The Book of the Ancients
Desert wind cut through a broken window pane in the back road adobe of Jonathan Luhya Gray Horse. It rustled the soiled curtains, sending a puff of tiny dust particles into the air. They drifted like timeless microbes through the shaft of sunlight streaming in.
A sweet-smelling mesquite wood fire blazed in the corner beehive while all about the smoky room sounds of chanting mixed with a rhythmic drum beat. Groups of elders, gatherings of three and four, stood close by the antelope skin litter upon which the aged chief rested. They murmured in tongue, reciting age old verse along with special power words to ward off evil. And there lying before them was the ancient one, oldest among the people, and known by all as ‘Coyote-meeter.’ The call had gone out the previous afternoon that Jonathan had taken a turn for the worse, and now the death watch had begun.
Unexpectedly, the old man’s arm lifted from his side and a crooked hand motioned for a certain attendant to draw near. By his litter through the long hours of the night, Joseph Estes responded quickly, bending forward to listen. Jonathan’s voice was weak, and yet the urgency in his tone was unmistakable. He gripped Joseph’s arm with a strength belying one so close to death.
“You are beside me as I begin the long journey, my brother,” he rasped, “just as you have always walked with me in life.”
Joseph answered with steadfastness. “My chief, I see in your eyes the greatest of tokens. The clouds have lifted and they are clear again. Your face...it shows no fear.”
Jonathan smiled. “I am unafraid of those who beckon from the east. They are the good spirits of my ancestors and have shown me the path that I must travel.” He coughed hoarsely. “I will carry our friendship to them as a gift.”
“We have come a long way, you and me,” said Joseph.
“Yes, it is...true,” Jonathan whispered, fighting for breath. “I remember well those times when we hunted and fished together. And when we watched our families grow.” His hand began to tremble. “But before I turn away from you this last time there is something of great importance I must share.”
“Coyote-meeter, your knowledge is like a salve that renews my spirit. Please, go on...”
Jonathan pulled Joseph close to murmur in his ear. “We havealways followed the ways of the ancients. This is well known.”
“Yes, and you have worn the badge of healer and storyteller to the people through many seasons. All are grateful for this.”
A smile creased Jonathan’s wrinkled face and his voice grew suddenly stronger. “It was a task I loved, my friend, for our story is a sacred one, passed from mouth to mouth and heart to heart.”
“You speak the truest words,” Joseph responded calmly.
Jonathan continued. “But only a few of us have known that each word...every phrase...must be repeated in the same way that our ancestors repeated them.”
“How so?” asked Joseph.
“In the tongue of the first-born,” Jonathan replied, “and then only while holding the ceremonial talking stick.”
Joseph’s eyes narrowed. “You are referring to the spirit book...the complete record of our people, preserved in the minds of elders over centuries of time.”
“Yes, yes,” Gray Horse answered, his eyes aglow, “tales of the O’odham. But what you do not know, my brother, is that such a book actually exists.”
“Wha...? What are you saying?” Joseph uttered, his lips suddenly trembling.
Jonathan settled back. “I have said it and it is true.”
Joseph shook his head in disbelief. “I-It cannot be,” he insisted.
Gray Horse kept a steady gaze. “Oh yes,” he repeated. “Anything is possible in a world so full of mystery.”
“But how? Where?”
Jonathan’s breathing slowed. “I was told of the book by one who left us long ago...a makai among our brothers and sisters in Sonora. He said it was in four parts, like the four directions, and hidden with the cunning of a fox.” He began to slip in and out of consciousness. Desperately he struggled to stay alert. “I...like you...did not believe it at first, so I went in search of proof.”
Joseph focused on a glint in the old man’s eyes. “And what did you discover?” he asked.
“The book...it is real, Joseph. I used my...c-crystals... the crystals of I’itoi...to learn where the first part is hidden.”
“Yes, they are in the antelope pouch...I gave to...Danny. The book...it is very beautiful. There are strange symbols and the writing is very old...”
“Then it is too precious and must remain a secret.”
“No, Joseph, no...it is in the signs. Our people face greater dangers than ever before. You must find it, you and Danny, our little Coyote-meeter. He is very young, but he grows stronger in the ways of the elders...each day.”
Joseph searched the chief’s face worriedly. “Why are we in danger, Jonathan?”
Gray Horse began to choke and wheeze. His breath rattled unevenly. “The… drought...it has been nine seasons now...with no end in sight. There will be great...sickness...and famine. Babies and old women will surely die.”
“How do you know this?”
“I have witnessed it in the stars,” Jonathan croaked. “Please, Joseph...Elder Brother has lost his way. He is no longer joined with Coyote and Buzzard. The...book...once it is whole again...will bring unity and protect us. Find it...take it to the place of our elders...to the tribal council. They will know...uuuhhhhhhh.”
“Jonathan...Jonathan,” Joseph called. “Where is the book? Where is the first part hidden?”
“S-Seven...seven crystals...begin your search where they fall to...the canyon floor, my brother. I must...go...my journey begins...peace...”
Joseph watched the color of life fade from the face of his dear friend. He carefully returned the chief’s limp hand to rest alongside his body. With a voice as brave and strong as he could muster he began a song of many worlds taught to him by his grandmother.
What has happened?
What has happened?
Hoot owl medicine man, cut the arrow feathers
To the flatland he is coming
Bring him in
Gather him safely in tonight.
Hey, hey, washtehey, washtehey, yo hey, hey
“…action we associate with thriller writers like Michael Crichton…a flavor of story-telling, narration, and a touch of the archaic that one might find in a native story. Hunton’s work is animated and compelling.”
Philip Baruth, award-winning commentator, University of Vermont professor, author of The Dream of the White Village
‘chiadag’ in O’odham, is one of only two venomous lizards in the world, patterned in yellow or orange, and black beaded scales. Their jaws are powerful and their bite is tenacious. They hold onto victims tightly, injecting a continuous flow of venom. They are to be avoided when encountered. Their numbers are greatly reduced in recent years and they are protected by law in Arizona. The O’odham hold them in high esteem, believing the beautiful creatures to be a gift of the sun god, thus the colorful bands.
The ‘man-in-the-maze’ is the most cherished symbol of several southwestern tribes; the Hopi, Navajo, and Tohono O’odham people show great reverence for its meaning in life and death. There are varying interpretations of the design, all closely related to the creation story. Here are two from the O’odham:
The man is I’itoi, Elder Brother, and the first man to walk Mother Earth. He represents the human seed and the maze is the womb of Mother Earth. And so, he is seen emerging to walk the land. Near the summit of Baboquivari is a sacred cave where the O’odham believe I’itoi emerged. The cave actually exists as a sacred shrine. The interior is scattered with burnt offerings and other gifts brought to I’itoi. Author’s note: I have never visited the cave, since Baboquivari is a challenge to climb and the cave is difficult to access, but I know it’s there based on numerous climber accounts.
The symbol can represent a person’s journey through life. The figure of the man represents each person beginning their journey. The maze contains many twists and turns, or choices made in life. The center represents a person’s dreams and final goals. When the center is reached, a person’s goals have been achieved and the sun god blesses them and allows them to pass into the next world. Before a person passes, they step back into the small recess, away from the center, where they contemplate what they have accomplished before they cross the last threshold.
“I wish more authors would write books like these for young people. Hunton did his homework in researching the books. Main character Danny is a very believable twelve year-old, and his adventures make me want to go out and experience the desert more myself. As a middle school librarian, I search for these kinds of stories to recommend to my students. I look forward to reading the whole series. Bravo!”
Jerri Blackman, librarian - Valencia Middle School, Tucson, AZ
“These books introduce heart, spirit, and soul to adolescents. The ties to American Indian culture and mythology are great!”
Peggy E. Gillard, Assistant Principal, Colchester, VT Middle School