Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Tale from the Cottonwood

There once was a community in the southwest called Cottonwood. It had its own time and a place that was difficult for outsiders to find and so it was talked about but very few people had actually been there. Part of the secret of Cottonwood was that the people had emerged from a lake and so they were considered special; so special that even the state government left them alone. Another interesting quality at the Cottonwood was that the animals could talk to the humans and most everyone remembered to see each other as equals. All the citizens of Cottonwood wanted to keep outside influences as sparse as possible so that they could maintain the integrity of their town. This was difficult as newcomers kept showing up and bringing their technology which was hard for the locals to resist. To anyone who lived there the Cottonwood was special, the newcomers could sense it but could never really connect. To the original people there was a magicalness  in the day-to-day events of the Cottonwood that was their secret and would never be revealed to an outsider. It would vanish before an outsider could grasp the moment.

The cacique of Cottonwood was Lake Man, who was the oldest member of the town. He was said to have originally been the spirit of the Lake but had been transformed by a Kachina into a human after the Emergence of the people.  Everyone loved him and he remembered all the stories but he couldn’t remember how to return back to the Lake. This always made him a little frustrated as he felt that something was missing in his life.  Lake man was married to Blue Corn Maiden and between the two of them they were the elders of the town. Blue Corn Maiden, who was also ancient, made the rains fall and the harvest bountiful but she always regretted that she did not have any children of her own.

Lake man and Corn Maiden lived in a large adobe castle that had many rooms where the spirits of the mountains had their shrines. Every year in late spring after the frosts had passed, the town people would gather to spend a weekend to add a layer of adobe to the castle walls. At this time they would feast and make merry, ending the work with an all night spirit dance to call for the summer rains.
During the work weekend Lake Man and Blue Corn Maiden would mingle with the people of Cottonwood and find out how their winters went.  Lake Man would carry around a heavy skin of chokecherry wine hanging around his neck and pour out mouthfuls of this sweet intoxicating nectar to people as they labored with the heavy wet adobe.  A couple of swallows of the brew were enough to take the chill out the bones and lift the heart into a spring fever. This was the time when Lake-Man, took off his beaded and fringed elk vestments and would seem like one of them, his white Hair braids soaking the sweat from his naked-to-the-waist torso. As he lumbered from person to person with his distant smile of ageless presence, those in need of his attention could speak to him informally. Blue Corn Maiden would often be at his side as witness, to remember the words that he might forget or misconstrue. Since he was so old, everyone knew that sometimes their small family issues would sound to him like the rustling of wind through a tree so they would look to her for acknowledgement. As a couple, Lake Man and Blue Corn Maiden radiated hope, light and purpose. They were the anchor of Cottonwood in its presence on the planet. Without them the outside world would have poured in and stolen the magic of the land.

Blue Corn Maiden often held ceremony in the castle to remind the spirits that they should be kind to the humans and the animals. She had appointed certain folks from the community to join her ceremonial society and they carried out the spiritual duties of the adobe castle. Certain of them would take care of a room and the spirit that resided in it. Often the person who took care of the spirit of the shrine would train their son or daughter to take over the responsibility when they retired. So over the centuries some families had their lives woven tightly into the affairs of the castle and its spirits. The duties to maintain the rooms and the spirits that inhabited them was an honor but also a responsibility that could be exhausting. When a family fell behind, the spirit might vacate and it was at these times when Blue Corn Maiden would have to step in to entice the spirit back. The most recent case of a vacating spirit turned out well thanks to the help of Blue Corn Maiden and so this story is about one of these families and the trouble they had with their wandering spirit.

Coyote and his family were in charge of the tobacco spirit room. They would have to come every day and offer up tobacco to the shrine, keep the bundles safe from scavengers and grow a small garden plot of tobacco each year. Coyote’s wife, Love Nectar, took care of the cleaning and the garden plot while Coyote was in charge of the offerings, which he mostly did on holy days but the rest of the time he persuaded one of his children to do.  Blue Corn Maiden was not pleased with Coyote’s children doing the offerings but everyone else in the community was afraid of the tobacco spirit so she had no choice.
One day, when Coyote was fishing and his youngest son, Bit-by-Rabbit, was supposed to be making the evening offering, a violent storm blew in from the mesa and everyone had to take shelter from the blowing debris. Bit-by-Rabbit had jumped into a hollow cottonwood trunk to hide and when he tried to get out he was stuck. No matter how he tried he could not get out and no-one could hear him yell because of the pouring rain that fell most of the night.
            Coyote had forgotten that it was a holy day so when the time came for the offering, Tobacco spirit became angry and started to spin above the altar. Sometimes this would happen if Coyote showed up late. His solution was to get some tobacco powder, place it on a hot coal and then blow the smoke over the visible spirit. It would subside and vanish back into the altar image. In this case since no-one showed up to calm the spirit, it spun faster and faster looking to leave the shrine which had been sealed up in the past, by Blue Corn Maiden. The tobacco spirit had vowed to stay with the community but if the offerings were not made in time, her passion for sensation would take over and lead her astray. So when a small mouse crept in through a hole in the wall, looking for something to chew on, tobacco spirit seized its body as a vehicle and possessed the terrified mouse. In its terror, the mouse returned through the hole into the next room which had an open window. It had been centuries since tobacco spirit had escaped that room as Blue Corn Maiden had sealed the shrine so well. Tobacco spirit flew out of the castle and up into the clouds of the evening storm, to chase the fingers of lightening as they burst around the foothills.
Tobacco Spirit

            As soon as Tobacco spirit escaped, Coyote felt his heart drop. He was still fishing through the storm as the river spot was protected by overhanging trees and he didn’t have anything for supper. He felt a tug on his line and when he pulled up the hook he saw a blue trout wiggling with its eyes rolling in a strange stare. He dropped the fish on the ground and was ready to run away when the fish spoke and slowly turned into Blue Corn Maiden.
            “Do I have to remind you that you are a lazy good for nothing? You have felt it, that monster is loose. ..and it’s your fault. Your son is stuck in the old cottonwood by the kiva and you are here fishing in a thunderstorm. Meanwhile Tobacco spirit is dancing with the lightning bolts and forgetting anything she has promised in the past. Without her, even though she is so difficult, we will weaken and the outsiders will find us out. Get up Coyote. Go capture her and put her back into her shrine room. She will cause so much mischief that the all other spirits will begin to rebel.” Blue Corn Maiden vanished into the  mist and Coyote picked up the trout and smelled it. He was glad that she had left him something to eat.
            He walked through the driving rain, soaked to the bone and picked up sticky wads of mud that made his furry feet feel as heavy as buried tree roots . He looked up into the darkened sky and could see the blood red shape of Tobacco spirit roaming around trying to anticipate the next lightning bolts. Each time they hit her she would grow in size and deepen in color. 
Where is she?

            When Coyote reached the hollow cottonwood tree, he pulled Bit-by-Rabbit out by his ears and threw him into a muddy puddle.
            “Hey, Dad, why did you do that? Some thanks. I was going to do the ceremony but when the wind and rain hit I had no choice. There were rocks and tree branches flying.  This tree saved me but  I couldn’t get out when wind blast was over.. Anyway, how did you find me?” Bit by Rabbit pawed his ears and started licking his muddy fur.”
            We don’t have time for that, Blue Corn Maiden is pissed. Tobacco spirit is up there.” Coyote pointed overhead to the red form in the sky. “I should have done the offering tonight cause it’s a major power day and somehow that spirit got loose. We have to go to the shrine room and get the trap to catch her, if it hasn’t rotted away in all this time.”
            Coyote picked up his son by the neck skin and pushed him ahead into the storm as they headed to the adobe castle.
            Coyote remembered the time she had vanished from the castle. It was 1724, white man time. There had been three bad winters where the tobacco crop had withered and the Catholic priest, what’s his name, had called together the governor’s soldiers to invade the Cottonwood. With no tobacco to offer, she had gone wild and disappeared for a couple of months. Blue Corn Maiden had given up hope and Lake Man had retreated to the mountains to have a vision. The Cottonwood felt abandoned and the other spirits were starting to leave. Things were so bad that the other tribes were meeting to decide whether to take us out first or let the white man do it. . The community was getting ready to fight to the last man when tobacco spirit abruptly showed up and gracefully took her place back in her shrine. She glowed like pure ruby for days before she subsided into the altar, and at the same time someone had found the shredded undergarments of an archbishop shoved under the altar that weren’t there before. The rain came back and Apaches kidnapped four Spanish families in Santa Fe so the soldiers vacated and left the Cottonwood alone. Two months later, word went out that the Pope had taken up smoking tobacco and had made it legal. Things worked out but Lake Man’s stress wrinkles never cleared up. Back then Coyote’s ancestor had been the shrine caretaker and he had been held prisoner until the Tobacco spirit returned. The whole community blamed him for the bad luck. They never thanked him when afterwards everything got better.
            As they entered the shrine room, Coyote noticed the mouse hole and made a note to fill it. He opened an old trunk and handed Bit-by-Rabbit  a beaded sack that had a symbol of holy water sewn in blue lapis beads against a red coral bead background. He dug to the bottom of trunk and pulled out a long thick snake skin whip, as long as two men’s arms outstretched. The handle was meteorite iron with finger sockets for a firm grip. The tassel at the end was bound by a lock of Blue Corn Maiden’s hair. Coyote cleansed it with tobacco smoke, wiped it with eagle down and then coiled it around his chest.
            “Now listen son, I’ve never had to use this whip before but our ancestors have and it usually does the trick. Problem is that she has been dancing with lightening and that gets her all horny and forgetful so when we get her in the coral sack you got to tie her tight or she will have her way with us and it won’t be pretty. The beaded water symbol will douse her fire, because the beads come from Lake Man’s kachina; from before the emergence, so they say.”
            Bit-by-Rabbit tucked the sack under his arm and struggled to look confident as they stepped out into the open plaza in front of the adobe castle. They both looked up to see tobacco spirit. She was getting fainter in the distance as she was following the receding lightening that had become silent as it passed over and down into the eastern mountains. The rain had stopped and the wind was abated so that the plaza silence was only interrupted by water dripping from the trees. Coyote unwound the whip, motioned for Bit-by-Rabbit to open the sack and then called out to tobacco spirit.

“Blue Corn Maiden wants me to remind you of your promise. Stop that dance and return home. She offers you her tassel, her corn silk as a gift, come receive it and obey.” Coyote cracked the whip with all his might, but missed the mark and it snapped a chunk of fur from his butt. “Ow, Gosh dammit” Coyote screamed as Bit-by-Rabbit snickered under his breath. He could swear that Tobacco spirit was laughing too.
Coyote rewound the whip and then lashed it towards the sky yelling,
“Blue Corn Maiden insists you obey.” This time the crack of the whip was directed straight at the tobacco spirit and a flash of blue lightening from the meteorite handle traveled up the whip and launched a blast that enveloped tobacco spirit so that she began to spiral back towards the castle. Coyote continued cracking the whip until she was just overhead, paralyzed by the blue light. Then he called to Bit by Rabbit,
            “Get ready cause this time she’s a comin’ home.” Bit -by-Rabbit pulled out the sack from under his arm and opened it up to the sky. He was terrified and exhausted from trembling. He could feel the magnetic seduction of tobacco spirit and wasn’t sure he could tighten the cord if she actually did as Coyote commanded. His father was usually so passive and difficult. He was impressed that his Dad seemed to know what he was doing, he just wasn’t sure if his Dad realized how easy it would be to screw up.
Coyote called to her in a final command. “Good Spirit, return to us for Lake Man’s sake and return to stay until the end times. Be happy with the altar and the offerings. I shall not forget you. Return!!!” and with that command he cracked the whip overhead and she settled gracefully like a large genie back into a small bottle. 
Bit-By-Rabbit pulled the cord tight and finding himself afraid of opening the bag out of some random knee-jerk weakness caused by her psychic control, handed the sack to Coyote, shaking in fear. Coyote quickly ran into the castle and placed the sack onto the altar. Blue Corn Maiden appeared and waving smoke with her open hand from an abalone offering plate removed tobacco spirit from the beaded sack. Tobacco spirit floated in mid air changing shapes as fast as a spinning top. She crackled with electricity and gave off sparks that landed as seeds on the shrine room floor.  Blue Corn Maiden unbraided her hair and used it to tangle the spin of Tobacco spirit. The spirit lightened from ruby red to a rose quartz color and then disappeared into the sand mandala on the altar. 

Coyote sighed with relief and looked around to see Bit-by-Rabbit asleep against the wall. He turned to Blue Corn Maiden and bowed in humility.
“Coyote, your laziness always make trouble but sometimes your trouble brings good luck. Sometimes! Now we have fresh seed from our naughty spirit, seed blessed by thunder and lightning. So let’s put away the old seed and grow the new. As it is, tobacco spirit was my unplanned child. She grew from where I rested after bringing potato and corn to Turtle Island. I was mooning at the time and she grew from my blood soaking into the soil. Your clan has always been brave to handle her power. Again, you have proven to be the right clan to meet the challenge. I always mourn that I cannot have children with Lake Man. But I realize that all the people of Cottonwood are my children because they eat from my hand. If I must be as selfish as to want more children of my own I can reflect upon this rascal spirit and what it would be like to have four more.” Blue Corn Maiden waved some smoke on Coyote and his son and then headed to Lake Man’s apartment on the top floor of the adobe castle.
Coyote put away the whip and sack into the trunk and picking up his sleeping son closed the shrine and headed home. It was late but not too late to cook up his evening catch, the special trout; blessed by the Maiden herself.
And so this is one tale of the keepers of the spirits of the adobe castle and the elders of the people of the Cottonwood. This is their way of keeping balance with the outer world, living their lives in the spirit of the old way until the end times when they shall all return to the lake.

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