Gugán was always my khaa yahaayí, my soul bound into the flesh of another while yet part of my own. From beginning to the end, Gugán’s bones were my bones, his breath my breath. He moved as sun and I as moon, reflecting and eclipsing the other in eternal dance, one standing brighter for the other’s shadows. The immortal ghost of him—khaa yakghwahéiyagu—remains with me even as I speak these words. Hear him speak with my voice if this pleases, using my tongue as if it is his own, because it is. We were born with two spirits, never only male or female, but revered for the way we walked both paths, each unable to exist without the other.
My love reveled in winter’s sunbroken days, when the light spills to the fresh-fallen snow to stab a person in the eyes. Gugán flit from path to stone, a trickster comfortable with his Raven heritage. I, as Eagle, startled at every shift of snow, caught always unawares in the bright sun as he pelted me with clumps of melting cold.
It was one of these days when we witnessed our mothers taken from us, lifted into the sky and away where we could not yet reach. After failing to take the deer we had tracked the morning through, our mothers brought us to the wild wet of the river slicing through the woods. The doe skipped into the forest shadows and our mothers let her go, because the forest is an uncertain thing, but the water known and trusted. There, we emptied the woven fish traps, cooked a meal, and ate in a pleased silence.
We did not yet lick each other’s fingers clean—we did not yet understand such a thing was possible, well-content to press thigh-to-thigh upon a cold log while our mothers harvested more fish from more traps.
It was then Raven swallowed the sun. Raven-as-clouds descended upon the running river and made the air thick, unknowable. The day around us turned as night, as if the forest itself had dissolved and spread across the river, leaving it strange and unsettled. I leaned into Gugán, not for warmth but to know I was not alone in witnessing this. Give way, something inside me whispered, but the terror of that whisper was deeper than even the sight of an empty river.
When the clouded dark retreated, our mothers no longer stood within the rushing waters. The baskets of wriggling fish remained, but nothing else. We crept to the river as one and looked to the clouded sky, as if they might be suspended there, laughing as birds were wont. The sky hung empty and silent.
That our mothers were thunderbirds; we had known this for all our days. Each and every one knows the story, has heard it spoken around crackling fires. But there remains within me a deep joy at speaking these words—my words, with the echo of his voice—in allowing myself to remember all he was, all we were, and how the thunderbirds came to break the sky.
Gold brought the men to the mountains, invading the way ants will swarm upon a fallen morsel, crawling one over the other with little regard for the body on the bottom of the stack. The coming of men meant the coming of trains, and there is a joy in the recollection of their black iron stench even as much of what we had known was changed. They broke our quiet world with rail and axe, shining innards hauled to more distant shores.
The men who came wanted to know more than we could tell them. We were asked to be guides—we were natives and must know the mountains as we knew the ridges of our own interlocked knees. They asked for but shunned our suggestions as to how the land might be conquered. Many men went their own ways, and many died, and we did not mourn—not because they were unlike us, but because we knew this was the way. Every person carries with them their own story and creates with their own hands their own ending. This rests inside until it can no longer remain contained, until it bursts into being and ignites the world. Some were taken by cold, some others by the greed in their own hearts. Some asked us of their endings; even when we spoke of them, we were never believed.
We had taken to living near the routes into the highest mountains. Getting closer, but still not daring to walk into them. Frightened of what we would sacrifice. We lied to ourselves, saying that if we could acquire enough money, we could make the journey to free our mothers. But we knew the mountains the way we knew the forest, from a respectful distance, always more comfortable near the placid flat of water, be it lake or ocean. If we had possessed the courage of our mothers, perhaps we would not have waited so long. Would not have sought to make a living among the white men who sought to make their livings from the gold buried in the hills.
They wondered: where may we easily find the gold? Will you lead us to the river where the gold sits upon the banks as ducks do? There was no explaining that ducks did not sit on riverbanks as gold. The men were firm. They had travelled a long distance, a distance they said we could never fathom. They had heard of the way the water washes the gold onto the shores, the way the world shines when the sun splits the clouds. The world did this, I could never argue, but it was rarely the gold that gleamed.
For them, we burned our grasses into sweet smoke that made their heads spin, and within the smoke trails we saw images, possible paths into the hills where one might prosper. For one man, this meant discovering a hollow in the world, a hole into which he fell and was discovered by ladders of mushrooms and pillows of fungus. These crawled over him in riot until they made him one their own, digesting him even to this day. For another man, this meant discovering the great brown bear who parted his skin with her ragged claws to free his khaa yahaayí into the world forevermore. These paths did not always lead to the gold the men desired. But these men believed so fiercely that they would. Felt the weight of the rocks within their packs already.
Jackson, when he came to my table in the local tavern, was more knowing than any of them in combination. He was bent by the cold air, shoulders hunched, hands often curled into useless claws at his side. While he possessed the exterior body of any man—skin, reddened cheeks, mussed hair—he was never in these moments human. He was an ending, struggling to burst from the flesh that confined it. He was a creation of tentacle and fire, a serpent bound into flesh he didn’t yet understand despite the years that marked him. He looked as old as we two, when he came to hear us tell fortunes.
I was allowed this table at the local tavern, beside the window hung with lace, hired to ply my fortune telling because Soapy knew that the curiosity of me, and my “magic,” would lure more drinkers. These drinkers often thought I was a prostitute—so many in those days were, and Soapy said I was more than welcome, but this was not my way. Soapy surely knew I meant to leave as soon as I was able—every person in this place meant to.
Jackson had the means to carry people away, his train like something from a vision, a beast that could carry anyone away. He joined me at my table, sitting not in the chair opposite my bench but on the bench itself, his thigh warm against my own. He brought whiskey; I was drinking water. He was smoking a cheroot; I kept a length of sweet grass resting between us.
He stubbed out his cheroot and a grimace crossed his lined face from the pressure on his crooked hand. He made no sound of complaint, only looked at me with his eyes, behind which I saw swimming other eyes, the eyes of the bound creature he was. Men called my sight magic because they could not explain it; they called it magic because they made no effort to understand it. When you know the world in such a plain manner, it is not magic. It is breath and it is being.
I reached for my matches, but Jackson dared touch me to prevent me from lighting the length of sweet grass. His fingers were rough, hooked into claws, and while the touch was tender, it was not hesitant. He did not fear me, even dressed as I was in a woman’s clothing, with beads knotted into my long dark hair and tied around my wrists. He was not repulsed even as I drew his hand beneath the table to the hard flesh between my legs. Was this what he had come for? Would he demand that such be given in trade to travel upon his train? It was only flesh, after all; it was not the heart of me. Jackson leaned in and took a breath of me and did not stare as if I were a thing to break apart and better understand. He looked at me with reverence, seeing my female spirit within my male skin.
You are more than this skin, he told me, and beneath me I felt the stirrings of the thing I could not yet embrace. Give way, it whispered. I said the same of him, that he was more than his grasping, hooked hand, but deep down I felt that his hand was him—he wanted every precious thing he could scoop into claw and mouth. When he nuzzled deeper into the hollow of my throat and asked for a guide into the hills, I kept my silence. There was something in this meeting that told me Jackson already understood I was not a guide as most men expected me to be. The warmth of his once-broken fingers told me he understood what I had to offer, that he was making an offer all his own. Then, he mentioned our mothers.
He did not know then what the thunderbirds were. The greed within his voice was plain; he either did not know or care that it came so easily across. He was a man who wanted something—just as other men here wanted gold and would obtain it by any means. Jackson’s treasure was a different sort, and he told me a story I knew too well.
He spoke of the women at the river, their leathers soaked with the icy rush of water. They could have been sisters with their ebony hair and eyes, but they were not. They were closest of friends, knowing they had to stay close so their sons could foster the friendship that turned to the love that turned to the devastation which would free them.
These women, Jackson said, stood in the rushing waters up to their knees and felt the cold burrow into the base of their brains, their hearts. They became of the water as they stood counting the fish their traps had collected. They came to not notice the cold, so much a part of it they were. They knew their sons were close, but something else was closer, pushing down from the sky until it opened its hooked mouth and swallowed them.
Raven scooped them into his claws—gentle this time, because these two were not unknown to him; they were a similar creature, birds who drew the thunder down with their wings, beasts whose claws dragged the lightning from the vault of the sky. Raven scooped them into his mouth, his blue tongue startlingly warm against their chilled skins—then, then they felt how cold they themselves were. Raven drew them up and away and gone and my Gugán blamed himself, believed he had called Raven because he shared a kinship with the trickster and his ways.
I reached again for the grass; Jackson’s hand again forestalled mine.
Raven bore the women ever up, Jackson said. Took them so high into the winter sky they could no longer breathe or struggle. Raven bound them into the stony mountains, but they were not women as anyone knew women; each contained a spirit that could not be caged. No such thing can be caged eternally, Jackson said. You may possess a thing for a moment in time, but such things cannot be claimed for a lifetime.
The way he spoke was a shock. He was not a white man, though looked such to anyone else. Who else would look beyond the surface? Those like me, but the men of the world? They would not. Jackson spoke of the world’s deeper truths, said its bones could not be mined until hollow. Perceived that I was not entirely what I appeared to be; contained larger depths that, like the unending forest, could not be seen even in brightest sunlight, because something would always be thrown into shadow. Into khaa yahaayí.
He leaned into me so close I could see the fork in his tongue. He meant to release the birds from their cages, he said, and there was a long lisp around that word: cagesss. Birds that were not birds but still wanted to fly, wanted to slap their wings to the water and bring the thunder into being. He spoke of these women, of my mother and Gugán’s, and tried to weave a spell around me. Tried to conceal his intent.
I was too old to be misled and knew Raven would demand something in return for what we sought to take. I had been down far too many paths not to see the wrong one lain fresh before me. This path would lead into the mountains, a place far removed from the waters of home. But it was the place we sought, the reason I saved money from the pathetic work of telling men what they wanted to hear. Jackson’s hands slid doubled around mine, cupping me like he might a lover, but even in this he was allowing me to grasp his bent hands in return and hurt him if I so wanted. His voice slipped lower, that tongue ever forked.
Take us, I said.
There are tellings of this story where I ask Jackson what he wants of me in return. Where we bargain late into the night, until the tavern is empty and it is only we two in the candlelit darkness. These tellings are untruths even as they bring more comfort. The idea of me making certain of every feature along the path before I set foot upon it is better than me launching myself with desperation into the mountains I feared.
I did not ask Jackson anything, because I already knew. He believed the thunderbirds were true and he wanted their power for his own. He felt that with the double spirited children born of the thunderbird’s own bodies, he might achieve this. This was visible to anyone who looked into the depths of his eyes. The serpent wanted to wrestle the birds, wanted to claim them even as he knew he could not. In this, Jackson was like any of the other men, willing to expose themselves to any horror. In this I resembled these men as well, but this time, I held to the belief that I possessed my mother’s courage and would put it to good use.
I left the tavern alone, having made an accord with Jackson, and went to the small house along the river where Gugán and I made our home. The scent of roasted venison greeted me; my love was elbow-deep into dinner and welcomed me with a kiss, a nuzzle into the beads that adorned my hair. He smelled like dark oiled cloves I knew from the general store, and I wanted to bury myself in that scent, the way we had once buried ourselves in sun-drenched snow drifts.
There is a man, I told him, and his head came up sharply, as if I said I had given my heart away all in the course of an evening’s conversation. I threaded my fingers into his hair, loosening it from its long tail. He listened to me but did not immediately hear, and only when I mentioned our mothers did his heart quiet. There is a train we can take into the mountains; he does not want coin, for you know our blood is coin and key for the mountain. He means to capture them, I said. And then came the laughter, as if capture were possible when a mighty creature was loosed into the sky.
I put on my best dress for dinner and after let Gugán twine my long beaded hair around his fist. His teeth sank into my shoulder, as if he meant to suckle the ink out of me. Is it any different, to write a story upon a body or a sheet of paper? My body tells its own story, less permanent than pages upon which words fall.
I cannot leave to anyone the ink that his teeth sank into, but I can say his hands were the hands to needle it into my skin. He wrote upon me and I across him and we still never spoke quite the right words. I love you is a construct, a triad of words that can never encompass all one feels. In the end, words will fail—just as they will fail to tell this story and what became of us in the mountains so far from the lake and the river and the sea.
Jackson’s iron train remains rooted in my memory, next to that of my mother. I can no more forget the lines of the train than I can forget my mother’s eyes, her smile anchored there instead of within her mouth.
The train was long and black, and when we walked up to it Jackson was bent against the old locomotive, cheek pressed to metal. His eyes were closed, hands splayed flat against the arch of the engine body. His body swayed into the engine and he nodded, as if listening to a voice no other could hear. This behavior was familiar to me and Gugán, so we did not linger; we looked instead to the others who worked to load the train for its journey.
One could call them a family; we eventually did. They had less in common than our own people, for they were every color and size and shape, but what bound them was their differences. Where the world would have shunned them, they made their own space and way upon this train of Jackson’s. The first to see and greet us were the Silver Sisters. Gemma and Sombra moved as we did, two separate beings clearly bound to each other. One was light upon water, the other shadow within forest, and sometimes they were exactly opposite of that. They were inseparable, drawing us into the train with four hands that felt somehow like six.
It was the last car we entered where a woman sat peeling the skins from rarely seen citrus fruits. She did not discard these peels but instead let them fall into a green-yellow-orange riot in the bowl braced between her knees. Despite the chill in the air, she was barefoot and wore a dress of thin cotton. She looked at us with a welcoming smile, all fierce teeth. Something in the air here spoke to the division between elements; as the water is divided from the land is divided from the forest, this is how the train car felt.
We were given warm rolls slathered in lime marmalade. This was a shock to us; we had never tasted its like and were warned that it might cause us to remember things we rather wished not to. In that first bite was the bitter moment of my birth, when there were whispers, how there should have been two children, so they had always said, but there was only one. One possessed of two spirits. This sticky lime marmalade conveyed more of my childhood with each and every bite, and I could only wonder what Gugán was made to recall with its sweet tang. It was a thing we never spoke of, those early moments on the train. I suppose in all the nights that were to come, we already knew we had both been pulled backwards, into memories that were forever a part of us even if not present every day.
Gemma and Sombra guided us through the train as it prepared to leave the city; it was a circus train, they told us, though “circus” meant little to us. They were performers—this we understood—and had completed a series of shows meant to entertain those gold-rushing men. I saw the glitter of money in their eyes and a transformation as the light sister became the dark sister, and knew we had found our path into the mountains.
This path was not easily had. There were gold-seeking men upon the train, having asked for passage to Dawson City. They were possibly as eager as Jackson to reach the depths of the mountains on these narrow rails, crowding every car with bodies and equipment, wedging themselves against performers and animals alike. The animals.
I cannot say how many train cars there were, for unless my memory fails, this number changed over the course of the journey. The train itself changed based on what Jackson and its people required of it. Of her. I felt a kindred spirit inside this metal body, a thing I have felt in no other place. I might compare her to what I felt in my partner, that spirit beneath the flesh being opposite of the flesh itself—but this train had no flesh that I could see. (If I had known then of the severed hand within her engine, I would have understood that indeed she possessed such flesh yet another doubled spirit, she of metal and woman.) She was a creature bound to travel the tracks of the world, but sometimes she skimmed through sky and cloud.
Some of the train cars held animals that we did not know and each car appeared to change its shape based upon their occupants. The cars looked entirely normal on the outside but inside, each and every beast or person was properly housed according to their needs. The animals did not need cages when they had small landscapes to roam.
Among the beasts, we discovered lions, sirens, and one pale bear that Gemma and Sombra said would soon be in its proper place. The sirens drew us because of their bird natures, their train car spackled with glittering fish scales from their many meals. We saw in these striking women our mothers and wondered if they were why Jackson had such a hunger for the thunderbirds. Did he seek to mate one spirit to another? We did not ask, only burned sweet grass in the small compartment we had been given and clasped our hands as we asked for a safe journey, for guidance, for the ability to know what would need doing in the moments to come.
Those nights, I heard thunder through the hills, felt the rattle of windows as wind tried to invade. I dreamed of our mothers bursting from the snow-laden mountains, cracking the world apart until it was buried in white. Unable to sleep with such thoughts, I watched the dark world pass beyond the train windows beyond my own reflection.
Eventually, the train slowed, stopped. I left our cabin to understand what had happened.
I found Jackson easily enough. I expected him to be concerned—surely a train stopped upon tracks was bad luck—but his face split with a grin. Come, he said, watch them work.
It was one of the most magnificent things I have witnessed. Jackson guided me to the cab and sure-footed his way up the ladder that led through a roof hatch. I grasped the ladder to follow, but this is when I saw the woman’s hand. Severed at the wrist, partly bundled in cloth, it spilled threaded fatelines into the world, its palm crossed with gold. I felt its eternal heartbeat, the rumble of the train even though we stood still, and climbed my way up and out through the hatch.
Gemma and Sombra, Jackson told me, had a way with metal, in the finding of it but also in its manipulation. Beyond the train, the tracks lay heavy with ice and snow, and though the women could not move these directly they reached with their essences to the buried rails. They warmed the metal, which sheared the ice; as stars fall from the night sky, bright shards of ice plummeted down the dark valley over which we stood on the elevated track.
The whole hour through, the women worked tirelessly, digging their spirits into the ice to reach the metal, to make it simmer with a warm, unearthly light. In its own way, this avalanche of ice sounded like thunder, and I looked to the sky above, wondering if our mothers could feel our approach.
Gugán, roused by my absence, soon joined me, and we sat upon the cold engine cab roof with Jackson, watching the ice’s destruction. Gemma and Sombra were illuminated by the glowing tracks, water sputtering into the air as more ice broke violently free. Jackson asked nothing of us; he knew as I did that all had been agreed to in the tavern. He would take us into the hills; we would call our mothers down. What the thunderbirds did then was out of our hands. He knew this but dared it anyhow and some part of me loved him for it.
Morning saw the train in motion again, deeper into the hills that rose on either side of us. The snow-draped heights reminded me how far we were from the water, from our home. I watched them with unease, but it was Gugán’s hand upon the back of my neck that grounded and calmed me. This was what we had come for, he reminded me. This is what we longed to do. Free our mothers and then— We could see nothing beyond that moment, could not even see that moment, truth be told. It was cloaked in the clouds Raven had used that day to steal our mothers away.
Being of Raven was not controlling Raven, I told Gugán. It was folly to think any could control such a creature. I could see that this weighed on him even now. That moment of loss, always floating in the depths of his eyes. This was the path that tethered him, and even had I known (I knew—do not listen to this untruth), I would not have stopped what came.
I came to see many forms within the cloaked mountains as we passed northward; the tail of our kin the whale, the rough-cut edge of a wing lifted in flight, the pointed nose of a leaping salmon. It was the wing that drew my eyes time and again until we were far out of its arching height. The train wove her way through tunnels of rock, breaking once more into sunlight falling through bruised clouds. It was those clouds that gave us concern, that made us feel Raven closing in to protect what he believed was his. They were not snow clouds but the clouds of storm and rage. In this way, they were also of the thunderbird.
Snow and ice on the tracks stopped the train again midday. Before Gemma and Sombra could begin their work, the gold-rush men expressed their frustration by daring to exit the train—they swarmed out of the cars, walked the length of the train, and leaped down to the ice-coated metal. They began to chip at it with picks and boots. The sisters stared at them but made no move forward. They only looked at Jackson, who stood silent upon the engine roof.
But he also made no move toward the men, and I watched him turn a slow circle, studying the mountains. The peaks traced a jagged line against the clouded sky, a line like none I had seen before. Only the clouds were familiar, possessing the rounded bounty they’d had that day in my youth, when they had dipped to the river and carried our mothers away. In my heart, a notion was given breath, was given space to stretch and explore, and I reached for the hand that should have been at my side, only to find that it was not.
Gugán had gone already, feeling that breath a moment before I had. My hand curled into the fist of a man who wants to strike a thing. I didn’t look to the sisters or Jackson. I fled the engine, threading my way through the train to the strange cars that changed their shape based on need. Here, I found my other half, kneeling before the great pale bear. I felt certain the beast would lift a paw and spill Gugán’s spirit to floor, but instead it leaned its massive head against his own in acquiescence.
Another breath filled me. Gemma and Sombra had said this bear would soon be in its proper place. Not necessarily its home, but proper. I watched Gugán settle onto the bear’s broad back and offer me a hand to do the same. The bear heaved beneath us, the train car split wide, and we were gone, running along tracks that should have been iced but were not.
As the metal rails cleaved the mountain in a sure and sweeping curve, the bear leaped with similar certainty. He knew where he was going, muscle and bone bunching beneath our grasping thighs. Our hands curled knuckle-deep into the oily fur, and we moved as one creature with him, up and up the rock-strewn mountain. Here, the trees were sparse and the ground more rock than dirt; there was little shadow to cloak what we sought: the peak of the mountain, so far from the river, the ocean, the lake.
In tintypes, lightning appears to have split the mountain’s crest in two, leaving a gaping mouth of ragged stone. But a closer look reveals the yawning V of a beak. This mouth possessed no blue tongue—this mouth was not Raven but thunderbird, and we rushed headlong toward her, caring not what would happen, only knowing it must.
We plunged into the stony mouth of darkness. This darkness rushed absolute, and we had only the cascading wind to tell us we still moved. The pale bear was invisible within this darkness, until I realized that pieces of the beast were coming loose in the dark. Strands of oily white hair pulled free from its hide, bursting into flame the deeper we ran into the mouth. These flames hovered and provided no light to see by, only a strange illumination that seemed to stretch into feathers, into beaks, into talons.
Beaks snapped at my arms. Talons raked my spine. A cooling rush of blood signaled the unraveling of the ink that marked me, upward into the dark. Pain clawed my throat as every inked thread that spoke of my double-spirited nature was ripped from my skin. The blood in the wake of the stolen ink turned to momentary fire, a burning river that flowed upward against the wind.
I saw too how my love came apart, how the flesh that confined him was peeled away, to reveal bones and heart, to expose his clove and salt soul, his khaa yahaayí as he became the ghost that would never leave me. I watched Raven pluck my love’s heart and swallow it whole. The warm breath that once flowed from him became the wind around me; his breath channeled my blood, which became the water, which broke the stone.
When you have known darkness and are thrown into light, you are blinded. I was blind and still knew everything. The mountain shattered up the length of my arms, an eruption of snow and trees and stones spewing into the clouded sky. I was thrown upward as our mothers shook the stone from their trapped wings, to push free as if being born. They clawed the sky in jubilation, jagged streams of lightning illuminating the air. Everything crackled with energy and when the thunder rolled beneath their wings, I gloried in that sound even as I spiraled uncontrolled far through the air, landing flat against the train’s roof.
Raven came as black fury through the bruised clouds, but he could not pin our mothers, could not claim what had been released with the blood and breath of our doubled spirits. Our mothers circled Raven, beat him down with beaks and wings, until he tumbled loose and flew up and up and away, screaming with his blue tongue aflame.
And then, the strange silence. The absence of mothers and lovers and every inky line that had ever burrowed into my skin. When our mothers returned, they crouched above me, studying me with eyes familiar yet unknown. They balanced on the edge of the metal train and screamed fire when Jackson meant to come closer. With shrieks, they dared me to split my own skin, to give way to that which I had not.
My Eagle spirit emerged from its slumber within my body, parting my skin like water to take the sky as her own, and I thought to see muscle unfurling in her—my—wake. This was the second spirit within me, the woman I had never fully unleashed, even with Gugán—oh, my lost Gugán.
Now that I had given myself over to her, Eagle cried her freedom as our mothers had, wings trailing fire, which ignited lighting, which caused me to pull the cool clouds closer. I wove a gown from them and floated safely to the ground where I crumpled and shook as newly born. The resuming rumble of train and thunder alike were both far distant, and I was in an unknown space dark and dappled like forest.
There, you found me, wiped the soot from my skin as though you smoothed feathers down. How, you wondered, had I come to be naked in the dark forest when I was a creature of the bright water. You brought me back to the water, for surely a story was to be shared, my skin bare of ink but still showing pale traceries of what once had been. The breath of Eagle expanded my lungs, made me steady beneath your regard.
Your inked fingers contain the shapes of all possible things and your black eyes hold a glimmer of more beneath their surface. Was it my Gugán I saw in them, moving as sun within the shadows, or only the hope of him? Either way, why you want a story is plain. You have not split your own skin. You wish to understand and carry the words—my voice, his tongue. You wish to carry our ghost, our khaa yakghwahéiyagu, into the future.
All things have a beginning, we would say. Split the skin. Give way.