Story: Swannanoa

By: Gaither Stewart
swanna
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.
Before 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.
Rainy was 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.
He didn’t 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, it was power’s encroachments.
But Rainy 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.
In our 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.
Yet every 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 medicine man.
This is 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.
I later 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.
We were 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.
Rainy 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.
I loved the waltzes and the sambas and dreamed of performing them, too, but I claimed not dancing was my declaration of freedom.
Pompously he commented that I was ridiculous.
It wasn’t 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.
“I know 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.
“Where did you learn that?” I would ask.
“My father knows things,” he would reply matter-of-factly. “My grandfather and my great-grandfather, they all know things. We’ve always known.”
“What things?” I asked. Concealment was his second name. “What things, Rainy? What things?”
“You 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.
“I know what?” I would continue to protest, though in retrospect I realize I came to believe that I did know something.
“You know 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 uncertain rhythm.
“In 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.
Then and 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.
His 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.
If I 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.
And again I would become aware of the hollowness gnawing away.
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.
Now, forty 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.
He lives 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 me.
There near 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.
His house 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.
“There you 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.
“My adept, 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.
Rainy now 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 his grandfather.
Before 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. <
Rainy 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 told him.
He looked at me in his most sinister manner – and nodded. “It’s normal,” he said.
Our lives 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?”
During my 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 paradise.”
For a 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.
He went 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.
When I said “home” he looked up and smiled.
“Of 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?
“Remember the apples?” I said instead.
I couldn’t 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.
“Oh yes.”
“Remember when we visited my secret places?” I said.
He looked 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.
In general 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.
“Yes, I 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.”
Majestic 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.
“It contained no secrets,” I said.
“Secrets are somewhere else.”
“But not in the Basilica either.”
Rainy chuckled. “They changed the name to basilica but it’s as dry and alien as it ever was when it was just a church.”
The most 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.
“I looked 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.”
“Then you should take a look at the Masonic Temple!”
“I did that too. It looks like miniature architecture. A copy of a poor copy of a poor copy.”
The 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.
On my 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.
“Yesterday, 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.”
“That’s 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?”
“No,” I said.
“Did you learn then what the secret is, at last?”
I peered at him. His serious but serene look told me he was not teasing me as he did when we were kids.
“You mean…”
“…that the 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.”
I listened 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.
“When did you return?” I asked.
“Return? From where?”
“From wherever you spent these years.”
“Oh I’ve always been here, Govar. Didn’t you know? I belong here.”
“I often thought I must belong here too. You know?”
“No! I 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.”
“Tblisi?” Rainy’s eyes opened wider at the musical sound.
“It means warm waters,” I said.
“Nice Cherokee name!” Rainy smiled.
“Vachtang 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.”
“And the lover!”
“I never 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.
“It’s time,” he finally said, and jumped lightly to the ground. “Come along.”
“Time?” I said.
“Time for time.”
Rainy 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.
When he 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 plateau.
Rainy 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.
During my 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.
Only once 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.”
I didn’t understand what that meant but I knew then that beneath his veneer resided a spirit I hoped to find in myself.
In the 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, mysterious.
He stepped 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 stone.
“A 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.
Rainy leaned forward with one hand on the central cairn and pointed punctiliously one by one down the spokes of rocks. There were twelve.
“Where did they come from?… How did you get them up here?”
“Patience,” he replied dismissively, as if to say my paleface “how” was insignificant in comparison with the symbol.
“The same 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.
He 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 as ever.
Rainy 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 summer solstice.
“I dance 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 Cherokees!”
Rainy said 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.
“Grandfather 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 Universal.”
“And destiny?” I said.
“Nature and the medicine wheel are not about destiny. They are about the opportunities within us. Here. Now.
“The answers are up there,” Rainy said, raising his arms toward the sky, his fingers spread wide. “And down here.”
He closed 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 smiling.
“What a consolation that you know,” I murmured. “Did you know it all the time?” I watched him dance near me, and felt suddenly sad.
“It would be horrible if the essence were out there and you could never find it,” he said, his feet shuffling to a silent rhythm.
“As above, so below,” he added.
After some 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 within us.”
While he 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 – shrivelled, crooked, twisted, long vertical gashes turned brown. I knew it had to be the skeleton of a blind apple tree.
“Now, one 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!”
In an 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 perfectly.
“If there 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.
“The standing people help us understand.”
Just like 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 his world.
Again he 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.
I began 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.

****

Gaither Stewart is an American journalist who lives in Rome and now dedicates his writing life to fiction. His articles and fiction have appeared in many international publications.

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