A wave of pollution rolled into the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I held my breath, fighting the urge to cough against the caustic air. A bundled-up man pushed through the doors, bringing with him the reek of petrol and a bluster of cold from the arctic temperatures outside.
I leapt to attention behind the counter, pushing the button of the holo projector I’d put in standby mode to conserve energy. The stark room around me became lit with a glow of golden light, the walls now adorned with blue skies and panoramic vistas of ancient pueblo ruins and desert landscapes. The counter transformed into the crumbling rock wall of a building. The visitor stepped forward and the red soil beneath his feet shifted toward him as though he was walking through the virtual scene of Chaco Canyon—or what Chaco Canyon had looked like based on photographs a hundred years ago.
Before the man had even removed the mask that made breathing outdoors in the pollution possible, he began to speak, his voice muffled. “Julie Bluehorse, did you hear about the petroglyphs? Someone vandalized them in the middle of the night.”
I recognized the cadence of John Longhorn’s voice. I swallowed. “Yes, I’ve heard.”
Someone had blasted at the cliff just outside the city in the middle of the night. Whether the artifacts had been destroyed or stolen, the tribe no longer had them. One more piece of our past was gone.
Longhorn removed two pairs of gloves and set them on the façade of stone bricks that was the counter. He pulled back his hood before yanking off his breathing mask. His dark eyes squinted at me from within a face mapped with wrinkles. “Well, have they caught the bastards yet?”
“No,” I said, wishing my words carried good news.
He pointed an arthritic finger at me. “Damn it, you need to do something about this.”
“Why come to me and not Sheriff Redfeather?” I asked.
John Longhorn clenched his breathing mask in his wrinkled hands so tightly his fingers blanched. “You know why. What’s he going to do? Arrest that son of his and his no-good friends?”
“You have no proof. How do you expect me to help?” I was just as disgusted as him. Three counts of vandalism and no proof yet to convict those everyone knew to be at fault.
The old man stared into my eyes, the intensity of his gaze piercing me to my core as he leaned over the counter. “We must protect the tribe’s history and show respect for the artifacts we have left. The little we have left.” The conviction in his voice faded, making him sound softer and frailer. It sickened my stomach hearing the despair in Longhorn’s voice. It sickened my heart knowing a little more of our culture was lost.
I shifted my gaze to the two-by-two-foot window to the side of the counter that overlooked our reality: an eyesore of high-rise vistas, flashy casinos, and the clashing electric lights of the overpopulated city. “I can’t help you. Go down to the twenty-third floor to the police station.”
John Longhorn turned away in disgust, his gaze sweeping over the wall projections of what New Mexico once looked like before being covered with nine feet of ice. “You ain’t any better than the sheriff.”
I turned off the projection, returning the office to its banal state. I hated the system I was part of, powerless to aid those who truly needed it.
• • •
In the supermarket, I tucked my baseball cap lower down on my forehead as John Longhorn’s words echoed in my head. He was right. I’d been catering to the sheriff, the mayor, the tourists, to everyone who had power.
The aroma of ponderosa pines mingling with dusty desert sand and thunderstorms contrasted sharply with the fluorescent lights and artificial air of the grocery store. I peeled back the mask that made breathing outside in the twenty-second-century pollution possible. The out-of-place scent of nature reminded me of my childhood, when trees stood in places other than heated reserves protected by biodomes. Perhaps it was simply an air freshener, but it didn’t smell like artificial perfumes.
The swarm of white men and women in the temperature-regulated grocery store towered over my diminutive frame as I quickly shoved groceries into my cart.
“Hello, sister,” a white-as-bread, Native American wannabe said with his long tawny hair worn down. From his excessive silver and turquoise jewelry I suspected he was a tourist.
I said nothing, in no mood to pretend to be thrilled other cultures thought they were adopting my people’s traditions when we had just lost a big piece of our history.
I hurried to the checkout line with the meagre selection of groceries I could afford on my salary. My salt-and-pepper bun hidden under my cap and eyes masked behind sun goggles, I avoided eye contact with gaping tourists who had come to the arctic temperatures of New Mexico to see the last of the real Native Americans. I tapped my tundra boot with impatience, ready to be out of the swamped market and finally rest after a long day at work.
I had taken the job thinking I might be able to help people, to help my people. Yet each day ended with more frustrations than I had begun with.
The perfume of wet wood and clean rain caught my attention. The woman in line in front of me had the kind of long black hair that made the tourists stare. She placed items from her basket onto the checkout stand. Pricy imported items: real maple syrup, a giant bag of organic fertilizer, dried dates, jerky made from meat and not soy protein. I watched the intricate pattern sewn into her long brown sleeve undulate as she moved. She set down more maple.
I chuckled. “Wow, someone really likes—”
She turned to look at me, a wicked grin on her skeletal face. Well, it wasn’t really skeletal, but the way the intersecting twigs, layers of moss, and lichen came together to make up her features gave her a skeletal look.
I tensed, thinking of Coyote and other tricksters. I reminded myself she wasn’t here to harm me. Most likely she was what my grandmother from Rhode Island called a chepi, a kind of nature spirit. I glanced at the people around me to see if anyone saw what I saw. A young man in the next checkout line over winked at her, a cocky grin on his face. His friend elbowed him in the ribs, leering. I immediately recognized the second youth as the sheriff’s son.
Wishing to stare anywhere but at them, I glanced at the security mirror on the ceiling. The chepi looked like an ordinary woman. Or as ordinary as an aging, voluptuous woman in tight jeans and a low-cut shirt could.
She set two more maple syrups on the belt and then the two canvas bags. Written on one of them were the words: “Save a tree, save a life.” She counted out a pile of green leaves and placed brown clumps of dirt on top, her eyes never leaving the face of the robotic cashier.
I knew what she was trying to do. She was trying to trick him with magic. I’d seen it before. Had he been a real person, the cashier would get in trouble for his till coming up short later, just as my brother once did in my parents’ shop. But this was a computer-automated checkout stand, and the chepi’s magic surely couldn’t work on a machine, could it? She would get caught trying to “steal.” And then what would happen to her?
On the other hand, the chepi would have no way to pay for what she could no longer find in her natural habitat. Frustration at the lack of solution rose up in my chest.
This was the first time I’d seen one of the chepi in the city. When I was a child, I used to see them come into my parents’ feed store on the reservation—back when there were reservations. They’d marauded in, dressed as farmers and Native Americans as they came in to buy ammonium nitrate. Only I noticed the flashes of twiggy patchwork in the place of skin, masks of leaves woven into moss—simultaneously beautiful and frightening. I soon learned to keep my mouth shut, as confessions of what I’d seen resulted in a whack on the backside of the head from my parents. I learned to dislike seeing these tricksters. With them always came trouble.
When I was eight, I threw a rock at one of them as they walked out of the store.
“Not everyone can see with eyes like yours,” my grandmother said. “The tribes here in New Mexico call them tricksters, but the Narragansett call them chepi. Do not spite them for your ability to see their true nature. They have been pushed off their land like us and no longer fit into this world. There are few left, and fewer still to believe in them.”
She told me stories of the Narragansett tribes and how the chepi used to come to them, in visions to warn us of dangers or remind us of their existence. “They take because we no longer give to them,” she said. “It never hurts to sacrifice fertilizer or seeds to the spirits if that’s what they desire. There was a time when they once destroyed our enemies and avenged injustice for us.”
Looking out at the dry, desolate reservation covered in frost despite the summer temperatures, I had crossed my arms, parroting words I had heard my parents say in the past. “Yeah, and we can see how well that worked.”
I didn’t have the heart for this, I told myself then. Using magic, or whatever this ability was, didn’t fit into this modern age of depleted ozone and climate change any more than the chepi did.
I resented my abilities. When I grew old enough to take over the till, I refused to accept payment from the chepi and turned them away when they tried to buy from us. Those were the days back before the government banned unlicensed farmers from buying ammonium nitrate. They said they didn’t want terrorists to get their hands on it. Locals said it was to keep the poor man poorer.
I now wondered if the government knew about the nature spirits and meant to spite them, to crush them out of existence so there would be one less minority to share the land with. Their situation wasn’t the kind of thing one person could fix. Especially not someone like me.
Why did I see them? And why now of all times? What would Grandmother say about this: that it was a warning, or a reminder?
The chepi glanced over her shoulder at me, her twiggy smile uneasy as if she was wondering if I would give her away. I noticed the foil gum wrapper twisted around her finger. A bottle cap was lodged in between the lacework of juniper and dried sagebrush at her wrist. Hanging from a piece of electrical wire at her neck was a fragment of rumpled potato-chip bag. Instead of wearing precious metals and jewels given by my people as offerings, she wore garbage. Was this the best a nature spirit could do for gifts in an age that had cast the natural world aside?
I looked away, feeling guilty as I remembered how I had once treated her people. The metal arm of the robot cashier separated the leaves from the clumps of dirt. The overly cheery mechanized voice announced. “This currency is not acceptable. An attendant will be with you shortly.”
The chepi glanced over her shoulder, eyes wide with panic. She scooped up her groceries in her arms, looking like she was about to bolt. Were chepi reduced to stealing because no one made them offerings these days?
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “No, stop,” I said.
I swept the leaves and dirt from the robotic hands.
“You don’t need to pay,” I told her firmly. “I will help you.”
Her eyebrows rose. I nodded, making up my mind. I doubted it could atone for my years of disrespect and neglect, but it was a start.
I wrote a cheque, hesitating as I calculated how much the chepi’s bill would cost in addition to my own. It was a stretch for my savings, especially with all her pricey, organic items. But then, I supposed it wouldn’t be a true sacrifice if it was easy. The chepi needed real offerings. They needed me and others like me to believe in them again. I might have denied what I’d seen with my own eyes before, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make up for lost time.
The chepi walked off with her canvas bag of groceries, a triumphant smile on her face. The bottle cap lodged in her wrist fell out and rolled on the floor. It hit the boot of the sheriff’s son. He craned his neck to get a better view of her rear. As the chepi walked past, the bottom of his backpack tore, and a large chunk of bubble-wrapped sandstone spilled out onto the floor.
“Isn’t that the missing petroglyph?” someone in the store shouted.
The chepi glanced over her shoulder at me and winked. Curling around the decaying twigs of her face was a green leaf, fresh and vibrant with life.
Copyright © 2020 Sarina Dorie
Sarina Dorie has sold over 150 short stories to markets like Analog, Daily Science Fiction, F & SF, and Orson Scott Card’s IGMS. Her stories and published novels have won humour contests and Romance Writer of America awards. She has about fifty books up on Amazon, including her bestselling series, Womby’s School for Wayward Witches.
A few of her favourite things include: gluten-free brownies (not necessarily glutton-free), Star Trek, steampunk aesthetics, fairies, Severus Snape, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Mr. Darcy.
You can find info about her short stories and novels on her website: www.sarinadorie.com.