Now we were sitting in complete darkness. The stones at the middle gave off a bare glow that did nothing to illuminate the interior of the tent. I heard Rudy shuffle around and the tinkling of water. I smelled sage and other herbs. A whipping sound and Rudy was hitting the rocks with wet sage branches. The smell was incredible, but the steam and heat that came off the rocks was all-encompassing.
Rudy started to chant and sing in native Navajo. I hadn’t heard it spoken yet so it was a bit jarring to my ears. But there was something beautifully rhythmic and complex about it.
Obviously, neither Dex nor I could join in on these prayers, so we just sat there on the dirt floor that was increasingly getting warmer and did our best to endure the heat. Personally, I said a few prayers of my own to myself, followed by wishes, and then positive thoughts and mantras. I was hitting all angles.
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, it felt like hours, but just as I was getting light-headed Rudy put the branches away and said, “Now time for our first break.”
“Bird,” he called out and thumped on the wall of the tent. The willow branches shook above us. The sound of the zipper and the flap opened. The light spilling inside hurt my eyes.
We made our way out of the tent and into the sunlight. I’m sure it was a hot day already but compared to the interior of the tent it felt very refreshing. I stood up unsteadily, Bird reached over and held me.
“Take it easy,” he passed me a bottle of water. “Drink some of this, slowly.”
Water had never tasted so good. When I was finished the bottle I looked over at Dex who was doing the same thing. He was a sweaty mess. I was too. Only Rudy looked remotely composed.
“Are you doing OK so far?” Rudy asked.
I shrugged. I didn’t feel like I was cleansed or anything. I just felt like I had been in one hell of a sauna.
“I think I lost a few pounds,” Dex joked.
“Oh, we’ll all be a lot lighter when this is done. Of course, drinking water will put it all back. But the weight of our sins will be lost for long enough.”
Rudy walked over to me and asked me to hold out my hands.
I did so, palms up. The bandages were pretty gross, there hadn’t been time to change them that morning.
Rudy held his hands above mine and waved them around. I thought I could feel my wounds burning slightly but I couldn’t be sure. He was giving off some heat but that was normal. We all could have doubled as radiators at that moment.
“What are you doing?” Dex asked, coming over to see.
Rudy closed his eyes, ignoring Dex and continued to hold his hands above. Then he stopped and looked at me, “Your hands will be OK in a bit. I did a prayer on them last night. They are healing fast.”
He waved his hand above my stomach. “This too will be OK by tomorrow.”
I didn’t know what to do except thank him. It sounded far-fetched that some hand waving would do the trick, especially when Dex mentioned I had been pumped with antibiotics, but the truth was, whatever he did, I did feel like I was healing by the second. My hands didn’t hurt anymore, my stomach didn’t sting or pinch when I had sat down and a quick glance to the mirror this morning showed that my cheek cut was almost gone.
“Time for us to return,” he said and nodded at the tent. I took a deep breath and crawled back inside.
This time Rudy sprinkled the water on with a different, spicier smelling branch. The steam and heat was about double the intensity as the first round.
I shuffled further back from the stones until my back hit the wall of the tent. The tarp stung my back with its heat. I wondered if it came close to melting.
“You can lie down,” Rudy said in the darkness as the steam grew stronger, the hissing noise filling the space above us. “You too, Dex.”
I lay on my side, wanting some respite from the heat. I immediately regretted it. Yes, it was a smidge cooler but I was covered in sweat from head to toe and having to lay down on the dirt floor, I was pretty sure a layer of mud now covered my side.
I felt Dex moving around beside me and suddenly one of his arms landed on my head.
“Hey,” I cried out.
He giggled, his voice heavy and breathy. “Sorry. Not much room here, kiddo.”
He adjusted himself but ended up propping himself up on his elbow just behind my head. It felt nice knowing he was there, in the darkness, at my back.
Rudy went on to recite a few more prayers. His words slowly faded and I could almost see them floating up with the steam to the roof of the hut.
“So,” he said slowly in English, his accent thick at first. “You two aren’t married, are you?”
“How could you tell?” I asked sheepishly but with great effort. It was becoming harder to talk.
I heard Rudy snort for the first time. “I do not need to be a medicine man to see that.”
I could hear Dex breathing behind me. He wasn’t saying anything. What could we say anyway?
“For one,” Rudy went on, “your wedding rings left no tan lines on your fingers. Which means that you don’t usually wear them. For another, you do not act like a married couple.”
“What do we act like?” Dex asked. Oh man, Dex, why did you have to ask that? I did not want to hear the answer.
Rudy was silent. Then he said, “You act like people who are forever on their first date.”
If I had any doubt that that was true, it was quickly erased by the imminent awkward cloud hanging over our heads. I kind of liked that analogy Rudy used. I certainly felt it. But it probably didn’t do me any good in Dex’s head.
Yet, I felt him move behind me until his mouth was behind my ear.
“How’s our date going then?” he whispered. I could hear the lightness in his voice.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” I answered back without turning my head. I kept my eyes focused on the stones.
“It’s good,” Rudy said. “I know you did all of this on behalf of the Lancasters. I’m sure some would frown upon that but I can see that you didn’t want to offend them and acted out of the goodness of your hearts.”
Yeah. That was it. But that reminded me.
“Do you know if Maximus is still in town?” I asked. It occurred to me that Dex hadn’t heard from him at all that morning.
I could almost hear Rudy nod. “Yes he is gone. He was sorry to go but he couldn’t stay.”
My heart felt a bit heavy at that, like the last chance to get out was gone and a helping hand had vanished. As much as I trusted Bird and Rudy, Maximus was an outsider like Dex and I, and even though he obviously came into this situation with his own agenda, I still knew he was on our side. He had been looking out for me, if not Dex.
Rudy went back into the chanting and prayers for a while. I was starting to get incredibly thirsty. I could hear Dex panting heavily behind me. If I wasn’t so damn uncomfortable , I would have gotten some pretty sexy thoughts from that. But alas, I could barely move or breathe without feeling gross and exhausted. Maybe all the toxins were coming out of my pores, along with the so-called evilness.
“OK,” we heard Rudy say. He patted on the side of the tent.
“Time for a break, Bird,” he called out. We waited for the zipper to open. There was nothing.
Rudy cleared his throat and shuffled towards the tent door, yelling louder, “Bird, please open the door now. We need water.”
The only sound was the hissing of the rocks. As they glowed redder and redder, the sound got louder and louder. I had a funny feeling. They shouldn’t be getting hotter, should they?
Rudy sighed, annoyed. “Must have gone to the washroom.”
In the darkness we heard him shuffle away from the fire, then it sounded like he was trying to unzip the tent door from the inside. I waited for that loud zip of serrated teeth and the blinding flash of light but there was nothing. Only the suffocating darkness.
Rudy mumbled something in Navajo and started pulling at something. The tent rattled.
I felt Dex straighten up. “What is it? Do you need help?”
“I should be OK, it’s probably just stuck. It’s an old tent.”
Suddenly the rocks hissed loudly, louder than it had ever been. I turned to look at them. They glowed brighter until every single rock in the pit was a fiery piece of hot scarlet. They hissed and steamed as if someone was pouring buckets of water on them. They hissed and steamed as if they were angry at us.
“What’s going on?” I cried. I leaned back and felt Dex put his hands on my arms, pulling me up slightly so I was back on my heels.
Rudy started chanting very loudly in Navajo. The rocks were now giving off enough light that I could see his hazy, grainy figure off to the side. He was facing the fire and waving his arms at it, yelling unrecognizable words.
The rocks only hissed louder and the heat that came off of them felt like an invisible hand coming to choke me. Sweat piled off my forehead and stung my eyes.
Then the walls of the tent started shaking violently. The willow branches overhead creaked and groaned.
Rudy crawled for his bag and his bucket of water. He took the bucket of water and turned it over the stones in hopes to put them out. Only no water came out of the bucket. No, it wasn’t water at all.
Hundreds of small scorpions came tumbling out of it, landing on the stones and making a dash towards us.
I have never moved so fast in my life. We screamed bloody murder and jumped to our feet. My head collided with the low ceiling and I heard more branches crack. I didn’t care. We had to get out of there, even if we took the whole tent down with me.
“Don’t panic!” Rudy yelled at us.
Too fucking late. I couldn’t breathe, I could barely see. We were trapped. I blindly tried to run into the walls to escape. I could feel the scorpions pinching at my feet with their little claws, aware that those venom-tinged hooks were waiting to jab me at any second.
Dex started breaking the branches off the walls, as eager to get out of the tent as I. I joined him, hoping from one foot to another, and concentrating on getting out of there, futilely grabbing at the walls in the darkness.
“Do you have a knife?” I cried at him.
“Does it look like I have a knife on me?!” he yelled.
“Hold on, I will get rid of them,” Rudy said, his voice high and tight. I didn’t believe him.
I heard him reach for the sage branches behind us. Then he gasped. Something dropped to the ground with a thunk. Too heavy to be a branch. I was scared to turn around and look, so I called out, “Rudy?!”
Nothing. Nothing but the distinct rattle of a rattlesnake’s tail amongst the hiss of the rocks. I started to think it wasn’t the rocks hissing at all. I wanted to cry.
Instead I propelled my energy into getting the tent down. I ripped a branch down with Dex and there was enough support gone that the side of the tent started to cave in.
“Now we run, ready?” Dex yelled, grabbing my hand. Was I ever. It was pitch black, I was so hot that I didn’t think I could manage another breath and we were surrounded by scorpions and perhaps a snake or two. If I didn’t get out in three seconds, I would lose my mind forever.
We took a few steps backwards, careful not to step on the stones but unfortunately unable to miss the sting and crush of the scorpions beneath us. I ignored the pain and together we ran straight into the wall of the tent.