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On Christmas morning when she took the silver feather from its tissue paper wrapping, Lilian Cruz could see only what a fragile and solitary thing a feather was. Plucked off of downy birds, pulled loose when cats caught them or they flew into a window, not having recognized the glass for what it was. Falling to earth from feathered wings that failed in flight. The swirling Icarus who Xavier her love, her all, had painted in magnificent tailspin, like a falling pagan angel with the fine intricate plumage of a ferruginous hawk.

He who had been husband, lord, one foot in Mexico and heart divided too between countries, once told her that according to an ancient Hebrew text the fallen angels were Azza, Uzza, and Azazel—all jazzily at the tail end of the alphabet, after even his definitive X. But Xavier had painted upsweep more often than downfall, joyous motion and energy and swirling dance. Now he was gone she couldn't follow, couldn't help but see always the other side of things. The dangerous selfish temerity of Icarus, pushing beyond all reasonable limits his foredoomed wings of feathers and beeswax.

"Thank you," she said without enthusiasm for the feather, returned bluntly to the reality of Christmas morning, to the daughter who had chosen the pendant for her, with its nice inlay of greenish turquoise, and would reasonably be waiting for something a little more heartfelt. Who couldn't see that Lil wanted nothing, not anymore. Except the unobtainable. Chimeric things. Presence, not pointless presents.

"I think I'll drive up to Tesuque pueblo in a while," Aggie said casually, over the scrambled eggs with smoked cheddar and green chile she'd made the two of them after the gifts. "To see some of the dances."

Expecting argument, walking on eggshells. ("Why in the world?" her mother'd ask, and Aggie could never admit to boredom, hurt feelings, the need to get away, missing the man who hadn't called her since she'd come, at the beginning of the month—all of those things outweighing her already strained consideration and goodwill.)

Oh, Aggie, peculiar child. Always wanting to do the quirky thing. This time heading up to Tesuque, all pellmell, instead of heeding the weather forecast—80% snow, late afternoon—and staying in like ordinary people did on Christmas Day. Putting some carols on the stereo, feeding the fire, talking to Terence in Georgetown on FaceTime. Later playing Rummy or assembling a jigsaw puzzle, helping with dinner. Not, as once, tamales and posole; rather something noncommital, bland—pork roast with apples and onions, or maybe scalloped potatoes and ham. Of course Aggie had argued with that, insisting she'd stuff purple eggplants with a pine nut, rice, and currant stuffing, spiced with cinnamon and coriander and fresh mint. Something she'd learned to make while working summers in Turkey. She always turned her nose up at all of the things that Lil preferred—or told herself she did, now. Ever since. When there was all that empty space to fill, it didn't much matter what filled it.

"Why don't I come along?" Lil suggested, equally casually. Startling both Aggie and herself. About to scoff, something had brushed her heart. A bird, a bough, a barn owl, perhaps. The smell of the piñon incense she'd lit also on impulse in the abalone shell on the hall table, once holding a sage smudge—not knowing what came over her as she did it, except that Xavier had smelled like that sometimes, lying on his great aunt's Otomi quilt in front of the fire, bare skin all along hers. Hickory, balsam fir, cedar. Listening to Andean flute music or Jean-Pierre Rampal, light as that brush of wings, wind in the flue.

Xavier's spirit was restless in the house today, escaped from his old studio during the night on Christmas Eve and not having any of being shut back in. They would all three go to the ceremonial dances at the pueblo north of Santa Fe, as they had one of the early years when Aggie and the boys were little and the spell of the New Mexico culture was strong on Lil, after her drab, Midwest upbringing.

Surprise at the turn of events lit Aggie's face as she set eggs and toast on the table, but she told her mother, "That's great!" as if she meant it.

___

All around them, watchers sat in doorways and on rooftops, wrapped in striped woolen blankets. Waiting for the dancers, who must surely arrive soon, emerging from their private rituals in the kiva, become buffalo or deer or one of an array of other spirit-beings under their transmuting masks.

Only the calm solidity of pueblo walls held the wind off the spectators. Patches of last week’s snow lingered between dwellings around the edges of the plaza. The sky was starting to cloud up again, the weather forecast proving true. A storm in the offing.

Lil was hopeful, feeling the immanence of cleansing whiteness she had missed the night before. It never really felt like Christmas Eve without snow drifting through the shafts of light under the streetlamps, mounding on the walls and trees, the porch steps and woodpile. Aggie handed her a cup of cardamom tea from the thermos, joining its fragrance to the piñon smoke that hung on the December air. Exotic and transformative, the way everything felt today.

Suddenly the dancers were there. They'd entered the plaza through a slight opening between dwellings on the far side, and came across the circle towards them—Lil holding her breath, undone by their beauty. Their heads uplifted gravely under the antlers and evergreen cuttings they wore, their animal nature clearly on them. A noble company. Those achingly fine headpieces, and the ritual turnings and crossings between the lines they’d drawn themselves into. Brightness of skins and beads and feathers on the wind-cleansed sky—a whole glory of feathers, here. A flock of musicians followed beside the dancers once they were within the central court. The stillness startled into life with low-voiced drums and gourd rattles, the whisperings of feet to earth.

Lil didn't know the meaning of the intricate rhythms and steps, since no outsiders were allowed to know, but she felt it somewhere deep within, encouraged by the drums. The story being told and prayer offered. The waiting clouds they danced into being, and quickened into hope. Nimbus, nimbostratus, the fertile, undulating clouds Xavier painted with abandon, with enormous swooping strokes of not just fingers, wrist, but his whole body—in a way becoming cloud himself, just as the dancers in their masks became the spirit-beings they embodied. Kachinas.

"Spirits of ancestors, of deities, of natural elements—not only plants and animals, but stones and stars," she told her daughter, sharing her wonder at all of it. "Locations, concepts, qualities, as well. Pretty much everything. The world in its entirety."

"But the kachinas are only around at certain times?" Aggie puzzled.

"They live half of the year in sacred mountains near Flagstaff, it's said. Or in the underworld. In the Lake of the Dead."

"And then the dancers bring them back?"

"Yes—they return to help bring rain or snow, to bring the sun back to the world in ever-darker December, to bring healing and nourishment. Protection. Instruction."

Lil had first become enamored of the kachinas when Xavier had made friends with a family of dancers at San Idelfonso, further north. She'd been taken especially by Snow Bringing Woman, a powerful figure wearing black warrior marks on both her cheeks, who showed the way to ghosts and blessings. Hopi tradition had it that this Snow kachina was responsible for winter weather—replenishing the earth's moisture to bring it back to life again in the new year.

"Ghosts and blessings," Lil murmured now, not realizing that she'd spoken aloud.

Aggie looked at her mother inquiringly, not having understood, but she just shook her head in its knit posie hat, and concentrated again on the dance, feeling herself open wide to both.

___

Leaving the dance plaza late in the afternoon, Lil walked with Aggie through the empty pueblo without meeting another living soul. They walked against the cutting wind back towards where they had parked—on the edge of the village built around the pueblo proper.

"Let's poke our heads into the church," Aggie suggested when they saw its door open and beckoning. As they approached they were surprised to find a man handing out loaves of bread to each comer, from an enormous basket. Oval loaves, baked in the outdoor horno ovens that morning, with wood smoke imbuing the icy air.

Inside, in the dim light, a man with Xavier's shoulder-length hair stood in a low doorway on the far side of all the wooden pews, turning his head to search Lil's wind-flushed face, as if he thought he knew her, before vanishing into the room beyond. She stared unseeingly at the empty doorway, the ranks of votive candles next to it, a draft sending their flames dancing—until Aggie gently touched the arm she'd reached out uselessly, and called her to herself.

When they came out again, it had begun to snow. Grainy at first, blowing, then softening, becoming heavy as it started sticking to the ground, the unpaved parking lot, the road.

Soon it had become a blizzard. Aggie, driving, was terrified, not having driven in snow probably since holidays home from college, nine or ten years ago. Blinded by the gusty flurries, and increasingly disoriented, she saw them skidding off the road or getting stuck somewhere there out of town. The center stripe and cat's-eyes had long since been covered up. For a moment she glimpsed parallel tracks scarring the ghostly white, where a big SUV had disappeared on the highway ahead. And then those too were gone. They inched along, and when she rolled down her window to reach around and brush snow from the windshield with her glove, the accumulation too heavy for the wipers to clear, her breath was embodied, opaque.

Not aware of her daughter's terror, Lil was feeling strangely happy that the snow had finally come, as if in answer to the invocation of the dance. Hypnotic, unstinting, unstoppable—she was reminded that white was all colors, as Xavier had often marveled, not an absence of color at all.

___

When they finally got home, safely, Aggie closing her eyes for a thankful moment as she turned off the ignition, they found the power off. The house was chill, as just the laundry room and closed-up studio usually were. No chance of warming up the eggplants for a festive meal.

"What can we do?" Lil dreaded Aggie's vexation, the ruin of this Christmas night after the Christmas Eve they'd spent quarreling. It would be really sad to undo the fragile understanding and enjoyment of each other's company they'd found today.

But luckily Aggie had roasted the eggplants already, ready for stuffing and reheating. And so instead she scooped out the centers, so she could improvise a southwestern baba ghanoush, adding some green chiles, cumin, and paprika, besides garlic and lemon juice. How providential that they'd been given that loaf of bread at the pueblo. They'd tear it into chunks and scoop up the eggplant purée with it. Lil watched, surprised as always by her daughter's sturdy competence, the life she'd lived elsewhere. She'd brought dry-cured black olives too, the last time she'd come back to Santa Fe, and with a flashlight found the jar in the back of the fridge.

They ate as if starving, by firelight, shivering until the wood caught properly and the flames grew fierce and eager on the piñon logs. Lil lit all of the candles she could find, as well, against the growing dark. One was deliciously oak moss and myrrh—something Terence had sent her from his favorite boutique in Georgetown, that she had put away, like so much else, not seeing how much she'd needed comforts and pleasures, until tonight.

"We should tell ghost stories," Aggie said out of the flickering reflections of firelight.

"The kachina ghosts might well tell us stories, since they are here."

"Didn't I have a kachina doll once?"

"Yes, your father's friend gave you a wonderful Blue Badger—a healer and rain dancer."

"Don't I remember bright red feathers, though?"

"The face was blue, as I remember it. A kind of turquoise. A color and a stone with healing energy." How much she suddenly saw clear again.

Kachina dolls were carved, she told Aggie, to teach children about whatever spirit-beings were reanimated in a given ceremony by the dancers in their masks.

"The figurines in turn represent whatever the dancers do."

She'd loved them all, once, read about them avidly. Those years when she had worked in the art gallery downtown, that sometimes showed Xavier's paintings. The years when both children had gone off to college (the third child long before that gone for good). She'd cherished the company of Chasing Star, Cumulous Cloud, Home-Going Cactus Flower, Morning Singer, and Sweet Corn. Butterfly Maiden, with her headdress full of corn and butterflies, for pollination. Swaying Man, whose name came from the swaying of the corn stalks in the wind. Planet, a fearsome Kachina who controlled the movement of the stars and planets and could strike people with lightning, leaving them in pieces or putting them back together all wrong.

She told the stories she had learned while she'd still had a warrior maiden's stripes across her cheeks. Her heart.

And all the while they talked, and ate the biscochitos baked by one of Lil's neighbors, another widow in the house next door, it snowed—the driven flakes visible in the circles of the street lights when they drew the drapes aside. Snow had piled up quickly, covering the street, the lawn, the trees, false starts and wrong-turnings, faltering tracks, stumbles, and outright falls. It blanketed the world because the masked dancers had bid it come.

New snow was always a blessing. Lucent, full of light. And as it deepened Lil took on its attributes, her spirit-being dazzlingly white. Not drained of color, as she had been for too long, but white, the color that was all colors. Like the day her little daughter squeezed every tube of Xavier's oils to loose the blues and chile red and ruby, canary and corn, and like the night he painted Lili lovingly, from head to toe, every last inch of her, with every color on his palette, making her one of his rising angels lifting upward, ever up, burning purely as blue-hearted flame—she contained multitudes. She had become again, for the first time since his going, kaleidoscopic.

___


BIO:

Christie Cochrell's work has been published by numerous journals, receiving several awards and Pushcart Prize nominations. Chosen as New Mexico Young Poet of the Year while growing up in Santa Fe, she's recently published a volume of collected poems, Contagious Magic. She lives by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California.


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