She is old. Time weighs on her like the sagging skin on her bones, age painting her hair like the desert in a fitful snowfall, ache surrounding her like the buzzing of bees in their hives. She raises her head to sip from the water her son provides – her son, Kiva, his skin the color of sandstone buttes, his eyes dark and clear. He holds her head, tilting it toward the mug as if he were guiding a newborn deer to its mother’s teat, and waits while she purses her lips, her throat bobbing like a kingfisher seeking prey. When she is done, he lowers her gently, and she takes his hand.
She knows he will come soon, Masauwu, the Skeleton Man, the Keeper. She wonders if he remembers her slight, and in her heart knows it to be true, and her hands tremble just a little more, her skin grows a shade paler, and she swallows. Despite the water, it is needles in her throat, and she chuckles, because she knows that when Masauwu comes, it will matter either not at all, or forever.
“What is so funny, mother?” Kiva asks, a scowl darkening his face.
She sighs internally, knowing he would rather be with the other warriors, playing games, or tracking an antelope, and not here, in this room smelling of a sick old woman. And yet she holds to him, her grip tightening on his, her lips turning up in a smile. Because despite those things, he is still here. When she speaks, her voice is raspy, the consonants and syllables thrashing like a rattlesnake in coals.
“Have I told you about your father?”
Kiva looks at her and shakes his head. What could she tell him about Hawaovi? The tribe’s secrets were an open book, their lives laid bare. His father had died ten years ago, and it still stings his heart, a barb of sorrow he covers with bravado and stupidity. But then, Soyala thinks, everyone is stupid in their own way. It is a common vein that runs through all of humanity, and a trait even the gods share. She also knew that if you are clever, you can exploit it, a miner laying bare ore to get at the gold beneath. And the truth about Hawaovi wasn’t an easy one – he had died twice now, and though it laid her heart raw and bare, she could not bring him back a second time. Once had been enough for a lifetime – once had been all any mortal should have to endure, and it was enough to know that when he went the second time, it was with a good life.
Soyala looks to the window, past the mask of a coyote on the wall, and sees the sun, not yet dipping at the horizon, but beginning its descent, a bird gliding to the shade of a butte, hoping for relief. Shadows have grown longer, and she sees Kiva’s enlarged, a man in his prime. She smiles again and clears her throat. She coughs, and pink spittle flecks her lips, which Kiva wipes dutifully. His frown deepens for a moment, and she smiles, pats his cheek.
“So serious. So serious.”
He attempts a smile, but it’s slippery, an uncaught thing that hides in the shadow eclipsing his face.
“You were going to tell me a story?”
She knows what he’s doing, but she’s glad for it nonetheless. She settles back on the pillow and stares at the ceiling, the bare beams and adobe forming pattern and memory. She clears the coppery taste from her throat and begins.
“When you were young, your father died.”
Kiva gives her a confused look. “He has only been dead ten years, mother.”
She shakes her head, brittle yarn hair making a whispering sound on the pillow. “Yes. And he died once, before.”
Kiva raises one eyebrow, convinced the end is nearer than they’d believed. She doesn’t blame him. It has been decades since it happened, and the last tellers of the story have moved on to the other world. That too, was a thing that happened. The world moved on even when you weren’t ready for it, time burbling on like water from a swift stream. You could cast your rock into the water, and for a time, your story would move it, send ripples out. But time and tide wore all things down eventually, and your rock too would end as little more than another smooth stone on an endless riverbed.
She clears her throat again, the needles back. She needs to be swift before they take her voice.
“When your father died, we were young. Believe it or not, I was once strong. Tall and willowy, my hair the color of night. My voice did not waver, and my hands did not shake.”
“I believe you.” His smile is gentle, maybe a bit patronizing, she thinks. A curse of the young, to listen, but never believe. “How did he die?”
She shrugs. It seemed so important once. As with most things, time erodes the big features and twists memory into surreal shapes. To be true, she could no longer remember. “This thing or another. Perhaps he fell into an arroyo. Perhaps he angered Coyote. The important thing is that he was dead, and I was alone.”
It wasn’t such a bad thing, being alone. She had never thought a woman needed a man to be complete, or that a woman without a man was a failure, as some elders did. It was the act of sharing she missed. The camaraderie of holding another’s hand, or laughing at a private joke. She reflects that she could have done all those things as easily as with a woman, and a few she had, but her heart remained with Hawaovi.
“Then how did he come back? Surely Raven didn’t carry his soul back to you at your asking?”
She shakes her head again, again the whispering from the pillow. “I went for him. I went to the Skeleton Man to bring him back, and I succeeded.”
“Just like that?”
Memories of a temple to the dead, an ossuary of bones. The Skeleton Man atop a seat of living flesh, his face behind a bone mask. He leaned forward, viewing Soyala in her nakedness. She smiled, and Hawaovi squirmed free from the throne, tiptoeing to the side as Soyala embraced the Skeleton Man, her lips on his mask, his breath like that of the cougar, rich and thick with blood and meat. She shuddered to think of what she had done with Hawaovi’s captor, but only a little. It was a small thing, giving herself to him in the dark of that place in exchange for her love. A small thing the world made too big, if you asked her. After, while he slept, she took his mask and found the sunlight. They lived happy for a long while, and yes, looking back, a small thing.
She smiles again. “No, not just like that. But I think time is growing short for the story.”
Soyala squeezes his hand and looks to the window. The sun is sinking faster now, time slipping away like desert sand. The rocks outside glow orange and red, the sky pink. She thinks it beautiful. She thinks it melancholy, the earth giving her one last sight before she slips from it. Her vision dims for a moment, and a chill creeps into the room. Gooseflesh raises on her arms, and Kiva tugs the blanket closer to her chin. She opens her eyes, and a shadow in the corner drifts across a wall, long and lean, smelling of blood and earth. Soyala turns rheumy eyes to her son.
“Leave me for a moment, please.”
Kiva’s face contorts, but he brings it under control quickly. He nods, and steps out, the blanket over the door dropping behind him. She can hear him singing quietly to himself, and she smiles. It is a lullaby she sang when he was still tiny in his bed. Memory snakes across her vision again, and she sees Hawaovi’s face beside the fire, a smile licking at his lips like a flame as she sings.
Her sight clears, and the shadow detaches itself from the wall, taking shape. It is a man, handsome, his nose straight, his lips full. His hair is the color of snow, though he is neither young nor old. He smiles, and her heart quails. The man moves across the room on silent feet and takes the seat beside her, his cold hand grasping her still-warm one. Outside, Kiva continues to hum.
The Skeleton Man leans in, his breath still warm, still bloody and thick, and whispers in her ear.
“I have missed you, Soyala.” He looks around the room, his eyes lighting on the coyote mask. His lips turn up. “I see you still have it. You haven’t forgotten me after all.”
Despite herself, she returns his smile. Her lips feel dry and cracked, and she thinks of asking him for water, but knows it will matter little soon. She turns to the window, where Kiva’s head pokes above the windowsill, a stray hair floating in the wind.
“How could I?”
“Will he miss you much?”
She sighs. “Not as much perhaps, as I will miss him.” She swallows, and for once, the needles aren’t tearing her throat. “Will it hurt? Will you forgive me? Will Hawaovi be there?”
“No, Soyala. And yes. And yes.” It’s his turn to pause a moment. “You could stay with me. When it is Kiva’s time, we could be a family.”
She thinks about this. “Can I give you my answer when we get there?”
He takes her in his arms, her body light as a feather, as life has weight, and she has little of it left in her. He moves to the window and pulls the mask down, setting it on her chest, and her fingers close over it, her lips turning up. Then, he moves again, swift as the wind, to a corner where shadow has pooled. He steps in, and they are gone.