From the serpentine river and the grassy plains where the horses grazed, the cave in the sandstone cliffs looked like a mouth, a horizontal gash of a mouth that had lost its full lips. We called it the grandmother’s mouth and imagined other features in the sandstone as wrinkled farsighted eyes, a long nose, and stubbly chin.
The easiest way to the cave was from the backside entrance facing east because the climbing was gradual and well-watered with the little spring-fed stream that came from the cave. That’s how the animals came into the cave as well as the old people and mothers with babes in arms, all on horseback.
Those of us who were younger and more adventurous would climb straight up the sandstone. There were enough pockets and ledges and footholds worn into the stone from all the years of the people climbing up to the cave. It was faster but a lot harder. And hotter too in the summer.
The birds and the winged ones flew straight into the mouth, of course.
Today, just to test myself, as I persist in doing, I climbed up the hard way, feeling for the hand and footholds of my ancestors. It was hot and I had to rest often. Halfway up I chided myself for my foolishness because the years had melted away my muscles and some of my warrior resolve. But not all of it.
When I finally pulled myself over the bottom lip, the cool of the cave was welcoming but also blinding in its darkness. I lay gasping on my back, glad that the cave was empty while I caught my ragged breath. From upside down I could see the ancient paintings of horses and bison and coyotes and big cats and birds. Some were smoke stained and faded while others were still brilliantly hued. The walls and the ceiling flickered and pulsated so that for a moment I felt myself spinning as the paintings moved around me in endless flight. I saw my own red ocher painting of a winged horse, my horse Esperanza as I knew her true being to be, although right now back on the grassy plain near the river, she was just a bay horse among many multicolored horses, all with their heads down, grazing.
Slowly and ungracefully, for my bones were getting old, and my strength had waned from years of sickness, I raised myself up to a crouch and then my full height as the low ceiling would allow. Stepping carefully around the fire circle stones, I walked over to the back of the cave to the small spring that had never failed the people. I dipped the gourd we used and drank gratefully, letting the cool, sweet water from the heart of the mountain dribble down my chin.
From deep inside the grandmother’s mouth, I turned around and gazed west to the land I had always known, the land my people had always known, the river and the plains and the mountains beyond that gave birth to the river up in the steep snowy country.
I found a cattail mat I had woven many years before among a pile of cattail mats the people had woven and left in a pile so that when we assembled in the cave, those of us who needed to sit would be comfortable. I sat on the grandmother’s lip and waited, hoping the fog in my mind would clear so that I could fly.
I must have dozed for quite a while because when I awoke, the sun was about to set. I didn’t know where I was and I couldn’t remember what I was doing. I could barely remember who I was. Gradually, the pieces of myself reassembled although many pieces were missing and had been for a long time.
Incrementally, I became aware of sound and warmth and presence. The cave was full of people. Some were alive — my cousins and siblings and relatives and neighbors and friends and their children — and some were not alive, but shimmering with presence anyway. I could see the ghosts of my mother and father, my sisters and many others dancing in the light like mirages. They stood in natural groupings along the walls of the cave, some in the sunlight of the afternoon sun and some in shadow. They were speaking quietly or not speaking at all, holding hands of flesh or spirit. Someone had kindled a small fire in the fire circle. The paintings on the cave walls and ceiling seemed to move even more, dancing in the firelight, as if happy to see the ones whose hands had been moved to create them. The grandmother’s mouth was full of her children.
As the fog in my own mind dispersed, I felt a soft and whiskery nuzzling on my head. I knew it was Esperanza. Her warm breath coursed down my neck, and I could feel the sturdy pillars of her legs.
When I shifted my body to rise, Esperanza lowered her head next to me and I grabbed hold of her long mane so that she could help me up. My legs were shaky from the long climb and the long sit.
Holding onto Esperanza for balance, I looked around the cave again and saw that it was even more full of ancestors cradling spirits of those yet to come. Some of the horse herd had quietly entered the cave, as well as the animals and birds who were part of our tribe.
The people and their spirit animals began to sing, softly at first, and then with more energy and rhythm and urgency. Several people and coyotes began to wail in wild solos, letting spirit take their voice beyond what they thought was possible. I had heard this kind of singing before when we had assembled to escort someone to the other side, but this time I knew the song was for me.
I was lifted by strong and gentle hands up onto Esperanza’s warm back. I clutched her long and dreadlocked mane, only this time it felt different, as if the black hair of her mane were merging into long black wings sprouting from her withers and shoulder blades. I had to scoot further down her back to accommodate this metamorphosis that I always knew was her true essence.
My loved ones held onto my legs, patting and caressing them. My husband gave me a final squeeze and then I knew it was time.
Esperanza turned her head around as if to say are you ready? Yes, I said in my mind, and she slowly stepped to the edge of the bottom lip of the grandmother’s mouth. She placed her feet carefully and I could feel her hindquarters settle into a crouch in preparation for the leap. She stretched her wings up as if to test them, and then with a mighty down sweep and a powerful jump into the air, she launched us out of the grandmother’s mouth and into the golden air.
I must’ve blanked out because when I awoke, my hands were clutching Esperanza’s mane/wing and my thighs ached from gripping her. I remembered that when I had awakened from anesthesia after the craniotomy, I was sure that Esperanza had been in the surgery with me. I had been riding her and that’s why my thighs were trembling. I had a moment of profound disorientation and time slippage when I realized that most of the people and spirits who were in the cave had been in the surgery as well. I was certain of it.
I realized that Esperanza and I were still gliding through the golden air, high above the serpentine river and the grassy plain. She no longer needed to flap her wings; she had merely to tip a wing or spread the fingers of her feathers to alter direction and catch the air currents.
I sneaked a peek over my shoulder and saw the mouth of the grandmother getting smaller and smaller. It looked like she had teeth this time until I realized that those bumps were not teeth; they were people, my people, standing at the edge of the cave, waving, singing and dancing
Esperanza let out a loud and triumphant whinny which made the horses below raise their heads and look up in the sky. Some of them ran in the same direction, west to the snowy mountains, and then they slowed and went back to grazing.
When the sun descended behind the western mountains, Esperanza glided a little while longer and then began a spiraling descent until she passed the grazing herd and dissipated her landing with a gentle canter. I fell from her warm back into the tall fragrant grasses and immediately slept, Esperanza grazing nearby.
When I awoke, disoriented again in another time slippage, all was dark but somehow still warm. Esperanza stood over me as if I were her foal, occasionally nuzzling me with her whiskered mouth. Her warm breath blanketed me, and her long dark wings drooping onto the grasses enclosed me like a feathery tent. Through the folds of her wings, I could see the Milky Way and the procession of planets in their endless spiral dance. I knew that when I slept again, I would not be troubled by disorientation. I would not be troubled by time. I felt my body fill with breath and then let it go, sinking deeper into the embrace of the mother.