The frost on the walls of the cave reflected the changing red and yellow firelight when the fire burned hot enough for flame or when new wood was added. Walkaway did not, nor did he permit Wally, to add wood often. Wally understood. When he turned to look at the stacks he marveled at how they had changed in his eyes. During the autumn there seemed to be plenty of wood stored up in their little hideout in the rock. Now that the Spirit of the North drummed out his argument for the ownership of these mountains with wind, cold, and driven snow, the wood piles seem to shrink, draw in their shoulders, hunker down, and shiver just like the two men.
“If we think this is cold,” the old Indian said from inside the hide around his shoulders, “we will go outside and take a pee.”
“I noticed,” Wally laughed. “When I come back in, this feels toasty. Then a bit later, this is cold. Wish there was some way to get a little warmer around here. This is just too frosty. Whew!”
“Huhhh..,” Walkaway drawled. Then he arose and started rummaging through a pile of willows. He came back carrying a number of them. Wally had assumed that the willows were for construction and now he would see.
Wally watched wondering as Walkaway used hide thongs to lash several willows together to make a not-so-perfect circle. The little man set it on the ground and it easily circled Wally’s position, the fire, and with room to spare for the old man and a project. Then the old man tied another, smaller, one willow ring. Wally rose and followed the old man’s example. Walkaway told him how big to make the circle and by the time Wally was done, Walkaway had finished another. There were now six; the two large ones only slightly different. The rest decreasing in increments until at last the top was perhaps 6 inches in diameter.
Walkaway measured a willow, bending it by leaning his weight on it and studying it with a squint. He repeated this with eight stalks. Wally could see that these tested pieces were going to be the posts, and the circles the poles of a circular construction. It did not take long to finish the skeleton.
Next Walkaway bent a willow in a large horseshoe and bound it to two of the uprights. It made a fine doorjamb after he cut out pieces of two rings, leaving the bottom ring whole.
He covered the framework with skins — all except for the 6-inch hole at the top. He didn’t trim the skins to fit, but let them overlap. He didn’t stitch the overlaps, although he did several ties around the top opening. He burnt two holes in the hides at an occasional joint and tied the hide to the supporting willows. When they had finished, they had built a little dome of hide. A shelter within a shelter.
“It’s an envelope house,” Wally explained. “A house within a house. Best insulation I can think of.”
Walkaway winked. “Little Bear has learned well.”
Warmth had its way inside the little hemisphere, and the cave, although less well heated now, remained warmer than the wind- and snow-torn mountainside, which seemed to shudder with each violent blast.
Wally remade his bed within the little dome, but Walkaway preferred to leave his under the rocks. “Fresh air,” he argued.
They sat on opposite sides of the small fire and kept busy. Wally might read The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition or draw and Walkaway might weave baskets or make tools. Wally studied and learned how to knap blades. They sat silent some. They talked a great deal.
“Hey, Little Bear, this is a good little lodge,” Walkaway stated. “We might spend our lives here.”
Wally smiled at this. He thought of the rations just beyond the hide walls; the containers of dried huckleberries, bearberries, raspberries, strawberries, thimbleberries, whortleberries, chokecherries, dried fish, dried ground squirrel, pine squirrel, deer, a mountain sheep, pine martin, and a mountain goat. He thought of the willow baskets of rosehips; of the dried mint. He thought of the rough little clay pots full of grains he could not name, but which had looked fat and healthy. He thought of the little stream meandering down the length of the crevice. Plenty. He nodded.
He thought of the caches of meat they had built when the freeze outside lasted all day. They would dig a hole in the rockslide perhaps two and a half feet deep. That meant moving a lot of rock, insofar as the rocks were lodged together. In several places, steaming damp air rose from the hole. Wally thought he could hear water down there. They had made a woven willow grill at the bottom of the hole over which they laid a big hide. They didn’t need to provide drainage since the rockslide was easily permeable. They boned the meat and it went in next. The hide was folded over it. Rocks held the hide in place and closed. Then they did rockwork over the top of the bundle, leaving an elevated cairn when they finished. A tall pole stood beside each of these domes of rock.
Plenty, he decided again.
He thought further. Of the woodpile. How it had tightened up when the thought of the cold surrendered to the reality of cold. He thought of the fact that it was early November. He calculated that it must be mid to late, ah, May, maybe, when the snow would break. That made, ah, … Holy Shit!
Six or seven months!
He thought of the woodpile with a bit of panic. He thought of the food. Seven months? Do we have seven fucking months of food here?
He turned his head to assay the food hanging, standing, buried around them, but saw only the hide before his eyes.
He caught Walkaway’s eye. They could spend the rest of their lives in this little hole. They could starve before spring. There was no hunting up here in the winter … maybe mountain goat or curly-horned sheep down lower. They could just as easily run out of firewood and freeze before spring. They might freeze before they could walk down to the treeline and get back with a few hours of wood.
Walkway studied Wally’s face and his grin spread across his face as slow as a sunrise. Irresistible.
They both began to laugh. They laughed and still they laughed. The laughter subsided, but did not end. For several days thereafter, when their eyes touched in a certain way, when Walkaway would draw the ends of his mouth down just so, the joke they shared, held up like a buffalo shield against the churning clouds of snow, would cause them to erupt into laughter.
What a fine way to die. Shoulder to shoulder. Testing our preparations against an enemy that knows no restraint. Time and cold and snow and, what?, boredom? against us. Wally looked at Walkaway. The little dried-up prune of a Skin radiated confidence. Or is it faith?
Or is it confidence in the Spirit?
Their eyes touched. The laughter arose like another stick catching fire.
They sat in silence. They fooled with improvements. They slept and dreamed. They talked.
Outside the wind howled for attention.
Snow blew in around the roughly sealed entrance to the cave making little snowdrifts on the stone floor that were airbrushed so smoothly into the grey of the rock that no edge could be seen.
“Hey,” Walkaway announced late one morning. “Let us, you and I, make believing real.” He said it like introducing a game.
“OK,” Wally answered, wondering what this meant.
“What we need,” said the old man, drawing something on the little hard red coals of the fire in front of himself…
Wally leaned forward, staring in the uncertain light, concentrating hard to decode what the twig was creating.
“…is willful suspension of disbelief film.”
Wally chuckled aloud. “Ah…” he drawled.
“For your camera.”
…which had been ruined by the long dip in the river. Wally now carried the lens in his pack, but the body of the camera, a mildly warped agglomeration of plastic, little gears jammed with fine sand, and brushed metal, was stuffed in the back of the living space of the cave.
“Where do we get that?”
Walkaway just gave him the strangest look, half insane, half questioning, half just plain stupid.
Wally stared back with his own face screwed weirdly. His mind and feelings sought like fingers in the dark for Walkaway’s meaning.
“Let’s ask Little Bear,” the old man said with a cunning look about himself.
“Where’s…” Then he stopped. I am Little Bear.
With that thought Walkaway’s face lit up and a great smile zipped onto his mouth. “Ah! You have come!” A playfully serious face replaced the smile.
“Now come,” said the old man as he crooked his finger. “Look at this.” He bent to point at this and that in the forever changing embers and made huh sounds.
Little Bear drew close. “Could be anything,” he finally concluded.
“Yes!” the old Indian seemed genuinely please. “Could be anything.”
Then: “I suggest we take your willful suspension of disbelief film and take some pictures of Jesus.”
“Yeah! I love to see Him changing the water into wine.”
“Huunh. ‘Son of God drinks wine.’ Big caption under our first picture.”
The image began to take shape in Little Bear’s imagination. “Oh my God…”
“Right again,” Walkaway interjected, without deflecting Little Bear’s thread.
“…He’s so young. And the marriage party … most of them are really young! I always thought of Him as, you know, thirty-three. An old guy. But these look like teenagers. Or twenty-something people.” Pause. “Like me.”
“Always the young ones,” Walkaway concurred. “More elders in those days.”
The words went in and waited.
“And look! There’s Mary. She’s not all that old, either. Thirty-something. Man, she’s not the soft little pussy-cat I always thought, either. She knows what’s going on.”
“Uh-huh,” Walkaway agreed. “She may be 37. Maybe older.”
“She looks so strong. I’d hate to argue with her. Those wide cheekbones; no one every said a word about those. Same as Jesus.” Little Bear looked up at Walkaway, “He’s always painted with a skinny face…”
Smile. “White guy. Fat eater.”
“Fat eater?” Then he went on, “He’s not exactly a European. He’s an A-rab!”
“Uhuunh!” Walkaway drawled in a deliberate and playful mockery of discovery.
“Darker skin. Dark curly hair. His brows are thick and black. Man, his eyes are brown!”
Walkaway began to laugh gently. “You see in color. Huh! Here’s another shot. Some of those wedding guests…’ He stirred the embers. It took a moment for new images to form, much like the changing of the clouds.
“…kids, pretty much…” Little Bear shot in.
“… listen to Jesus tell stories. Jesus says, ‘We drink wine and sing together. Someday it will be difficult to find those who will drink wine with me. They’ will be afraid of my father.'”
“They walk in the orchards to get away from the eyes of the adults.” Little Bear grew excited. “They get away and get lighter-hearted! The older ones…”
“They are the people of the Angry Desert God,” said Walkaway. “They had to learn hard ways in a hard land from a hard God.”
“Some of the older ones, they don’t even like the loud laughter. So the younger ones scatter out and whop it up.”
“Not always wise,” with a breath of restraint, “but neither is it wise to forget to celebrate life. To be one with the spring.”
Little Bear grew pensive. Imagined slipping photos from the top of the stack to the bottom. “Those orgies in the mountains. I don’t know if they really are written in the Bible. Or if they are just myths.” Pause. “Could they have just been young people whopping it up? Hey, women, throw away your bras!”
“Bras?” Eyebrows up.
“Yeah … no bras. Ah …” Peering into another picture. “Wrappings. They wrapped their breasts tight with bands of cloth.” Then back to the developing image, “…and all that talk about Baal and so on, just name-calling…”
“Or excuses,” Walkaway grinned.
Sobriety. “Walkaway, most of those kids, they were innocent.”
“It was a dark day when I saw those boats,” Walkaway said, changing the subject without preamble. “Inside my eyes I could see the Black Robes coming. They came into our country and taught my people to sin. They came into my country and took from my people the Way, the Sky Road, one travels after one leaves this world. Instead they tried to frighten my people with a hard place of fire, or some promise of a place you cannot go unless you are better than the teachers.”
Little Bear stared. It had been a great leap. But he thought he could follow…
“It was not easy in the land of my people. In the winter time we moved to the Big River and there were bison and good fishing. But there were also the Blackfoot who killed many of us. Our people were few, and we were brave, and there were many fine warriors among us, but the Blackfoot, they are many, and there are mighty warriors among them. Winters were good. Winters were hard. Then would come the summers and we would move to the three little rivers.
“But I knew that life. I loved that life. Not like this life, that life. I loved the river. I knew those mountains. The Grandmother and the Grandmother beyond her, they cared for us. Then those boats and men without horses. I rode not far from them and studied. I could see what would come.
“They brought my spirit-brother’s sister with them. This was a good thing and won many hearts. But I could see, in the light around them, Black Robes coming. I stood in council and told them. I said, ‘We must flee. These ones, they are worse than the Blackfoot. The Blackfoot, they are like us. They know Wakan Tanka. They know the Grandmothers and Tunkunshela. But the Black Robes that come behind them, they will take from us the Good Red Road.’
“And after them, the soldiers would come. Men with guns.
“That I said to them. But they would not hear me.”
Little Bear stared at the elder, hearing, aching to understand.
“Huunh… I have some pictures you have not seen.” Walkaway returned to the present, to the little hide dome beside the tiny fire. “But,” and he smiled and seemed to calm down again, “here is one you will know. Here is Jesus walking on the water.”
It took a moment for Little Bear to see it. “Yeah..,” thoughtfully, “he doesn’t rise and fall with the water. He starts walking from the shore. His sandals get wet and at first he leaves a trail of sinking sand that falls from them. Down through the water. The hems of his robe are wet.
“He’s water-skiing!” Little Bear cries out, trying too hard to get a laugh from Walkaway.
Instead Walkaway reaches for the ember-image, makes a gesture of gather up, blows moisture onto an invisible surface, then rubs the imaginary photograph on his forearm as though to clean it. He mimes placing the cleaned picture back into coles. “Them boys can’t paddle that fast.”
Little Bear laughs. “Can the fish feel Jesus walking over them?”
To which Walkaway responds, “The elders say, ‘Never give a sucker an even break’.”
Later, when the fire burned much lower, Little Bear, now entrusted with keeping it burning, barely, turned his head on his rolled leather patched jeans. “Walkaway?”
“Huunh?” The voice from outside; from Walkaway’s sleeping hides.
“My education prepared me for none of this.”
“Every time the world sought to make you angry and you did not get angry, every time the world sought to make you weak and you stayed strong, every time the world tried to make you doubt and you refused to disbelieve, Wakan Tanka was teaching you.
“And now, tonight, you have started on the second part of the First Lesson.”
“What first lesson?”
“Survival, Little Bear.”
“Well, excuse me for being slow…”
“It is OK; we are starting slow in here. In the dark, so to speak.”
“So I will speak. What is the first part of the first lesson?”
“All of this, Little Bear. All of this.”