Fiction from the Left
A Modern Folk Tale from the Left
Episode 2: El Calderon
(Previously in El Malpaís: Oskar, growing restless on his family’s farm in Colorado, left home to seek his fortune. On his journey west he reunited with his old travelling compañero, Diego, who suggested that the boy embark on a vision quest. On the banks of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the pair met up with Tatcho, whom they knew from a previous adventure and who agreed to act as Oskar’s medicine man. The old man steered Oskar toward Lookout Mountain for his quest but Oskar ignored his advice and entered El Malpaís to explore the legendary Tubos de Tiempo in The Badlands. El Calderon is oldest of the lava tubes, and first one that the boy entered.)
Oskar left Diego at the gaping entrance of El Calderon and descended into the lava tube.
The boy was well beyond the faintest traces of sunlight when his last torch burned out and he was enveloped in total darkness.
Oskar had never been afraid of the dark—in fact he liked it. As a young boy he had often ventured out at night to see things not visible in the light of day—the moon and stars—and all the creature activity that begins when the heat of the day has dissipated.
He liked the feeling of invisibility as he explored the world by night. Sometimes to test his stalking skills, he would follow a nocturnal predator and surprise it before it could pounce on its prey.
But the darkness of El Calderon was different—it was uncanny. The lava tube was a space of complete blackness and absolute silence. Not scary but timeless. Oskar had the feeling that he had infiltrated the fabric of time itself.
Totally disoriented at first, the boy gradually experienced a new sense of direction. He stopped trying to feel his way through the darkness and stood still. To reorient himself he began turning slowly in the center of the tubo oscuro.
An invisible force brought him to a full stop.
“Yes,” he realized. “That’s the direction I came from.” Once he had established that, he began slowly turning again, like a ratchet, until he felt himself locked in place. “And this is the direction that I must go.”
Without any sensory feedback, Oskar took off walking down the center of El Calderon—following the path that a river of fire had forged 100,000 years earlier.
He had absolutely no sense of time or place when, several hours later, he stepped through the portal of the Tubo de Tiempo into bright sunlight.
Terra incognita did not frighten Oskar any more than darkness did—it was simply new territory to be explored. The boy shielded his eyes and looked up at the mid-morning sun.
“Good,” he thought, “lots of time to look around.”
The contour of the land was familiar—not unlike the high plains and rolling hills around his home—but here the land was unaltered by human activity. There were no roads, fences, or plowed fields in sight. A single-track path that could have been made by migrating animals cut through the tall grass in front of him.
Following the trail, Oskar came upon a bloody scene. A flock of noisy magpies was scavenging the half-butchered carcass of a massive bison. The birds protested and scattered as he approached.
The physical evidence at the scene indicated a recent kill—the exposed meat of the bison was still moist and covered with flies and the blood splattered on the grass glistened in the sunlight. The wounds on the dead animal were stabs and slashes and the meat had been sliced, not torn, away. Obviously the hunters were human.
The boy noticed a spear with something lashed to the haft thrust into the ground nearby.
He walked over to take a closer look.
The object attached to the spear was a crude stone fetish—the likeness of a bear, or maybe a boar.
“What manner of man did this?” Oskar wondered.
He didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
Oskar spun around to face the danger.
He was surrounded by a band of swarthy, crudely-clad men armed with flint-tipped spears—all pointed directly at him.
Oskar raised his hands.
“He’s stealing meat that belongs to the Tribe of Conn,” one of them said.” Kill him!”
“Wait,” counseled another voice. “There is no blood on his hands. Let’s take him to Conn. Let the mighty Conn decide what to do with him.”
Night was falling as the men and women of the Tribe of Conn gathered in the council hut in the center of their primitive village to gawk at the strange captive.
Conn, a big, bearded man with wild hair and piercing eyes, circled the boy looking him over carefully.
“Look at his pale skin and fine hair,” the chieftain observed. “Clearly he is from some distant tribe.”
He reached out and felt the captive’s bicep.
“He will make a fine slave.”
Oskar jerked his arm away.
“I am not a slave,” Oskar announced. “I am a free man.”
An audible murmur passed through the spectators.
Conn was amused by the boy’s protest.
“Free man? What does that mean—‘free man’? All men and women everywhere belong to a tribe. It has always been and always will be thus. What is this ‘free man’ of which you speak?”
Oskar, undaunted, met Conn’s scornful gaze.
“It means that I can go where I want to and do what I please as long as I do no harm.”
The look of amusement faded from Conn’s face. His eyes narrowed and he leaned close enough to Oskar that the boy was almost overwhelmed with the man’s reeking breath.
“No, my young friend, you are not free to go anywhere. You are a captive and slave of the Tribe of Conn. The tribe decides your fate. The tribe is everything and the individual is nothing. If you prove yourself useful and loyal, you might be admitted to the tribe and assigned a place or…,” he said, pulling out a razor-sharp flint dagger and holding it to Oskar’s throat. “You can die.”
The boy held his head high.
“I am a free man,” he reiterated.
“Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” the tribe began chanting in unison.
A cheer went up when the tip of Conn’s dagger pricked the skin of Oskar’s neck and produced a trickle of blood.
A singular shrill voice rose above the din inside the hut:
“No! No, I say! To kill the boy will bring great misfortune to the Tribe of Conn!”
The tribe fell silent. Everyone in the hut turned to the speaker who stepped forward.
It was Tiwi, the tribal shaman. The diminutive man was decked out in an outlandish fur robe festooned with shells and fetishes and wore a headdress of feathers trimmed with shells. To advertise his authority he brandished an antlered staff bearing a stone fetish like the one Oskar had seen near the butchered bison.
“The stranger is a shaman,” the conjurer informed the gathering. “It is bad luck to kill a shaman.”
“How do you know he’s a shaman?”demanded Conn.
“Because of what you yourself said and all can see.”
The shaman spread his arms and twirled around as he danced towards Conn and Oskar. He stopped in the center of the hut and pointed a skinny finger at the boy’s face.
“Behold the white skin and fine hair.”
The shaman reached out to touch Oskar but the boy pulled his head back.
Tiwi was center stage now, aware that every eye in the tribe was on him.
“I had a vision just last night,” he crooned. “I saw a White Man come into the Tribe of Conn and I saw Good Fortune following behind him. If we keep the White Man alive and I teach him the secrete ways, Good Fortune will befall the tribe.”
The shaman bowed low before Conn and the crowd. Some of the people nodded; others grunted.
Conn looked around at the bewitched faces of the tribe and sheathed his dagger.
“Take him away,” he said to Tiwi. “He’s yours. Teach him your secret ways but also teach him the ways of the tribe. He must live by the ways of the tribe—or die.”
Tiwi started out of the hut and motioned for Oskar to follow him.
The conjurer stopped and looked back at Conn whose hand was still resting on the hilt of his dagger.
“We will all be waiting for the appearance of Good Fortune.”
“I saved your life,” Tiwi said to Oskar as soon as they entered his medicine hut. The shelter was a curious space decorated with all manner of oddities. An assortment of pots and baskets filled with seeds and dried plants lined the perimeter of the dirt floor and the skins and skulls of animals and strings of shells and feathers covered the walls.
“You belong to me now,” the shaman proclaimed.
“No I don’t,” Oskar replied. “No person can own another.”
“I saved your life,” Tiwi repeated, “and Conn gave you to me.”
“I don’t care what Conn said,” Oskar declared defiantly. “I was never his to give away. Every person is born free. As soon as you turn you back on me, I’ll run.”
“They’ll kill you when they catch you,” the shaman stated flatly. “I’m offering you a chance to live.”
Oskar glanced at the door of the hut. He could hear the muffled sounds of the tribe settling in for the night. These people were good hunters and the boy wasn’t sure when he would have a chance to make a clean getaway. It might be a good idea to buy some time.
“What’s the deal?” he asked Tiwi.
“I’ll make you my apprentice. I’ll teach you the tricks of the trade and we will enjoy great power in the Tribe of Conn. You are powerful medicine.”
“Because of my white skin?”
“Yes,” said Tiwi, “because of your white skin.”
“There is no magic in the color of a person’s skin,” said Oskar. “I think you know that.”
“The Tribe of Conn is a superstitious lot,” Tiwi observed . “They can be led to believe anything. Even the clever Conn can be tricked. You saw him sheath his dagger. You can enjoy great power as a shaman in the Tribe of Conn.”
Tiwi watched the boy carefully for his reaction.
“I want no power or privilege because of the color of my skin,” Oskar declared.
“Then you will die. The tribe will kill you when they realized that they have been tricked.”
Oskar faced the shaman eye-to-eye.
“Then you’ll die with me.”
The conjurer blinked.
“Why do you say that?”
“The people of the tribe might be superstitious but they’re not stupid—they’ll know you’re the one who tricked them.”
Tiwi glared at Oskar for a minute. He considered killing the boy himself but he was no warrior and the boy was young and strong.
“You’re too much trouble,” the conjurer shook his head and walked to the door of the hut. He pulled back the bison hide that covered the opening and turned to Oskar.
“Get out of here before it gets light. Go back to where you came from.”
Oskar would remember Tiwi’s parting words and cite them in his final report to Tatcho:
“There is no place for you in the Tribe of Conn—or any other tribe.”
El lobo mexicano was waiting for Oskar when he emerged from the darkness of El Calderon.
“Oh, Diego,” said the boy as soon as he saw the wolf. “Let me tell you what happened…”
Back at their base camp Oskar succumbed to exhaustion and fell asleep before he finished his narration.
The wolf tended a small campfire and watched over the boy throughout the night.
When Oskar awoke the next morning, Diego greeted his compañero with a question:
“Have you seen enough yet?”
“No,” said the boy standing up and stretching in the early morning sunshine. “I have to see it all, Diego—Cerro Hoya is next.”
Copyright © 2016 by Richard D. Vogel
Permission to copy granted