“Alright boys and girls we’re a few miles out of Walpi Village. Couple of things we gotta go over before we get there.” Tim, the driver, spoke to his group of student teachers in the back as his Volkswagen Van bounced unforgivingly along the harsh mountain road.
“Tim, what is this our fourth time through this? Do we really need these little pep talks before every stop?” Said Chris, one of the student teachers. Chris wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to teach. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to do anything. He was a trust fund baby, but his father insisted that he get a real job if he wanted to receive his fair share of the family fortune and teaching seemed an easy route to him.
“Look man, this is different. I don’t wanna freak you guys out but this place is way off the fuckin’ radar ya know? Like back to the Stone Age and shit. They don’t like outsiders and the only reason we’re going in is because the Reservation Council insisted we spend a week teaching these little feather heads about the outside world.”
Tim had been a high school biology teacher for a few years but his excessive use of the words “fuck” and “shit” along with his fondness for THC had him seeking employment elsewhere. Shortly after he “resigned” he signed up to work with the REA (Reservation Education Association), and truth be told he felt more comfortable there. College girls were much more legal than the ones in high school.
As Tim went through his spiel on the dos and don’ts of dealing with the Hopi Villagers the only one really paying attention was Megan Myers, Meg she preferred. Of the four student teachers, Meg was the only one that took this assignment seriously. It had been, after all, her idea that the group spent their last semester traveling around Arizona and teaching at various Hopi reservations.
Megan had two great passions in her life, volleyball and teaching. At first it was only volleyball. She’d been awarded a full athletic scholarship to Arizona State University and even been picked to play on the Olympic team in 2012. Unfortunately a few torn ligaments in her knee ended her volleyball career quite abruptly. Now she focused on her teaching. She wasn’t bitter. She viewed it as a new opportunity. A simple life of teaching high school history and coaching volleyball sounded just perfect to her. She took on the task of teaching with the same voracity that she had with volleyball. Always looking to go above and beyond what was expected of her, hence, the student teaching at Native American Reservations.
The rest of the group went along with Meg’s idea for different reasons. Quinn, Megan’s boyfriend, knew how passionate Meg could be and realized he didn’t have much of a choice. If he didn’t want to spend a whole semester away from his girlfriend then he would have to tag along. A fellow athlete, Quinn had shared Meg’s passion for sports, but not for teaching. He just wanted to coach baseball and have his summers free.
The only other girl, Ashley, had been Meg’s best friend since the two girls shared a dorm together freshman year. Ashley had developed a sort of unhealthy dependency on Meg. Hanging out with such a wholesome girl made her feel better about her less than wholesome lifestyle. Chris had come along because he wanted to get with Ashley and thought four months away from any frat boys or jocks might improve his chances. He was wrong.
As Tim pulled his van around a tight corner the students got their first glimpse of Walpi Village. They’d been doing this for about two months now and all the Hopi villages they’d visited had a sort of cultural blending theme. The men wore blue jeans and band T-shirts while they performed their traditional ceremonies. The pueblos had satellite dishes on their roofs. Walpi Village was nothing like that. As they crossed the stick fence that signified the border of the village, they felt as though they were stepping back in time. The first thing they noticed, since dusk was rapidly approaching, was that there was no electricity whatsoever. The only light came from the fires and torches that bathed the whole village in an orange glow.
As they pulled in and got unpacked they instantly saw what Tim was talking about. Most of the Hopi Villagers ignored them. Those that did acknowledge them did so with scowls. Tim talked with the village elder who pointed out where the group would be staying, two tents set up a good distance outside of the village. This was going to be a long week.
The next morning the group set to work. Chris and Ashley were in charge of the five to ten year old group while Quinn and Meg taught the older boys and girls of the village. There weren’t any children there over the age of sixteen.
The first thing Meg noticed about her group of students was how small it was, five students in total. Too small, even for a tiny village like Walpi. She judged based on the number of people she had seen the night before that about three quarters of the village’s population had kept their children at home that day. She understood. The Hopi people had their own traditions. She wasn’t there to force Western Civilization down anyone’s throats. She was only there to help.
“Ms. Myers,” one of her students asked her, “what’s it like out there-beyond the village? Is it better than here?”
“No, not better,” she responded. “Busier, but not better. There are a lot more people, all different kinds of people, all living together. People out there are always rushing. Everyone seems to be in a hurry all the time.” After thinking about it Meg could see the benefits of living a quiet secluded life up high in the mountains, although she was shocked to learn that many of the children had never left the village. “I think that’s enough for today kids. Why don’t you run on home?”
Megan began packing up her things when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around to see Cha’Tima, a sweet boy around the age of fifteen. Tall for his age, and a bit awkward, the pockmarks and pimples on his face showed he was having a difficult time going through puberty.
“I picked these for you this morning,” said Cha’Tima as he handed her a beautiful bouquet of purple and gold desert wildflowers.
“Thank you Cha’Tima! That was very sweet.”
“I just wanted to tell you…well I think…I think you’re very beautiful.” His cheeks flushed red and he ran off embarrassed. Megan was getting used to this. She never considered herself beautiful, cute maybe, but many of the boys on these reservations had never seen a white girl. She was something different, and whether she knew it or not she was very beautiful.
Despite the initial hostility towards the group, the people of Walpi Village were beginning to warm up to them. Each day more and more students joined the classes and on the fourth day they were all invited to witness a traditional Hopi ceremony.
“The Snake Dance,” said Meg. “Isn’t that what it’s called?”
“That’s right,” said Cha’Tima. “I’m impressed. I didn’t think anyone outside the Hopi tribe knew about the Snake Dance.” Meg just blushed and watched the ceremony begin. Cha’Tima explained, “We pray for rain and the snakes carry our prayers back to the gods.” It was a beautiful ceremony, if not a little unnerving. It started with a dance around a huge bonfire by the men of the village. They wore eagle-feathered headdresses and hand woven cotton blankets. After this the priests came out. There were four of them altogether, each carrying two rattlesnakes. The rattling of the snake’s tails added to the beat of the drums to create an almost hypnotic rhythm. The priests placed the snake’s heads into their open mouths as they continued to chant their prayer for rain. Meg was sure she was going to see someone die that night, but she didn’t dare interrupt. Tim, who was sitting next to the Chief with Ashley enjoying a long drag on the peace pipe, had specifically warned against this.
The ceremony was short, lasting only about an hour. Afterwards Meg went to look for Ashley but couldn’t find her anywhere.
“She went off with Tim, out into the desert,” said Chris. “What the hell is wrong with her going out there with a creep like Tim? He’s gotta be almost forty.”
“Dude, he’s early thirties at the most.”
“Shut up Quinn! Nobody asked you!”
Quinn was a big and overly proud. He didn’t like being talked to like that by anybody, much less a spoiled rotten little punk like Chris.
“Listen motherfucker, Ashley doesn’t want anything to do with you. She thinks your weird and she’s tired of you hitting on her.”
“I said shut up!” Chris pushed Quinn hard, but only moved his large frame back an inch or so. Quinn’s eyes went red. He balled his fists and was about to draw back when the uncomfortable silence was broken by a shrill scream.
“That sounded like Ashley!” said Meg.
“Masauwu.” Whispered one of the old priests sitting behind the group cross-legged on the dirt. Nobody seemed to notice him until he spoke.
“Masa-what? What’s he saying?” Quinn said to Cha’Tima.
“Masauwu, the Skeleton Man.” Cha’Tima replied. His eyes wandered out towards the sound of the scream.
“Who the fuck is the Skeleton Man?” asked Chris.
The old priest began to speak in the Hopi language. Cha’Tima translated.
“The Skeleton Man is the spirit of death. He guards the door to the fifth world. He watches over the Hopi people and, when called upon, takes vengeance upon their enemies.”
“Do you think she’s in danger?” Asked Meg.
“Only of catching the clap,” said Chris, still pouting.
“Chris, that’s Ashley out there!”
“Look Meg,” said Quinn, “as much as I hate to agree with Chris I think Ashley’s safe. If we went out there looking for them we’d just end up getting lost.”
“But that scream.“
“Haven’t you ever heard a coyote babe? They can sound an awful lot like a chick, especially a chick with a high-pitched voice like Ashley’s. I’m sure Tim and Ashley are right outside the village getting stoned right now.”
“I don’t know, something just doesn’t feel right.”
“Look, if they’re not back by tomorrow morning, which they will be, we can head out with a guide to look for them okay? Let’s just go to bed. Why don’t you come sleep with me tonight?”
“No, no I’ll be fine. I’m gonna wait up a little longer for Ashley.”
The disappointment on Quinn’s face was quite obvious. “Alright fine. Well g’nite sweetheart. I’m telling you everything’s fine.” Quinn kissed Meg on the forehead and trudged off to bed alone. Chris followed him shortly after. Meg waited up as long as she could for Ashley. She fell asleep next to the fire. When she awoke the next morning and checked around the village, Ashley and Tim were nowhere to be found.
Meg woke the boys and they agreed to go out and look for the missing members of their group. Cha’Tima agreed to be their guide.
“I know the land better than anybody I swear!” He said a little too enthusiastically. “I can help, really I can.” With none of the other villagers offering to help they really had no choice.
Cha’Tima took them out of the village and down the mountain trail. He took them through canyons, past dried up riverbeds, and into dark caves. The group must have traveled twenty square miles over the course of the day but they’d seen no sign of Ashley or Tim. By the end of the day they were thoroughly exhausted and beginning to lose hope.
“Something bad happened,” Meg said tearing up a little. “Something really bad happened. We need to get to a phone and call the cops.”
Quinn tried to calm her down, “Okay, well head back into town tonight. Who knows they might be back at the village by now.”
That’s when the group realized that they could see no sign of the village in any direction. They couldn’t see much of anything out in the desert.
“Cha’Tima, we want to head back now, which way is it?” said Meg.
“Umm…it’s North, I think, but I can’t see the stars.” Night was setting in quickly but heavy clouds covered the night sky.
“Quit messing around Geronimo, take us back.” Said Chris.
“I-I don’t know the way. I’m sorry Meg, I’m really sorry.”
“Oh that’s great. Look you little shit,” Chris now had Cha’Tima by his shirt collar. “I’m not spending the night out in this fucking desert. You better figure out which way home is real quick.”
Cha’Tima’s eye went wide with horror, but not because of Chris. He was staring at the two dark figures approaching the group.
“Oh my God, is that?”
Ashley and Tim shuffled towards the group out of the darkness. Their clothes were gone and their naked bodies were smeared with filth. Their heads hung low and they both appeared to be sobbing.
“Ashley, oh my God what happened?” Meg ran up to her friend.
“No! Stay away, stay away from me. He wants you too. He wants all of us!”
“Ashley what are you talking about? Who wants us? What happened to you?” Meg asked.
“Run! Get the fuck outta here! Just run away please!” Tim screamed at them through choked back tears. Despite their pleas Ashley and Tim kept shuffling, zombie-like, towards their friends.
“Looks like you guys had a good time together,” said Chris. “Timmy my man, don’t think for a second I won’t be reporting you for this. Good luck finding a new job buddy.”
Just then Tim lunged on Chris and grabbed him around the throat with one hand.
“Tim what the fuck!” Quinn shouted as he tried to pry Tim’s grasp off of Chris’ neck.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” Tim sobbed. “I can’t control it. I can’t control my body! Just run! Get outta here!”
Before Quinn could listen Tim’s other hand reached up and snatched onto Quinn’s throat. With inexplicable strength the stark naked Tim lifted the two men high into the air and started walking off with them.
Meg was frozen in place as she watched the scene unfold. When she finally found the nerve to turn her head she saw that Ashley was already on top of her. Tears streamed down Ashley’s face. She was sobbing and choking and apologizing to Meg over and over again. Her arm shot out like a bullet and she clutched Meg’s long blond hair tightly between her fingers. With a quick yank she pulled Meg to the ground and dragged her off in the same direction as Tim. Every nerve in Meg’s scalp shot out in fiery pain and she was certain the top of her head would come off at any second. She twisted and kicked to get free but it only increased her agony. Ashley’s grip was so strong! She continued to fight for what seemed like hours as Ashley dragged her body over the harsh desert terrain and finally into a cave dimly lit by torchlight.
Meg prayed for the sweet release of unconsciousness, but it never came. She felt every agonizing inch of her journey until Ashley finally released her grip and dropped Meg on the floor of a large circular chamber deep within the cave. Meg got up on her hands and knees and surveyed her surroundings. There was a large bonfire in the center of the chamber. Quinn and Chris lay at Tim’s feet, unconscious but still breathing. Around the fire stood more people, twelve altogether. They were naked and covered in grime, just like Ashley and Tim, but their bodies were emaciated husks. Nothing more than skin stretched tightly over bone. Their hair was long and thing and grey. Their eyes were yellow and bloodshot.
“I’m so hungry,” Meg heard one woman cry. “I’m so tired and so very hungry.”
How long have these people been like this? Meg thought to herself.
Meg saw the only exit to the chamber behind her, guarded by three more of the walking skeletons. A long dark shadow was coming down the ramp that led to the cave’s entrance.
“The Skeleton Man,” Meg said to herself as she prepared to meet the evil face to face. But it was not the Skeleton Man, nor any other beast. Strolling casually down the ramp was Cha’Tima. Not the awkward boy Meg had met at the village. This was a confident young man bearing a wicked grin.
“My dear, sweet, Meg. I’m so happy you’re here.”
“Cha’Tima, you…you did this?”
“Oh no. I’m just a servant. This is the work of Masauwu.”
“That’s just a story Cha’Tima. He’s not real—“
“He’s real!” Cha’Tima shouted. Suddenly his face went red with anger “You white people think our beliefs are just stories, stupid silly little Indians and their stupid silly little stories. Your race is too young, too polluted to remember the old ways, the ways of magic, but you’ll see. He should be here very soon.”
Meg wasn’t going to stick around to find out. She started to get up, but before she could get to her feet Tim’s body came over and put a knee on Meg’s chest. She gasped harshly, expelling all the air from her lungs.
“What’s the matter you little shit?” Tim shouted to Cha’Tima as he put his full weight on top of Meg. “You can’t fight your own battles?”
Cha’Tima shot Tim an angry look and before he could say another word both of Tim’s hands shot up to his face and his fingers dug into the soft flesh of his eyelids. He plucked out his own eyeballs and threw them on the floor of the cave. Tim screamed out in agony as the dark red liquid streamed out of his empty eye sockets.
“Quiet.” Cha’Tima said. “Masauwu comes.”
Tim’s body pulled its knee off of Meg’s chest and she gasped for air. She rolled over just in time to see the dark doorway open right in the middle of the bonfire. Out of the darkness emerged an enormous figure. With one great leap he came through the doorway and landed on the cavern floor. He stood before Meg, grey mottled skin stretched tightly over an enormous skeletal frame. He wore a simple leather loincloth and a tattered dingy rag was wrapped around his large head. Two deep crimson stains hinted at vacant eye sockets underneath. Wisps of silver hair grew out of his head in patches and fell in front of his face. This was the Skeleton Man.
Cha’Tima knelt down before him. “Masauwu, I have three more for you tonight.”
The Skeleton Man said nothing. With great strides he covered the distance over to where Quinn and Chris lay. Ashley and Tim picked the two men up by their shoulders and presented them to the Skeleton Man. Slowly, methodically, he unwrapped the bandage around his eyes. He placed a finger into each of his exposed eye sockets and when he pulled them out the tips were coated in a black tarlike substance. He inserted his bloody fingers into the boy’s mouths and unconsciously they swallowed. Their limp bodies suddenly became rigid, but their heads still hung loosely.
Then they came after Meg.
Meg sprang up, trying to get away, but the boys were on her too quickly. Their heads bounced around on limp necks and Meg was certain she heard something snap. They tackled Meg and held her fast on the ground, face up. She saw the tall gangly frame of the Skeleton Man standing over her, his long finger already coated in another batch of black blood. She tried to scream but the impact of hitting the ground had once again knocked all the air from her lungs.
“Masauwu, if I may,” Cha’Tima said humbly. “I have worked hard for you and I have but one simple request. Once you change this girl, let me have her, please. I will keep her in the village as my wife.”
The Skeleton Man, paused, seemingly thinking it over, then nodded in agreement.
“Thank you great spirit.”
Quinn and Chris forced their fingers into Meg’s mouth and pried her jaw open. The Skeleton Man’s hand hung above her face. With the black blood caked underneath a cracked brown fingernail he prepared to administer another batch of the poison. She felt it brush past her teeth and land upon her tongue. It had a texture like cottage cheese and tasted harsh and bitter like stomach acid. She twisted and wretched with all her might but it was no use. Eventually she swallowed the Skeleton Man’s blood.
Cha’Tima stood above her with a wicked grin. “Don’t worry Meg. You won’t have to live like the rest of these walking corpses. I’ll take care of you. I’ll feed you and bathe you and love your for as long as I live.” Then, as an after thought, “Of course once I die you’ll have to live like one of them, but until then be happy!”
Meg’s body rose, slowly. At first she said nothing, did nothing. Her head hung low, but when she raised it to look at Cha’Tima she was smiling. “You know, I have heard of the Skeleton Man before.” She started walking towards Cha’Tima and he started backing up. The smile vanished from his face. “How he is the protector of the Hopi people.” She kept walking towards him. “How he takes vengeance upon their enemies.” Closer and closer she came. “And most importantly how Masauwu cannot harm the Hopi people.” She stopped walking and stood inches away from Cha’Tima. “Do you know who told me these stories?” Meg leaned in and whispered in his ear. “My grandmother, a strong woman, a Hopi woman.” With that Meg stepped back and kicked Cha’Tima square in the chest sending him reeling backwards into the bonfire behind him.
A scream emerged from the flames as Cha’Tima tried to claw his way out of the fire. Pain flooded his mind and all rational thought was lost. He flayed around for several minutes, his cries becoming higher and higher until the fire melted his vocal chords. Shortly after that the flames took his life.
The Skeleton Man towered above Meg, looking indifferent. He glanced at here once before opening the doorway in the flames and walking through it. The corpses he controlled followed after him. Quinn and Chris were still unconscious, or maybe dead, Meg hoped they were. Tim followed them and last was Ashley. She turned her head as far around as she could and looked longingly at Meg before the doorway shut behind her. Deep down Meg knew there was nothing she could do for her friends.
Meg made her way out of the cave and wandered the desert for a day and a half, bloody and broken, before making it back to the village. She didn’t say a word to anyone, nor they to her. She simply got in the van and drove away.
By Adam McCully