by Pati Nagle
“Oh, better not move now, better not take your hand away or the world will fall!”
Rosa turned to see who had spoken, heart pounding with sudden fear. She hadn’t heard anyone approaching, but there was a little old Indian man standing on the trail a couple of steps away.
Black eyes gleamed in his weathered, gnome-like face beneath a cap of silver hair. He wore dusty old baggy trousers and a loose-fitting shirt of a faded dark red. A sash gathered in the shirt at his waist, with beads and a couple of feathers dangling from the ends. At first Rosa thought he had on a knapsack, then she realized he was bent with age.
She relaxed a little. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“Didn’t hear? Can’t hear? Have to play louder, then, huh.”
He grinned and pulled a wooden flute from his belt, blew a few notes through it, then grinned again. Rosa smiled indulgently.
“Pretty,” he repeated. “Huh.”
He played some more and started dancing, a little shuffling dance back and forth across the trail. Rosa didn’t want to offend him so she waited. He was some old shaman, maybe. He could be here for the same reason she was—to visit the petroglyphs.
He stopped dancing suddenly and pointed his flute at her. “You the only one awake around here. You got to put up your hand or the world will fall!”
“M-me? I’m sorry, Abuelo, I don’t know what you mean.”
He wasn’t smiling any more, and a tiny thread of fear crept back into Rosa’s heart. The old man jabbed his flute toward her with each word.
“You got to pay attention! You got to fight the land-eaters! You got to kill the serpent before it swallows the river!”
Still confused, Rosa shook her head a little. “I can’t fight the land-eaters, Abuelo. They’ve already won.”
She glanced at the petroglyphs nearby, the hand and an upside-down person and some giant bird tracks. The old man let out a huff and stomped his foot.
“Not these old rocks, stupid girl! These old rocks already told their story. You got to pay attention or there be no corn for your babies, no gourds to make rattles. Land-eaters gonna turn everything to dust!”
Rosa stared at him, breathing fast, trying not to show her alarm. She didn’t have any babies. What was he talking about?
“You learning medicine. Earth mother needs medicine, big, strong medicine! You got to put up your hand.”
Rosa’s eyes narrowed. He was freaking her out, now. Learning medicine—he must mean her studying with Cruz, but how could he know about that? Who was this old man, anyway, and why had he followed her here?
“Find the dragonfly,” he said, thrusting his chin out aggressively.
There was a dragonfly petroglyph nearby, she knew. Only one on this trail, maybe the only one in the whole park. She glanced up at the rocks above her, looking for it, but she didn’t think it was in this cluster. Maybe it was a little farther along the trail. She looked back down, and the old man was gone.
Rosa stood still, peering along the trail that ran back the way she’d come to her left, forward along the cliff to her right. Both sides led toward the city from the point where she was standing. Both were empty. The old man had disappeared.
Maybe he’d stepped behind a boulder. Maybe he’d decided to sit in the shade a little while. There were thousands of places to hide among the tumbled rocks. It wasn’t that unusual that she’d lost track of him.
Rosa listened, straining to hear the shuffling of his moccasins, but heard nothing. Nothing but the echo of a distant flute on the wind, and that must be in her head.
“Crazy old man,” she muttered, starting to climb back down to the trail.
Pati Nagle has written nineteen novels and two collections of short fiction, besides all the stuff that hasn’t seen print. She was born and raised in the mountains of northern New Mexico and is an avid student of music, history, and humans in general.
Her fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Cricket, Cicada, and in anthologies honoring New Mexico writers Jack Williamson and Roger Zelazny. Her fantasy short story “Coyote Ugly” was honored as a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award. She is a founding member of Book View Café.