Coyote and the Sky Door
by Anj Dockrey
It was a moonless night that Jonah traveled a nameless highway. The desert stretched pale on either side of the weathered asphalt within the conical arc of his headlights, and all beyond that was darkness. The government hadn’t bothered with streetlamps out here, or even reflectors. There were no billboards or signs, and all Jonah knew was that he was somewhere north of Mexico. There were newer, wider interstates, and this highway had long been abandoned, its asphalt faded and crumbling at the edges. No doubt it would persist for centuries, for dead things in the desert did not so much decay as mummify. In a thousand years this road would still be here, and tourists of the future would photograph it, and speculate as to why it had been abandoned, the way people did with the pueblos.
Bugs pattered against the windshield like raindrops.
He reached in the passenger seat for his cigarettes, felt at the pack and found it empty. He brought his hand back to the wheel, where it shook, and he told himself it was just the nicotine craving coming on strong.
His pickup topped a rise and colored lights appeared, garish and unexpected as a carnival. Jonah tapped the breaks and slowed. He veered to the left, his tires crunching over the loose sand and grit of the shoulder as they slid down into the cleared lot.
It was a fireworks stand, painted plywood clapped together like a fair booth. Christmas lights in green, yellow and red were strung over a picnic table whose buckled planks promised splinters. The booth was well-lit from within, and colorful boxes of crackers and pinwheels and green dragons were displayed proudly on shelves behind the proprietor. The old man leaned with one elbow on the counter, his face so deeply lined and tanned as to render his ethnicity ambiguous. He wore a ratty Diamondbacks ball cap, and as Jonah stepped out of his truck he spit a mouthful of chaw into an old coffee can.
The spicy scent of sage hung pungent in the air, as it often does at night, as if the desert exhales one long, deep sigh before waking. For it is at night that the desert truly wakes, and desert days just a fever dream dreamt during a long siesta.
“You got any cigarettes?” Jonah asked, approaching the booth, his boots breaking the crust of the rough desert sand.
“No smoking near the rockets,” the old man said, but set a tin of wintergreen Skoal on the counter. Jonah didn’t chew, but it was better than nothing. He took a dip and set it on his bottom lip. It was nasty, but he thanked the old man.
“You an Indian, boy?”
“Does it matter?” Jonah said it idly, not defensively.
“Well, it depends on whether you are typical to your race. See, I’m debating on whether to tell you something that I know about you. And if you’re a typical white man, you’ll think I’m crazy. If you’re a Mexican, you’ll probably cross yourself and hightail it to the nearest church, where you’ll have the priest Hail-Mary and sprinkle holy water on you till dawn. But if you’re an Indian, then maybe you’ll believe me.”
Despite his circumstances, Jonah couldn’t help but smile.
“Yes, I’m an Indian. So why don’t you tell me,” he said in the humoring tone he’d used for his grandmother when she started calling him by the names of uncles long dead.
“Well, there’s the other conundrum. If you do believe me, you might not thank me for the knowledge. You might feel better if you never know.”
“Just tell me. I want to know,” Jonah insisted, genuinely curious.
The old man sighed and looked off into the distance past Jonah’s shoulder.
“All right, since you’ve asked. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you’ve got a witch on your back.”
The sun hadn’t gone down that long ago, and the memory of heat still lingered in the air. Nevertheless, gooseflesh broke out on Jonah’s arms. The night was so black it felt as if they stood on the far side of midnight, though they still had a long ways to go till dawn.
But then Jonah remembered he was a grown man. He laughed, and admitted to himself that the old man had had him there for a second.
“Witches have long been a plague of the fifth world,” the old man said, apparently not yet willing to admit his joke was played out. “It is from them that the early people fled here. Long ago, when the first men and women came out from the dark worlds, this was a paradise. They called it the Changeable World, because for the first time man saw the world not as it was, but for what he could make of it. Man took the soil and the rock and built things that could endure.
“But the witches followed, as they always do, bringing disease and war, drying up the great inland sea so that the land became a desiccated husk of itself. They are the reason the Anasazi disappeared, leaving monuments and roads and possessions, but no bones—”
“Aliens,” Jonah interrupted. The desert attracted alien nuts. This old man fit the profile.
But the old man only snorted. “I’m trying to warn you, boy. The witches are destroying your people.”
“It was white man destroyed my people,” Jonah laid the accent on thick, but the sarcasm was lost on the old man.
“Witches brought discord when you should have united. They brought sickness and greed. They fed the weaknesses in you. They whispered in your father’s ear and worked him into a frenzy that night he beat you half dead with whiskey on his breath, and you screamed so loud the neighbors called the cops and the social workers whisked you away to live with your grandmother. But Daddy’s in the ground now and that same witch that sat on his back is working on you, feeding off your despair and rage. Fanning that fiery temper of yours. You knew it was wrong to hit her but that witch egged you on—”
“Shut up!” Jonah bellowed, punching the wall of the booth so hard the rough plywood skinned his knuckles, and several boxes of crackers swayed and tipped off their shelf. Jonah shook, remembering the way Lana crumpled when her head hit the counter’s edge. The awful stillness of her body in the bright kitchen. He hadn’t meant to hit her that hard. He’d wanted to hurt her but he hadn’t meant for her to get hurt.
“It wasn’t your fault, son,” the old man said gently. “If it were up to you, you would never hit a woman. It’s the damned witch. It fed you all the fear and anger of your ancestors. All the wrongs done to your people, all the wrongs your people have done...that’s what gives the witches power.”
He hadn’t even checked to see if she was still breathing. There hadn’t been any blood, just her black hair fanned out on the beige and ivory linoleum. But her body had been so very still.
He had called her name once, in a quiet, trembling voice. She hadn’t answered. And instead of calling an ambulance, Jonah had walked out of the house and gotten in his truck. He’d backed out of the gravel drive, and instead of going for help he’d just kept heading south.
“How do you know these things about me?” Jonah whispered a desperate plea. The anger had gone out of him, leaving only the gravity of what he had done. He knelt under its weight, his knees in the dust, as tears stung his eyes and bile burned his throat. The chaw went rancid in his mouth and he spit it out, heaving and hacking. The old man continued to speak, and his words thrummed in Jonah’s ears.
“The first people were very careful when they came to this world. They had rituals upon rituals, and they followed these strictly, to keep this world pure and good. But men and women are fallible, and they fell to temptation or trick, and their corruption opened cracks in the world, allowing the witches to follow. And now witches have overwhelmed this world, bringing wars and disease more horrific than have ever been seen. The world itself is diseased.”
Suddenly Jonah could see the witch. It was on his back, just as the old man had said, a noxious shadow that lived in the corner of his eye. He bowed under its weight, until his forehead touched the sand, grit grinding into his flesh.
Jonah’s mouth stretched in a silent scream. No sound could convey the agony within him, the despair he felt at the cruelty of the world and the cruelty he had committed. Only silence was vast enough to hold it.
“There’s a way to end it,” the old man said, kneeling next to Jonah, his hot breath in his ear. It was rank under the wintergreen. “There’s a ritual.”
“Please,” Jonah wept into the sand. “Make it stop.”
“You can make it stop. There is a way to escape this world. The Anasazi did it. When witches kill they leave evidence, bones and ruin and decay. They act by making men act for them. But the Anasazi vanished wholesale, no mass graves, no bones of last survivors. They didn’t die, they left the world. They found a way into the upper world, a new, clean world. A paradise. And the witches have not yet found a way to follow.
“You can do it too. At this place, this time.”
Jonah looked up, hope easing the pressure in his chest.
“What do I have to do?”
“I don’t know any.”
“A ritual is just a method, son. You have the ability in your blood, passed down from your ancestors. They came to this world from the others, always seeking a better place, a peaceful place. They did it before and you could do it now.”
Under the old man’s direction, Jonah drew lines in the sand. In the center of the symbol he built a fire out of scrub, and the smell of burning sage seared his sinuses. Some of it was too green and smoke billowed upward. He thought he saw shapes in the smoke, rising up as if on ephemeral wings, and it finally occurred to him to wonder what had been in that tobacco.
“Sing,” said the old man.
“I don’t know any of the songs.” It had been a long time since he’d been to a pow wow, and when he had gone he’d been interested in chasing girls and getting drunk with his buddies, not learning chants in a dying language.
“The words, the songs, are just the vessels that carry the magic. Your ancestors found the gateway to this world. The ability is in your blood.”
Feeling stupid, Jonah closed his eyes and began to hum a wordless melody he remembered from his youth. The smoke filled his lungs, tightening his chest and burning his throat, but the song shifted like a live thing. It morphed into one his grandmother used to sing at his bedside, when she did the dishes, when she made pottery out in the yard.
He traveled there in his mind, to the past, to that place where he’d been happy. The desert sunlight beat down hot and clean,and there was his grandmother sitting at a weathered picnic table with a vat of clay beside her covered in wet towels. Her hands were gnarled, stained sandstone-red as they performed magic on the clay. She shaped clay as deftly as the Creator, molding it into thin, perfectly balanced vases and bowls with no wheel and very little water. She could shape a pot so quickly it was like she’d conjured it out of thin air.
She looked up at him and her eyes met his. She looked at him with awareness, as if she knew he was there. It felt so real it shook his heart, and almost broke the fragile bubble of the vision.
But his being soared upwards again, into the hot, endless blue of the desert sky. He reoriented, so that he was surveying the earth below from a great height.
Something glinted. Like a crow, he fixated on the shiny spot and began to descend in lazy circles towards it.
It was a glimmer on the air, hovering above a flat, bone-dry steppe like a mirage. It was only visible from certain angles, and he could never see it head-on.
It gave off a sense of otherness, a radiance he could only describe as heavenly.
“That’s it!” The old man’s voice cut into his vision like an oil spill into clean water. “Reach out to it.”
Jonah reached out, grazing the golden radiance with his fingers. It was as if the light had substance, a substance that buzzed against his skin. He imagined charged atoms clustering densely together, jumping and humming with energy.
When he touched it he heard a melody, strains of some beautiful, poignant tune, mixed in with the fragrance of summer flowers. There was happiness there, and peace. It was so lovely it hurt. Everything he ever wanted was beyond that door. Just bathing in the light of it soothed him, made him dare to hope that he could be washed clean and made whole. He moved towards it, drawn by an inexorable gravity, until his hand was through. The opening widened around it.
A whiff of carrion intruded, and the weight on his back increased tenfold as the witch on his back tensed its bestial body, ready to spring into the doorway Jonah had opened.
Jonah drew his hand out of the door and grabbed the witch. It was wizened and deformed, like a giant, wingless vampire bat. It face had no eyes, just a wide snout. It snarled at him, jagged teeth protruding from rotting gums. He wrestled with it, but it was strong, and took all his strength just to hold it, to keep it from jumping in through the door.
Jonah looked up towards the light. The gateway was shrinking, the light fading. If he wanted to go, he had to do it now. If he jumped now, he could just pass through that slit in reality. He could be happy at last. Whole at last.
But if he did that the witch would get through too. And if the witch got through that door, then that perfect world would be corrupted. It would become like this one, full of pain and disease, violence and hate.
He tightened his grip on the witch. The doorway closed and Jonah wept, sobbed like he never had before, even as a child.
Jonah shivered awake. The sky was the gray lavender of early morning, and he was lying curled up in the sand on flat ground cleared of sage. There was no picnic table, no campfire, no strings of lights. No fireworks stand. No old man.
He sat up, stiff with cold. A coyote stood watching him on the next rise. Jonah stared at it, wondering. But then the sun rose over the hills, and the coyote turned and vanished into the desert.
Jonah got in his truck and drove north until the roads became familiar. It was a few minutes past eight when he pulled into the parking lot at the Navajo County sheriff’s office.
Jonah knew the deputy sucking down coffee at the front desk; they’d gone to high school together. He set his mug down with a clatter and looked at Jonah with pitying eyes.
“We’ve been out looking for you all night.”
“Concussion and three stitches, but she’s fine now, no thanks to you. Where you been, man?”
“Getting the witch off my back.”