Julie felt the cramp in her side gnawing with each step she
took. You’re just out of shape, you need to suck it up, she told
herself, unconvincingly, as she trudged along the side of the mountain. Ten thirty wasn’t even yet rolling around, but she was already missing the meeting at the
‘A’. The decision on the spot for the Sunday morning vigil hadn’t exactly been
unanimous, with Julie being one of those against—as she bent over next to a
fragrant desert bush, panting, she wished she had been more vocal.
Halfway up the mountain already and the view was
breathtaking. Beneath her the rolling side of the rock-strewn mountain flushed
out like a carpet of sandstone browns pocked with green flourishes that set the
stage for the cityscape of Tempe. Black roads crisscrossed into the distance,
bordering glittering silver buildings, populated by tiny flashes of light off
the windshields of cars. Even more distant, the city melted into a black and
steel blur of a square-tooth jigsaw, sharply dividing between the watercolor
riot of browns, grays, and black of the city against the sharp, clear blue of
the sky. To Julie, it looked almost as if the sky had clamped itself down on
the distant city and was squeezing it into melted, distant shapes.
A dry wind skipped ahead, along the dusty asphalt road.
The paved path meandered lazily up the side of the mountain, breaking apart the
brush and rocks so that she could more easily ascend. The air felt heavy on her
shoulders where it touched her; it didn’t lift the weight of the sun’s heat
bristling down. In that moment of relative silence, Julie wondered about how
she hadn’t seen anyone else walking the little road.
There had to be other people late to the vigil.
Sure, she’d missed the gathering at the base of the
mountain for everyone to ascend together, but they should have been there even
a little late. The vigil itself had several sections and would last over an
hour. She frowned. Maybe someone had cancelled the entire thing and didn’t tell
her? She checked her cell phone. It had three bars of reception, no new
voicemail, no text messages. She shook her head and flipped it closed. She was
late. That explained it.
Cell phone in hand—just in case she was wrong—Julie
trucked up the path, determined not to let being out of shape stop her again.
She had rested once already. This wasn’t that steep of an incline.
Today the concrete and steel ‘A’ installed onto the
mountainside maintained its usual dress of goldenrod yellow. Often, rival
football teams playing against the Sun Devils would sneak up the mountain
during the night and paint the ‘A’ their own team colors, but, because it was
not football season, the letter remained largely unmolested. The huge letter on
the side of the mountain had been there ever since Julie had started her
classes at ASU a year before. She didn’t know the entire history of it, whole
told, but it dominated most pictures of the school and appeared on brochures
from years before.
A noise reached Julie’s ears, it sounded like a person
talking under their breath, but she couldn’t see anyone. The ‘A’ became visible
over a bulge of boulders and gravel, one of its bright yellow legs poking
between some sage brush. Quickly, more of the ‘A’ came into view and Julie
began to see people sitting and laying around it. Small taper candles—a
symbolic gesture, not intended to actually be lit—smoldered in motionless hands,
and wafted the scent of lavender and pine with the smell of desert rocks.
“Hello?” she said. “I’m sorry that I’m late but—”
Something wet and yielding crunched underfoot.
She stopped in her tracks.
Julie couldn’t breathe, her head swam. Her cell phone
slipped from her hands and skipped off her foot. The tip of her shoe glistened
with blood. A crowd of empty gazes transfixed her where she stood. A body—one
of many—wrapped and twisted around the structure of the ‘A’, clutched a
guttering candle. Wax dribbled from beneath the failing flame over the staring,
dead eyes of the corpse.
The murmur became louder.
It was someone whimpering, chanting the same thing over
“Oh my god…oh my god.”
If Vex had hoped that the Tarot card’s journey would be ended
here, she wasn’t so sure that was in the cards now. A niggling suspicion
plucked at the back of her mind, the new phrases of the poem sparked a ripple
through the ever-present whispers that lingered there. Patrick and Jimmy had
gotten themselves into a conversation about some of the images hanging on the
back wall, and left her to think to herself about the things they’d discussed.
Jimmy kept the impression that his friend, Richard,
wandered too far afield to be taken seriously in most things, but Vex wasn’t so
sure in this case. The Tarot card’s writing, the Enochain, written in
picture-perfect calligraphy and with enough clarity of forethought to get it to
her struck her more than simple frippery. The usual Pagan types who wrapped
themselves up in all the gauze and trappings of magical incantations,
ceremonies, and books they didn’t understand, tended to be mysterious for only
the sake of mystery. They also liked to revel in their own egos.
The picture of the rock drawings displaying Kokopelli
standing with the Thunderbird once again drew her eyes, but she decided not to
tempt fate by listening too intently to the seductive dusky murmurs. Enough
problems had been passed to her this day without adding more on top of them.
Jimmy’s voice reminded Vex of what she expected an old
Indian storyteller to sound like. Patrick had asked a question about a
particular petroglyph depicting a coyote and a series of tall men waving arms.
Jimmy’s melodic voice, speaking with the reverberations of practiced oration,
told a story about Coyote defeating a monster and restoring the world. One that
she had heard told before, by her mother, probably during one of their
visitations to the various Hohokam ruins that spread around the city like an
under painting, barely visible beneath the steel and glass brushstrokes of Phoenix.
Near the end of the story, she noticed some photographs
scattered on the table, carelessly poking out from beneath a stack of papers.
The corner she could see gave the impression of a drawing chalked onto the side
of a red brick wall, a wall that reminded her distinctly of the buildings
around Mill Avenue.
“What’s this?” she asked, teasing the photograph out from
under the sheet of paper with her finger. As it revealed itself she could see
more of a chalk marking scratched hastily onto the very recognizable red brick
wall. The drawing had the appearance of a petroglyph, with all the angles and
scrapings, but it had been obviously etched out by a modern hand. The figure
appeared to be made up of a single line, zigzagging up the wall and broken by
bent legs that created V’s up the central body line and terminated with a
triangular “head” and “antennae.” It distinctly reminded her of a centipede.
“Graffiti,” Jimmy said. “A hobby of mine. I collect images
of graffiti when it appears around the city. That…is a new one. I haven’t been
able to pin it down to a gang or any particular tagger, and often it comes in
different forms and shapes.” He nodded slowly as if thinking to himself. “I’ve
got more pictures of those types of drawings from all around Phoenix. That one,
I think, came from the side of the Andre building, nearby on Mill.”
“There’s something eerily familiar about these,” she said.
Another aircraft rumbled overhead, this time much closer
to the ground. The thudding of the engine drummed a staccato beat into the
walls that reached a quick crescendo and then tapered off as the sound fled
into the distance.
“Damn,” Patrick muttered, getting up to peer out the
window, “that’s the second helicopter so far. I wonder what’s going on to have
them flying so low.”
“I thought those were planes,” Vex said.
He smiled smugly. “Definitely choppers, they’re flying
fast and low. There were a few at the army base near my home town. We’d have to
listen to them flying nearby at school every now and again.”
Jimmy Tsosie didn’t voice any opinion about the whole
affair. Vex simply shrugged.
“What do you think of the poem?” Jim asked. “Mean anything
to you? Not that I expect it to…this is Richard, after all. You don’t know him
like I do.”
“No,” she said. “It doesn’t. Except that I can’t keep
myself from thinking that it should. Is the A Mountain in the poem the same one
that we know?”
“It is. In fact, that’s one of our little codes. Since
it’s a landmark we sometimes used it in codes to tell each other where to meet
each other. You can almost grid out the places in Tempe where you can see the
‘A’. We used it as a coordinate system. He used to hunt down barely visible
petroglyphs around the area and relay them to me with cryptic messages.”
“Like the Kokopelli?” Vex asked. “I say so because the
color of the rocks is a lot like what I’m used to seeing around here.”
“What’s a Kokopelli?” asked Patrick. He shifted
uncomfortably in his seat when both Jimmy and Vex looked at him. He put up his
hands as if to fend them off, then flattened them in a shrug. “I’m just a
simple country boy.” He winked at Vex. “Not from ‘round these parts.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. Jimmy chuckled at the
exchange, a deep and enjoyable laugh.
“Kokopelli,” he said, “is best described as the
hunch-backed flute player. You’ve probably seen him a few times on the images
that I have in this room, and in Arizona artwork in knickknack stores. Come to
think of it, I probably have a tchotchke or something with his image on it in
my desk drawer. To the People he is often a fertility god, and many believe
that the hunch of his back is probably a pack full of seeds or, in the case of
actual fertility, children.
“He appears in a lot of stories and art. Anasazi, Pueblo,
Navajo, Hopi, Zuni—Kokopelli really does get around. It’s no surprise to me
that he also haunts the minds of the average American enough that t-shirts and
statues with his image sell as tourist gimmicks.”
“I think I’ve seen these before,” Patrick said. “He’s got
the things sticking out of his head, holding the flute.”
“Those probably depict a feathered headdress,” Jimmy said.
“The picture that Vex noticed actually came from nearby. It’s an after picture.
Someone had spray painted a tag over it. The centipede you noticed, actually,
and we were called out to see if we could undo the damage.”
“Do you have to deal with graffiti often?” Vex held up one
of the pictures of the chalk centipede and tried to remember why it felt so
significant. She felt certain she’d seen it before—except that, strangely, the
voices that offered instruction had fallen silent. She could almost hear them
holding their collective breath, an immense pregnant pause like an auditorium
filled with expectant professors hovering over a genius student. Yet, nothing.
“No.” Jimmy broke in for her, she looked up. The
photograph fluttered back onto the table. “Not because it doesn’t happen so
much as it goes unreported and there’s no way we could keep up with it anyway.
In that case, though, we were able to remove the tag without damaging the rock
The phone on the desk abruptly began to ring.
“Strange, nobody knows I’m here today…”
“We should let you get that,” Vex said, nodding to
Patrick. “Thank you for your time, Jimmy.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, rising to shake her hand and
Patrick’s in turn. The phone continued to ring plaintively. “It was a pleasure
speaking with you. If you happen to meet Richard, send him my way. Okay? And
you have a good day.”
After the door to Jimmy’s offices clicked closed behind
them, Patrick leaned close.
“Seems a pleasant fellow,” he said.
Vex pushed him playfully. “Yes, I rather liked him.
Though, I have this weird feeling that I’m not yet rid of this Tarot card. Want
to go get a bite at the MU? Some of the food places are probably still open.”
“A bite it is. Lead the way.”