An extract from Time Untime

December 10, 2012

Kateri Avani jerked in her sleep as her dreams tormented her. No longer a woman full grown, she was again a little girl sitting in her grandmother’s house, playing with the dolls her grandmother had made for her and her cousin Sunshine from the corn that grew in the garden out back. Barely twelve, Kateri brushed her small hand over the black cornsilk hair of the male doll.

Her grandmother sat beside her, at the old-fashioned red kitchen table, shelling peas as she spoke to Kateri in that ever gentle tone that never failed to make her feel safe in a world that had been anything but. “You know, Ter, it’s a common saying among people that the love of money is the root of all evil. But nothing could be more wrong.” She dropped the strings and ends of the pea stalk into the compost bucket at her feet. “Before the invention of money or even monetary systems, there was plenty of evil to go around.”

Not sure why her grandmother was telling her this, Kateri quirked a brow at the serious tone.

Her grandmother’s snow white hair was braided and twisted around her head in an intricate coil Kateri had tried over and over to master. Unlike her grandmother’s, hers always ended up in a mess that would leave her braids to fall loose as soon as she moved swiftly.

After pushing her glasses back with her knuckle, her grandmother paused her lecture to pull more beans from the handmade straw basket on the table and put them into the silver pan she held in her lap. Pointing at Kateri with one of the long pea stalks, she pierced her with those golden eyes that held all the fire of a strong, spirited medicine woman. “Heed my warning, child. Neither money nor greed destroy humanity, and they definitely don’t ruin the life of a single individual. Rather it’s something much more sinister. Those are merely the symptoms of the true disease that rots some from the inside out.”

Kateri’s eyes widened. “What rots people?”

“Envy,” she said in a chilling tone. “It is the deadliest of all things, child. It was what motivated the first crime known to mankind, when brother struck down brother and left him dead for no reason other than the fact that he thought his brother was more favored. On the surface, it’s such a beautiful word. But like all true evil, that beauty is deceptive and it lures the unwary in for capture and ruin. Like the devil’s whirlpool, before they realize it, they’re drowning in it and can’t escape it no matter how hard they try.”

“What does envy mean?” she asked, her heart thumping. If it was so bad, then she never, ever wanted it.

Her grandmother snapped the peas apart, her movements more frenetic. “From the Latin invidi which means to cause resentment or to calculate ill will toward another, envy is that inability to feel happiness at someone else’s good fortune or to wish them well even though they deserve it. It’s when you begrudge someone their moment in the sun or just the fact that they have a life that you think is better than yours, even though we all have pains and sorrow. Embarrassments and things that haunt us. From that, no one is ever immune.”

“I would never do such a thing, Grammy,” Kateri assured her. “I know better.”

Her grandmother smiled kindly. “I know, baby. But the warning bears repeating. It’s so easy to fall into its grasp, and to let that hatred and bitterness destroy your own happiness.” She handed Kateri several raw peas to eat while she continued shelling them. “When I was a girl about your age, my grandmother told me a story that her grandfather had told her. Even though I was young when I heard it, it has stayed with me throughout my entire life.”

Kateri crunched the peas while she listened. She always loved her grandmother’s tales.

“One day, a young boy went up to his grandfather who was an old Cherokee chief. ‘Edudi?’ asked the boy. ‘Why are you so sad?’

“The old chief bit his lip and rubbed his belly as if his stomach pained him unmercifully. ‘There is a terrible fight inside me, Uhgeeleesee,’ the chief said sternly. ‘One that will not let me sleep or give me any peace.’”

She touched a pea stalk to Kateri’s nose as she mimicked the boy’s wide-eyed wonder. “A fight, grandfather? I don’t understand. What kind of fight is inside you?”

Kateri stole another handful of peas from her grandmother’s pan.

“The old chief knelt in front of the boy to explain. ‘Deep inside my heart, I have two wolves. Each strong enough to devour the other, they are locked in constant war. One is evil through and through. He is revenge, sorrow, regret, rage, greed, arrogance, stupidity, superiority, envy, guilt, lies, ego, false pride, inferiority, self-doubt, suspicion and resentment. The other wolf is everything kind. He is made of peace, blissful tranquility, wisdom, love and joy, hope and humility, compassion, benevolence, generosity, truth, faith and empathy. They circle each other inside my heart and they fight one another at all times. Day and night. There is no let up. Not even while I slumber.’ The boy’s eyes widened as he sucked his breath in sharply. ‘How horrible for you.’ His grandfather shook his head at those words and tapped the boy’s chest right where his own heart was located. ‘It’s not just horrible for me. This same fight is also going on inside you and every single person who walks this earth with us.’”

Kateri touched her own heart as she wondered if those wolves were inside her, too.

“Those words terrified the little boy,” her grandmother continued. “‘So tell me, Grandfather, which of the wolves will win this fight?’ The old chief smiled at his grandson and he cupped his young cheek before he answered with one simple truth. ‘Always the one we feed.’”

Those words echoed through Kateri’s dream as she tried her best to wake herself. Be careful what you feed, child. For that beast will follow you home and live with you until you either make a bed for it to stay, or find the temerity to drive it out.

But her grandmother wasn’t through with her warnings. She took Kateri’s hand and pulled her forward through time. Into a place that was eerie and foreign, and at the same time, it was familiar. Like she’d been here before and forgotten it.

Or banished it.

Though the sweeping winds were hot, they made her blood run cold with dread- as if there was something innately evil here. Something that wanted her dead. All around them, stalagmites and stalactites formed misshapen beasts that added to her discomfort. The red earthen walls reminded her of a Martian landscape. More than that, those walls held sketches of past battles between warriors and a feathered snake that rose up above them, breathing fire from its nostrils as it tried to defeat them.

“This is where the end begins.”

Before she could ask her grandmother what she meant, Kateri saw a shadow move across the floor. It grabbed her from behind and jerked her back against a rock-hard chest. She felt swallowed by the size of the man who held her with an ease that terrified her. Dressed in a white linen shirt, black vest and jeans, his long ebony hair fell to the middle of his back. Dark eyes flashed in a face so perfectly sculpted that he didn’t appear real.

Familiar with this stranger, she relaxed.

Until he spoke.

“For all time,” he whispered in her ear an instant before he plunged a knife deep into her heart, then threw her to the ground to die.

Shaking and scared, Kateri woke up in a cold sweat to the sound of her alarm clock blaring. At 4:30 in the morning, her bedroom was still pitch dark, but even so she sensed a presence near her bed. More than that, she smelled the faint scent of peppermint and Jurgen’s lotion.

Her grandmother’s scent. There had only been one other time when she’d awakened to this sensation and smell- The night her grandmother had died while she’d been in college. Goosebumps ran over her body as tears filled her eyes.

“Eleesee?” she breathed, using the Cherokee word for grandmother.

Lightning flashed, highlighting the shadows in her room. Kateri gasped as the one in the corner appeared to be the solid form of a woman.

Only it wasn’t her grandmother. Instead, it was twisted and horrific. Ugly.

Worse, the shadow lunged at her.

Reacting on pure instinct, Kateri threw her arm up and whispered the ancient words of protection her grandmother had drilled into her so that she could fight her nightmares whenever they came for her. As she’d been taught, she pushed against the invader with her thoughts, willing it from this existence into the realm that had borne it. The creature screamed as it reached her bed and its face came within inches of hers. Its hollow eyes flickered like flames before it recoiled as if it had hit a forcefield. With a shrill caw, it exploded into a fiery creature that twisted and flew through the window in the shape of a crow.

No. Not a crow.

A raven.

Chills ran down her spine as her memories shot her into a place and time she didn’t want to go. It’s a raven mocker. Withered beings who only revealed themselves to those about to die.

To the souls they intended to devour.

Kateri shook her head harshly. No, she didn’t believe in such things. Those were stories her grandmother had told her to amuse or scare her with as a child. Ancient legends. I’m a scientist. I know there’s no such thing as shapeshifting beasts who steal the souls of the dying.

It was impossible.

But her grandmother had believed in them, as well as many of the Cherokee who’d lived on the reservation her grandmother had serviced. So much so that her grandmother had been summoned any time someone was dying. Day and night, until they passed, her grandmother had kept vigil to protect the dying from the raven mockers.

I have battled many of them in my day, child. And like me, you will one day have the ability to see them, too. To fight them for the souls they come to steal. It is your honor to follow after me. And when my time comes, I want you to hold my hand as I cross to the next adventure and protect my soul for me until it’s free of this old body. Then I shall live among the stars and stare down at you every night as I watch over you.

It was a dream that had never come true. Instead of dying peacefully in her sleep as she’d envisioned, her grandmother had been murdered by a home invader while Kateri was thousands of miles away.

Don’t think about it. Any time she did, rage- dark and foul- set her on fire and it took everything she had not to go rabid vigilante. Her grandmother had been the kindest, gentlest creature ever born and some psycho had kicked her door in and…

Stop! She had to get to work so that…

Her thoughts scattered as her gaze went to her dresser. There on top, next to the small picture of her and her cousin Sunshine sitting on her grandmother’s lap were the dolls she’d been dreaming about. Dolls she hadn’t seen in years. Not since the summer when she’d turned sixteen and her grandmother had led her through the ritual to symbolize her walk from childhood into that of an adult.

Those dolls had been burned to ashes on that day.

But that wasn’t what truly scared her.

While she’d slept, someone had come into her room and written on her mirror with a bar of soap- something else her grandmother had done whenever Kateri had stayed with her. Little notes such as- ‘I love you,’‘good luck with your test,’ ‘have a good day at school,’‘don’t forget your sweater’ or some such trifling.

But this note wasn’t sweet.

Take my nayu into the Valley of Fire, where the pure earth must tame the crow. Listen to the buffalo and protect the butterfly. Together, you are stronger than any foe. And remember, Waleli, when the coyote comes and the snake attacks, either you eat the bear or the bear eats you.

In the middle of the day, that would be irritating to read. This early in the morning, it was downright cruel.

I’m in not mood for this crap.

“Who’s here?” she shouted.

Only the sound of her own heartbeat answered her. She’d call the police, but to what purpose? Hey, officer, I woke up and found this really cryptic message on my mirror written by someone who was high or drunk or… No, officer, they’re not here now and I have no idea why they’d do something like this, but could you find out who they are and ask then not to leave me notes anymore? Who do I suspect? No idea. Only my late grandmother left me notes like this.

Yeah, that wouldn’t go over well and with her luck, they’d haul her in for filing a false report.

Or worse, call a psych unit on her.

But what really disturbed her about the note was that it called her Waleli… Hummingbird. It was her real first name that her grandmother had given to her on her birth. One that hadn’t been entered on the paperwork her mother had filed for her birth certificate. No one alive knew of it.

No one.

So either her grandmother had visited her or…

You don’t believe in ghosts.

True, but what other explanation could there possibly be? Why would a complete stranger break into her house, steal nothing, do her no harm and write that?

How would they know about her nayu or the name her grandmother only used when they were alone?

Kateri shook her head.

Maybe that was what the raven mocker had been doing.

Yeah okay, the idea of a raven mocker writing in soap on her mirror sounded even more ludicrous and farfetched than the ghost theory, but what was left?

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. She rolled her eyes as her mind reminded her of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quote.

“I don’t believe in this crap, Grammy!” she shouted up at the ceiling. She never had. Paranormal, raven mockers, tsinooks, spirits, and such… hokey poppycock.

She was a scientist. She only believed in what she could see, taste, touch, smell and hear.

Quantify.

The rest was fodder for novelists and Hollywood. It just didn’t exist outside of dreams.

All of a sudden, something squeaked. Kateri snapped her head toward the sound that had come from her dresser.

There on her mirror, more words appeared as she watched them.

But I believe in you, Waleli. Do not fail me.

Above all, do not fail yourself.