”
Camber looked up the hill. He could see a small figure holding onto a larger one, pulling it up the path. The larger one was struggling, slowing them, but not stopping their progress.
Camber and Annie went up that road as fast as they could. He saw Margie kick the little figure, break free, and begin running down the hill. Saw her tackled, then grabbed by the arm again. They were getting closer now. He began yelling, “Margie. Margie.”
He saw her turn her head and look, saw her redouble her efforts to win free.
“That’s good, Grandson. Keep talking to her, make her want to live, to fight harder.”
The old woman was wheezing now, but they were getting quite a bit closer. He was beginning to think they might make it.
The Apache had Margie almost to the top of the hill now. Camber and Annie were about two-thirds of the way up.
“Okay, Grandson, now sing with me.”
It was a sad thing he did.
It was a sad thing he did.
But now we smoke together.
The smoke will pile up inside us.
As they sang, Camber could see the Apache slow and stop. He stood with a puzzled expression, as if he didn’t know what to do next, but he didn’t let go of Margie’s arm. Still singing, and growing tired, they came to the top of the hill, where Margie and the Apache spirit stood.
“Keep singing, Grandson,” said Annie. “And, while you are singing, grab that Apache and throw him off this hill.”
Camber walked up to the little man beside Margie and tore his hand from her arm. Still singing, he picked him up and threw him down the hill. When the Apache hit the road, he rolled a little, and the lethargy that had taken him seemed to fade. He picked himself up, dusted off his legs, looked up at Annie. She smiled. The Apache muttered something, then vanished. Camber turned to Margie. She was looking up at him.
“Camber. What is this place? How did you get here?”
“It’s all right, Margie,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”
Annie came up to them, smiling. “That’s real good, Grandson. Real good. Now you got to take this woman here back down that road.”
Camber heard something in her voice. “What about you, Grandmother? Aren’t you coming back with us?”
Annie grinned. “No, Grandson. Look!” and she pointed down the other side of the hill.
Camber looked and saw a bunch of people coming up towards them. They were all smiling and laughing.
“Now, you go on home, Grandson. I’ve been waiting for this a long time.” And, with a last wave, Annie smiled and walked over the hill. Camber and Margie started down, toward home.
Then, just once, before they were out of sight, Camber looked back. Annie stood now, tall and regal, her body strong, hair black and long down her back. Young. She laughed loudly, and Camber saw her strong white teeth flash. Then she and her relatives turned, and they all went down to the village in the spirit world.
Camber and Margie went down the hill, past the crossroads and, pretty soon, they saw themselves on the desert floor, Camber swaying as he sang, Margie lying on the ground.
Everything seemed to swish, and they felt a wind, and the next thing Camber knew was that he was very tired from sitting so long in one place.
Margie moaned, and Camber lifted her eyelids, looked at her pupils. Normal. Annie’s body sat still beside them, a smile on her face.
Later, when he had got Annie to her resting place and had Margie, still unconscious but out of danger, on a horse drag, he stood and stared around him for a minute. This is a good place, he thought, a good place for the People to have, for them to come to.
He felt Elder Brother smile behind him as he got up on his horse. He thought maybe he’d take a ride out to his uncle’s place once Maggie was settled. There was a lot he needed to learn.
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen Harrod Buhner