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Whispers-In-The-Wind

 

 

  

          The elders wrung their hands in despair.  It hadn’t rained for several months.  As a result, a drought settled upon their land.  With the hot wind and dust blowing, there also came the desert locusts, which ate the meager plants to supplement their diet.  Because of the drought and hot wind, game became scarce, and they were forced into adding the locusts to their diet.  They continued, in spite of the furnace-like heat and great clouds of dust, to scratch out a harsh and lean existence from the Great Basin, until a desert fire turned much of their subsistence area into barren black ground.

          During the fire, it seemed as though Great Spirit had decided to end their miserable plight once and for all.  In spite of it all, however, the elders continued to pray:

          “Save us Great Spirit; we are your chosen.  You brought across the ice, over the mountains, and into this dying land to test us and bend us to your will.  Do not abandon us now.  Show us what to do.  Help us to find rabbits and send us rain to grow our plants.  Don’t let us die of hunger or thirst!”

          Day after day, as starvation set in, the elders prayed.  They prayed steadfastly to Great Spirit and performed the required rituals, but Great Spirit, who had not spoken to a man or woman within the memories of the oldest elder of the people, remained silent.  Now Gray Fox, leader of the Red Mountain Band and oldest living elder, was delirious and sinking fast.  His illness and inability to preside during the crises seemed especially ominous.

          “Why had Great Spirit not spoken?” they now asked. “Was Gray Fox’s sickness another sign of his displeasure?  What had their patriarch done to deserve the black sleep?”

          Again they prayed, performed the required rituals, and once more sprinkled dust to the four winds—foolish as it seemed.  But the answer did not come, and Gray Fox fell into a deep coma—the black sleep, in which he would never return.

          When the food was almost gone and water was scarce, the old and the very young began dying, beginning with the band’s patriarch, himself, then the newborns, followed by children as yet unweaned.  These catastrophes seemed to be proof that Great Spirit was angry with them and was about to thin out the people until only the most fit were left to breed.  Perhaps he would destroy most of them this time, as he once did in the far north, when Stone Hand, the great sage, and his family were spared and allowed to go south.  This legend, carried down from generation to generation, gave no comfort to the mothers whose infants were dying before their eyes.  Nor did it comfort the children whose hollow eyes held the shadow of death.  But for the elders it was a reminder that at least the strong would survive.

 

******

          For several more days the elders quarreled about the omens so far.  To Old Raven and Walking Sticks, the chief religious leaders, it was a test from Great Spirit that they must pass.  In their stubborn minds they saw this arid valley as the Promised Land.  Someday, it would return to its normal self (hot, dry, with sparse vegetation, and meager game).  For many of the elders and young men, this thinking would not suffice.  Great Spirit, they were certain, was not listening.  The patriarch’s death was proof of this.  In order to survive, they would have to leave this barren land.  Perhaps Great Spirit had forsaken them, or maybe this was his way of telling them that it was time to move on.  Since in their language there was no word for change, it was difficult for them to express this desire.

          As one young man said as he watched his mother die, “The black sleep creeps over this land.  Let us do as Stone Hand once did and head south.”

          “But where will that take us?” they asked him, as he began building a travois to carry his mother.

          “You can stay if you wish.” the young man said with resolution. “But I’m taking my mother and brothers south.  I don’t believe Great Spirit wants us to die.”

          With that simple declaration, Dream Rider became the first of his people to leave the Promised Land and trek south.  Following him hesitantly, were other young men and one crotchety old man, Whispers-In-The-Wind, who had argued with the other elders but had given up in despair.

          “Soon Great Spirit will speak.” he promised them feebly.  “For now, the Great Wolf is asleep.  Come old cousins, let us follow Dream Rider.  It is better to die walking than wait for the black sleep to come.”

          After he turned his back, he could hear other moccasins in the dust, and he knew that his example was still strong in his band.  Not far from their camp two other groups of families led by Crow Foot and his father-in-law, Walking Rabbit, had already broken with the elders of their band.

 

******

          When Crow Foot’s daughter heard Dream Rider and then the old elder speak, she snuck away with two of her children and hurried to her father’s camp.  Her husband, whose father was Old Raven, the chief elder among his band, had refused to leave their camp.  To save her children and herself, she knew she had to go to her father’s band.  Upon reaching his people, she immediately told them what the other band had decided to do.  The Fire Creek band had been decimated by hunger and disease, and yet the elders begged them not to leave.  Crow Foot, who was, himself, an elder of the band, was, at that very moment, trying to talk as many of his band members into leaving as he could.  When his daughter told him that Whispers-In-the-Wind had followed Dream Rider south, he related this to several of the doubters as evidence that Great Spirit wanted them to leave.  That such a great sage had followed such a young man was a sign that their people must move.

          “It is time act… to be different,” he insisted, groping for the right words.  “The old thinking doesn’t work anymore.  We can follow the Coyote and Tortoise Bands or follow those elders to the Land of the Dead.”

          Turning to his daughter and her children, he then motioned for old Walking Sticks and all the others who had openly broken with elders refusing to leave. With almost all of the Rabbit and Lizard bands following his example, Crow Foot, the third great leader of their people went forth, arm-in-arm with his daughter and wife, away from the Promised Land into the unknown.

 

******

          After Snake Singer, the oldest living elder, built a signal fire of dry brush, the remaining bands saw the migration written in the cloudless sky.  Two Moons, a young elder of the Badger Band, had already talked most of his immediate family into leaving.  With resignation in their vacant eyes the remainder of his band, including Two Moon’s father, yielded to the message from afar.  By the time they had passed the next band’s encampment, most of his people would be on the desert, heading south.

          In the forefront of these small and decimated bands was Two Moons, the fourth great leader of the migration.  Unlike many primitive peoples who, in times of strife, might abandon their old and sick in order to conserve water and food, their religion demanded that they care for the dying until the very end.  Each self-made trailblazer tried on his own to forcibly prod the old people along.  Sick people would be carried, if need be, on travoises, until their destination was reached.  On this fateful day, it was especially tragic to die in this desolate land, and yet many of the stubborn old men and women refused to budge.

          Although Two Moons managed to coax his own father along, the remaining elders of his band, which included some of his own relatives sat down in the desert and watched their people depart, sending curses after them as they walked dejectedly away.

 

******

          Among the stragglers of the Toad Band, reluctantly leading the remnant of his father’s band and bitter about the hopelessness of his own plight was Old Raven’s son, Shadow Maker, whose wife had rejoined her father’s band.  A dark vapor already controlled Shadow Maker’s spirit.  Named because of a vision he claimed he once had, Shadow Maker’s vision mirrored his membership with the religious elite of his people: falsity.  In his spirit quest he had traveled across the burning desert in order to have the required communion with Great Spirit.  But on the way, he had been detoured by Soul Catcher, who whispered into his delirious mind:

          “You are my child.  Henceforth I will call you Shadow Maker.  When your people leave this sacred land, they will be leaving their god.  You will fill the emptiness when you become the leader of the bands.  Your great magic will be to convince them that Great Spirit does not exist.  After this is done, you will lead them to me!”

          Terrified by the message and the apparition of a great dark bird flying overhead, he ran back to his band, and told them what he had seen.  But he failed to tell them all he heard.  He also left one important fact out: the source of the voice.  Now, after all these years, he realized that he had been following Soul Catcher for years.  He was sure that he was following him now and that the prophecy was about to be fulfilled.  As Shadow Maker led his band south, he could see the dust from other band several hills ahead.  Behind him on the desert were the Fire Creek and Badger bands.  To the west of them, would trail in the remaining bands of his people.  When night came, they would all assemble as they had in the past to acknowledge a new patriarch, as they had done when selecting Gray Fox.

          Traditionally, this election would be symbolic, since the patriarch was a focal point for religious ceremonies.  The only other times that they would regroup would be for special rabbit drives or warfare against hostile bands.  Afterwards, each headman, who acted as elector for his band, would return to his own camp and govern his own family as he saw fit.  But this time would be different.  They would not simply elect a new leader, and go their own ways.  Shadow Maker, knew more than any other elder, that a new age was about to dawn.  The old ways would have to change if his people were to survive.  The new patriarch would not merely be a religious leader.  He must have the powers of a father over his family or a master over his dog.  Since the prophecy was half filled, Shadow Maker wondered what Soul Catcher had in mind for him now: leadership of his people or something else.  Perhaps, he would have to bide his time until he was old enough for such a task.

          Normally, patriarchs were elected from families who had provided leadership in the past, such as the Red Mountain band.  Of course, the most important qualifications were age and piety.  Traditionally, patriarchs were quite old.  Gray Fox had been alive seventy summers before he was called.  He had also spent most of his life celibate, fasting, and doing homage to Great Spirit.  Since Shadow Maker had never been pious a day of his life and was one of the youngest elders of his band, he doubted if he would be elected.  Although Stone Hand had only been a young man when Great Spirit chose him to gather the faithful and begin the long journey south, such an exception was rare in their tradition.  Standing Rock, in fact, the patriarch who led them finally into the Great Basin and the Promised Land so long ago, was over one hundred years old.  So the odds seemed to be against him unless the elders decided to bend the rules.

          “Please, Soul Catcher,” he whispered to himself “let them elect Whispers-In-The-Wind or Two Moons.  I’m not ready for such a task!”

 

******

          From the Great Basin, which had been their home for thousands of years, they began their last migration; a journey that had began thousands of years ago in the land across the ice.  Over a barren, nearly featureless desert, broken only by sagebrush, yucca, and an occasional oasis of cottonwood or pine, they moved in a long straggling file, until congregating as one group in a dry streambed that night.  Several men and women had gone ahead to prepare fires and forage for food. Unfortunately for many of the old and infirmed, this would be the night in which the black sleep came.  Everyone, except the very young, would go to sleep hungry, because of the meager game to be found.  Too exhausted to build shelters or prepare their beds, most of them collapsed where they stopped, although a few guards sat stony-eyed before their fires trying desperately to stay awake.  Among the self-appointed shepherds, alone, except for the unconscious presence of his family nearby, sat Dream Rider, his dark eyes staring deeply into the fire.

          A backdrop of moonlit night and ghostly barren hills outlined his frame, while the blaze gave his brown skin an ethereal glow.  Out of nowhere, it seemed, appeared Whispers-In-The-Wind, hobbling on the gnarled crutch fashioned from a manzanita bush.  For him, the black sleep seemed always near, and yet his haggard face could always smile and his withered limbs were always quick.  Tonight, however, Whispers-In-The-Wind remained silent and moody as he joined Dream Rider by the fire.

          When it became apparent that the old man would not go away, the young man coaxed him to get his rest.  “Go to sleep old one.  We have a long journey ahead.”

          “Tomorrow is an important day,” the old man replied faintly, throwing branches onto the fire.

          “Tonight is important, too,” Dream Rider said, looking back at his family and then raising his eyes to the starless sky.  “I have felt it following me since we began.  There is an evil presence in this camp since the Toad band arrived.  I’ve never trusted Shadow Maker, an elder of that band.”

          “We must join to live.” Whispers-In-The-Wind set his jaw. “Now, because Great Spirit leads us, we are no longer Snakes, Rabbits, Badgers, or Toads; we are one people.  When we reach the mountains, we must have one leader, not a bunch of quarreling men.”

          “One leader?” Dream Rider sighed.  “Who would want such a task?”

          “I don’t know…. I hope it’s not me.” The old man shrugged.  Rising onto his cane, he began hobbling into the dark.  “I must walk a ways before I can sleep,” Dream Rider heard him mumble to himself, as he began climbing a nearby hill.

          For a while, until he disappeared into the desert, Dream Rider watched his crotchety walk, amazed by his stamina at such a time.  When everyone else was too tired to even think, this old sage was wandering the desert absorbed in his thoughts.  A pang of shame filled Dream Rider as he watched him retreat.  Tomorrow, he promised himself, he would listen more patiently to Whispers-In-The-Wind.  He was a kind, considerate, and generous old man.  But tonight he, too, must take his own advice and get some rest.  When his watch was up and his relief made the correct call, he would begin wandering the dream world awhile.  He needed guidance after today.  In spite of hunger and exhaustion, his premonition was still strong.

          At first, after hearing his relief’s call, he felt something terrible hovering over the camp, as if a great dark bird was circling in the sky.  His concern for his mother and sisters remained a constant torment, and now, as he fell into a deep yet troubled sleep, he felt as if the black sleep would take them all.

          As Dream Rider and his people slept, Cactus Breeze groggily took the watch by Dream Rider’ fire, while Shadow Maker, Little Dog, Cloud Dancer, and Eye-On-The-Ground took their posts on the four corners of the camp.  While they sat at their posts, Whispers-In-The-Wind sat on a hill watching his entire nation sleep.  It was the most peaceful and saddest sight he had ever seen: a people he sensed, without knowing the words, in transition, who must change drastically if they were to survive.  Somewhere to his left he heard the chirp of a cricket and then the crunch of pebbles and twigs as an animal, probably a coyote, lurked on the hill.  The moon above was like a great torch over his people.  Where it not for the shadow of this hill, they would barely need their fires.  And yet, as Dream Rider correctly saw, there was a shadow over them now: death.  How many would die only the morning would tell.  For a moment, as the old man prayed, he shut his eyes tightly against this world.  The world inside his mind was filled with a great faith, but the body without was on the verge of collapse.  Rising shakily on his cane and heading back down the slope, he was drawn by the nearest fire.  Not realizing how late it was, he expected Dream Rider to still be sitting by the fire.  Instead, he saw two other men in the glow: one of them, Cactus Breeze, was nearly asleep.  The other, who sat quietly nearby, said nothing as Whispers-In-The-Wind approached.

          “Good, the fire is still tall,” he murmured to them as he approached the fire.

          “I see only darkness.” Cactus Breeze complained.  “I’ve never felt so tired in my life.”

          “Sleep, your replacement is here,” the old man observed.  “Strange, I don’t remember that face before.”

          “Wha-what face?  My relief is Three Birds,” the young man’s voice trailed off as he slumped onto the ground.

          “Three Birds?” The old man shook his head. “That boy is too young to stand watch.”  “You’re not Three Birds.” He then looked across the fire.  “Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing you before!”

          The man, who had the same loincloth and cape that all the other people wore, looked increasingly familiar the closer he came, reminding the old sage of countless men from his past… Uncle White Dog,… the kindly old Whistling Waters,… and then He-Who-Sat-In-A-Cave, a sage who had interpreted his dream.  He remembered then the voice that had come to him that terrible night when the desert wind trapped him on that hill.  At first it had been a whisper, as the specter extended his hand.  “Don’t be afraid,” he had whispered to him.  The sages, after listening to him relate his dream, named him Whispers-In-The-Wind.  Now, as he drew back fearfully, he realized that this stranger was saying the same things to him that the first spirit had spoken, first in a whisper and then with a gentle manly laugh: “Don’t be afraid…. I just want to share your fire…. Please stay; I’ve brought you something to eat.”

          “Eat?” the old man said hoarsely.  “Eat what?… Dried yucca?… Pine needles? . . We have no food here.  If you have any food, you must give it to the children.”

          Holding out a sack, the man said firmly, “You must eat old man, or you’ll die.  Here take a handful.  Tomorrow you will lead your people toward a new land.”

          “I will lead no one nowhere,” the old man scoffed, taking a handful of the substance in the bag.

          It tasted like dried berries and jerky but was, at this stage, the most delicious morsel the old man had ever eaten.  As he gobbled up the mixture, he noticed that the man was stoking the fire, but had not touched the bag.  He wore his hair in the traditional fashion: long and uncombed, except one long braid signifying the age of the man.  Whispers-In-The-Wind had seventy knots in his braid, while this young man had countless knots extending down his back.

          Since it was impossible for a young man to have so long a braid, the old man was ready, when he had finished chewing, to make an issue of the knots.  But before he had a chance to speak, the young man bolted up suddenly and pointed to the sky.

          “Shush! “ He placed his finger before his lips.  “It’s passing overhead.  Listen, do you hear his wings?”

          “Dream Rider was talking like that.  You’ve both been eating mushrooms,” the old man replied flatly.  “The only things flying over us now are buzzards and a few crows, waiting to pick our bones.”

          “Look!  Over there!” The man pointed to one dark speck.  “Since when do buzzards fly over the desert at night?”

          “Perhaps it’s an owl searching for a rabbit,” the old man persisted, feeling a cold wind blowing his way.

          “You are afraid, admit it old man…. You know who it is.  He’s been following your people since your journey began.”

          “You mean Soul Catcher—the Evil One?”  The old man tried not to sound frightened.

          The truth was now he had seen something flying overhead but kept his attention riveted on the man.  Finding a strange strength in his presence, he let the shadow pass over without another word, before he lowered his crotchety old frame onto a log.  Without seeing movement or hearing a sound, the young man seated himself beside him and placed a heavy hand on his knee.

          “Listen to me Whispers-In-The-Wind,” he said softly at first. “Your people won’t perish; they will someday bring forth a new prophet who will bring new hope to the world.”

          “We are a simple people who want nothing to do with other people,” the old man explained, looking back into the fire.

          “From such strangers, I was first known,” he said cryptically, rising to his feet.  “Now over half of the world believe in me and yet they are as divided as the pebbles below our feet.  This will change when he comes.  In deed, it must change because in those days the world, even for your people, will be a dark and evil place.”

          Understanding fell slowly over Whispers-In-The-Wind.  For his people, the concept “world” was impossible to define.  Change was also incomprehensible in their minds, and yet, when the full meaning of his words registered in his tired mind, the old man understood these concepts clearly, and knew how very important this prophet would be…. But why was he telling him this?  Why not Two Moons, Crow Foot or one of the younger men?  Surely such a revelation was wasted on his weary old bones.

          When he opened his mouth to speak, he realized that he was staring into empty space.  The young man had vanished during the blinking of his eyes.  And yet Whispers-In-The-Wind, the greatest living elder, knew he would never again be alone… The great god, at last, had spoken--in person, and he had spoken to him!  

 

******

          Although Whispers-In-The-Wind wanted to wake his favorite pupil, Dream Rider, he knew that the young man would not believe him at this late hour.  The boy needed his sleep, as he did himself.  After such an experience the old man wanted to dream.  In such dreams, he had gained wisdom.  According to tradition, all creation began from Great Spirit, if that was his name, who walked and talked like a man.   Now, the old elder questioned tradition.  How could he explain this to his people?  This wasn’t a vision quest in which he would awaken with newfound wisdom.   He wasn’t dreaming now.  That man came during his wake-up hours; he had been flesh and blood and spoke like a man.  Henceforth, Whispers-In-The-Wind would have his own special name for him: Walks-Like-A-Man.  Sleep would, he still believed, bring wisdom, but it couldn’t replace direct communion with their god… And that’s who the young man was.

          “You must talk to Great Spirit,” he had always told his students. “Don’t wait for him to talk to you.”

          Strange, however, how he had never totally believed his own words.  They were words based upon hope.  The growing heresy in his heart, that wondered if the dream world was not an old man’s tale, now seemed to be correct.  He knew that Great Spirit would return to him and bring knew wisdom, but he would talk to him in plain, undream-like words, in his thoughts or from the clear sky.  A bittersweet sadness filled the old sage when he realized what Walks-Like-A-Man meant.  From this day forward, his people had a destiny that was intended for other people too.  Things would change and never be the same.  Tonight was the beginning of a new age, and he, Whispers-In-The-Wind, was the first man on earth to know.