“Bring in the ones who are waiting!” Two Crows shouted to Stonekeeper from inside the sweat lodge. “Bring in the stones!”
Passing the Christmas lights shining above the buffalo skull on the altar, Sara McClelland walked toward the lodge and went down on her hands and knees in front of the entrance. “Mitakuye Oisan,” she said, kneeling in the doorway. In English that meant “All My Relations,” traditional Lakota words of reverence.
“From the doorway in to the doorway out, I welcome you,” answered Two Crows in his warm deep way.
Sara’s eyes began to adjust to the darkness as she crawled clockwise inside the lodge. “Sorry I’m late. The bridge traffic was at a standstill for two hours,” she apologized.
“Uh-Huh!” said Two Crows in a comforting tone of voice.
Sara felt as if she’d entered a safety net, as if Two Crows would protect her now. The lodge was crowded. She looked for space to sit. Sometimes Two Crows had the men sit on one side and women on the other. Tonight everyone appeared to be placed at random. Two Crows said the spirits told him what to do. He often mentioned seeing the spirits during a ceremony, acknowledging them, or speaking to the energy they were bringing.
“Move on! Move on!” Two Crows commanded. “Everyone get tight. Your knees should be touching your neighbor’s. Let’s get intimate tonight. There’s space over here in the West.”
Sara stopped in the West, directly across from the doorway, the hottest part of the lodge. She wedged herself tightly between two men in swim suits panting from the heat.
Little bags of tobacco tied in red cloth hung from the rafters and also encircled the pit where the stones would go. These prayer ties were offerings, holding the hopes and wishes of those entering the lodge. Sara wished she’d had the time to make some prayer ties for her son, Dan, but she’d had to work all day—a Saturday no less—to finish a writing job for TekGen. It was a document only she could edit, since it had been her boss—no, ex-boss—Rowan Lightfoot’s network, which Sara knew all too much about.
Behind her crawled the young woman Sara had met while changing in the bathroom earlier. What was her name? It was a strange brittle techno name like the network Sara compiled documentation for. She watched the girl stop and squeeze in close to the pit where her legs were sure to be scorched by the hot stones and steam. Sara wanted to warn her, but it wasn’t her place. The girl wouldn’t listen anyway she thought.
Stonekeeper shoveled in the stones for the second round. “More, more,” Two Crows kept saying despite all the “newbies,” as Two Crows called the new people who had never been to a sweat before. As the hot stones were shoved in, Sara smiled, thinking of the hard lesson Two Crows was teaching them. How glad she was she had finally come. The sweat lodge felt like home.
This lodge was where she belonged. Maybe that’s what the gulls were telling her on her way here tonight.
“Take me away with you! I dare you,” she had cried, taunting the gulls. But the slim-winged gulls overhead glided by unheeding while she sat in her brown Toyota behind an old VW bus waiting in heavy traffic to merge onto the Bay Bridge. It was dusk, mid-December, and Sara was listening to an old Enya tape from the early ’90s. Now the Irish soprano voice soared with the gulls, the harp and flute overlapping like bay waves echoing the birds’ cries.
“What kind of a woman talks to gulls?” Sara said, laughing aloud.
She had driven through San Francisco on Highway 101 North and was merging onto 80 East approaching the bridge. On her left was the glass and shine of the steel skyscrapers poised like elegant space station minarets, on her right the bowl of the new stadium, home of the Giants, set in China Basin like an upturned catcher’s mitt. Her son, Dan, had been a Giants’ fan since second grade; she had kept his collection of baseball cards in marked shoeboxes dated 1988, 1989 and so on in case he ever wanted them. But now it was only her daughter, Elana, who ever looked through the shoeboxes, and only now and then.
“Mom, it would serve Dan right if you threw all these out,” Elana had said, but Sara couldn’t do that. Tears came to Sara’s eyes at the thought of Elana. What if Elana left in a few years like Dan, so carelessly and irrevocably? She rubbed her eyes.
Just then a speeding motorcyclist hurled by on her left, rushing ahead between lanes. Sara’s heart stopped and she shut her eyes seeing the scream of wheels, the smash of crashing metal. When she looked a second later, the motorcycle was gone and the old rundown VW bus still motionless in front of her.
Sara put her hand to her heart to calm herself. The roar of the motorcycle and the stench from the exhaust obliterated the music and the gulls, leaving her alone in heavy traffic, the usual Saturday night backup from San Francisco to the East Bay where the sweat lodge was. This congestion was why she didn’t make it to the lodge more often anymore. But tonight she had to come. It was special—the Winter Solstice, the night when darkness was at its fullest, and when the light began to return.
An hour later Sara was hurrying up the driveway to the sweat lodge which had been held at her friend Vera’s house in the Oakland Hills for the last ten years. She wore jeans and a long-sleeved gold sweater and held her baked lasagna dish to her chest. Her black and brown canvas drum bag hung from her shoulder. The bag bulged with her drum and the African orange print caftan, a long-sleeved tent dress she always wore for sweats. She had two large towels, one old and frayed to sit on inside the sweat lodge, another thick one for afterward when she would be streaming with sweat, and a pair of shapeless cotton underpants that she didn’t mind getting soaked and dirty from sitting on the ground of the sweat.
It was five o’clock. The sun was about to set. Two Crows was punctual with his sweats and always started at sundown. Once the doorway was closed, he wouldn’t open the lodge until the round was over. She loved Two Crows, not in a personal or romantic way, but as a teacher. Sara knew little about his personal life; she guessed he was about her age, fifty, divorced, with a long gray ponytail and golden-brown sinewy limbs. He worked as a carpenter all around the Bay Area, lived in Martinez, and claimed Ohlone ancestors.
As she walked, her drum in its deerskin bag banged against her side. It was a big drum, fifteen inches in diameter, with a clear rich tone, the head made of deerskin. There were scratches where she had carelessly dropped it, and a few water stains from splashing during the ceremony. Every drum had a sweet spot which, when hit, sounded fuller and more melodic than all the other spots on the face, but Sara’s drum had more than one sweet spot. This she loved—the idea, the taste, of more than one sweetness.
Sara pushed open Vera’s rotting gate at the bottom of the overgrown yard and rushed up the broken steps. She had been coming to this house well before the huge Oakland fire of 1989. Back then there were many secret areas to the hills and many large ramshackle estates like this one. Since the fire, expensive houses had taken their place, and now only a few old estates remained. It was after the Oakland fire that she had met Two Crows. She and Vera had each sat next to him at the Leonard Peltier benefit and he had told them he was looking for a place to hold Indian sweats. Vera had offered her house. How many times since then had she and Sara helped rebuild the lodge, cutting down the willow branches from the hillside.
Like Sara, Vera was not Native American, but she had been adopted by the Lakota tribe at Pine Ridge in 1974 after all the pro bono consulting work she did for the American Indian Movement, better known as A.I.M. All the sweats Two Crows led followed the Lakota ceremonies because, as he explained each time for the newbies’ sake, “The Lakota Indians were able to keep their traditions alive and their rituals have come down to us complete, while the California Ohlone, my own ancestors, were almost destroyed by little brother.”
Little brother was the white man, Sara’s Irish ancestors or ones like them. It wounded Sara’s heart whenever she thought of her ancestors’ complicity in the Indian genocide.
Just before Sara went inside the house, she looked up into the early evening sky, hoping to see a hawk or a vulture, “Thunderbirds,” the Native Americans called them. There were no gulls. All she saw were several ducks flying toward Lake Temescal, reminding her of Rowan and his obsession with ducks. Sara sighed. Rowan and his ducks—it was both endearing and annoying. He had been crazed by them and by his pet phototonics project, oblivious to the forebodings surrounding the Futuristic Communications R&D department he headed. Rowan was working, he imagined, to transform the world. It was ludicrous, but she wouldn’t dare laugh at Rowan. Not to his face. Yet there was another side to him. He took the most beautiful pictures, like his photos of ducks in the Bay wetlands, or the ruins of the Southwest that hung on the TekGen walls. They brought tears to her eyes even now. Rowan had taken a shot of her standing by a huge indoor office plant, laughing, her hair light and long, framing her face. It was the only photo in which she looked truly beautiful, she thought. She had it framed and kept it on her bedroom dresser.
While Rowan was off on his latest business trip, Sara had been reassigned to a new boss, Deborah Yu. Deborah was a tiny, pear-shaped woman with a Ph.D. from Stanford and a huge family in Hong Kong. The rumor was that Futuristic Communications was history. After all the effort she’d put in for Rowan’s telecom projects, Sara felt betrayed—and not just for herself. She didn’t even know if Rowan knew what had befallen him, but she didn’t want to be the one to tell him.
Sara banged the door as she went inside Vera’s house.
“Who is it?” she heard from the kitchen. Anna. Sara smiled at the thought of her beautiful young friend.
“It’s Sara,” she called out. “I have to change.”
“I’ll be here,” Anna called back. Hearing Anna gave Sara a feeling of security and happiness she didn’t try to understand. Sara felt she could share anything with the younger woman, as if they were familiars, as if she and Anna had come from the same place a long time ago.
Sara changed her clothes in the small yellow bathroom in the main house. The bathroom smelled like the sweat lodge when you first crawled in, and was just as cold and damp. The house itself was built on three levels and the foundation was crumbling. The bathroom reeked of dry rot and mildew and fungus. The faucets leaked, the toilet was usually plugged up, the shower dripped, the linoleum floor was discolored and cracked around the tub and shower stall, and the grout was stained black.
Sara hurried, untying her hiking boots, pulling off her purple jersey, her black Levis, unhooking her black lace bra. The door creaked as one of Vera’s seven cats, an all-black streak of fur with one white paw, slipped in and meowed. Sara threw her thick green socks in the duffle along with her clothes and slipped on the caftan. She left her hiking boots on; she didn’t want to walk barefoot up the hill through the thick underbrush to reach the sweat.
She saw herself in the mirror with her caftan ballooning around her ankles. Before she had the time to disapprove of her big-boned face, her bright blond dyed hair, long and fuzzy, unraveling from the batik scarf she’d wrapped around her head an hour ago, she spied the gleam of her silver earrings and turquoise choker. Quickly she took them off as well as her watch and Australian opal ring, a gift from her ex-husband, Paul, the year Dan was born. Sara dropped her jewelry in her cosmetic bag along with her car keys, picked up her bag full of clothes and rushed out, nearly slamming into a young woman outside the door.
“Hi!” Sara said, surprised. “I guess you’re next.” She swung the door wide to let the young woman by. She had a perfectly oval face, smooth peach skin, and almond-shaped black eyes. Her thick shining black hair was twisted up in a gold and feather hair ornament.
“Do you know where we go?” asked the young woman. The question sounded like an order and reminded Sara of Deborah Yu at work.
“The path is right outside that door.” Sara pointed to the sliding glass doors beyond where oleander grew among the madrone, bay and pine trees.
“I don’t see anything,” said the girl peevishly, looking past Sara. She wore a tiny orange halter and skintight blue jeans showing her perfect belly button. Sara couldn’t help thinking how Deborah Yu alternated between wearing similar designer tank tops made of silk with Calvin Klein jeans and logging boots and wearing beige Jones of New York suits and open-toed heels. The worst thing really was that both women were twenty-five years younger thought Sara, wincing with some humor and chagrin.
“You can’t miss it,” Sara said. “Follow the Christmas lights.”
So here was another newbie—they were mostly women anyway, mostly in their twenties, who invariably wore skimpy bathing suits or tight short-shorts and T-strap tops without bras. This girl’s firm smooth body curved seductively, reminding Sara of her own fifteen-year-old daughter. The thought of Elana made her feel gentler, kinder.
“I’m Sara,” she smiled, extending her hand.
“Tracine,” the girl said, without taking it.
“Nice to meet you, Tracine. Is this your first time?”
“I’ve been to sweats before,” said Tracine, looking away. “I was told it would be really hot in there. Do you think this is okay?” She picked at her strap as if it were a twig and she a bird.
She was probably a graduate student from Berkeley. “Fewer clothes make you hotter, I mean if the heat bothers you,” Sara answered. She tried to imagine she was talking to Elana so she could feel more kindly. But she was irritated with the girl’s deceit. She would have known what to wear if she’d been to a real sweat, Sara thought.
“I hear we’re all so close together,” Tracine wiggled her nose in distaste. She looked both excited and fearful, her pert breasts bobbing beneath the orange jersey top.
“Only if there are a lot of people,” Sara snapped. “Also there’s a Native American tradition about modesty,” Sara added, looking at Tracine’s thin bare arms and cleavage.
“Oh, sorry,” the girl said, her voice trailing off as she lowered her exquisitely shaped eyes. “They didn’t tell me. I didn’t bring anything like that.”
“Next time I’d wear something long with sleeves like this,” said Sara pointing to her own caftan. “You’ll feel better. The stones feel much hotter on bare skin. Most of the women who are regulars wear long flannel nightgowns. You can buy them at any secondhand store.”
“I don’t like heat. I probably won’t come back, to tell you the truth. Hey, like, do I have to pay anything?”
“You could give a donation. We all bring food donations for the communal feast after the sweat. It isn’t really a feast, more like a large potluck.
Without responding, Tracine closed the bathroom door on her. Feeling diminished, Sara went through the long dark living room furnished with black matching leather sofas. What had Tracine done wrong really? Or done to her? Just because she reminded Sara of TekGen and Deborah Yu didn’t mean anything. Sara sighed, thinking she’d have to make more of an effort to be helpful to the girl after the sweat was over.
She hurried past two huge brown and black mastiffs lying in front of the large fireplace. She stooped to pet the biggest dog, Maya, whose pink tongue lolled out of her open mouth, spittle hanging from her gleaming teeth. Maya’s head shot up and her tail began to wag, hitting the hardwood floor in big flat thumps. Sara used to bring her dog, Oregon, over to play with Maya, but Oregon was too old now, too cranky, and snapped at other dogs.
“You big bozo,” Sara said and hurried into the kitchen, nearly slamming into Anna.
“I don’t mean you!” Sara cried.
Anna held out her arms and hugged Sara, taking her casserole dish.
“What a sight you are!” Sara said, hugging the much younger woman back, smoothing down her black hair that grew nearly to her waist. Anna wore feathers tied with a dangling red ribbon. Her face was flushed, her full lips red as the ribbon, cheeks smooth and silky, framed by her long beautiful shining hair. Sara felt grateful to Anna for being so happy to see her, so unlike that Tracine girl.
“How are you, girl?” asked Anna.“Still have that tough job?”
“You mean TekGen? Yes, I still have that job, but I lost my boss.”
“How do you lose a boss?” Anna laughed, showing a dimple.
“Hmmm, have I told you about Rowan Lightfoot?”
“Maybe. His name is familiar.” But Anna wanted to talk about her boyfriend and she changed the subject. “Herman’s here tonight.”
“Good,” Sara nodded. Anna usually came with Herman who was from Flagstaff, Arizona, a Navajo, and a deaf student at Ohlone Community College in Fremont. Anna taught American Sign Language part-time at the college.
“He’s going to AA now,” Anna said.
Sara and Anna had talked about how Herman was struggling with dependency issues, made worse by his divorce and child support problems.
Anna put down Sara’s lasagna on the filthy counter. Beside the food offerings were piles of dirty dishes, open cartons of soured milk, exposed containers of refried beans, rancid butter, and broken cloves of garlic on breadboards covered with crumbs. “I see Chris came home this weekend,” she finally said.
Chris was Vera’s seventeen-year-old son, a freshman at Sonoma State College. He often came home with his friends to party now that Vera was in San Diego and they usually trashed the house.
“I wish my son would come home,” said Sara.
“Have you heard anything from Dan?” asked Anna sympathetically.
“Four emails in one month after nothing in the past twelve!” Sara flushed. “The last one was from some country I can’t pronounce ending with a ‘stan’. Not Pakistan, thank god. I can’t believe it.”
“He’s a big boy,” Anna replied. “From what you’ve told me, he can take care of himself.”
“I hope so. When did you get here?”
“Oh, a while ago. I came early to help Herman bring in the stones.”
“Do you know where the detergent is?” Anna said.
Sara pointed to a cabinet under the nonworking microwave. She felt resourceful and necessary suddenly, happy to be back. “You’ll get your beautiful dress dirty,” she exclaimed. Gathered beneath Anna’s large breasts, the gauzy material of her long white dress of Grecian design flowed down over her belly and hips, dropping to her bare feet. With her hair pulled up, she looked like a goddess.
“No I won’t. I found this,” said Anna, taking down a full-length apron hanging from a hook by the Dutch doors. She put it over her head, being careful not to mess her hair and tied the strings behind her, smoothing the top down around her white lacy bodice.
“Aren’t you going up to the sweat?” Sara asked.
“No. But I’ll be outside supporting you.”
“Now why am I not surprised at that?” Sara opened her wide-set eyes, sometimes green and sometimes hazel. “You are always supporting someone, Anna.”
“I’m on my moon time,” Anna explained.
Sara smiled, feeling nostalgic, wishing she were still menstruating. When she first began coming to sweats, she and the other women who thought of themselves as feminists had objected to the practice of not allowing a menstruating woman into the lodge. The reason given by Two Crows was not that women were second-class citizens when they had their periods. It was not that they were defiled or unclean, but rather that they were “too powerful” he said. Vera had called that revisionist history, but Sara had shrugged, feeling that they were simply honoring the old tradition. Honor was something she had very little of in her own life. She barely knew what the word meant. So why not honor this Lakota tradition? In any case, now she was in menopause and beyond moon times.
“There’s another woman changing in the bathroom,” Sara said pulling her long blond mane off her neck. “A newbie.”
“Okay, I’ll look after her.” Anna laughed, flicking away the feather and ribbon, and then said, “But first I have to deal with this mess.”
“Yeah, I know.” Sara stared out the kitchen window at a large, twisted pine tree on the hill above. It was jutting out at a precarious angle. It could fall down anytime, crash into the house. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before.
“Did you hear the news?” Anna asked, interrupting her thoughts. “Two Crows wants to do a Vision Quest in the desert. Isn’t that exciting?”
“He’ll let us know. We all want to go. Do you want to come?”
“How can I?” Sara said. “I have my job.”
“It will only be four days,” said Anna.
“Where?” asked Sara, despite herself.
“Somewhere in the desert. Two Crows won’t say where or when. But we can ask him after tonight’s sweat.” Anna laughed, showing her perfectly shaped white teeth, her deep dimple. Her dark eyes widened and sparkled, and her face lit up.
“I’m not ready for a Vision Quest,” Sara said. “I’m too wimpy to fast for four days. I like my McDonalds greaseburgers. I like to drink alcohol.”
She’d passed up her usual glass of wine last night because she wanted to smoke the pipe tonight, something Two Crows discouraged when you had alcohol in your system. She wanted to make sure her prayers for Dan would be answered.
“It won’t be soon. Remember, Two Crows injured his back on that construction job at Stanford,” Anna replied.
“That’s right. Anyway I’m too busy for visions!” Sara’s visions, if you could call them by that official name, disturbed her sometimes, but only if she thought about them, which she avoided doing as much as possible. Maybe that’s why she had avoided the sweat she thought. Maybe it wasn’t the traffic after all. She picked up her drum case and towel.
“Hurry, go on up. You’ll be late,” Anna said, leaning over the sink.
“Yes, Yes, Okay, Mom, I’m going.” Sara teased. Wrinkling her pug nose, she left the kitchen with her drum bag.
She walked outside and through the underbrush. She heard drumming and Two Crow’s deep call, then a faint chorus of voices responding, singing the ceremonial Welcome Songs. By the end of the sweat, the voices would be much louder and deeper. At the top of the hill, she saw Johnny the Stonekeeper with his back to her, pushing at the red-hot stones inside the oven with his long-handled shovel. Everyone else seemed to be inside the lodge, except for Tracine, who was following her up the hill. The door to the sweat was closed.
Sara took off her boots and placed them under a tree. A smudge stick of sage and cedar was smoldering on an abalone seashell by the doorway. She felt, rather than saw, Johnny look at her as he prodded inside the fiery furnace with his shovel.
She paused at the altar and, taking all four copies of Dan’s emails out of her towel, she laid each open on the rug by the jewelry and several pairs of glasses. Sent to her TekGen address, these few electronic letters were the only communication she had received from Dan, all from different and unknown Internet addresses she could not reply to. Though Rowan often told her not to worry, she was terrified for Dan. How could any American travel safely in the Middle East after 9/11?
The altar consisted of a strip of Navaho rug in yellow, maroon, black and white stripes that ran between the lodge and the furnace. On the rug lay a buffalo skull shining white in the evening gloom flanked by blue, green, white and red waving flags on sticks to signify the four directions: East, West, North and South. Two precious and illegal eagle feathers blew around in the center surrounded by painted gourds, shells, beads, and other sacred objects.
Sara bent over and picked up the smudge stick, feeling the cool night air rush under her caftan. She blew on the smoldering tip of the stick while weaving her hands to direct the smoking cedar and sage up her legs and body.
She took her drum out of her deerskin bag. Sitting down on a bench, she began to drum with the others inside the lodge. She let the smoke waft over her face, shoulders and arms. With eyes closed, she breathed in the strong scent and the cold night air. When she opened them, there was Tracine breathless and shivering, this time in a sleeveless skin-tight tank dress of blue tie-dye. A towel was draped around her bare shoulders.
“Are we too late?” asked Tracine breathlessly, interrupting her. That, too, reminded her of Deborah, who kept reassigning Sara to write different documentation each week, and not giving her enough time to finish it. Sara stopped drumming.
“We have to wait for the next round,” she said carefully.
Remembering her vow to be more helpful, Sara put down her drum and showed Tracine what to do to prepare herself. Sara told her to put out her arms and began to smudge her, using her hands as a feather, covering her with the smoke. “This is called smudging,” Sara said. “It’s a kind of cleansing. We do this before each sweat.”
“I know,” said Tracine.
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot you’ve been to sweats before.” Sara tried not to sound sarcastic.
Tracine nodded too quickly, her jet black hair falling into her porcelain-smooth face. Her lips shone blood-red in the firelight coming from the furnace.
“Do you think this is really okay?” Tracine asked, pointing to her tie-dye dress.
“It’s better,” said Sara, tight-lipped. Could Tracine see her half-century-old crooked teeth full of old silver fillings and all the wrinkle lines around her eyes? If only the girl would leave her alone! It was as if she were being baited on purpose, like at TekGen. Stop it! Sara told herself. You are being really petty and paranoid.
Yet Sara felt like shaking Tracine for her blind carelessness and raw neediness. Putting the smudge pot back in the seashell, Sara sat back down on the picnic bench and wrapped the towel around her shoulders. The wind had come up from the Bay. Soon the fog would blow in. She faced the Christmas lights hanging from the pole, keeping her eyes lowered to avoid Tracine leaning heavily against the pole. Instead, she listened to the chanting and drumming. She recognized the Four Directions song.
“Wiohpeyata etun wan yo!” Sara heard Two Crows’ deep voice.
“We-yoke-pay-ya-tah-lay-tune-wye-oh.” The group repeated the foreign words, which Sara translated to herself, ‘Look toward the West.’ A few years ago Sara had researched and written out the Lakota words, mimeographing copies of all the sweat songs. She had made it her job to translate the Lakota chants used in the ceremony.
The chanting was interrupted by a cell phone tinkling unpleasantly. “Oh!” Tracine exclaimed, grabbing for her leather bag. “Hello, Hello?” She held the phone to her ear, and then snapped it shut.
“You need to turn that off,” Sara said and began to drum again.
Tracine pouted, but took out the tiny silver phone piece and turned it off. “Sorry,” she said. “I really like your drum,” she added.
Sara nodded, but kept drumming. She imagined drumming in front of Deborah Yu. She smiled.
“Where did you get your drum?” Tracine asked.
Sara stopped. “I had it made for me.”
“Where? I’d like to get one.”
“It was a long time ago. I had it made by a group of people who lived in a remote place called Spirit River Lodge up north on the Mad River.”
Tracine straddled the pole, and the lights shook. “Old Hippies!” she proclaimed. “I’ll search for Spirit River Lodge on Google.”
“You do that.” Sara took up her drum again just as the pole Tracine was leaning on toppled over. Strings of lights dropped to the ground.
“Oh, shit!” squeaked Tracine, pulling at the stake as the lights flickered on and off. Sara held herself back from jumping up. She didn’t want to help Tracine; that was mean-spirited, she knew, but it was the truth. Instead, she closed her eyes, waiting for the end of the first round, and drummed along.
Two Crows began the final song. Soon she could go inside. When Sara opened her eyes, Tracine was putting two large lava rocks at the base of the pole that she had wedged upright and deep into the ground. The doorway to the lodge was opened, signaling the first round was over and the second about to begin.
“More stones!” called Two Crows and more were brought in.