Some people peel apples in thick layers, heedlessly
and negligently cutting away half the apple. Others squint and observe
closely the fruit, stripping its skin paper-thin in an unbroken circular
thread, lovingly and frugally, as if it were the last apple in existence.
As a boy I came to belong to the latter in imitation of my Cherokee friend
and tutor, John Rainwater, whose peelings were almost transparent.
At the age
of 14 “Rainy” already respected the nature that I ignored; he carried a
multi-purpose jackknife in the back pocket of his jeans to participate in
it. On summer nights after we had hijacked another fruit-laden truck
chugging up the hill in front of the elementary school, he would hunch
exasperatingly long over each apple, skinning it just right. Just to show
me. Though he disapproved of the waste of even fruit peelings, he was a
hygiene maniac and would not allow me to eat unwashed apples, skin and
all, as I in my ignorance did before he arrived in my life.
turning to the rest of the booty on one of those moon-soaked southern
nights - peaches or apricots, watermelons or cantaloupes - he would
ceremoniously scalp an apple and deliver to my hand a beautifully carved
succulent and naked Delicious - we called them Starch Delicious - with
such fierce warning in his Indian eyes that I didn’t dare taste it until
his was ready.
Then as we
partook of the sacred fruit Rainy would tell me eerie tales about the
world of his ancestors - of Mother Earth and Father Sun, immortal
butterflies and hummingbirds, the annual sun dance, the great sacred
spirits, and vanished Indian forests. Early on he captured me with his
natural way of calling trees “standing people.” And dead trees,
“skeletons.” Though they were immobile and remained where they were, he
said, they were the link between earth and heaven.
never the image of happiness and joy. At times it seemed his life was only
magic, unreal, and he was destined to live on a razor’s edge. But, I came
to learn, he was not unhappy at all. He was - how should I put it? - he
was quietly serene. I imagined his was an Indian approach to life.
see the mountains as a prison as I did. And he flowed with things beyond
his control. But I was angry. I was the rebel he should have been.
Unconsciously I was angry at authority. Rather awed by power - when I
recognized it - I refused to submit to it. In my refusal there was I think
a suppressed destructive instinct; but not because power was cruel or in
my opinion illegal or usurpatory: it was power’s encroachments.
just laughed at my antics and to calm me would say in his mysterious way,
“Life is a dance.” At that time he liked to identify himself as a
Chiluki-ki. Pumping his arms and stamping his feet in a short dance he
would boast that he belonged to the great Iroquois peoples. Usually he was
more voluble than explicit and though his tales sometimes exasperated my
Anglo-Saxon mind with no tales to tell, his sense of belonging fascinated
me since I had little idea of what it meant to be Scotch-Irish. Before I
was 15 he had made me feel both an affinity for the standing people and an
awareness of belonging to the human race.
later boyhood years Rainy became mainstream - earnestly integrated. Most
people in town even forgot he was Cherokee. He was just John Rainwater.
Yet I still felt like his pupil and was dismayed when he sneered about his
ancestors. When he once wore head feathers and a loincloth to a party and
drank liquor in order to show it was just a masquerade, I was ashamed of
him. It was sacrilege. Especially his treatment of the feathers his
grandfather said were sacred. Before I left the town he had apparently
totally rejected the “old beliefs” of his Grandfather John and stopped
visiting him at the old man’s house on the Swannanoa.
once in a while a haunted look would fill Rainy’s eyes and he would spread
his arms and look toward the heavens, I thought in prayer to Father Sun.
And though in those late high school years he professed he was first of
all a football player I remained convinced he was destined to become a
what Rainy did for me: He kept me company in my loneliness and he kept
alive in me the it I have since attempted to pinpoint, the same it
that with my limited expressive capacity I have never succeeded in
defining with words, the it that not even my thoughts have been
able to achieve. And he taught me a secret language that only we spoke, so
that speaking everyday language with him seemed forced and stilted. For
five years in all, maybe five and a half, we hung together - the mystical
pagan Cherokee and the American Baptist son of the Scotch-Irish-German
conquerors of the lands of Rainy’s ancestors.
believed we gravitated one to the other because we were of the few aware
of the standing people and of the it hanging just out of our reach.
And because of our mystical language.
loners, Rainy and me. Out of focus. He was different. For that reason he
at first didn’t seem to understand that I felt different, too. For a long
time he ignored my sense of alienation. I thought he was unaware of the
demons crashing against the thin walls of my brain; he didn’t realize it
was because of my remoteness that I submerged myself first in sports and
then in the fantasy of books and in his ancient mysticism. Because of
Rainy my teenage world progressed in an air of magic, which probably saved
me. I found my first hints of freedom in those fantasies that made my
dreams the anteroom to the real world.
teased me because I had never learned to dance. Dance? I still don’t know
why. But I thought he was pretty phony about it, too. He danced only
Indian fashion - his pious stamping on a nocturnal lawn to celebrate
another victorious raid on a fruit truck - but he expected me to jitterbug
and waltz and rumba like all Anglos. Once at a high school dance in the
chic George Vanderbilt Hotel after he - dressed in a dark jacket and tie
and looking like a Latin Lover - maliciously signed me up for ten dances
with ten different girls on the cards they used to hand out, I was so
embarrassed I had to skip.
the waltzes and the sambas and dreamed of performing them, too, but I
claimed not dancing was my declaration of freedom.
he commented that I was ridiculous.
just that Rainy made me wonder where we came from and where we were going
- it was also that - but sometimes, back then, peeling and eating the
Delicious apples on the luxuriant grass of the darkened schoolyard and
examining the high skies filled with unnamed worlds, I felt the
propinquity of the little ungraspable it - it seemed to be becoming
comprehensible all-encompassing palpable attainable.
things,” Rainy might say just to bewitch me as we observed the shooting
stars and I wondered where the universe ended. Or if it ended. Like an
astronomer he pointed out and explained Aldebaran or Rigel or Sirius and
we spied on them, watching closely to see them move and I would wonder how
he knew which was which.
you learn that?” I would ask.
knows things,” he would reply matter-of-factly. “My grandfather and my
great-grandfather, they all know things. We’ve always known.”
things?” I asked. Concealment was his second name. “What things, Rainy?
know!” he insisted and grinned his shadowy Indian grin - his eyes
prompting, alluding, insinuating that he knew that I knew. And I was
flattered that he thought I knew.
what?” I would continue to protest, though in retrospect I realize I came
to believe that I did know something.
that which you think is unknowable….You know the Great Spirit is there,”
he said, quoting his grandfather. And he would jump to his feet and dance
in a circle, singing gutturally his few words of Iroquois, his torso
sinking and rising rhythmically, his feet pounding the grass in an
imitation of real Indians,” he said, and slapped at his legs, just to
irritate and confound me. He knew I wanted him to be a real Indian.
there he made me imagine I saw some of those magical things, too. But
after the rite of the apple and the feast of the melons and a Chiluki-ki
dance, after a whispered narration of a shivery tale of the Great Mystery
and the beginning of all things, and after we separated at the top of my
street, I always stopped and wondered what we were doing.
strange tales without apparent beginning or end, the secret knowledge he
concealed, his eternal intangibility, and the it linked to the moon and
stars in a high sky and to the peeling of the apples, have remained in my
memory like images in a mirror reflecting another mirror reflecting other
images from other mirrors, on and on into eternity.
turned my head away from the magic mirror I might forget it, sometimes
even for years at a time, but the image always returned. Rainy would have
said it was my piece of the Great Spirit fighting for supremacy.
I would become aware of the hollowness gnawing away.
The it, I
decided, was the shadow of an uncertain past when America was not America.
Yet I felt lucky that I knew I too had my own mysteries to resolve.
years later, I have returned to the town, my hometown. I had to return.
The old it had to be here after all. And I have found Rainy again. A new
start. Return can be a blessing. The wandering and wondering is over. I’ve
left the other life behind.
down along the river in his grandfather’s old house - a shabby, lonesome,
white, four-room wood-frame rectangle facing the river, much like many
houses in the hill country. Yesterday when I stopped my car in the empty
space in front of the house, the dark man with silver hair sitting on the
front porch was staring toward the river and, I was certain, waiting for
a bend the Swannanoa is narrower but swift and tricky and marked by
magnetic eddies and counter-currents. It is alternately murky green or
muddy brown like its mother, the French Broad River. Early mornings it is
veiled with ashen white and late afternoons it is dull and misty. In the
instant he rose from the rocker and I turned off the motor I saw him again
peering into an eddy in a Pisgah Mountain creek: the blurred shadow of his
image repeats to me that running water is magic and one should worship it.
stands alone facing the river. Lush green fields peopled with poplars and
oaks and pines and fruit orchards slope gradually toward the backyard.
Beyond the fields, steep green wooded hills rise up sharply, concealing
the eternally secluded Kenilworth Lake to the north. To the right
stretches a valley marked by groves and glades and hillocks in the
direction of the dark chain surrounding Mt. Mitchell.
are again,” he said enigmatically, as if I had left yesterday, and jumped
down agilely from the porch. He walked toward me in his noiseless and
springy step of a hunter and the gliding gait that had made him an elusive
broken-field runner on our championship football team. Now darker than
back then, still lean and muscular, his white smile emerging from behind
the cloud of his face, he looked like an older Indian. I was glad.
Govar,” he said, an inflection of his former irony in his soft voice. He
held out his hand stiffly. His blue veins pulsated under the shadowy skin
of his hand, his lips were moist and dark, his facial skin taut, his black
eyes wells of crystal-clear water.
lived alone. His wife had died, his children vanished into the prairies of
America. He had no telephone, no computer, no car. Today more deliberate
and more ceremonious in his every movement, I thought he could have been
Rainy my life had contained no secrets. But under his influence and
tutelage back then I came to believe that the town itself concealed great
secrets. And someplace, secret rites. No one else thought such thoughts.
No one else saw the town as my eyes did. A walk through the downtown, a
mere promenade in the sunshine, became for me a confrontation with
unspecified spirits. I slinked along back streets. I was a man on the run.
I dodged shadows and hid in doorways from secret agents pursuing me.
Phantom armies were closing in. Old buildings on Wall Street and down
Lexington Avenue that once were just old buildings came to host spirits
and ghosts. In imitation of Rainy I lifted my head toward the skies when
it rained. During those five summers of celestial magic, of sun, moon and
stars, water and fruits, and tales of charms and spells and sorcery, life
itself unfolded limitlessly and confusedly as when you stand in chaos and
realize everything is possible.
said it was normal. It was my destiny at play.
It was in
that atmosphere of fear and wonder that I began to sense the it dangling
over my shoulder. I remember the first time I dared formulate such an
idea. Rainy and I were lying on the grassy schoolyard under the stars.
Only a membrane of moonlight illuminated the hills to the west. No fruit
trucks had passed. We had been talking football and girls. He was lying on
his stomach, rubbing his thumb across the blade of his jackknife, when I
at me in his most sinister manner - and nodded. “It’s normal,” he said.
then were torn between the potential sorcery of the other world in
darkness and the football we lived for. At practice races we flew on the
winds, he an inch ahead one day, I the next. Sports writers labeled us the
“twins of speed” - he, the shadow and I, the ghost. I liked our nicknames;
he shrugged: “What do they know?”
last year in town football seemed to get the upper hand over Rainy. The
closer I edged toward it, the further he seemed to move away and the more
he mocked his eccentric grandfather of the ingenious fancies - a poor
crank, Rainy said - until he finally stopped going there - to this same
house where he now sat facing the Swannanoa.
I stared at
Rainy and imagined him during the four decades of my wandering. He was
forever here on the river, among his hills, stationary, immobile - no
Tuscany for him, no Amsterdam, no Moscow, no Teheran - while I raced back
and forth among my distant worlds, trying to remember that I had to grasp
the old it. I feared I had come to believe real life was concealed in
faraway places. The secret! A déjà vu! Of a déjà vu. On an August evening
pleasant breezes blow across the tops of the 2000-meter hill of Upper
Teheran, that morning it was 120 degrees in the Lower Town when the troops
fired on the mobs, in the phony luxuriant oriental garden of the Shah’s
cousin, we journalists feast on caviar and champagne and the most
beautiful half-naked women of the kingdom, and I look around me and wonder
and feel the void of hollowness and in a flash of a reflection from a
polished brass samovar I see John Rainwater squat and dip his hands into
the silver water of a Blue Ridge Mountain stream, and say, “This must be
moment now we listened in silence to the music of the waters of the
Swannanoa - the “Suwali Nunna” - the word means the trail of the Suwali
tribe. Rainy had always been capable of interminable silences as if his
own story was written in silence. He used to say we understood things and
each other best in those silences. I had accepted his silences but I
always preferred the legends.
into the house and brought out tall glasses of iced tea. He asked about my
life abroad. Surprised he knew where I had been I told him that I hoped to
return home for good - even if not physically, I added.
said “home” he looked up and smiled.
course,” he said, and asked if I had found contentment in my travels. I
was glad he didn’t ask if I still considered this home, for I didn’t know
either. Or why my commitment to it. Was this home?
the apples?” I said instead.
tell him that out there I was sicker and more alone than ever. How could I
tell him that things in the real world were different? My inclination was
to say something banal like that ‘in life you after all have to do
something’ but that I too often had had the sensation it was not myself
but someone else who was performing. When I spoke, someone else seemed to
be speaking. When I acted, an unknown force seemed to be prompting me. I
wanted to say that my thoughts had always seemed to be different from the
thoughts of others. At those times when I felt my strangeness I remembered
John Rainwater: and again I felt as if I knew things others did not and
also at times as if I knew no one else on earth. I shared the same space
and time with others but each person seemed ultimately isolated and alone.
In a way return seemed to offer redemption for lost things.
when we visited my secret places?” I said.
at me gravely and again nodded. “You came to believe in my grandfather’s
other dimension and that you could just step into it through a secret door
- the way a shadow glides along a wall and suddenly vanishes.”
I was about
16 when I pinpointed what I believed were the physical containers of the
town’s secrets - Grove Park Inn, the Catholic Church, the Masonic Temple
and the Synagogue. I believed in multiple secrets, then. I was convinced
that once revealed they would resolve also the matter of the it.
those years were for us a strange period - while the whole world was
changing. Hopefully, expectantly, I kept returning to those mysterious
places. Though Rainy’s sacred mountains around us were soon to become the
walls of my prison, my 16th year in the Land of the Sky was a rich period
of mystery and legend, occultism and myth, body and spirit.
remember,” he said, and sipped his tea and vaguely waved a hand in the
direction of the trees along the highway. “You were convinced the secret
was at Grove Park Inn.”
Grove Park Inn, its pink granite and the red folds of its tiled roofs
visible from most of Asheville at its feet, seemed to leap out of the
mountainsides, an invitation to the world beyond the mountains. For us at
16 the great hotel was never its famous tennis and golf courses or its
elegant bars and restaurants or even the famous writers and statesmen who
frequented it; Grove Park for us was its forbidden nocturnal swimming
pool, attainable only for the brave who dared climb its high fences and
defy its guards and vicious dogs and spotlights. Still, in my heart, I
believed that its red roofs and deep cellars concealed unimaginable
wonders and secrets and revelations of the real world.
contained no secrets,” I said.
are somewhere else.”
in the Basilica either.”
chuckled. “They changed the name to basilica but it’s as dry and alien as
it ever was when it was just a church.”
awe-inspiring and magnetic church in the church-filled town was its
Catholic Church whose magnificent dome cast its shadow over downtown. Fear
and reverence in our hearts, we Protestants and pagans went to mass there
each Christmas Eve. The carillons and thunderous chords from the German
pipe organ echoed down from the great cupola and Neapolitan manger scenes
and the priests’ elaborate costumes and the white eyes of standing singing
and murmuring worshippers shimmered in the candlelight and reflected off
the heavenly stained-glass windows. At mass on Christmas Eve we nudged
each other, bewildered at the presence of Christian bibles in the pews -
they told us the Pope would burn them - and at the absence of threats of
perdition and of time running out, and we were bewitched by the
foreignness of the Latin liturgy. It hardly seemed like church. It was a
façade. It was enough to convert. Within the sumptuous taboo, deep in the
unfathomable mystery of its great sin of humility, I knew most certainly
must lay one of the town’s secrets.
in yesterday,” I said. “The doors were wide open and you could see dust
everywhere. I picked up some chewing gum wrappers that had blown in…. You
were always right.”
should take a look at the Masonic Temple!”
that too. It looks like miniature architecture. A copy of a poor copy of a
Masonic Temple was another landmark symbol of my arcane city, in my
fantasy linked by invisible threads to the other containers. Isolated at
the top of a hill on Broadway, its doors forever closed, its two oriel
windows dark, it was surrounded by silence. Once on finding the great
entrance door cracked I stuck my head inside and saw just under my eyes a
copper plaque with the surprising inscription: “Brethren of the Temple of
Solomon - 1118 a.d.” I rushed home and wrote it down.
newspaper route in the early morning darkness I always made a wide circle
around the synagogue. Or, days, I waited in anticipation for the moment
when my childhood playmate, Sidney, broke off play to go to his Hebrew
lesson. Hebrew! I didn’t know what he meant. The lesson was in the
synagogue just around the corner from my house and it should have been
familiar. But skinny little Sidney was close-mouthed; he never explained
what Hebrew was; he would never speak of the synagogue which for me was
perennially dark and I never saw anyone go in or out. The synagogue and
its Hebrew was a secret within the mystery contained in magic. When I
later learned words like occultism and alchemy, I associated them with the
synagogue and with Sidney’s Hebrew lesson.
I made the rounds. I went to the synagogue, too,” I said. It turned out to
be a surprisingly small, unassuming house. Nothing outstanding about it
except that it’s made of smooth stones instead of the wood of most houses
in that part of town. “Sidney’s name is not in the phone directory and
information had no listing. I wanted to ask him about Hebrew. There was a
handwritten notice hanging on the door - Closed for repairs.”
normal,” Rainy said, a dreamy look in his merciless eyes. “They could
write that on anyplace here….You never did find the secret here, eh?”
learn then what the secret is, at last?”
at him. His serious but serene look told me he was not teasing me as he
did when we were kids.
secret is that there is no great secret to be found in this town. This is
our place, yes. But there’s nothing individual about it. That’s just the
way we think when we’re very young. At that age we’re egocentric …
completely anthropomorphic. No one tells us that the secret is our being
and the miraculous certainty of our eventual return to the cosmic dust of
the universe…. despite that little corner in our selves that believes in
our physical immortality.”
to the squeaking of the rocker. He rocked and laughed quietly. Somewhere
he had acquired an unrecognizable eloquence, using different turns of
speech and occasional bookish words as if he had a second sense for how
words are best combined. His new manner of speaking was at odds both with
his former speech and with that of other local people - as if he had just
returned from a lifetime of study in faraway places. Even his former
southern accent was now sharp, crisp and refined. He had been in the
Orient, I decided.
you return?” I asked.
wherever you spent these years.”
always been here, Govar. Didn’t you know? I belong here.”
thought I must belong here too. You know?”
don’t know. What it’s like out there?”
“It’s … it
is surprising. I once met a guy when I was a newspaper reporter in Moscow
- a Georgian - who always reminded me of you. Vachtang was his name. He
was always in love. But he loved nature too, especially the grape. He was
a wine grower from Tblisi but spent half his time in Moscow selling it.”
Rainy’s eyes opened wider at the musical sound.
warm waters,” I said.
Cherokee name!” Rainy smiled.
only caused trouble. One night we went to a soccer match - USSR versus
Chile. I imagined you and me out there on the field. Anyway Vachtang
brought along wine and some powerful Georgian chacha against the
cold and we got pretty drunk sitting there on the benches. After a long
walk from the stadium to the subway up an avenue lined with soldiers and
armored cars, the police grabbed us right at the metro entrance. But they
let me go in the morning … with no explanation.”
saw him again.”
It was a
brilliant June afternoon. The longest day of the year. The mountain
evening cool floated across the waters of the Suwali Nunna and crept onto
the porch. Rainy leaned forward and turned his head toward the huge sun
that was just starting its descent toward the horizon beyond the hills,
beyond the football stadium, I knew, beyond the town and the French Broad
River. Then, looking at me speculatively, he stood up.
I felt the
familiar old uncertainty come over me as when back then on a mountain
trail he would hesitate and study me as if he had been saving something
special for me and was undecided whether I merited it.
time,” he finally said, and jumped lightly to the ground. “Come along.”
walked ahead of me up a narrow well-grooved trail that led unswervingly
straight up the steep hill hovering over the house. As we passed through
an orchard he turned his head left and right, greeting the apple trees. I
watched his straight back a few paces in front, erect and agile, his
shoulders swinging slightly from left to right in rhythm with his hips. It
was the movement that had once made him the elusive running back so
baffling to would-be tacklers. He had a way of moving directly toward the
goal line without seeming to; Rainy could always be counted on for that
extra yard. Sports writers noted that I did the opposite - I would run in
wide circumlocutions, engage in complicated maneuvers and feints and
dodges, and often not gain an inch.
trailed his hand lightly along the luxuriant leaves of the poplars
crowding the path, I knew he was whispering incantations to the standing
people as he used to on our mountain hikes. I was breathing hard when the
poplars turned into shrubs and bushes and we emerged onto a wide grassy
stopped and spun around in a full turn with his arms extended wide. To the
north, the basilica’s tile dome and the red roofs of Grove Park Inn were
barely visible on distant hills, behind which rose the majestic Blue Ridge
now shimmering red and orange in the sinking sun. To the east were the
commercial areas and crisscrossing highways and more mountains, and to the
west the spires and turrets and dark roofs of Vanderbilt’s chateau. To the
south, the Swannanoa meandered and seemed to lie still under protective
coats of green and black reaching out over its still waters.
years away I had sometimes remembered the lessons of his grandfather, also
named John Rainwater. Grandfather John often spoke of the “much” around
us. It was the abundance that derived from their name. Grandfather John’s
grandfather had chosen their family name as a symbol of rain. Rain water
was sacred. Our “much” depends on our sacred rain, he said. Man is
implicated in the vegetable growth process. The alchemy - of the
Rainwater’s only Rainy learned that word - the alchemy of sun, earth,
seeds and water yielded the vegetable abundance and human progress.
Rainy went with me to the Christmas mass in the Catholic Church. We were
19, and I would leave the town the next summer. While I stood transfixed
at the symbol of the candlelit transmutation of bread and wine into flesh
and blood, he was cold and unimpressed. Afterwards we walked in critical
silence down a deserted Patton Avenue. Lights were dimming and
extinguishing. A few cars passed and then we were alone. He stopped in
front of Kress’s and took me by the arm. “You palefaces - occasionally he
used the word in irony, but sometimes including also himself in the
category when he was feeling distant from his true self - you palefaces
believe man is at the center of it all but that he returns to dust while
his spirit is eternal. (Here, I’m rephrasing the words of the 19-year old
Cherokee a bit in the light of our new vocabularies acquired in the time
passed.) My ancestors instead know that man’s flesh is part of the
vegetable cycle and his flesh and blood are transmuted into sacred corn
and sacred water. Man’s spirit survives only a short time after his death.
For us humankind’s existence is the point, not that of one individual.”
understand what that meant but I knew then that beneath his veneer resided
a spirit I hoped to find in myself.
center of the plateau, rock piles and rows of flat gray rocks spread in
all directions. After the initial confusion I realized that the cairns and
smaller rocks formed a circle. Rainy looked at me and waited as he had
always done when he showed me something unexpected, bewildering,
over a perimeter of rather casual stones and followed a spoke-like row
pointed toward a waist-high cairn standing at the center of a circle of
medicine wheel,” I gasped. Though I had read a lot about the rites of the
first inhabitants of the continent and each time thought of him, it was
somehow astonishing to see a real medicine wheel here on the hill above
the Swannanoa River.
leaned forward with one hand on the central cairn and pointed
punctiliously one by one down the spokes of rocks. There were twelve.
they come from?… How did you get them up here?”
he replied dismissively, as if to say my paleface “how” was insignificant
in comparison with the symbol.
way they did,” he said, pointing vaguely toward distant hills. “Medicine
wheels are fashionable again. They’re everywhere. The Rainwaters and the
Barefoots have built them on Curved Mountain and Snake Mountain,” he said,
pointing to the east. “And on Grasshopper Hill and above the Seven Caves
there to the west. But the first one was here, in the Place of the
Apples.” Rainy laughed ironically and shuffled his feet in imitation of
his old dance.
instructed me as to what I should see: his wheel was 100 feet across,
twelve spokes reached from the central cairn to the perimeter, four
indicating north and south, east and west; each quarter was further
divided by four spokes pointed north-east, south-east, south-west and
north-west; four more pinpointed the Spring and Autumn equinoxes when day
and night are of equal length and the Summer and Winter solstices marking
the longest day and longest night; the twelve parts indicated the twelve
segments of time, the twelve moons of the solar year - the time for the
earth’s orbit of the sun - and the ancient mystical number twelve to
identify the moon of one’s birth.
“Do you do
the sun dance?” I asked, continuing my series of irrelevant questions and
still stunned that nothing in the town was as I thought it would be. I
hadn’t returned with a new understanding of things. The it was as elusive
gazed at me as if I were a hopeless case, then grinned, and said,
“Certainly! Who doesn’t? I dance on the morning the sun rises precisely
there,” he said, taking several long steps and pointing to a cairn
arranged like rifle sights at the end of the south-east spoke of the
also on other mornings … and nights, too. Sun is life, yes, but you
mustn’t forget the moon that reflects the sun’s light. It’s the mirror of
our spiritual sun. A reflection of our essence. Grandfather John’s
grandfather identified himself with the moon of his birth. He clung to his
home. His attachment to his lands here saved him and brought him back from
our Oklahoma exile. It was his power. Grandfather John said weakness in a
person was a new chance and a challenge to become strong…. Oh, my poor
he was no astrologist. He didn’t engage in obscure predictions. Celestial
energies were reflected on earth, he said. His interests lay in the
influence earth forces triggered inside us at the time of one’s birth.
“Where does the little acorn get its power to become the mighty oak
standing behind my house? From within its self. It’s the force of life.
John said his grandfather, Swannanoa - he was named for his tribe -
believed that also the explanations for events around us were to be found
within us. John said the medicine wheel was a map of the mind, helping us
understand ourselves and our place within the order of things. It unites
the parts of ourselves that people think of as separate - body, mind, soul
and spirit - so they can work together and move toward the Absolute. The
destiny?” I said.
and the medicine wheel are not about destiny. They are about the
opportunities within us. Here. Now.
answers are up there,” Rainy said, raising his arms toward the sky, his
fingers spread wide. “And down here.”
his eyes and spun around slowly. A shadowy silhouette against the west, he
lifted one foot, pivoted, and braced himself on the other as if he had
just received the hand-off and was about to cut back off tackle. He was
consolation that you know,” I murmured. “Did you know it all the time?” I
watched him dance near me, and felt suddenly sad.
be horrible if the essence were out there and you could never find it,” he
said, his feet shuffling to a silent rhythm.
so below,” he added.
seconds of silent dancing he said, “You are the Brown Bear. You dream
things are different from what they are. I am the Deer and the persistent
man of nature. We are what we are. And we both follow the Great Spirit
danced I closed one eye and aimed down the spoke pointed east. I zeroed in
on a dead tree out beyond the perimeter of the hoop at the point the
plateau ended - shriveled, crooked, twisted, long vertical gashes turned
brown. I knew it had to be the skeleton of a blind apple tree.
last spectacle!” He took me by the arm and led me around the wheel,
stopped and stooped, pulling me down beside him. “There it goes! Again!”
instant the sun dropped behind the hills beyond the French Broad River.
Day was becoming night. Voices rose faintly from the shrouded river below
us. A blanket of black and orange seemed to envelop me. He had timed it
is a secret, it is in us … and in the it you can’t define.” He clamped his
sinewy hand on my shoulder and pushed himself upright, touching with his
fingertips the cairn in the east.
standing people help us understand.”
when we were kids, I thought. We looked at the same things but he saw them
with different eyes. Yet I knew that today he was inviting me back into
began to dance. It was a beautiful movement. His pace gradually
accelerated. A thin cloud of gray dust rose from under his feet. I watched
his face and listened for the cadence.
shuffling my feet, too. At first awkwardly, embarrassedly, then with more
confidence. I felt the pebbles and sand under my feet. I began to hear a
faint rhythm. The dance seemed to come naturally.