As Coyote runs, the ground begins to slope down and the trees grow thicker, forcing him to slow his pace down. There are no more patches of sun to follow, just shade and shadows. Still, Coyote smiles as he walks, peering around the trees and looking all around him, even walking backwards at times. He reaches the trough of the valley. The ground is spongy and lush with different clover and fungi. The trees here are more gnarly than straight and their bark is patchy, showing rotten wood rife with insects crawling from one blanket of bark to the next. The ground is moist beneath his bare feet and with each step he sinks into the muck.
“Lovely.” He narrows his eyes at the yielding terrain. “And still no sign of this spirit. Perhaps it only comes out at a certain time of day?” Shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head, he continues onwards. The ground gets more and more waterlogged as he goes along until he finally reaches a swamp at the very bottom, trees growing up out of the water. Mosquitoes buzz through the air but do not land on coyote, and a snake swimming through the water makes a beeline away from where he stands on the squishy shore.
“In we go. At least it smells good.” And he steps into the water, each sloshing step sending out stifled ripples that are interrupted either by the pattern of moss floating on top of the water or by the tree trunks. The swamp goes silent and Coyote stops walking, standing in the midst of the murk. There is a breeze from above and Coyote looks up. He is greeted by the sight of two soles floating seven feet in the air, right overtop of him. They drift by in the direction of Nahiossi and his men, and as Coyote turns to look at it, he can see the smooth white back and almost almost diamond-shaped head of the spirit. Neither its arms or legs move as it floats, but its cloak billows out behind it, flaring out from its waist as if tied with a belt. As Meturato described, in one hand it holds a saber and in the other a staff of around four feet in length, the base of which fans out like that of a canoe’s paddle, the tip unadorned by spike or symbol. Both are indistinguishable from the spirit, and if not for the hands holding them they could be extensions of its body.
“Hey! Aren’t you holding that thing upside down?” The spirit does not stop, but fades into nothingness as it floats further away. Coyote raises his eyebrows. “Huh.” The hair on Coyote’s neck stands on end and he pounces forward just as the spirit, now behind him, sweeps the saber in a whistling arc through the space where he was just seconds before. Whirling around, he faces the spirit. From the front, it has glowing yellow eyes, the edges of which blend in with the rest of its blank white form, illuminating what would otherwise be in shadow beneath the brim of its strange, thorn-like skull.
“Woah now, is that any way to greet someone?” The spirit stares at him, arm still extended out from its slash. As he watches, the blank space where a mouth would be stretches, oval tears appearing until the thin strands in between snap apart. The inside of the mouth is a deep red, and some of this color seeps down its chin, thin rivulets running in between the hanging flaps. It breathes out, the top strands moving from the rasping, rattling breath. It smells of iron. Coyote wrinkles his nose and sticks his tongue out.
“I definitely liked you better before you opened your mouth.” The spirit continues to stare at him, and then raises its staff. Coyote’s eyes follow its movement until the end is pointed at him. He narrows his eyes as it becomes level with his chest.
“And what exactly are you pointing at, friend?” He is no longer smiling, and his lip twitches.
“Die.” Its voice is like wind rushing down a bottomless pit. As soon as it says this, lightning erupts from the tip of the staff, spraying out in jagged arcs that tear the water and trees behind Coyote into burning shreds. As the lightning dies down, the air smokes and the electrified water yields a few dead fish and frogs floating on the surface. Coyote is nowhere to be seen, and the spirit turns its head to the left and right, a panting noise coming from its mouth. The red liquid leaking from it is staining its chest, dripping down into the water below. There is a grinding growl from above and it looks up. Coyote is hanging from the branches above, arms stretched out behind him and legs propped up against the slanting limbs. His long hair frames his snarling face. The spirit raises its staff again and Coyote’s eyes widen and his grimace increases. As lightning pours out of the staff, he pushes off from the tree, flying over the spirit’s head and splashing back into the swamp water. It turns to look at Coyote, who is standing bent at the waist, hands clasping and unclasping and water running down his chest. His wet hair sticks to his neck and shoulders.
“Please, dear spirit, tell me your name before I send you to Wakan Tanka for judgment.” It stares at him, unmoving.
“Cameahwait is my name, and I know of no Wakan Tanka. I am one of many envoys from Sukanwi sent to wreak havoc upon these lands. Are you one of the Cheyenne? They are my prey.” Coyote stands up straight and raises an eyebrow.
“Sukanwi, huh? Good to know. And sorry to disappoint you, but I am of no tribe – in spite of this, I cannot allow you to persecute the humans. I suggest you start walking in the other direction, back to the pit from which you crawled out of. I’ll drag you back there myself if I have to.”
“No, I cannot return until I have killed the Cheyenne.” And Cameahwait turns to go.
“I don’t think you understand how this works.” Coyote pounces out of the water, swinging his axe with both arms at the back of the spirit’s neck. As he does, he feels a breeze upon the the back of his own neck. The blade of the axe sweeps through Cameahwait, meeting no resistance in its passage through the pale flesh. Coyote’s mouth opens and then closes.
“I should have expected as much.” He lowers the axe to his side and looks over his shoulder. Behind him are four more spirits identical to Cameahwait, aside from their unblemished faces. They raise their sabers in unison and swing. Coyote raises his axe to block the blades but they pass through wood and stone and then his arms and chest. He yelps and jumps backwards and the blade of the bloodied Cameahwait rises up through the left side of his chest.
“Aaagh!” He yells, and then lets out a halting, wet cough. The places through which the blades have passed is uncut but red spreads beneath the skin, free-floating bruises that spread by the second. He falls to his knees, arms hanging at his sides palms out. The spirits surround him, forming at the points of a pentagonal shape. They raise their thunder staffs, and Coyote pants, looking up at them. They stare straight ahead as they bombard him with lightning, and do not notice that he reaches behind his back and pulls a wooden mask from beneath his mane of now dry hair. The face is that of a bear, flat but still keeping the impression of the muzzle and rounded ears, eyes slits beneath heavy brows. He slips it over his face, and before it covers it completely a smile can be seen forming on his lips. His form is lost in the blinding flashes of crackling electricity, and smoke clouds the valley for several yards around, rising up through the trees and over the swamp. It clears where a single Cameahwait stands, and Coyote can be seen laying flat on the damp ground, arms stretched out and skin charred black and steaming. His long hair is standing on end. Cameahwait is still pointing his staff at the body, but after a few minutes lowers it to his side and turns away, floating off towards Nahiossi and the village.
The sun has passed its apex in the sky and the forest is growing dark. Coyote’s body lies in the same position, and the cracked skin has cooled, pieces peeling up from his back and shoulders. The quiet sound of it bending can be heard if you listen closely. All of a sudden, the body twitches and shivers, limbs dragging rivulets into the soft ground. Water seeps into them as they are created. Coyote coughs and sits up, burnt skin crumbling and falling off him. Underneath, new skin appears, with bristly hairs over the spots that were once wounded. The bear mask is still upon his face. He takes it off and sighs, looking down at himself. The bristles retract and his skin becomes smooth again.
“Man, that stung, though I guess I should have seen that coming. It seems the time has come for the owl to hoot once again.” He breaks into a sprint, wending between the trees at breakneck speed. Leaves are scattered and then kicked into the air as he passes, each stride carrying him over the ground as if it were a series of jumps rather than steps. Yells can be heard in the distance and smoke rises up above trees in the distance. After several minutes of running, Coyote bursts through the trees, hand reaching behind his back, only to see the smoking remains of the battle between Nahiossi’s group and Cameahwait. He lands, coming to a complete stop, and looks around at the fallen bodies. There is a small frown upon his face, eyes lowered. Nahiossi lies face up in the center of the blasted landscape, chest moving in almost unnoticeable breaths. Coyote walks to him and crouches, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Did you live well?”
Nahiossi looks up, squinting and then closing his eyes with the movement. Coyote has to raise his voice over the rasping wheezes. “Did you put up a good fight?” Nahiossi opens his eyes, sweat standing out on his face.
“I had a good life.”
Coyote raises his axe.
Coyote can see through the trees that the village is burning, fire perched on the roof of the longhouse and on the fabric of the tents. Screams can be heard, and the crack of electricity resounds through the trees. He runs into the middle of the chaos, amid the flames and smoke. Others are running in the other direction. They glance at him as they pass, and he flashes a smile at them that does not reach his eyes. They do not return it. He sees several men up ahead striking at Cameahwait with their spears and tomahawks. Fresh corpses litter the ground, their skin either bruised or streaked with bleeding furrows with blackened edges.
“GO!” Their heads whip around at Coyotes yell, and Cameahwait takes this opportunity to stab the man closest to him in the stomach. He falls to his knees, mouth hanging open. The others scatter, and Cameahwait raises his staff at their backs, the tip of it beginning to glow. Coyote jumps in front of it, grabbing it and pointing it at the ground. The lightning falls and disperses between them, a smoking spot of dirt its only byproduct. Cameahwait looks down at this then back up into the eyes of the owl. The mask is carved from grey, petrified wood, and tiny cracks line the face. The concentric circles around the eyeholes seem to swirl and swivel in spite of their stationary nature, and the beak is open in a screech, the pinched and pointed horns sticking out from the top of the mask.
“You are–” Coyote sweeps his arm from left to right, the back of his fist smashing into Cameahwait’s face. The spirit goes flying into the air, and then stops, floating eight feet above the ground. Its mouth spews forth even more red than before, and it puddles below, splashing and spreading in the dirt. Drops that fall into the fire sizzle and steam. Cameahwait looks down at Coyote, all but its legs in flickering shadow above the flames. Its eyes pulse and its face is illuminated for a second, mouth a grimace. The bloody maw opens and it growls, a rumbling noise that vibrates through the air, and there is a stutter in the rising movement of flame and smoke. Doppelgängers move in from all around, passing through the tents and flames as though they weren’t there, the overlapping shapes making strange geometry as they intersect, ovals and thin-edged lines.
“Same old tricks, eh?” Coyote’s voice is muffled, as though each breath is passing through feathers instead of a wooden mask. “I’ll not be so easily skewered this time.” He says, leaning over, arms hanging with hands making tense claws that grasp at the air. The spirits raise their staves once again, but as the lightning arcs and spiderwebs its way towards Coyote he springs into the air, front flipping and drawing his axe, bringing it down and cleaving the Cameahwait closest to him straight through its center. Red ghost guts gush, gelatinous and lined with pulsing veins of the same color. The pieces drift towards the ground but disappear before they touch it, fading to nothingness like ashes in the wind. Again, four of the doppelgängers try to slash Coyote from the back, but this time he sweeps the axe around, and it tears through their waists with a soft ripping sound. The halves fall to the ground in the same slow motion movement as the other cloven spirit, innards hanging from the floating torsos.
The three other Cameahwaits on the ground do not react to this other than to close in on Coyote as he chops the others down, their forms stretching out, torsos and arms extending and keeping their same width in spite of being stretched for several feet. Coyote attempts to dodge them as they curve and encircle his arms and legs, but with each move he makes they stretch farther. As a wall of white looms in front of him he cuts a hole in it, darting through the gap even as it drips blood and begins to close up. As his foot touches the ground on the other side he swings the axe behind, and the cross-shaped cuts stop closing up and instead sag and fall apart. As he stands with his back to the spirits, lightning rains down from above him, the original Cameahwait holding his staff upside down as if emptying a flask of water, if water were shocking instead of soothing. Coyote grunts as it passes through him, and the tendons stand out in his neck, arms, and hands. The electric rain falls for seconds, and once it subsides he still stands, body steaming and lashed with burns.
“Haaaaah!” He yells and tosses his axe above him, it cartwheels through the air and up through Cameahwait. Just as it reaches his head, its mouth closes and the eyes go out. One of the Cameahwait copies’ eyes blaze a brighter yellow and the mouth opens on it, blood spraying out as it groans. Coyote whirls around, looking at the Cameahwait this one and holds up his arm, catching the falling axe. He throws it at the open-mouthed spirit, which opens an oval in its middle, the axe passing through it and decimating the burning tent behind it.
“So, the Coyote fancies himself an owl that he might commune with the spirits. How tiresome.” Coyote shakes his head from side to side, head almost touching his shoulders and the eyes of the mask a blur, and lets out a hooting laugh.
“Yes – now I can see you, and what I can see I can kill.” And he dashes towards Cameahwait, arms pumping. He jumps over a burning pile of cloth and wood and kicks forward, both feet flying towards Cameahwait’s chest. The spirit bends over backwards and Coyote goes right over him, flipping forward in midair and landing on all fours. He whirls around, a crab’s movement of flurried legs and neck arched to look up at the looming spirit, whose head has turned all the way around on its neck and looks down at the feral trickster. Its stomach, then chest, then neck bulge and blood spews forth from its mouth. Coyote springs to the left, and stepping forward, grabs Cameahwait on each side of its face and spins his head around a few more times. Drops of blood fly from his open mouth and its neck is wrung into a tiny stalk that cannot support the head. It falls forward, flapping against its chest.
( ©2015 Sean Dorsey )