UReCA: The NCHC Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity 2020 Edition
The Spirit Man
Ahoté sat on a hill of tall grass and overlooked the edge of the desert. Wind rustled from his village behind him over the plains, rippling them like dunes. It funneled into the rusty canyons below. He fumbled his cotton tunic over his shoulders. Every slight twist dug his ribs deeper into the bruises in his side. He clenched his teeth, venting rapid breaths in and out, and inched the fabric over his body. The bruises were darker today. They wilted even more of his flesh. It wouldn’t be much longer now until the bruises reached his heart. His stomach felt like a rock in his gut. He had to find the Spiritman before then.
His grandfather stood over him, stone-still under fluttering robes like a totem. They hadn’t said anything since they’d climbed to the edge of the desert that morning.
“Alright, rat boy,” the old man said, cracking open the silence like an ostrich egg. Ahoté’s worry eased at the sound of his grandfather’s voice. It was sharp, and his nicknames were mean, but a subtle love sept out with everything he said. Ahoté hid a weak smile from his grandfather’s feigned scorn, but the old man squinted down at Ahoté and scoffed. He tossed Ahoté’s deerskin bag onto his lap. “I’m done waiting.”
Ahoté looked up at him and rolled his eyes. Loose skin jiggled under the old man’s neck. His long braid, which must have been black years ago, shriveled like a rat’s tail with streaks of white. It looked just like his grandmother’s white braid did, long ago.
“It’s not like you do anything else,” Ahoté said. “Old man.”
The old man coughed and nudged Ahoté’s knee with his Elder spear. The old staff never left his hands. “The Spiritman will grow tired of waiting if you don’t get on with it. He hates waiting. It’s been months since his last appointment. Listen: even the winds of time stir impatiently. Get up.”
Ahoté nodded and fastened a leather slipper over his foot. He’d dreaded this day for weeks. Every fourth turn of the moons, the Spiritman opened his cave to the sick of the village. He molded their flesh back into its rightful form as if it were clay. The many that he couldn’t save, though, he led to the spirit world high beyond the stars. There were always too many. That’s how Ahoté had felt since the day his grandmother had stood on this hill many years ago, after her coughs had started spilling blood onto her fists. He’d clung between her bony fingers and his grandfather’s robes when his grandfather had said it was time for her to go. He looked out now to the desert that stretched, for miles and miles, until it crinkled under the sky. Red rock under blue. Even after all those nights since she left, he could still see her shuffling down into the canyons with her bloody hand against the cliffs, her white braid swaying at her back.
“Will I see her again?” he asked now.
His grandfather’s eyes stared into him like a shard of bone ripping through the earth. The hairs in his nose wavered in, held still, then wavered out with his slow, slow breath. The slightest grin crinkled across his mouth.
“Why would she want to see an ugly rat like you? She has better things to see up there.”
“She wouldn’t mind my ugliness. She looked at you all her life, after all.”
“But I am old. I have an excuse to be ugly.”
“Maybe you’re too old.”
“Perhaps.” The old man cleared his throat. His face turned stern again. “Perhaps you will see her. Perhaps not. That’s up to him to decide. But you’ll never see anything—” he kicked the boy’s knee with his hairy foot— “if you don’t get up!”
“I’m getting up, I’m getting up!” Ahoté said. “Ugly old rat-tailed man.” He shooed the foot with its mangey toenails away with his hand. “You should trim your toenails once I leave. They’re gross.”
“Make it to your appointment on time, and you can trim them when I die.”
Ahoté carefully propped himself up to his feet. Sharp pain like a shard of obsidian twisted into his side and he winced. A few moments more, and he’d be alone in the sand. His grandfather would be gone behind, with only the shape of the wind to guide them together again if, by sunrise, he found himself in the desert with new flesh and a dry mouth thirsty for the village spring.
“Grandfather,” he began, his heart beginning to pound. He’d sat on this question for weeks. “What’s he like?”
The old man slapped his gums together and peered out to the desert, his head sticking out from his cloak like a tortoise. His beady eyes turned back to his grandson. “I can’t say, my rat boy. I’ve never seen him.” He ran his finger over the shard of black rock embedded in the end of his spear. It glimmered like the night sky it fell from thousands of years ago. “But I know he doesn’t like this rock. And I can’t let it out of my sight. No Elder has seen him for a thousand years because of this rock.”
Ahoté’s skin started to simmer. His throat ached. “I don’t want to go,” he said. “Please come with me.”
The old man grunted. “No more hesitation from you, rat boy. Always so quick to act except for when it matters most! You must go alone. Do you remember the way?”
“Then it’s time. Hurry, now—don’t think, just run. Perhaps I will see you again soon.”
Ahoté slipped his deerskin bag over his shoulder.
“Perhaps,” he said. He squeezed his grandfather’s arm.
The old man bore his brown eyes deep into Ahoté’s gaze, and in that moment he felt the memory of every seldom grin, hug, touch, or kindness the old man had ever shared with him ignite in his chest like a fire. He was his only family. He would return to him soon. His side burst into fiery pain from the movement, but he squeezed harder and took a deep breath. Find the Spiritman or die along the way. It was simple. Letting go of his grandfather, he looked into the desert, and ran.
Night draped over the desert by the time he found the cave where the Spiritman lived. The moons peered down from above like spiders’ eyes under a web of glistening dew. He stumbled up to a boulder just in time to fall against it. A layer of red dust smeared his side.
The cave mouth stretched high up the cliff face. He’d stumbled into other caves that night, and within each mouth, behind every rocky tooth, the chittering of bats echoed in the darkness. But nothing sounded in the shadows before him. No animals lived inside.
This was the cave.
He fastened his bag around his shoulders and glanced up at the stars one last time. Behind one of them, he knew his grandmother was watching. The mottled night sky looked like her skin, and the stars glimmered like the shine in her eyes. He nodded to her, pushed himself back to his feet, and walked into the cave. The light from the stars flushed away, and there was only darkness.
The smell hit him first. It was a strange and eerie odor that soaked the stagnant air like rotting flesh, like bone dust. Every footstep sent ripples of dust deep into shadows he couldn’t see behind. He felt like the solely living thing in an otherworldly esophagus. He wanted to call out, but fear gripped his throat. He turned his head. He could just barely see the mouth of the cave behind him. He could still see the light—if he turned back, he was close enough to dash to the exit. But his grandfather’s words lingered in the back of his mind.
“I’m here,” he said. His words echoed into the darkness with no reply. “I’m here,” he said again. Louder.
A cough echoed in the darkness. It started weak but grew in ferociousness until it splattered invisible phlegm onto rock.
The feeling of a thousand ants burrowed into his skin.
“You are,” a soft voice replied. It sounded feminine, pouring into the dark like old honey. “I waited a long time for you. Are you alone?”
“Oh.” The Spiritman wheezed. “Disappointing. I waited so long for visitors. I grew so weak waiting.”
“I’ve come for you to heal me,” Ahoté said. He tried to stop his voice from wavering. “Or for you to bring me to my grandmother.”
“Yes. She came here and you brought her to the spirit world six years ago. I want you to bring me to her if you can’t heal me.”
The Spiritman laughed. He sounded warm and homely in the cold. Ahoté wrapped his arms around himself and inched back. Spit gargled into the Spiritman’s throat and he hacked it onto the rock again.
“Spirit world?” he said. “I don’t bring anything to the spirit world. If I could go back, I would. But nothing goes into the spirit world.”
Ahoté felt stiff. “No,” he said, “you took her to the spirit world where everything goes when they die. You will take me there if I die. But you will heal me first.”
The Spiritman groaned, and gravel stirred somewhere in the shadows. Two loud thuds pummeled the earth.
“Come closer,” he said. “I want to see you.”
“Not until you tell me you will heal me.”
“Such a hurry, you are. What will I heal, then?”
“My flesh. It’s dying. It’s almost at my heart.”
“How far has it spread? Is the rest of your flesh healthy?”
“It’s only at my side. Everything else is fine. Please, just promise to heal my side. Then I will leave.”
The Spiritman chittered with his throat or his teeth or something that sounded like wet rocks chipping into mud. “Come closer. I need to see how far it’s spread.”
Ahoté took another step back. He fumbled for his bone knife in his bag. “Say you will heal me,” he said.
“Okay, I will heal you.”
Ahoté hesitated. Everything inside him told him to run away. But he stepped forward. The cave held its breath.
Footsteps hammered deep inside the cave as something charged in the darkness. With a shriek, Ahoté scrambled out to the cave mouth, scraping at the rock until moonlight washed out the shadows and he could stand under his grandmother’s light. He whipped around with his dagger trembling in his hand.
The Spiritman spilled out of the shadows and leaned against the edge of the cave. It was gaunt with grey and mottled flesh and towered over his head at the height of a mammoth. A stitched quilt of skin and fur stretched tightly over its bones. Wet sores and holes like caverns dug into its own flesh and glimmered under the starlight. One leg stood on a hoof, and the other on a foot, each strung to its leg stump with the same leather string that sewed together Ahoté’s bag.
He looked up at its head and his breath slipped out from his mouth. He crumpled to his knees. A deer skull teetered unevenly at the end of a spinal neck stalk, dangling a white braid between its antlers. The braid swung in the wind.
Ahoté couldn’t speak.
The Spiritman laughed again. Hints of a mouth moved under its deer skull. “I love it when you do this,” it said. “Every time. You all never fail.”
“What are you,” Ahoté stammered, barely able to whisper.
“You call me the Spiritman.”
“No, what are you?”
“I’m your protector.”
Ahoté’s breath ached inside his chest. “Where did you get that braid? It isn’t yours.”
“One of you gave it to me.” It spread open its arms. A putrid smell wilted the desert air, like the sweet stink of an unfolding desert flower. “They all did. I can’t protect for nothing.”
“What do you mean protect?”
The Spiritman pointed up to the stars. “I protect us from them.”
“No,” Ahoté shook his head. He looked up at the star his grandmother surely lived behind. “The ancestors would never hurt us. They watch over us.”
“Your ancestors don’t watch anything. They’re nowhere. When they came to me, they died and all that’s left is the flesh and bones and blood and the holy skin they brought for me to use, to worship, to live in. But up there, they do watch over. They watch over everything.”
Ahoté’s head shook. Hunger, or maybe dread, kneaded his stomach walls. “What are they?”
“They hate me. They want me to die and they want to destroy my prison. They want you to die, too. They want everything here to die and burn under their fire, and everything will die, they will make sure of it. They hate this dying rock and the shit you call life, flesh, blood, and I’m the only thing holding them back—I, the cave keeping still the dust within, and they, the tornado without. You need me to live. I’ve grown so weak waiting. Help me.”
Ahoté’s knife shook in his hands.
“Your flesh is young, pure, rich, strong. It could last me a year! An entire year of life. Come closer to me. I can heal it if you help me. If you give it to me.”
Ahoté stepped backwards. He felt his blood rushing hot into his legs.
“Give it to me!” it shrieked. Ahoté launched himself out into the canyon. His hands slid across stones and his skin was now red as blood with dust. His eyes stung and his lungs burned. It wasn’t true. It was a liar. He cried out to his grandmother as he sprinted through the desert, but the air was as still and silent as the deepest reaches of an ancient cellar. Behind him, the Spiritman filled the vacuum with the stolen screams of an old woman.
Ahoté’s throat burned. For a night that lasted both an eternity and a single breath, his legs had carried him through canyons and over flats out of the desert. The world rushed around him like a muddy torrent that splashed at the pace of his heart. Grandfather, the people’s Elder, would know what to do. He held wisdom a thousand lifetimes old behind his eyes, and a star stone even older in his hand. Ahoté reached a steep hill and climbed it stone by stone. No carving on the earth existed outside of the Elder’s knowledge, and no twinkle of the stars escaped his eyes. Ahoté’s feet felt like stumps, and sand dug under his fingernails as he climbed over the hill crest that overlooked the edge of the desert. Hurry. He panted. Don’t think, only run. The creature howled out in the crags.
He pushed himself up to his knees, then to his feet, and spotted the fires of his village dancing under the stars in the distance. The village wall covered everything other than the leather tips of the huts and the fires between them. Grandfather would meet the demon from the desert, and he would save his grandson.
Ahoté stumbled down the hill to the gate shouting cries for help. Two women standing at the watchtowers scrambled to twist their turning gears and the gate creaked open. Grandfather stood at the other side, before the village bonfire, with wide eyes and a slack mouth.
Ahoté ran and collapsed into his arms, the scents of the Elder’s salty, dirty fabric and of charring mammoth meat overwhelming him. He groped at Grandfather’s robes and sobbed. The creature screeched out in the night and the gatekeepers, shouting and scrambling, cranked the gate shut.
“What are you doing?” Grandfather stammered.
Ahoté buried his face in his velvety robes. The warmth from the fire burned at his skin. “It’s evil,” he cried, “it’s evil and it’s coming to kill me. It’s evil.”
The creature slammed into the gate. Villagers screamed and ran to their huts. Grandfather squirmed loose from his grip, letting him fall onto the earth. Ahoté blinked up at the old man through his tears in surprise.
“No,” the old man said, his voice taut. He stepped back and muttered with wide eyes at the boy. “Oh no. What were you thinking? Why did you lead it here?”
“So you can kill it!” Ahoté cried. “Please, hurry! It’s almost here!” He reached for his grandfather’s spear, but the old man jerked it away.
“We can’t kill it, boy! It protects us! It’s our protector!”
Ahoté breathed heavily. He stood to his feet, wiping his eyes. The old man stood before him in his purple robes. His face was wrinkled like the creature’s ragged flesh.
“No!” Ahoté said. “Grandfather, please! Don’t you know what it does to us? What it did to Grandmother? To your wife?”
The old man didn’t waver. “I don’t want to know. Whatever it does, it works. For a thousand years, the Winds have blown their course and it has worked. I cannot stop the Wind for her, nor for you—” his voice cracked— “my dear boy.”
Ahoté spat on the ground. Anger welled up in his chest. His face twisted with it. “You don’t understand,” Ahoté said. “We don’t have any time! Please listen to me.”
“I’ve listened to every story that’s been told since the world was ruined,” Grandfather said. “It’s you that doesn’t know. You don’t know about the real spirits, about the legends our fathers passed down for a thousand years, about the world they lived in before the Spiritman fell from the sky and saved us. Horrors plagued the world. Women birthed monsters, men turned inside out before their own families, entire tribes were razed into piles of steaming flesh and blood rained from heaven for so long and hard it stained the sands red and made the rock metal.”
The gate buckled again. The creature screamed.
“He stopped it,” Grandfather continued. “He stopped them! And he holds up the pillars that stop the sky from overturning. He loves us and our mortality, he tends to us, his garden, and so long as he lives so do we. He must live above all else.”
“Give me the spear,” Ahoté said.
“No,” his grandfather said. “You’re dying, Ahoté. You have been since I lay you down on the night you were born. Don’t be greedy. Give back what isn’t yours, what it needs before it dies and damns us all. Please.”
Ahoté threw his deerskin bag to the ground. He stepped towards his grandfather. The old man pointed the spear into his chest. The stone snagged at his tunic. They stared at each other, the steam of their breaths pumping out into the cold and mixing with the smoke from the bonfire that raged behind them.
“No,” Ahoté said. “I don’t believe you.”
He grabbed the spear and jerked it to his side. It tore his tunic free from his chest. The old man stumbled forward but stomped his foot to the ground and twisted the spear under his elbow. Ahoté twisted with it. His side erupted into agony, streaking his vision with white lines. He screamed just as the creature screamed behind the gate.
His grandfather pulled the spear and it slipped out of Ahoté’s fingers. The old man whacked him on the side of the head. He fell to his knees.
The old man panted. He raised the spear over his head, aiming its meteoric tip down at the boy. The shadow of his braid hung around his shoulders.
“I love you!” the old man cried, his voice cracking. “But the world needs you more than I.”
Ahoté stared up at him.
A thunderous crack splintered through the village square. Wood shrapnel rained over Ahoté as he whipped his head back to find the noise. The gate cracked open. Both halves slammed to the earth.
Like a ravenous great-wolf alone in the plains, the creature stood at the opening, watching. It wheezed and chittered. Slobber dripped to the ground between its every breath.
Grandfather stumbled back, his mouth dropping open at the sight. A wall of stink slammed into the old man and his grandson, as pungent as a mammoth carcass three days old. His hands fell onto the top of his head.
Ahoté wrapped his trembling hands around his grandfather’s legs and pulled them out from underneath him. The old man fell, but he didn’t make any sound. He collapsed into a pile of robes dumb and frozen, his eyes still as wood. Ahoté twisted the spear out from his hands and turned around to face the Spiritman. The firelight illuminated its skin with red. Already, its quilted body was starting to rot apart. It hunched over with its hands on its knees.
The creature looked at him from its deer skull head. “If you kill me,” it panted, “you’ll release horrors into your world you do not know, as many as the stars.”
“You’re a liar,” Ahoté said, his voice barely a whisper.
“You say that, but you don’t know the truth. Do you want to know what she said before she died? The grandmother you talked about?”
Ahoté gripped the spear with both of his hands.
“She said this,” it panted, and then a wry smile spread under its skull and a well of phlegm gargled into its throat. It hunched over and retched.
Ahoté screamed to drown out the sound. He lifted his spear to the creature’s heaving belly. The stone reflected every star in the sky. As it spat and coughed dark liquid onto the earth, Ahoté shoved the spear into its hide. The meteor pushed through a thick scaly hide before sinking into what felt as empty as a void. The Spiritman gasped. It whipped its head to face the boy below it, and the staff vibrated in Ahoté’s hands. The Spiritman stopped itself from its choking and it muttered empty words. It wrapped its fingers around the spear and tugged at it like a thorn in a foot, but it wouldn’t budge. It turned to Ahoté, and tiny, beady eyes glinted under its skull in the firelight, but they didn’t meet his gaze. They were fixed nowhere, on nothingness. The Spiritman turned to look at the stars burning in their millions.
It fell to its knees. Its body deflated like an empty water-skin, the rotten air from inside stirring the still air of the village and surging the bonfire with fuel. Embers billowed into the stars.
Ahoté inhaled. The air felt as thick as liquid sucking into his lungs. He stood before the bonfire, the creature’ s pile of flesh at his left and his grandfather at his right. His air poured back into the stillness. The old man cowered underneath his robes, his face pressed under his arms into the earth.
Wind rustled into the village. Like a timid dog, it lapped at Ahoté’s feet and moved up his legs, rippling through the scraps of his tunic that hung from his waist until it sent shivers over his naked body. He struggled to pull the tunic over his shoulders, but he couldn’t. It was torn. A gust of wind slammed into him and shook the village.
Thunder crackled far off in the sky, and Ahoté looked up. A droplet of rain fell onto his forehead, and dark clouds stirred high above. The sky hummed and howled under its breath as it churned into a rainstorm, but even further above, beyond the clouds in the vaulted sky, the stars and the night boiled like a cauldron.