Important Note: I am not Diné (Navajo), but everything I’ve ever read or learned of them fills me with great respect. The following story is from the POV of a character who is also not Diné. This story was written and shared with the greatest respect.
‘I’ve done wiser things, I think.’ If one were going to have last thoughts, those might be pretty common last thoughts. Qaz lay back on what felt like a dentist’s chair. Worry that he might be doing the least brilliant thing of his life stuck in his mind now that the thought had passed through.
“Second thoughts?” That question came from his partner, his husband, his conscience, the man laying on a matching chair. Grace was a scientific samurai, the one who always took the less traveled path.
‘Like you have any room to complain,’ an internal voice complained at Qaz. ‘I distinctly remember some explosives you set off in the Battle of Paris that nearly got us all killed. This is nothing. We can do this.’ Internal voices just don’t have the same sense of self preservation that people with only one personality have. Qaz shifted a little to his side so he could look at his beautiful, caring, brilliant husband. “No, just nervous. Maybe they should send me by myself and make sure it works, before you go.”
Grace held out his hand. “It works. The maths are brilliant. You said so yourself. This is the opportunity of a lifetime Qazriel. Think of the papers we’re going to write when they wake us up tomorrow. We’ll be gone one day. How bad can it be?”
There are those things that are true and not true at the same time, but his archeologist husband had the combat skills of a poached egg. Someone had to go with him. Qaz held out his hand, fingertips touching Grace’s, whose warmth and physical presence made everything seem like a nice normal day, nothing unusual to see, no first time, kinda legal time travel experiment going on here.
“I’d go with you anywhere. I don’t care how hard it is, as long as you’re safe.”
“Just another couple minutes, boys,” Dr. Anthem said cheerfully. “All the systems are a go. Your gear has successfully made target already. Remember it will be spring when you get there. You’ll have three months to explore before the cocoons are ready for you. Don’t miss your hibernation period or you’ll be walking back and that’s a long, long walk.”
“We know all that, Doc. We can read, ya know?” Qaz added a smile that felt more like the smile of a military assassin and demolitions expert than a professor of European chivalric traditions. “I’m a historian and he’s the world’s best archeologist of the southwest United States.”
“It’s okay. We’re all a little nervous, aren’t we,” Grace said soothingly. “Everything will be fine.”
“Don’t get eaten by a bear, Dr. Nakamura, or you either Qaz.” Dr. Anthem batted her eyelashes at the very married Dr. Grace Nakamura because it irritated his asshole husband.
“No one is getting eaten by anything.” Grace stretched just a bit to give Qaz’ hand a squeeze. “Dinner is on us tomorrow, burgers and beer.”
Qaz’ expression suggested he wanted to feed her to a bear, but that didn’t last long as the chairs shifted, expanding around both of them. Hands separated, Qaz did his very best to be calm. First ever time travel with human subjects and they’ve got to go to New Mexico where there were bears, great big ass grizzly bears, when they could have gone to Paris!
“Try not to tense up, boys!” Dr. Anthem teased.
There was time for a blink, then time bent and it felt like he’d been slowly lowering into an ocean of acid for a century. The maths of time and the experience of time were not at all the same. Electrified glass slipped in between each cell, nothing damaging, just stretching, prying apart as he fell backwards through the centuries. It stretched his thoughts until thoughts left afterimages and looped back around. Early childhood left him neurodivergent, to say the least, but during the fall it was as if each configuration of self could talk at the same time, flowing through each other, until he had no solid sense of self remaining. His last coherent thought was that maybe he should have disclosed having dissociative disorder prior to agreeing to the experiment.
Lost in time, lost of self, Qaz was the fine red dirt of the land, the wind bushing over black feathers, the endless blue sky, the grand red shape of rock that apologized to no one. The sun warmed him with a welcoming love that had never reached him so deeply before. Life filled the land, each little self living in a world where it belonged. In the endless time, he felt that he traveled through every fox, coyote, bear, mouse, each to knock on the door and ask if they knew him, but none did. The darkness following him never slowed in its pursuit. The one person he knew he was looking for kept always one step ahead of him.
There were people. They seemed content and peaceful. The men wore loincloths, the women long skirts. Both wore shoes of leather. He understood that he wasn’t at home, that he had gone on a long journey, but he didn’t remember where from or where too. Sometimes he could hear voices, but they had no direction, no more name and place than he had. if they were the terrors of being a child in war, or if they were voices from his nowhere present that he couldn’t understand, they were all the same in their ignorance of him.
Then like sand falling through an hourglass, his attention focused tightly inside one of the round houses. The door was deer skin, but the spirit of the deer who had worn it didn’t know him either. The air inside was thick sweet scented from burning sacred herbs on hot coals. Men and women sat around a man with pale skin who sat in the center of the one room. Around him, fine colored sands in red, black, and white, drew an elegant stylized crow with a moon. Dressed like the other men, he wore only a loincloth, his silver curls hanging to his shoulders. He didn’t look like the rest. Time jumbled still and he could see the fine colored sands being placed by hand, drawing the lines. They were his lines. They were for him. In those same moments he could see them being brushed away again, as if birth, life, and death existed all in the same experience.
He understood the words being sung now and they spoke of beauty and of balance, but so much deeper than that, that for some moment he had been holy and that had made him at peace with the universe. As the parts of his being fell back into him like celestial sand filling him back up, the hatáli squatted down before him. Their eyes locked and for a moment he felt like he was going to stretch out across time again, but the man’s voice brought him back into the filling sand of his body. “What is your name, traveler man?”
“I don’t know,” he answered in English words that sounded strange and foreign to his own ears. “Where am I?”
“This is the land. We are the people. You came through the air.”
Well, that made sense. The bits of his mind filling him back up were still so disconnected, it was easy to stretch out his arms and feel that they were wings, that he lived in the air. He could see the careful skilled hands drawing the lines of sand that made the black wings he sat on, the flowing lines of red that meant life, the yellow moon, all connected with circles that seemed snake-like to him as he became a man again. The smoke in the air suddenly had a name. Tobacco. Grace didn’t like tobacco.
The man without a name still breathed in deeply as if it could bring the falling sand particles of his being more quickly to his being. Grace was the person who had held his hand, the person he was moving towards. Behind him the darkness roared like a great storm of rage. It would kill him and the only person he remembered or cared about.
The hatáli shook the rattle, drawing the lost man back to focus on dark eyes back. “Choose the path of beauty, traveler man. You can not control the wind, only where you place your feet.”
It’s all well and fine to choose where to place one’s feet, if one can feel them. If it were the breaking of time or of his fragile mind, the hatáli became a crow in the air right in front of his face. Its wings slowly beat at the tobacco smoke and against the moonlight that hadn’t been there a moment before. “Ask me if I know you,” the crow said, a smirk on its face, those dark eyes looking into even the space between the grains of time sand that made up the patient’s being.
“Do you know me,” the patient asked.
“I do,” said the crow. “I have followed you through the underworld where many tried to trap you, to enclose you in sorrow. I have seen you dream of the sky. I have seen you give your most shiny treasures to others to bring them joy. I do know you. You are brave and cunning and will steal life from the underworld itself. You are Crow.”
“I am Crow,” the patient said, nodding, feeling the last bit of sand drop into place. “I am Crow.”
Within him the howling dark storm that had kept him internally fractured quieted, perhaps not always, but now is always more important than ever. When he opened his eyes, his Grace, his husband, the man he adored and actually remembered now held out his hand to him. Crow reached for his husband’s hand and let himself be pulled to his feet. The people singing for him let out happy cries and Crow didn’t even mind when everyone seemed to embrace everyone.
Someone pulled aside the skin that served as a door to reveal a sunrise lightning the eastern horizon. So beautiful were the colors over the definitely red stone land. Grace wrapped an arm over Crow’s shoulder, pulling him close as they stepped out into the sunrise. “I was worried about you. You had a bad reaction to the jump. You’ve been a vegetable for two weeks. These people took us in.”
“Everything is so beautiful,” Crow said, eyes on the horizon before turning to his husband. “You’re so beautiful! Everything here is so beautiful.”
The community stayed around them, even as the Hatáli swept away the beautiful sand crow. Over the course of the days that followed, all of Crow’s memories returned, but the dark storm did not. He occupied his mind now by himself, the grains of his own being filling up all that there was. It wasn’t Medieval Paris, but it was a beauty that he would never let go off. The enemies in his mind were gone and he had so much to learn.
Lamphere, Louise. “Symbolic Elements in Navajo Ritual.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 25, no. 3 (1969): 279–305. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3629279.
Navajo Chants. Natural History Museum of Utah, n.d. https://nhmu.utah.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/Navajo%20Chants.pdf.
“Navajo Clothing.” Navajo People. Accessed December 12, 2021. http://navajopeople.org/blog/navajo-clothing/.
“Navajo Homes – Hogans.” Navajo People. Accessed December 12, 2021. http://navajopeople.org/blog/navajo-homes-hogans/.
“Navajo Medicine Man - Part 1 Sand Painting.” YouTube, September 3, 2017. https://youtu.be/ckPR3fVlMxE.
“Navajo Medicine Man - Part 2 the Healing.” YouTube, September 6, 2017. https://youtu.be/YXfrtAOjsXU.
About the author
I write a lot of lgbt+ stuff, lots of sci fi. My big story right now is The Moon's Permission.
I've been writing all my life. Every time I think I should do something else, I come back to words.