Those days, the prickly pear boys hung around the Little Tree Trading Post during the day, drowsing in the desert heat mostly, but still seeing and hearing everything that took place between the old adobe building and the two-lane road that ran up into the rez from the highway. They weren’t seen, themselves—or at least not as themselves. Nobody gave a second glance to the small grove of cacti crowded up against the base of one saguaro or another. Nobody even noticed that they were rarely in exactly the same place from one morning to the next.
But Thomas Corn Eyes did. He worked at the trading post and noted their diﬀerent position every morning when he arrived for work.
No one in Thomas’s family had ever had eyes the colour of corn, either the green leaves of the tall midsummer growths or the yellow of the kernels. They got their name back when the federal government insisted a surname was required for everybody, without exception. On the rez they had a lot of fun coming up with names the whites thought were pregnant with traditional meaning. Johnny Squash Mother. Agnes White Deer. Robert Twin Dogs.
No, Thomas had brown eyes, the same as everyone else in the tribe. The diﬀerence was he could also see a little deeper into the invisible world of the spirits than most people could, but that wasn’t something he would ever talk about. He didn’t want to risk gaining the attention of the tribal shaman, Ramon Morago. For the past decade Morago had been searching for an apprentice, and working with him was the last thing Thomas wanted.
It wasn’t that he was ashamed of his Kikimi heritage, or even that he didn’t consider himself a spiritual person. But he was only eighteen and he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life living on the rez, organizing sweats. He didn’t want to be making medicine bags for the aunties, taking Reuben’s dog boys out on their spirit quests, or any of the hundred-and-one other things a shaman did.
But no matter what he wanted or didn’t, he still saw into the spiritworld, and the spirits knew it.
Thomas was studying the cacti through the windows, trying to catch one of the prickly pear moving, when the long black Caddy pulled into the parking lot. It was a ’56 or ’57, a real classic and in perfect shape, the glossy black paint job so deep it seemed to swallow light. He couldn’t see a speck of dust on it, which, considering the roads around here, had to be a bit of a miracle. The tinted windows didn’t let him see the driver, but man, you’d have to feel like the king of the world behind the wheel of a car like that.
He straightened up behind the counter when the driver’s door opened and a striking older woman stepped out. He wasn’t sure what made him think she was older. Her features were youthful and she moved with the easy grace of a dancer. She was tall and colt-thin with a wave of thick black hair that was almost as glossy as the car’s paint job. He figured her for a model, maybe even an actress, but neither explained what she was doing driving herself out here in the sticks except that she looked Native—not Kikimi, but definitely Indian. Then he caught a glimpse of her aura—the ghostly shape of a raven’s head on her shoulders—and he figured she was going into the rez to meet with Morago or the Aunts.
She glanced in the direction of the trading post and caught him staring. Thomas looked away, but not before he saw her smile. So much for maintaining his cool.
When she came inside she should have seemed out of place in her tight designer jeans, strapped sandals, and the midriﬀ-baring T-shirt that probably cost more than everything he had in his closet put together. Her skin was the hue of the shadows in a red rock canyon and her eyes so dark they seemed all pupil. The eyes, he decided, were what had made him think she was older.
The trading post was like an old general store, the shelves stuﬀed with everything from groceries and toiletries to clothing and tools, with a cast iron stove up against one adobe wall around which Reuben’s friends would sit in the afternoon to gossip and drink coﬀee or tea. But oddly enough, the woman appeared to fit her present surroundings as comfortably as she might a runway or some fancy restaurant. Odder still, her raven aura didn’t rest passively on her shoulders. It looked around the trading post as though it had a mind of its own.
He’d never seen anything like that before. He wasn’t a stranger to the auras themselves—his awareness of them was an element of his being able to see into the spiritworld. Not everybody had an aura. It was only those with the closest ties to their ma’inawo blood. Those who carried an animal spirit as well as a human one inside them. But he’d never seen an aura that acted independently the way this one did.
“Ohla,” he said. “Welcome to the Painted Lands.”
The woman smiled and pointed to the cooler at the far end of the counter. “Do you have any bottled Coke in there?”
His response seemed to amuse her, and Thomas felt a flush creep up from under his shirt collar. To cover his embarrassment, he went over to the cooler. He took a bottle out of the icy water, wiped it down with a terrycloth towel, and popped the cap. Returning to his place behind the counter, he set it down in front of her.
“How much?” she asked.
Her perfectly shaped eyebrows went up.
Thomas shrugged. “People around here don’t have a lot of money. Reuben, my boss, doesn’t like to gouge them.”
She pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of the front pocket of her jeans and handed it to him. Thomas didn’t think there’d been room for even a bill in that pocket.
“Keep the change,” she said.
Do I really look like that much of a charity case? Thomas thought, but he only nodded and put the money in the till. A woman like her? She could aﬀord to help out Reuben’s bottom line.
“And how much for a map?” she asked.
“Of the rez or the National Park?”
“I’m going to the casino.”
Of course she was.
“You’re on the wrong side of the rez,” he told her.
“There’s a right and a wrong side?”
“No. Though I guess that might depend on who you’re talking to. What I mean is, this isn’t the fancy side with the casino. That’s south of here, on the other side of the Vulture Ridge Trailhead.”
“That’s just the part of the National Park that divides the two sides of the rez. All you need to do is keep going south when you get to the trailhead. There’s plenty of signs, so you don’t need a map.”
He gave her directions that would take her back down Jacinta to Zahra Road where a south turn would take her straight to the casino. She barely seemed to be paying attention, but her raven aura fixed him with an unwavering gaze as he spoke. It was as if it was more than simply an aura and was memorizing his words for her as well as itself. Thomas focused on the woman’s face, trying to ignore the ghostly presence of the bird.
“Just remember,” he said, “that Zahra changes names at the crossroads and becomes Redondo Drive when it continues south.”
“I will. Thank you.”
He watched her start for the door, the head of the raven aura revolving so that it continued to face him. She paused just before stepping outside and turned back to look at him.
“You’ve been so helpful,” she said, “that I feel I should share some direction with you.”
Thomas had no idea what she was talking about.
“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I know where I am.”
Thomas shrugged. “I’ve lived here all my life.”
“But do you know who you are?” she asked.
The raven aura cocked its head when she spoke. Thomas had really never seen anything like it before. He’d never seen a woman like the one at the door, either. She could as easily have stepped right out of the pages of a magazine, or from a movie screen, as from that long black Caddy she was driving.
“I don’t really think it matters who I am,” he said.
“That might be the saddest thing I’ve heard all day,” she told him.
That was because she didn’t live on this side of the rez, he thought, but all he did was give her another shrug.
“It should matter to you,” she added. “You should learn about yourself. Embrace all the aspects of who you are.”
Thomas couldn’t stop himself. “Says the woman in designer clothes on the way to the casino in a vintage Cadillac.”
Her dark gaze held his for a long moment.
“Not everything is what it appears to be on the surface,” she said.
Then the door was closing behind her.
He tracked her through the window as she returned to her car. She never looked back, but the raven aura watched him until the closing car door cut them both from view.
Well, that wasn’t weird.
He stood looking out the window long after the dust kicked up by her tyres had settled.