This piece originally appeared in Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, edited by Eric Guignard. The anthology was nominated for the 2013 Bram Stoker Award by the Horror Writers Association.
“One of those dwellings, high, high in the rocks, is bigger than all the others. Utes never go there. It is a sacred place.”
—Acowitz, preceding the discovery of the Ancient Pueblo Cliff Palace, 1885
I found him under the ground, at the bottom of my kiva, curled up in a ball. He had carved the words into his own arm, the knife still clutched in his lifeless fingers. Now that Tawa had risen into the morning sky and spread his light across my home, I could make out the message clearly: “We are not their favored children.”
This man was Honovi. I did not know him well,
only that he had married Sira not long ago, and they had recently produced a child. I had never once seen him here, in this kiva. He may have worshipped in his own—I could not say. But this kiva was mine and I had never seen him here.
“He must be buried immediately,” said Honovi’s mother, blotting her tears with a frayed cloth. It was a reasonable thing to ask. He had not disturbed anything, but I could not help but feel uneasy about the message. And why had he bled himself here, of all places, when he could have just as easily returned his water to the earth in his own house?
“Not yet,” I replied.
Honovi’s mother and sister broke into loud weeping at this. My own family looked at me with questioning eyes, but I did not care. This man had defiled my home and I wanted to know why.
I had requested that one of the cacique’s assistants come to investigate the scene. I did not expect for the cacique himself to appear in my doorway, alone, with none of his usual sycophants. I would have thought Cacique Koa’ki had more important matters to attend to, but I suppose Honovi’s message caught his attention as vividly as it did mine.
“I wish to speak to you alone, Kala,” he said, using my childhood name. Anyone else, even my family, would have gotten a tongue lashing for speaking to me in such a manner. But he was the Cacique, so I ignored the disrespect.
“Of course, Cacique. If you wish, we may speak in the kiva.”
He gave me a slight nod and we descended the ladder into the prayer chamber. The paintings of the kachina spirits eyed us as we entered. At the bottom, Koa’ki touched one knee to the ground and brushed his fingers against Honovi’s arm. I peered over his shoulder. Even though the dried blood blurred the edges of the symbols, Honovi had carved into his flesh deep enough to retain the meaning.
“It is as you said.” Koa’ki placed his hand over Honovi’s face and lowered his eyelids.
“Did you think I had lied?”
Koa’ki stood, brushing the dirt from his robes. “No. Of course not. I apologize. You should not have been involved in this. The gods have used Honovi to send me a message.”
“To send you a message? Then why did Honovi choose my kiva, Cacique?”
“Impossible to say.” Koa’ki stepped past me to the ladder, placing a hand on one of rungs. “I suggest you put it out of your mind. We have more important worries.”
“More important? What is more important than a dead man in my home?”
Koa’ki turned his head halfway around, presenting me with the side of his face. “Kala, you should pack your things. Prepare your family to travel.”
“Travel? Travel where?”
The cacique ascended the ladder back the to surface, leaving me without an answer, but only for a short time. Later in the day, when Tawa watched us from straight above, Koa’ki addressed the village. We gathered in front of the festival altar, which hadn’t seen use in months; there was little to celebrate. I brought my entire family: my older sister, Hwara, her husband, two young children, and one infant, cradled against her breast; my younger sister, Terala, not yet old enough to be wed; and my widowed mother, whose frail utterances of “what’s happening?” I answered only with “wait and see.”
Koa’ki climbed up the steps and onto the stone plateau, followed by a few solemn assistants in ornate robes. Most of them were old men, accompanied by a few women, just as old. When I was younger, I had asked the cacique—Koa’ki’s predecessor—for permission to study with him. I was denied, not because I was a woman, or even because of my age, but because I had not rejected the old gods as they did.
“My people,” said Koa’ki, spreading his arms out in front of him. “For many years, we have suffered through famine and disease. War and drought. We have looked to the spirits for an omen, a sign for us to follow. This morning, we were given one.”
A murmur rose up from the crowd. I saw Hwara’s husband, a short, timid man, whisper something in her ear, which she then relayed to me. “Is this about Honovi?”
I hadn’t told any of them about Koa’ki’s warning in the kiva; what good would it do? I shook my head and pursed my lips. “I don’t know.”
Koa’ki’s booming voice drowned out mine. “Our friend Honovi took his own life to send us a message. The spirits no longer want us here. We were once blessed, but no longer. We must seek out a new home.”
I expected my people to cry out in anguish. I expected them to fight back—violently, perhaps. I was too optimistic. I saw relief wash over the faces of those nearby, disgusting smiles spreading across their faces. My own family, who I hoped would feel betrayed as I did, joined the rest in excited chattering.
Terala tugged on my dress and sidled up behind me. “Where are we going?”
I could not answer her. My throat tightened, and I began to worry that my anger would suffocate me. I worked hard—sewing garments all day, firing pots instead of sleeping at night—to afford a home in the High Palace for my family. It had taken even longer to obtain our own kiva, so that I could pray to the old gods without any disapproving glares. The cacique wanted to take it all from us. I forced myself to breathe.
The people quieted, and Koa’ka continued. “We have no reason to stay here any longer. We have heard of the bounty in the south. Our ancestors have showed us our path. We leave with the dawn, tomorrow.”
I spat on the ground. How dare he invoke our ancestors, the ones who built our homes and blessed us with rain and harvest? It was only when we turned from them that they revoked their gifts.
“We must get started,” my mother said, limping back toward our home. “Only a single day… not much time…”
“Mother, stop.” I placed my hand on her shoulder. “We’re not going. We can’t. You won’t make the journey, you’ll die.”
My mother’s lips parted, revealing the few stubs of remaining teeth left in her mouth. “If we don’t leave, I’ll die just as surely. There’s no food left and Lowlanders will only leave us be for so long.” She patted my cheek, the same as when I was a child. “You must trust the kachina. If it is meant to be, they will protect me. If it is my time, they will take me into the sky with your father.”
I glanced at my sisters, who nodded in agreement. Hwara’s girl-child clutched her spirit doll to her chest and turned her eyes away. I often voiced my disapproval of the kachina figures and the children had learned not to flaunt them in front of me. It wasn’t as though I disbelieved in the spirits, but to me, the dolls represented a desertion of the old gods. Wasn’t there room for both? But now was not the time to reopen those wounds, so I gave the girl a smile, knelt down and kissed the top of her head.
“Hwara,” I said, standing. “Take them to our home. Begin gathering our things. I shall be along shortly.”
Hwara shifted the infant from her right side to her left and clucked her tongue at me. “What are you planning?”
“I just want to speak with the cacique. Perhaps I can change his mind, or at least get more time.”
Hwara snapped her fingers at the two older children and pointed them toward our home. Her husband, Terala, and Mother followed after them.
“Have you considered,” said Hwara, “that none of us want you to change his mind?”
I did not answer her, so she turned from me and walked away.
Koa’ka was still conversing with some of our people. I hoped that a few of them possessed the same concerns as me, but instead, they seemed only to be praising the cacique’s holiness and begging for blessings to keep their families safe. I waited for my turn, as I did not desire to speak to Koa’ka amidst all the adoration. I approached him when he was at last alone. He pretended not to see me, so I spoke first.
“Cacique Koa’ka. May I speak with you?”
He took a deep breath. “We have already spoken, Kala.”
I had bitten my tongue long enough. “My name is Mansi’kala, Cacique.” It was a name I’d earned in my consecration, and with all the things he wished to take from me, I would not allow him to have this one.
“Of course,” he replied. “I apologize. I prefer Kala. It is an elegant name.”
“But it is not mine.”
Koa’ka snorted and waved his hand at the ground. “What did you want to say to me?”
“You should reconsider your plan. We cannot leave our home.”
Koa’ka reached out to touch my arm, so I took a step back. He frowned and rubbed his chapped lips. “Our home is where the spirits watch over us, and they no longer watch over us here. Our people have seen it. Your family has seen it. Your cacique has seen it, Mansi’kala. It is time to move on. The spirits demand it.”
“You say the spirits wish this of us, but you refuse to speak to all of them!”
Koa’ka’s nostrils flared. “I will never understand why you insist on clinging to the old gods. You are like a wild horse; stubborn, unwilling to accept change when it is demanded of you. This is why you haven’t found a husband, I think.”
I felt the tips of my nails cutting into the palm of my hand. Were this anyone but the cacique, I would have struck him down with a single fist. “I have not found a husband because I do not want a husband. I have a family, Koa’ka. I work hard for them, and for my people.” I thrust my hand forward and Koa’ka flinched, but instead of striking him, I flicked one of the leather strips hanging from his ceremonial headband.
“I made this, Cacique, because your wife cannot tan skins or sew. I taught your nephew to use a bow after the rest of your family decided he was no good.” Koa’ka began to protest, but I raised my voice and continued. “I have plenty of work to do and people to support without a husband.”
The face on Koa’ka’s skin tightened and a bulging vein appeared above his left eye. “Do what you want, woman! For all the responsibility you think you have, I have more! It is my duty to ensure our people’s survival! If you believe the old gods have a better way, then go to your kiva and speak to them!”
He was goading me. He knew his words would infuriate me.
“The old gods do not visit the High Palace anymore!” I said.
“Precisely,” said Koa’ka. “They do not speak to us any longer.”
“If you would only send a few men to the Low Temple…”
“Out of the question!” Koa’ka raised a finger to my eyes. “The Lowlanders hunt at the Temple now. I will not send what few able men we have left to die on a quest to tell us what we already know. We are not wanted here.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “If you will not send them, I will go alone.” The Lowlanders did not frighten me. If I was right, the old gods would protect me. If I was not, then I was already lost.
“You wish to abandon your family and your people for this?” Koa’ka mumbled a curse to himself. “If you are so selfish, perhaps you are not as deserving of your name as you think. Perhaps you are a child after all.”
I watched Koa’ka leave. I was filled with such blinding rage that I could do nothing except stand in the courtyard and feel Tawa’s rays burning my skin. Tawa. The god of light. The god that my people no longer believed in. I watched the sky for hours, hoping for some sort of sign. But Tawa simply fell toward the horizon, as he did every day, lighting the heavens on fire. Dusk drew near, and I had no answer. If there was to be any chance of saving my home, it would be in the Lowlands.
The High Palace was unusually quiet tonight. Normally the children would be taking advantage of the last of the daylight, but a malaise seemed to have possessed the village. My people should have been making the most of their last night here but, instead, they were cowering in their houses. If this is what had become of us, perhaps we no longer deserved our home.
Inside my own house, my family had arranged our possessions in a pile. Put together, they looked so small and meaningless. A few sets of clothing, some utensils, some kachinas, a pair of bows and accompanying arrows. Water. A few sacks of vegetables, nuts and grains. This is what my life was worth.
I thanked my sisters for their help, and Hwara’s husband as well, though he only grimaced in response. He had never liked living with me, though he never voiced displeasure with eating my food or sleeping under my shelter.
“Mother’s already gone to bed,” said Hwara. “And the children as well.”
“Good,” I replied. “You should sleep too. If Koa’ka wants you to leave at dawn, you should be well rested.”
Hwara glanced at her husband, who nodded. It was a common gesture between the two. It meant that Hwara wanted to speak with me alone.
“What about you?” she asked. “You’re coming with us.”
“I don’t know. I will try to come back, but I don’t know.”
“Come back? Come back from where?” Hwara straightened her back. She liked to flaunt her height when she was angry with me.
“I am going to the Low Temple.”
Hwara’s eyes widened. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“I must speak with the old gods before I leave. I cannot walk away from our home without knowing the truth.”
“The truth?” Hwara stood on her toes, towering over me. “The truth is that we don’t have enough food to feed our people. What other truth matters?”
I needed to find for myself the meaning of the words Honovi carved into his skin, but I could not tell Hwara that. She accepted things too easily. If the cacique said the sky was brown, then it was brown.
“I don’t know. But I have to go.” I started to gather what I would need for the night. Nuts to quiet my stomach, a waterskin to quench my thirst, and one of the two bows to fend off any of the Lowlanders I might find.
“No,” said Hwara. Her eyes started to water. “I forbid this. Mother forbids it.”
“You cannot forbid me to do anything,” I said, strapping a bag of arrows over my shoulder.
“I am your elder!”
“In age only, sister.” I tied the food and water to my belt, then looked into Hwara’s face. Tear streaks cut into the dirt caked onto her skin. “I am sorry, Hwara. But I must do this.”
Hwara moved quickly toward me and I raised my arms for fear that she would strike me. Instead, my sister wrapped her arms around me and squeezed me into her chest. “Please, Kala. Please don’t leave us. What would we do without you?”
I stood paralyzed by Hwara’s sudden affection. She sobbed into my shoulder, pleading for me not to leave. At last, I circled an arm around my sister and kissed the side of her face.
“If I don’t come back, you will do what you’ve always done. You’ll be a better daughter to Mother than I ever was. You’ll be a better wife and mother than I could ever be.” Though I’d always considered myself more capable than my older sister, I still looked up to her, in a certain way. I had never told her.
“Momma,” came a voice from the room behind us. Hwara released me and turned. Behind her, I could see her girl-child, Ankti.
“Child, you should be asleep,” Hwara said, turning from me to kneel in front of the girl. “What’s wrong?”
“Is Aunt Kala leaving?” The child looked at me with puffy red eyes.
“Just for the night,” I told her. “I will be back in the morning.”
She sniffled and walked past her mother to hug my leg. “Do you promise?”
“I promise, little one.”
Ankti placed a finger in her mouth, and with her other hand, she held her kachina doll up to my face. This one had black skin, elaborate clothing, and a small cloth facsimile of a bow attached to its hand. “Will you take Cha’kwaina?” Ankti asked me. “He’ll protect you.”
Cha’kwaina was a spirit of exploration, not a protector at all. I felt no kinship to the doll; the grinning face and careless posture reminded me, more than anything, of our cacique. But I felt kinship to my niece, and so I took the doll and tied it to my dress. “Thank you, Ankti. I’m sure he’ll keep me safe.”
Hwara took her child back to the sleeping den then returned. Her melancholy gave way to a dull, emotionless expression. “When will you leave?”
“Now,” I said, checking the knots on my belt one last time.
“Be safe, sister.”
“And you.” I stepped close to her, forcing her to look into my eyes. “If I do not return in the morning, you must leave without me. Do you understand? You cannot wait for me. You must go with our people.”
“But you’re coming back,” she said simply.
“Yes. But if I don’t, you must promise.”
“If you insist,” said Hwara, crossing her arms. “I promise.”
“Thank you.” I took my sister’s hand in mine, squeezed it, and walked out into the night.
My eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness, and I was thankful to be blessed with a cool breeze. Most of the paths in the Lowlands had been erased years ago, but the faint few that remained were enough to guide my way. I encountered little in the way of wildlife, which was to be expected. It was hard enough to find game even when looking. At one point, I heard a rustling in the grass. Afraid that the Lowlanders had spotted me, I stuck my back to one of the large, wilted spruce trees and peered from over my shoulder. After a few terse minutes, I spotted the culprit: a famished weasel, no doubt hunting for his dinner. I tried to offer him a few of my nuts, but he dashed off as soon as he saw me. Poor creature. The gods had been as cruel to the animals as they had to us.
I continued on, treading for hours through the water-starved grasslands until I reached the village of our ancestors. My grandfather’s generation had left it behind when the Lowlanders began their war and worn bricks that had once been buildings were all the remained. The Lowlanders hadn’t taken it for their own, or if they did, it had been a brief occupation, as there was no reason to stay after the creeks dried up and the herds moved on.
The village itself sat in the shadow on a large hill. This, I knew, was my destination. I had only been here a few times, as a girl. My father brought me and my sisters here to show us the place where our ancestors worshipped. It was my father who told me never to forget the old gods.
The entrance to the Low Temple, a cave in the side of the hill, had been sealed with several large boulders to stop the Lowlanders from getting inside the sanctified chamber. As my father told it, the plan didn’t work; the Lowlanders simply moved the boulders to their current resting place beside the entrance and looted the few offerings my people left behind.
As I stepped over one of the large rocks, I again heard movement among the nearby grass. At first, I assumed it was the weasel, back to take me up on my offer, but then I heard the voices barking into the wind.
As quickly and silently as possible, I ducked into the Temple. I held my breath but kept my eyes open. The voices grew louder and soon I saw a faint light creep into the cave. A moment longer and I saw them—five Lowlanders with torches and spears, a hunting party by the look of it. I could not say why they would be out at this time, other than to guess that they were as starved as we were. They didn’t notice me and they didn’t pay any attention to the Temple. They passed by and soon the light of their torches faded into the distance. I exhaled and rolled onto my back, letting my nerves calm before progressing any further.
The Temple, if it could still be called that, was dusty and overgrown. Near the back, I could make out the faint outline of a small, cylindrical stone pedestal. I put my hands to its surface and found several large cracks running throughout. Any more force and I would have broken it entirely. From one of the pouches on my dress, I took a handful of seeds and placed them on the top of the altar. Then, using the tip of my finger to sort them, I picked the largest of them and placed it between my teeth. I sat, closed my eyes, and waited.
I focused on the image of Honovi. I focused on the message in his arm. I focused on the memory of my father, which had grown fainter and fainter as the years went by. My body tensed and my muscles relaxed as the breath of the gods filled my veins.
I saw Honovi. He sat, legs crossed, in front of me, a serene smile on his face. I reached out to touch his arm. The message was gone, and his skin was as smooth as mine.
“Why?” I asked. “What did you see that frightened you?”
Honovi’s smiled widened, but he did not answer me.
“Show me,” I said, to the spirits as much as to Honovi. “Help me see the way.”
And suddenly, the wind left my lungs. I coughed, grasped my throat, and fell to my knees. My vision blurred. I reached out toward Honovi, but he made no movement to help me. My eyelids fell and the world went black.
In the darkness, I felt a powerful hatred fill me. I heard otherworldly voices in my head, though I could not make out their words. These were not the kachina spirits that visited us in the High Palace. These were the old gods: frightful, commanding.
“Show me the way,” I repeated, gasping to try to regain my breath. “Help us.”
There is no path.
I panted and flailed in the darkness.
There is no way.
I held my arms against myself and shivered. A chilled despair overwhelmed me.
You are not our favored children.
My blood ran cold. This is what Honovi had seen. The old gods had visited the High Palace, but they had not brought a message of peace. I was filled with such devastating anguish at that moment that I wanted nothing more than to lay on my back and die. It felt as though all that was good had left the world.
The voice only laughed at me. It taunted me with images of the High Palace in ruins. I saw bodies, hundreds of them, and many more sick and dying. I saw our lands, dried out and desolate.
You are not our favored children.
I cried out for the voice to stop. As my screams grew louder, the visions faded. The voice dissipated, repeating its warning again and again. The old gods had abandoned us, just as we had abandoned them.
When I opened my eyes, the Low Temple had returned just as I had left it. I found myself on the ground, shivering like a frightened animal. I lay there for a long while, reflecting on the message the old gods had sent me. I understood now why Honovi acted as he did. There was no right path for me to take. Nothing I could do to help my people.
As I rolled onto my side, I felt Cha’kwaina, my niece’s kachina, roll with me. It landed on the ground next to me, still attached to my dress. I picked it up and stared into the slits that acted as eyes.
“And what about you?” I asked the doll. “What do you have to offer? Do you hate us as well?”
The kachina didn’t answer. He simply continued to smile, taking pleasure in my pain. I gripped him hard, tore him from my dress, and tossed him against the rock wall. He hit less forcefully than I’d imagined, landing on the ground with nothing more than a faint stirring of dust.
I turned my head from it and began to hear a strange laughter. I felt my pulse quicken, afraid that the gods had returned to torture me. But this wasn’t the same vile laughter from before. Instead, it was the high-pitched, mischievous laughter of a child.
Behind me, I saw Cha’kwaina float up from where I’d discarded him. A peculiar jade glow surrounded the doll, illuminating the cave and forcing me to shield my eyes. I had seen the kachina spirits appear before, in the kiva of the High Palace. But not like this. Never like this.
With his stubby, fingerless arms, Cha’kwaina raised his bow. At once, a green arrow of light appeared against the string. The doll pulled it back and fired it into the wall behind him. The light from the arrow splattered against the rock like spilled dye and began to spread out to all corners of the cave. The light enveloped me, and when my eyes adjusted, I was no longer in the temple. This vision did not fill me with dread, but with confusion. I saw layers of grey bricks piled up to create massive structures that stretched into the sky. I saw the ground layered with black rock. I saw great beasts of shining colored stone moving past me with daunting speed. I saw many people, but they were not like me. They had pale skin and wore strange clothes. Above me, I saw Tawa rising into a shimmering blue sky.
“What is this?” I asked Cha’kwaina.
He only tittered in response. This vision seemed no more useful than the one the old gods had sent me.
I pointed to the pale people walking beside us. “Are these your chosen people? Are these the ones you discarded us for?”
Cha’kwaina raised a single stubbed arm and pointed behind me. I turned, following the doll’s gesture, and saw a pair of figures behind me.
My heart pounded. Though they were dressed in the same strange clothes as the pale men, I would have recognized them anywhere: Hwara and Ankti.
No, not quite. The faces were different—a lowered eyebrow, a wider lip—but I still knew them. They were family. They were my people. My legacy.
“Is this real?” I asked the kachina. “The old gods showed me a different path. Which is true?”
And the answer came to me. Both. My blood flowed in my sisters. They would survive, even without the favor of the old gods. If they no longer needed us, then we no longer needed them.
“Thank you,” I said, tears falling from my eyes. “Thank you for showing me.”
Somewhere behind me, I heard more voices crying out. I did not let them distract me. I kept my eyes on the child, watching as she stepped past me and walked, hand-in-hand with her mother, into one of the large buildings. I wanted to follow her, but I found that my feet would not move me forward. The voices grew louder. One last laugh from the kachina and it fell to the ground, extinguishing the vision around us.
I was back in the Temple now. The Lowlander hunters stood in the mouth of the cave, balancing their spears deftly in their hands. The front one shouted a curse at me. I had nothing to say in reply.
In my head, I saw the spear flying through the air even before it left his hand. I slithered backward and the spearhead missed my thigh by only a hair. I pulled an arrow from the quiver on my back, nocked it into my bow, and fired. I was not the best archer, especially at night, but from this distance I did not need to be. The arrow pierced his neck and he fell to the ground.
I did not have time to savor the kill. Before I could reach for another arrow, two of the other hunters flung their weapons toward me. One missed, clanging uselessly against the wall. The other sailed into my shoulder.
I screamed. A haze fell over my vision, and the pain in my arm prevented it from reaching for my quiver. With my other hand, I retrieved an arrow and fired it. This one entered the leg of one of the hunters, but it seemed like a shallow wound. One of the remaining men stepped forward, appraised me for a moment, and threw his spear. To my surprise, I hardly felt it impale my chest.
As I slumped against the Temple’s altar, I felt a jostling on my legs. Cha’kwaina had appeared in my lap. I picked him up and squeezed his soft wool skin against my face. The warmth left my body, and I took comfort in his.