William Zuni by Brenda Tolian
We all have our baggage; some carry it around. I tend to go for a more natural route. It only takes a couple of hours to dig a few feet down in a secluded place and throw the body in. I fill the hole and then make a rock arrangement that lends itself to a medicine wheel fabrication, the reason being that folks in this area follow superstition and look, but never touch. Sometimes I’ve been on the trail coming down out of the mountains and can’t help smiling to myself as white hippies tripping balls dance just outside the perimeter, believing they are in a sacred place when in reality they are worshiping at the mounds of past mistakes rectified.
I don’t consider myself a murderer. The act of killing merely a merciful way of dealing out absolutions. Anyone I put there with dirt filling their mouth practically begged to be there. You know how lips lie, but actions are telling? Well, that is how I saw my purpose in my own personal philosophical approach. And trust me, I thought about it often.
I’m not crazy, but the mountain tells me things, gives me direction in my actions. It is into her embrace that I deliver the goods. She seems to appreciate the feeding, and I feed her often. Sometimes I feel that I am reincarnated, not in the hippy sense but in the theme of one who seeks out the sinful flesh for feeding. If they don’t get right, then I make it right.
Today, I hunted a baker. Not an actual baker who has a business that can be traced. No, this baker only left a French azure plate behind. Imagine, if you will, a potluck spread out across rough-hewed tables community style. Then imagine ten children dropping dead to the ground, flies buzzing on their lips partaking of the sticky sweetness. The actor was no Jim Jones, but that was the thing about this town and the surrounding mountains. No one felt they were guilty — no one except me. Funny, the Sheriff’s department even offered a lesser sentence if the guilty person came forward, but no one did.
I wanted to investigate for my own purposes, having a different incentive than the local law enforcement. I decided to go into the only coffee shop, a strange hub where Buddhist monks and new age inclined had polite debates on the afterlife and aliens. An Anglo girl with dreads piled on her head dressed like a sultana princess led me to a table that was decorated with a mosaic of dragonflies and iron. She smiled at me, dropping a menu on the table, which I promptly handed back, causing her frown.
“Coffee, black,” was all I said, dismissing her with my tone.
Coagulating bile is what happens in a small town, but here it was a more mixed-up mess with their appropriated beliefs and religions. They called the deaths of the children an accident, but here more than any other place; there were no accidents. In fact, these people lived on their intentions and even stated them loudly upon soapboxes in town and online. This might sound like a farce to those who live two thousand feet lower in elevation, but here everything had sacred purpose ascribed to it. In some ways, it might be the elevation that imbued the beliefs that lived here. The air was thinner than the valley floor and, for me personally, I could feel the heartbeat of the mountain. Others could also sense it, but not in the same way I did: a profound feeling like bees that resided in my head, or the scintillating sound of the hummingbird. In the world, I appear regular enough, but all her best hunters do. I have never met any of my predecessors, but I know there have been a few before me. I know from old journals and newspapers going back to the 1870s. I suppose the others would have different tales, but mine is simple: I died for a moment years ago and awoke a different man altogether.
I sat down all ready annoyed by the meditative music of the place, a strange mix of trance with native chanting. I traced my finger across the iron and jagged stone table and sat back with my eyes fixed into mere slits. To the patrons, I looked regular, meditative even. In truth, I was listening to what I was not meant to overhear with the incredible gifts the mountain gave me. The coffee came hot and steaming, a heart floating in steamed milk I had not requested sat on the surface. The waitress flashed me a forced smile which I chose to ignore.
A heart, I thought, how quaint.
Next, to me, two men spoke in hushed tones, one too suburban to be here and the other seeming almost homeless.
“He wants it kept quiet,” the homeless one said, his eyes twitching.
“He needs to turn himself in,” the well-dressed one hissed, “It wasn’t medicine; it was a massacre.”
“He was trying to spread the love, not kill anybody.”
I knew the well-dressed one to be Nathan Holmes: a member of the town board who hoped to be Mayor. The other was known as Old Bill. I wasn’t interested in Nathan—he would be an interest later—nor was I interested in Old Bill at the moment. What I was interested in was the connection. Their connection was to the Sacred Buffalo Circle, a supposed Native American church that had nary a native member. All Anglos. There were no words in my language to describe my revulsion for them.
I often attended their ceremonies as the token Indian. It was sickening how much they kissed my ass when I visited. The ceremonies were an appropriated mix of storybook ritual borrowed from Plains Indian, Celtic and imaginative voodoo. I would sit and plan each death and pray the mountain would allow me the honor of extinguishing each of them in my lifetime. The mountain was more than agreeable opening a path with ease if the killing was pleasing to her.
Nathan seemed to be barely keeping his anger under wraps. I suspected it was hard to present lawfulness in a town where it only existed as a veneer.
“If he comes forward, the whole church will go down, and you know what that will mean for this town,” Old Bill said shifting in his seat which sent sickening odors of weeks’ old sweat and herbal oils wafting in my direction.
The men seemed to notice me then and nodded in my direction. I nodded back and closed my eyes. They didn’t expect anything more, as I was known for keeping my own counsel, a man of few words. It seemed to the community I was stoic, but in reality, I fucking hated them all.
They didn’t need to say anything more; I knew where to find my baker.
I got up, leaving the coffee with its feeble foam heart. I stopped the blonde hippy princess and told her I didn’t ask for milk, leaving her looking irritated and less than loved. I went out to where my truck was pulled in under a massive cottonwood. My wolf dog, Ogma, waiting in the back, only getting up to see it was me before curling up again in boredom. I had fun choosing her name; I decided to appropriate an Anglo name of some god of Irish poetry and fish, or something. Some thought Ogma was otherworldly, which wasn’t all wrong; the mountain gave her to me for the hunt, and she had a taste for human blood. The assholes didn’t even realize I was mocking them, thinking it was some tribal power word. It was painfully apparent that most here spoke but never bothered to read much if they had they might have known the dog they petted might be eating them one day. Ogma was sweet until she went all hound of Bakersville on the trail.
We drove out on the pavement that took visitors to the ritzier holy places, like a mall of various religions and then turned West heading out on gravel roads that quickly went from mountain pinon to arid desert. The drive zigzagged through prickly pear, sage, and yucca the valley floor had a strange beauty of its own, that seemed to say; do not walk here. I walked here often and even slept beneath the stars on occasion, but it was not a preferred place, as the mountain heartbeat seemed only a murmur here. I needed to hear her and feel her below me as I slept.
My destination was on the horizon: a trashy mix of tepees, tiny homes, and a larger building where the church gathered. I knew part of the building was also the home and harem of its leader, Joseph Moskva, who was in truth Russian. He had five kids and counting with his three wives who all dutifully saw to the internal workings of the community. I was welcome here with some suspicion. It wasn’t that Joseph knew what I was; it was envy for my ancestry and his belief that I would replace him if given a chance. This bizarre envy on his part created cold civility between us that mostly worked to my advantage. In actuality, as I surveyed the property, I thought about how quickly the canvas teepees would burn and how nice the land would look without the Anglo trash that had overrun it.
I pulled into the drive kicking up significant plumes of dust and parked. They were armed, so I always thought it best to sit a bit until they came out to welcome. Militant hippy types were tricky in that they didn’t plan on what to shoot at; they reacted in pure pathos, a shoot on a whim sort of way. They never practiced their shot or hunted, most of these folk being vegetarians and I respected the danger in that.
I rolled a cigarette and lit it, watching passive smoke rise and curl out of the truck window. The turquoise sky was without clouds, and the sun was blazing down, heating the cab as I waited, Ogma began to pace in the truck bed. Finally, a door to the building opened and Willow, the youngest wife, came out. Her unnaturally red hair was piled on her head like the princess from the coffee shop. She was even dressed somewhat like the waitress in long hemp skirts with beadwork and feathers to render herself in the stolen native tradition. Her belly protruded with the next child to come; I had heard two of his wives were expecting around the same time. Joseph was a busy man.
She smiled as she came to the window. Without a word, I handed her my smoke, which she seemed grateful for. She leaned against the door letting out a sigh.
“God, I was hoping someone would come along with tobacco. Joseph took the truck, so we can’t get into town.”
He’s not here, I thought.
“How are you, Zuni?” Willow asked, stepping back as I opened the door.
I stepped out slowly and leaned against the truck with her. She glanced at me under thick lashes reddening from her cheeks down to her apple breasts.
“I can’t complain. I wanted to speak to Joseph.”
She blew out a plume of smoke while she rubbed her belly.
“He went up to the mountain, taking some soul seekers on ceremony there. I wish I could have gone, but he said it would be hard on the baby.”
“Ah,” I said, “A mountain is an ugly place for those with child.”
She laughed, her face almost pretty in action. “Zuni you talk so Indian.”
I let this pass as she was young and stupid. She became a wife at sixteen and never finished school. On top of that, she had endured two years of being told what to think and do, which rendered her an inconsequence.
“Which spot did they go to?” I asked, letting a smooth smile come to my mouth.
“Oh, you know the Alien Rocks with the vortex,” she said singsong like.
It was all I could do not to laugh. The Alien Rocks was a spot for orgies and plant-based drugs, supposedly sacred due to aliens visiting a townie almost twenty years ago. The vortex allusion was their childlike way to explain the mountain. They thought it was a vortex of power, but in reality, it was the mouth of the mountain leading directly to her belly. This information could not make me happier as it seemed my baker had delivered himself to the perfect spot.
“Ya wanna come in for some kombucha?” she asked in the most innocent tone she dared.
I looked at her, still smiling. I had gone in for Kombucha before; it was like entering the most tapestry laden harem in the country. Where the women lived could be described as one never-ending bed, and since Joseph was gone plenty, they took advantage of those who visited. It was mostly out of boredom, but also the freewheeling culture of the town. I could attest that the kombucha was more than that, and enough to make any man or woman forget where they were for hours. I was initially surprised that Joseph didn’t get upset—maybe he did—I was never sure, nor did I care.
“Why thank you, Willow, but no, Ogma and I have an appointment around sunset.”
Disappointment crossed her face before being replaced by a robotic smile.
“All right promise you’ll come over soon. We gotta catch up.” She took the cigarette with her walking away.
I shook my head and got back in the truck. The women here were strange contradictions, on the one hand all about female power and, as they called it, juiciness—and I can attest to the juiciness—the other side was an acceptance of the patriarchy. In as much as they saw themselves as goddesses, they worshiped the men as gods. They were the very opposite of the goddess I worshiped. I suppose I preferred my lady along the line of the essence of a mountain lion, with blood in her mouth.
I drove to the trailhead, not bothering to hide my truck since most townies expected to see it parked up there. My other line of work is that of a guide to Denverites going up the mountain. I checked my pack and let Ogma out, who proceeded to dive into the pinon. I rolled a cigarette, lit it, and let my eyes rove the mountainside. The thinnest trail of smoke about four miles up was where I had expected it. I thought about the others with Joseph, who were on some sort of Anglo vision quest. At least they would be out of their minds from fasting. I hoped that they would be fucked up on peyote or something by the time I got there.
I began the hike just off the trail, the mosquitos packed into thick clouds that didn’t seem to notice me as I passed through. Ogma joined me from time to time, and if there were others on the trail, her wolf-like features would send them back down to the parking lot. I think she enjoyed scaring the Denverites on the path; I guess I took pleasure in it too. The sun was hot, blazing beams upon my head as I walked at a slow, leisurely pace. I was not in a hurry as my work would not start until after sundown. I felt joyful with the mountain heartbeat thumping below my boots.
I thought about the coming moments wishing I had baked a cake for the occasion. I would have liked serving it to Joseph, but it wouldn’t be enough. She wanted blood.
The mountain watched everything. Some could have said I was born of her watchful eye. My parents disappeared here, so perhaps I was looking for something here too.
I arrived in the valley years ago and explored the few towns eventually making my way up the mountain to this place, a mecca for the lost and misunderstood. In some ways, I felt that I was not unlike these people, and they embraced me quickly enough, mostly because of my native look. I was half Native American, but have never known my parents, I also never knew my tribe. The townsfolk, however, didn’t care. Merely having me around lent to the authentic esthetic they desired in the ceremony. I took on the name Zuni as it was the first that came to mind, not having a tribe of my own. I thought it up during one of these rituals preferring to remain mysterious. No one thought it was strange and most even seemed to like rolling that name around in their mouth. I had no desire to share my actual name with those who lived here.
I attended many rituals I must admit, as it was the perfect place for information and the hunt. I just sat there silent like a medicine man while they vomited in buckets hallucinating ancestors that were not theirs. I figured the free booze, marijuana, and sex if I wanted it was reason enough to be their Indian. Sometimes it paid off in information or my prey who were all too happy to go on a hike with the ‘sacred one’ after a night of illumination from ayahuasca.
I hiked, the mountains being the most beautiful range anyone could ever see — my opinion, of course. I felt more at home, the higher I went as if a connection was formed with each step. I thought on this plenty, wondering if it was because my past was a locked door that could never be opened. I said I didn’t care about my parents, but that would be untrue as I walked the lofty trails.
It was on one of these hikes almost three years ago that I misjudged a trail that was unstable after the monsoon rains. I was told that I fell one hundred feet down the side and was unconscious for hours, but I wasn’t. Something happened that reshaped me, as my blood pooled out of my head. The mountain soaked my unintentional offering into her spongy sides and fabricated a thread of connection as her tongue sucked and tasted, deciding I was good. I remember being pulled down out of my body through the layers of rock, soil, and root. I could not see her, but her voice as she spoke to me was a terribly beautiful thing, filling me with awe and consternation. In flashing yet painfully vivid pictures I saw the bloody work required, she had a refined taste and desired those who truly belonged in her belly. I knew that there were no choices here. I would choose, or I would die. Truth be told there was no contrary thought in me; she felt more real than a ghost of a mother. She was the mother.
Her thighs contained the mine shafts in which bodies were thrown, almost all women, children, and I suspected my parents. The decade didn’t matter whether it be 1872 or the present; men sinned just the same. When it was only mining towns across the bosom of the mountains a century ago, they used up the women and then they made them disappear. The same thing happens now, and the local Sherriff department is rendered helpless by the transient nature and secretive culture of the town. I figured this is how no one ever suspects me. Others before me had been caught, hanged, imprisoned, but I was a shadow here blending in until I had no desire to do so. I wasn’t an avenging angel; I was her son doing the only thing I felt compelled to do.
I took the trail slow following the arc of her spine. The creek was swollen with snowmelt, loud and angry. Since I had the benefit of knowing where they would be, I took a path that switchbacked to a cliff overlook. This jutted out chunk of rock afforded me a view down to the Alien Rocks as the Anglos called it.
I would like to say I was surprised by what I observed, but I wasn’t. Below were rocks that had been tumbled then moved by men like Joseph. They stood in triangles of three, about seven in number, and within each was a naked person reclined. It was evident that they were, as I expected, tripping, some reaching out to things only they could see. A vat of something, probably ayahuasca, bubbled over a small fire. Joseph moved from one to the other, especially paying attention to the two women of the group. I’m not sure if they had been sober that they would have allowed the ways he was touching them, but they certainly did not mind currently. Joseph was almost naked except for a loin cloth making his white skin contrast in an almost embarrassing way with the dark greens around him. I could hear him chanting gibberish. I supposed it was his rendition of Indian speak. If he didn’t look so stupid, I might have been more upset.
Ogma appeared at my side bloody around her open mouth and jagged teeth. She had obviously been busy on the trail.
“Well, friend, how shall we do it?” I asked her. She just tilted her head looking up at me, then turned around three times and curled up to rest. I think she sensed the hunt was coming, and she wanted to be ready.
I didn’t want all of them, and neither did the mountain. Patience was a virtue given by the mountain, so I would wait. The perfect moment would come. I laid down beside my dog and drifted off for a bit while the sun sailed west in the sky. She licked my face with her bloodied tongue. I didn’t mind; I never minded the blood.
When my eyes opened again, it was dark. The dancing light of flames from a considerable fire below illuminated the clearing. They were dancing now, still naked, some beating bongos and others were playing the flute. A few chanted loudly in their new possession of a fake native tongue. Apparently, on nature drugs, you could crawl into the skin you wanted…fuckers.
I didn’t see Joseph. I dug out my binoculars and took a closer look counting and finding one of the women was missing. My best guess was he was beyond the perimeter, fucking her. I reset my pack on my back and moved slow and silent down the cliff. The thing about fire is that you can see within the circle of its light but not so good beyond, which rendered the dancers blind to me and the mountain. They just went on with their soul seeking madness.
The moon rose over the mountain illuminating the area. And I could see two white bodies in the distance. I stopped when the light glinted off the cold steel of a dagger held aloft in Joseph’s hand. It was then I realized the woman was not moving. Joseph sliced down in one quick motion, removing something. I wasn’t afraid and deep inside I felt the movement of the mountain telling me it was time. I smiled then, walking forward. I am a rather silent person and not given to fits of emotion; this helped in my line of work.
So, no sound came from my mouth as I took in the singular sight of Joseph cutting off the woman’s flesh and eating it raw.
“So, you’re not only a baker; you’re a butcher too?” I said evenly cutting the nights silence.
Joseph, almost an animal at this point, looked up, surprised with his face covered in blood. His eyes were dilated black as I clicked on my flashlight. I traced the ground and saw the body was in several pieces, just close together, which is why I hadn’t seen it as it was sooner. He threw his arms over his eyes.
He crawled backward laughing a bit. “It’s…surely you know, you know your people do the sacrifice thing…right?”
I didn’t say anything. Part of me wanted to kill him right there for that statement. He started in with his gibberish chanting, and then I was annoyed.
“What are you sacrificing for?” I decided to play along a bit.
“Uh well, those kids that were hurt,”
“Killed, you mean.”
“Uh right, if they catch me, man, my church will be lost. Everything gone. “He said, shaking one of the dead girls’ hands in my face.
“Church of the lost…church of the fucking lost.” I smiled down at him. “Tell me, was it an accident?”
Joseph began to rock on the heels of his feet, wrapping his bloodied arms around himself.
“Yes and no. People were jumping camp, and I needed some control brother.”
“Not killed…I mean, they weren’t supposed to die.”
“Well, friend, they are dead.” I reminded him a second time.
He nodded and began chanting again. I had wanted a more complex interaction, but have you ever tried to talk to someone on ayahuasca? I mean his eyes were crazy. I’m pretty sure he thought I was a spirit guide.
I looked at the carved-up body. The woman had been beautiful. I recognized her as a tribal dancer in town, and I knew her because I had slept with her a time or two. She had partaken in the ritual many times, seeking clarity in her life. I am pretty sure she never pictured this in her drug-addled mind. Her tongue hung grotesquely from her mouth; her neck half hacked away. I knew they sacrificed dogs and such but hadn’t thought anyone had been fit for this. Murder yes, but deliberately sacrificing someone not so much.
I was almost impressed and wondered if the mountain had permeated his mind like my own.
Ogma bounded into the clearing muscles taut, hair spiky. This was the final ascent to my purpose here. I began to feel the change overcoming me, though I had no way to see if I really changed. My nails and teeth seemed to grow longer, I felt ligaments exploding and my form elongating. I had to get my boots off in a hurry as my feet began to enlarge in the stiff leather painfully. Joseph’s face shifted as I watched the blood lust drain from his features, replaced by my desired result of fear. I could smell it like pungent rotten meat, and I wanted that meat with a hunger that tore through my body in an excruciating need.
“Run!” I said in a half growl. I held back with all my might, moving just enough so he could not run again to the fire, only higher up the mountain. Joseph hesitated, and his bladder let loose. He looked at me, pleading with his fearful black eyes.
“Run!” I shouted again, my voice lower now. This time Joseph took off up the trail. I waited as my body continued its metamorphosis. My goddess had changed me with her power and bloodlust. This was not to say I was suddenly a freak animal nor a werewolf. No, I was still me, only better, faster, and with ungodly strength and a damn overwhelming hunger. They say we are immortal. I have my doubts about that, but I enjoy the feeling so much that I remain mostly sober in every other part of my life.
The mountain is all I need.
I was not Zuni. I am William.
And for them? I was pure punishment.
The hunt was not long; the drugs making Joseph’s legs sluggish. I suppose the head start was my way of allowing him to feel he still had power and choices. Men like him were drunk on the feeling and needed to be drunk on it until it was brutally ripped away. Needless to say, I was somewhat disappointed in the feeling of chasing something that felt more like a domesticated cow than a sure-footed bull elk. Yet the first draw of blood alleviated the disappointment with the first gush in my mouth.
With my long talon-like nails, I began to slice off strips of Joseph even as he begged for life. The warm flesh I consumed raw, some of which I shared with Ogma. The irony of butchering the butcher was not lost on me. I must confess I enjoyed him watching as I consumed him. Joseph’s face morphing between implausible pain to horror, unable to scream as his tongue I had quickly cut out and fed to Ogma. I could feel the rapturous hunger of the goddess of the mountain all around me as the blood pooled below and soaked into the dirt. I kept him alive for hours, reviving him from time to time, feasting until he finally bled out. That night I slept with a full belly in her arms, enclosed in the blood, flesh, and moist loam.
The next morning the sun glittered on the dew, and I washed in the creek. I dug a pit and rolled the bones and tattered flesh into the mountains embrace. I created my best medicine wheel yet, imagining the face of the first hippy soul searcher to find it, the awe and tiptoeing around it in a moment imbued with assumed sacred magic. The place I had chosen for this work of art was particularly suited to the occasion with large boulders around the edges and swaying aspen. I worked until satisfied and surveyed the suitably primitive rendition. Ogma sniffed at the mound of rocks that contained the body at its center and moved on uninterested, assuring me that any animals in the area would leave it undisturbed.
Ogma and I took a longer route down, first checking the Alien Rocks to see if the soul seekers were still sleeping. They were, as I expected, in a pile of peaceful limbs in a deep sleep and I suspected they would stay that way till noon, waking up sunburnt and severely dehydrated. I smiled knowing that today would be the worst day of their life; some of them might even reform their Anglo ways.
I continued down, but not in a rush. Instead, I found myself enjoying the feeling of her inside as if I were a breathing buzzing hive full of bees, full of the queen. Hikers that met me on the trail couldn’t help but smile and later tell a tale of meeting the most majestic Indian they had ever seen. They will say they thought I might have been a spirit of the mountain, and I would disagree. I was her devoted servant. I was William.
Brenda Tolian is a recent graduate of Adams State University and a current graduate student in creative writing at Regis University. She currently resides in the strange and hauntingly beautiful San Luis Valley. Her writing is inspired by folklore, cultures, current crimes and mysteries of the ancient place she calls home. If it matters…She is queer.