The Soul Snatcher

The Sun Spirit stood in front of his hogan, proud and seemingly unapproachable, his arms folded before him. Tom felt his piercing look going right through him. He tried to read the Sun Spirit’s face, but it remained blank, as did his attitude. Nothing showed that the Sun Spirit regretted sending Tom and Jay away so soon after he had proclaimed them his sons. Just as there hadn’t been the slightest trace of surprise about Tom’s blond curls and his blue eyes that stood out between the tanned skin and the dark eyes of the Indians. No, he corrected himself immediately. Indians were a fabrication of times long gone, when Columbus thought he had reached India. The Apache, a neighbouring people, called them Navajo, enemies of the cultivated land. They called themselves na Diné, the People.
Tom studied Tsohanoai’s face again. He desperately wanted to see the tiniest indication that the man was happy that he had finally met Jay and him?
But Tsohanoai’s face remained expressionless. Only his pitch black eyes twinkled now. With amusement? Tom wondered. He would’ve loved to stay a bit longer. He had so many questions that needed answers, but Tsohanoai had been unyielding: they had to go. People were waiting for them.
Feeling a pang of disappointment in his chest Tom turned Shah-bekloth, his horse that was named after a bolt of lightning. About fifty meters down Jay and Yazhi rode towards the woods that covered the mountain’s north side, and he was just in time to see Yazhi turn sharply and steer her horse past some big rocks that looked like giant carbuncles in a further smooth landscape. Within a moment she was gone, and in the same blink of an eye Jay disappeared, too.
‘Wait!’ he yelled. ‘Wait for me!’ Over his shoulder he threw a last glance at Tsohanoai and the people in front of his large hogan. Then he spurred on Shah-bekloth. The horse followed Jay and Yazhi like the bolt of lightning he was named after. Tom steered Shah-bekloth in a wide bend around the four small dark rocks that guarded Tsohanoai’s hogan. He shivered when he remembered the night that he and Jay arrived at the village of Tsohanoai. In the scanty moonlight these same four rocks had come to life and had changed into four furious bears. Thinking back he realized that he had understood but a fraction of the world of the Diné.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he muttered to himself. As soon as they got back to civilization he’d bombard Yazhi with all his questions. The girl was a walking goldmine of knowledge. She knew absolutely everything about the Diné, about their myths and legends, about the customs of the elders. She knew so much more than Jay, who’d been raised in the reservation but seemed to have been interested in finding his father only. Even though sometimes he thought that Jay knew more than he showed.
‘Come on, Shah-bekloth,’ he roused his horse. ‘We shouldn’t lose them.’
They galloped past the high rocks, but not a moment later the horse reared up. Tom could only just grab his mane to steady himself.
‘Hey!’ he shouted. ‘Watch out!’
‘Just checking your reflexes.’ Jay chuckled.
‘There’s nothing wrong with my reflexes,’ Tom grizzled. ‘And neither with Shah-bekloth’s.’
‘You’re right,’ Yazhi acceded. She tried to swallow her laughter, but didn’t quite manage to do so.
‘What’s so funny?’ Tom asked. They weren’t laughing at him, were they? First they scared him silly and on top of that they ridiculed him for it.
‘You should’ve seen your face,’ Jay said. His laugh echoed through the mountains.
‘I’d like to see your face if someone had scared the living daylights out of you.’ Tom tried to ignore Yazhi and Jay’s laughing faces. ‘Why are we stopping here?’
‘We’ve got to decide which route we take,’ Yazhi said.
‘Don’t we just need to go down the mountain? Back to civilization?’ Tom asked.
‘Yes,’ Yazhi agreed, ‘but we have two possibilities. One is the safe route.’ She pointed towards the east. ‘That’s more or less the route you took coming up the mountain.’
‘And what was safe about that route?’ Tom smiled. ‘If you only knew what we encountered there…’
‘I know,’ Yazhi said quietly. She hesitated for a moment and then pointed straight down. ‘We could also take the short route. It’s faster and goes straight through the forest.’
‘I’ll vote for the shortest route,’ Tom said resolutely.
‘More dangerous than the way we came up is hardly possible,’ Jay chimed in. ‘I’ll take the risk.’ He grabbed Natseelit’s mane and turned him towards the fringe of the forest.
‘It ís the fastest route,’ Yazhi said, ‘but…’
‘But what?’ Jay asked.
‘Nothing.’ Yazhi shook her head. She cast a nervous glance towards the rocks that kept them out of sight of the hogan of the Sun Spirit.
Tom studied her face. Yazhi looked like she was wondering whether to continue her story, he realized. ‘What nothing?’ he urged. What did she not tell them?
‘Nothing,’ Yazhi said again, pointedly. Too pointedly? ‘It doesn’t matter. We can just choose between the longer and the shorter route. Which one do you want?’
‘I want to get back to civilization as quickly as possible,’ Tom said. ‘And Jay’s right; it can’t possibly be more dangerous than on our way up. We’ll take the short route.’
Jay did not hesitate. He probed Natseelit’s side with his heel and trotted toward the forest fringe.
‘Not that far to the left,’ Yazhi whispered. ‘Or else…’
‘Or else what?’ Tom asked, but he knew it was because she wanted to keep out of Tsohanoai’s sight? Yazhi’s face still reflected doubt, but in her eyes shimmered a stubborn look. He wouldn’t get anything out of her, he understood. That well he knew her by now. He nodded. ‘Come on,’ he said reassuringly. ‘We’ll be fine. We’ll just take the short route.’
He tapped his horse in the neck to spur him on. Restlessly Shah-bekloth scraped his hoof over the rocky ground, but refused to move. ‘Go,’ Tom urged him. Unwilling the horse began to move and followed Jay and Yazhi who rode into the woods.

Tom bent the branches apart, at the exact spot where he had seen Yazhi and Jay disappear into the forest. He could barely discern a path in the dusky light of the thick growth. Surprised he pared up the narrow path. Where were they? He strained his ears and after a short while a faint rustle reached him. Was that them? He steered the still unwilling Shah-bekloth further into the forest.
Shrubs and the branches of young trees, trying to climb up to the sky in the shadow of extraordinary high pine trees, lashed his arms and legs. What a lucky thing that he wore the dark grey tunic and knee-high moccasins that Tsohanoai gave Jay and him. They seemed to be made of a material far denser than the buckskin tunics that Yazhi had given them earlier. The sharp branches could lash out as much as they wanted, they didn’t leave the slightest scratch on his arms or legs.
Tom concentrated on the path. ‘Jay!’ he shouted. An uneasy feeling crept up. It was strange here. Just outside the forest it had been light. The morning sun had set the landscape in a bright glow, but here, in this unnatural darkness, it seemed almost night.
‘What?’ Jay’s answer sounded as if he had to be really close by.
Tom peered down the path. Why couldn’t he see Jay and Yazhi? Where were they? Suddenly he discovered a vague silhouette in the dim light that seemed to be Jay and Natseelit’s. At least, he thought it had to be their silhouette as Jay had sounded so close and he had entered the forest after Yazhi, but it could be Yazhi just as well.
‘I can hardly see you,’ Tom said uncertain. ‘Do you see me?’
‘Of course I see you.’ There was a hint of impatience in Jay’s voice. ‘We’re right in front of you, man!’
Tom rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. It felt like a dark film floated in his eyes, like someone had tied a cloth over his eyes through which he could hardly see. He rubbed his eyes again and opened them, but his vision stayed blurred. He had to come closer. Tom urged Shah-bekloth on. The horse inched forward.
‘This darkness is so weird,’ Tom said. How was it possible that Jay could see him, but not the other way round? Suddenly it was as if he stepped through a curtain. Right in front of him, not even three feet from Shah-bekloth’s nose, stood Natseelit, clear-cut and with Jay on his back. Jay had turned halfway and looked at him puzzled.
‘What was that all about?’ the young Diné asked.
‘I’ve no idea,’ Tom mumbled, ‘but it was very scary.’ He slapped Shah-bekloth in its neck and the horse stepped forward until his nose touched Natseelit’s crupper. Now Yazhi became visible to Tom as well. She stood right in front of Jay but not as clear-cut as he was. K’os diil hiil, her black horse that was so suitably named Thundercloud, was barely noticeable in the dusky light. Tom hesitated. Yazhi and Jay seemed so surprised. Had he not paid attention? ‘It seemed like you were hidden behind a dark screen,’ he whispered uncertain. ‘Only when I got really close could I see Jay’s silhouette and now, now that I’m this close by, I can clearly see you too.’
Agitated, Yazhi’s eyes darted from Jay to Tom and back.
‘What’s wrong?’ Tom asked. She looks worried, it hinged in the back of his mind.
‘Nothing,’ Yazhi responded quickly, maybe too quickly. ‘Let’s go on. The sooner we’re out of the woods, the better.’
‘Yazhi, what’s wrong?’ Tom demanded. ‘What’s going on? Why are you acting so secretive?’
‘I’m not acting secretive,’ Yazhi replied. ‘I… I…’ Again her eyes darted nervously back and forth. ‘I just don’t want to be in this dark forest. I prefer the sun,’ she volunteered at last.
It sounded like a lame excuse, Tom thought. For some reason or another Yazhi didn’t feel like being in this forest, but it was she who’d pointed out this shorter route. Why had she done that?
‘Then we’ll go back,’ Jay said. ‘Let’s just take the other route. I don’t care.’
Yazhi hesitated visibly.
Tom shook his head. ‘We just need to stay close together,’ he said. ‘Let’s move on.’
‘Yeah, let’s go,’ she said softly. ‘This way we’ll be down quickest.’ She turned around and prompted K’os diil hiil.
‘Quickly,’ Tom said to Jay, who showed no signs of leaving but glanced puzzled from Tom to Yazhi. ‘We’ll lose her!’
‘Don’t be so panicky. We won’t lose her. Besides, where would she go? There’s only one path here.’
‘Whatever,’ Tom answered. He hated the uncomfortable feeling the forest gave him, he hated Yazhi’s secretive attitude, but he didn’t feel like taking the long route along the east side of the mountain either. He kicked Shah-bekloth in his sides. His horse moved forward and pushed Natseelit into moving, too.
Jay shrugged and turned around. Without a word he followed Yazhi.
Tom did his utmost to stay as close as possible to him. The feeling that Yazhi knew that there was something wrong, even though she pretended not to, kept nagging at him. And it sure as hell didn’t matter to him that Jay didn’t.

The sun only sporadically got a chance to break through the roof of dense foliage and the crowns of the pine trees above them. If it did, a ray shot all the way to the ground and at that moment the leaves seemed to almost catch fire. Apart from that rare sunbeam it remained cool and twilit. Every now and again Tom’s hand strayed involuntary to the small pouch that Begochiddy had given him and that hung around his neck. It felt safe, just as the big leather bag on his back in which Tsohanoai’s presents were packed. The soft buckskin pouch with the shiny almost pearly stone in it, radiated a reassuring warmth. Subconsciously he knew that everything would be all right.
Shah-bekloth lost its footing and brought him back to reality. He shouldn’t daydream like this, he warned himself. A stone in a pouch couldn’t guarantee a safe trip. He himself had to watch out as well. He glanced at Jay and Yazhi who still rode right before him.
The path steepened and sometimes it seemed to drop straight into the ravine. Shah-bekloth’s hoofs scraped waveringly over the loose stones on the path. The horse had great difficulty not to slide away. Tom hung back as far as possible. That way Shah-bekloth had more chance in finding its balance.
How far down were they? Tom wondered how high in the mountains Tsohanoai’s village was. He remembered the long and dark passages in Spiderwoman’s cave. When they had left the cave it had been night and they had been unable to see how high up in the mountains they already were. Had the thin air been a sign of height? Or had it only been the oppressing atmosphere of the nearing thunderstorm that had made breathing difficult? They had had to climb quite some time before they arrived at the village. From that moment on events had followed each other with such a terrifying speed that he’d lost all sense of time and place.
Time would tell, he decided. As long as the path went down, they were going in the right direction. He sped up Shah-bekloth. The horse snorted unwillingly and cocked its ears. Immediately Tom was on his guard. He listened intently. What had Shah-bekloth heard? The rustling of leaves reached his ears, as if a sudden stiff breeze rose, but when he looked the leaves of the undergrowth along the path hung utterly motionless. With a slight shock Tom realized that the rustling formed a name, Yazhi’s name. Just as he wanted to alert Jay the sound disappeared in the distance. Unsure, he studied Jay and Yazhi’s backs. Had they heard it? Or should he warn them? He shook the thought off. It was just his fantasy playing tricks on him. He shouldn’t see ghosts everywhere. Of course there was a rustle in the forest. There was always a rustle in a forest.