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2000 years ago, on a day like today, a young man set forth to hunt a deer from the village of Black Sands, one of dozens of tiny farming communities nestled along the banks of the vast Cahuilla Lake. He was called Two Moons; so named for the moment of his birth eighteen years earlier.
His mother had squatted under the mesquite and palm structure at the edge of the lake attended by her mother and sisters and gazing into the darkness, when the full heavenly moon emerged from slumber behind the black shadow of surrounding mountains. Breathless with the agonizing force of swift contractions, the soon to be mother grunted, overtaken by a sudden irresistible need to push. At that moment the moon’s liquid counterpart emerged from the depths of his water den, floating upon the shimmering glass lake and, it seemed to the laboring woman, stretching toward his beloved. The moons coupled as the child, Two Moons, slipped into this world.
He began the day of the hunt long before dawn with a drink from Lake Mother and the filling of his precious deerskin pouch. He’d spent the previous weeks in preparation: sharpening the piece of flint he’d acquired from the trade of four jackrabbit pelts into an arrowhead; carving, bending and stringing a bow fashioned from cactus and yucca. The previous day he’d finally discovered a black widow in his trap, smashed it with a rock and carefully collected its poisonous innards for the tip of his arrow.
Everyone in the village, all of them his relatives, knew what he was up to. They’d seen the glances he’d shared with the bright-eyed girl called Dew at the annual gathering the previous spring. Her village was a half-day’s travel, one-fifth the distance of a journey around the lake, but he had worn the trail down with his trips, taken under various pretexts such as a search for a new honey hive or a quiet fishing spot. Several times as he walked along the lake path he’d seen deer wading in to drink at a shallow beach a few hours from his village.
He’d decided a deer would be his offering to her parents, an extravagant gift that would prove him able and strong enough to be trusted with her welfare. He felt certain of his success as he walked the lakeshore path imagining her soft eyes alight with pride when he carried the carcass into her village.
He came near to the spot he’d marked in his mind. A breeze riffled the surface of the water and he settled himself to wait, downwind and low to the ground, hidden by creosote and yucca.
Within an hour a doe and her spindly legged fawn approached. She moved cautiously, turning her head to search for scent or movement in the surrounding area. The fawn extended its head under her belly and Two Moons saw his chance as the doe stood erect to nurse, not more than thirty feet away.
He drew his arrow back carefully to avoid cutting himself with the poisoned tip, but he did not let it fly. Perhaps the killing of a nursing mother and her offspring would not be a propitious beginning to married life. Two Moons slowly relaxed his bow and watched as the doe moved to the bank to drink. Within a few moments she backed out and disappeared into the brush with the fawn.
He waited for much of the day, until dusk. A soft rustle and then, about twenty feet away, a young buck stepped swiftly into the water and lowered its long, muscular neck to drink. Two Moons reacted quickly, aiming for the ribs, near the heart, but the buck jerked up and wheeled around. The arrow struck its shoulder as it bolted out of the lake and raced away; heading into the darkening desert, west toward the far mountains. Two Moons followed.
He ran full out chasing the deer, when he could no longer see it he stopped and listened for the rustling brush, the hoof beats in the sand. The sky lit up with the moon’s rise and he caught sight of it at a distance on the horizon the arrow still lodged in its shoulder. Deep enough, Two Moons thought, for the poison to do its work. He yelled and whooped and ran on, his strategy to keep the deer in range and never let him rest until he fell.
And so it went all night. The deer ran due west, he did not circle or lose his way, without fail he went west, determined, as if he had a place he was headed. Two Moons felt young and strong and as invincible as the inevitable death he brought.
The deer began to tire and when he stopped to rest, Two Moons would find him. Then he would bolt and easily outdistance his pursuer; neither had the intention of quitting. By dawn, Two Moons had the deer almost constantly within his sight.
Unfortunately his pouch was nearly empty. In the desert, the contest between any enterprise and water always goes to water.
He looked around, taking in the 360-degree circle of mountains. The chase had brought him closer to the distant mountains than he’d ever been. His own territory, the familiar range cupping Mother Lake, seemed like low hills on the far horizon.
Apart from Lake Cahuilla herself, the only certain watering source in the known desert was the Wells, a place where the underground aquifer came up to twenty feet below ground level. No one knew who first discovered the spot but in old days the villages had banned together to dig until they created a permanent pool. They set stone steps down to the cool, clear surface. Three-quarters of a day’s walk Northwest from the shores of Lake Mother, its location was marked by huge, upright boulders that could be seen far across the flat, dry land.
Two Moons searched the horizon but could not detect the boulders. Still, he knew, if he headed northeast, they would eventually appear. With a reluctant heart he gave up the chase.
It took him half the day to catch sight of the markers and several more hours to get there. He finished drinking and filling his pouch and then judged, as he climbed the stairs, the sun to be about three hours from setting.
As he stepped from the last stair he felt a strange tremble in the earth and heard a deep rumble that swiftly traveled toward him, growing in intensity to a thundering roar. His hair stood on end. He screamed as he was thrown to the rolling, splitting ground. The boulders cracked and groaned above him. He tried to right himself, to run, fearing they would topple and crush him, but the earth turned to liquid, he could not get to his feet. He rolled over and over, pulling himself along the quivering ground until he could get to his hands and knees and crawl through the brush.
As suddenly as it had started it stopped, and all was still. A boulder groaned, then settled back and the earth regained her solidity. He scrambled to his feet. Everything looked the same except for a shallow cleft stretching across the desert as far as he could see, where before the land had been level. He took a moment to be certain he correctly marked the direction of his village and then ran as fast as he could, his scalp still tingling and shivers up his back.
His village had disappeared, as had most of the other communities along the lakeshore. The stunned and scattered survivors wandered the banks in the following days, looking for lost relatives and speaking of mountains of water from the middle of Lake Mother, moving fast and enveloping everything in their path. Perhaps she was angry with her people or maybe she’d just had a coughing fit. They hadn’t seen the earth split as Two Moons had. He wondered if the two events were connected; maybe it had been a fight between beings deep inside the ground. No one knew.
Debris floated on the Lake and bodies washed to shore or sank, they buried those they could. He could not find his mother but he found Dew, bloated and staring empty eyed, her hair knotted with dirt. His heart broke.
Those who were left planned to go up into the mountains, a day’s climb would take them into pine forests abundant with game. They believed Lake Mother needed time to get over whatever was troubling her.
Two Moons decided instead to go west, across the desert, in the direction of the deer. It had seemed to him headed somewhere and he had nowhere. Maybe if he followed he could find his course.
He walked for years; through the desert and the foothill canyons and into the far mountains. He camped near streams and waterfalls, fished and hunted plentiful game. As he grew older, he settled at the base of the far mountains, summering in a cool, verdant canyon of streams and waterfalls and wintering in the dry, warm, desert basin. One winter day when he was nearly forty, he awoke from a nap on a boulder in the middle of a bubbling hot, sulfurous pool he’d discovered. An ancient buck bearing the weight of antlers with branches like a tree, stood at the far edge of the pool gazing directly at him. An ugly scar in its shoulder reminded Two Moons of the deer he’d killed many years before. The deer stepped into the water up to its chest and bent its head so that the hot, healing waters rolled over its neck. Two Moons watched for a few minutes until it stepped out of the water and moved off.
For twenty years he had traveled through the desert and mountains and seen no man; who else, he thought, had shot an arrow at that buck?
Until the end of his life he thought of the great beast often, although he never saw it again he became more certain it had been the same deer. Why had it come twice to him? He could not figure out the mystery, nevertheless he found contentment in pondering it.
Copyright © 2010 by Jessica Davis Stein.