Phoenix Skulls – Rise of the Phoenix
“Yazhi, where have you been? We closed up half an hour ago. Why do you have blood splattered on your hands?” Ajei was looking at the spots of blood that dotted her son's big, brown hands. When she looked back up at his face, he was looking down at them, with a look as surprised as hers had been.
He frowned and after a minute he said, “I hit a rabbit. It darted out in front of me. I didn't realize the blood had splashed up so far.” He was still frowning when he said, “I'm not going with you today, anyway. I thought I was clear about that.”
“Mom, please! Stop talking to me like I'm a child! And stop calling me ‘Little One!’ I've been taller than you since I was thirteen. I'm a grown man, Mother, look at me. I'm twenty-two years old. I've told you and Father both that I'm not going to greet these bikers like they're welcome here.” She had the feeling his indignation was an effort to hide something else, but she wasn't sure what. He'd disappeared most of the afternoon and she wondered where he'd gone.
“Tommy,” she said, softening her voice even more. “We've talked about this so many times, and the tribal council has even tried to be reasonable with you. That land has not belonged to us for decades...almost one hundred years. They bought the land from a developer who bought it from the government. We can at least feel better about them being there, knowing this developer isn't going to put up a strip mall or something that will draw in a big residential crowd.”
“Nobody should put up anything on it. Ama Sani is probably wandering the hills at night, weeping.”
She sighed and reached out to touch him. He took a step back and gave her a defiant look. “Tommy, you know I loved your great-grandmother, but by the time you were old enough to know her, she no longer lived in the real world.” Tommy’s great-grandmother, Ajei’s grandmother, had Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed right after Tommy’s birth but lived another twenty years. Tommy loved her dearly and he’d grown up hanging on her every word.
“She lived in our world. She was the only one who remembered how it was, and how it should still be.”
He threw his hands up and left the room. His mother sat and looked after him, sadly. She was still sitting there, lost in her thoughts about her son, when her husband Tse walked in. He knew as soon as he saw her that something was wrong.
“What’s wrong, My Heart?” My Heart was what her name meant in English and Tse meant Rock. The couple had called each other by their English names since they met as young adults. They had been together now for thirty-five years, since Ajei was seventeen and Rock eighteen. Tommy was a late-in-life child. The couple had been together and on the road traveling, Rock on the old Indian bike he wouldn’t give up, and Ajei on her Harley, for thirteen years by that time. Rock had modified her bike to make it possible. Ajei had been the one unsure of raising him that way, on the road around the kind of people they spent their time with. They had been involved in some things back then that as an old woman, Ajei wasn’t exactly proud of either. But, you do what you need to in order to survive. Old age had at least taught her that much.
Ultimately back then, however, she had given into her fears and her family’s pressure to leave him behind and let them raise him. Tommy lived with Ajei’s aunt Lena and her two children, who were quite a bit older than him. But their culture truly believed that it takes a village, so ultimately he was raised by a gaggle of relatives: cousins, aunts, uncles, great-grandparents...all wonderful, warm people who loved him…and Ajei and Rock were home as often as they could be. Ajei tried hard to bond with her son, but sometimes Tommy’s dark eyes seemed to seethe with anger or resentment when he looked at his parents. Rock always told her that she worried too much. Ajei hoped that now, since they were all together, they could finally begin to heal old wounds. But now she had to worry about how Tommy had attached himself to the old stories and legends his demented great-grandmother had told him as a boy, and it was leading him toward trouble.
“I’m just worried about our son,” she said, “and this idea that he’s doing something just for our people by not welcoming our new neighbors.” The idea of having a motorcycle club just to the north of where Ajei and Rock ran their small grocery and hardware store had thrilled them both at first. Rock was a nomad for a club out of Tempe for over twenty years and Ajei had ridden alongside him all that time. When they first met as teenagers, Rock drove an old Indian motorcycle he had bought and fixed up himself. Over the years he’d upgraded many times but he was never willing to trade in the Indian for a Harley. Ajei’s first motorcycle was a used Harley that they bought together after they eloped and Rock taught her how to ride. Tommy didn’t come along until thirteen years later and by that time Rock and Ajei were doing long runs for the club, and it was the only life they knew.
That was where Ajei feared, now, they had begun to make mistakes with Tommy, and she had prayed five years earlier that coming home at last would mend what was broken between them all for so long. The club in Tempe, the Tarantulas, had just run its course after almost fifty years in business. Most of the members were either too old to ride, or just tired, and when it broke up, Ajei and Rock came home to Phoenix for the last time. Rock’s uncle owned the little store and he was past ready to retire. Rock and Ajei bought him out and although that went well, Ajei’s hopes for bonding with her son were dashed by the fact that Tommy chose to go to college in California. They were separated by miles for another four years while he completed his degree. The day he graduated with honors was one of the proudest of Ajei’s life and when he chose to live at the store rather than go back with his aunt, it gave her hope that he was finally ready to try to get to know his parents and they him. But so far, that wasn’t going as planned either. He was so obsessed with the land and the old tall tales her grandmother told him. Tommy, in Ajei’s opinion, was a bright, wonderful boy, but in her mind, not yet a man.
“Give him some time,” Rock said. He always did his best to be impartial while giving his wife as much hope as possible. “He’ll see that they don’t mean us, or the land, any harm soon enough and come around. You know telling him things has never worked. Our boy has always been one that had to see things for himself.”
Ajei smiled at her husband. At fifty-three years old, he was still the handsomest man she knew. She was so glad that their son took after him. Rock stood over six foot tall and had broad shoulders and muscles that came mostly from riding that Indian motorcycle he loved so much. He wore his black hair short now, and sometimes Ajei missed the days when it used to touch his shoulders the way Tommy’s did now. His skin was the color of coffee just lightened slightly with milk and his eyes were as dark as his hair, but they shone when he laughed or smiled, which he did often. The crow’s feet around his eyes spoke to that, but Ajei loved them, just as she loved every other part of her handsome husband. “I’m sure you’re right. I can’t help but worry. He reminded me again today that he was a grown man.”
Rock chuckled and said, “And when he’s forty, we’ll both believe him. Until then, it might be easier to pretend. Are you ready to go? Our neighbors are expecting us.”
Ajei nodded and began to gather up the things she was taking to welcome their new neighbors. She and Rock lived in the “real” world, but that didn’t mean they had completely forgotten where they came from and the things they had learned as children. Ajei had weaved a blanket for each of the three newcomers and she had baked homemade bread and gathered two baskets of vegetables from her garden out back. She handed the basket to Rock as they locked up the store and headed for their bikes. Rock covered the basket with a cloth and strapped it onto the back of his Indian before helping Ajei batten down the heavy blankets she’d made. When they had the gifts ready, they both tied their bandannas over their hair and started up their bikes. Ajei looked up toward the window in the small apartment above the store where Tommy lived now. She saw him looking down at them, smiled, and waved. Tommy dropped the curtain and she felt a pain in her heart. Her one wish before the Holy People took her from the earth was that she and her son would come to understand each other.
The young bikers were expecting them, and came out to greet them when they drove in. They were living in the only house that had already been standing on the property they bought. It was built years before, by hand, by another idealistic young Navajo man. He’d squatted on the then government-owned property for years, claiming that it was his by “birthright.” Eventually he was forced off the land at the end of a dozen guns the government had sent to evict him. He left kicking and screaming, chanting crazy things, and he was locked up in a psychiatric facility in the city. Ajei never heard anything else about him after that, but she prayed almost daily that her son would never take his misguided mission so far that it drove him mad.
Rock and Ajei stopped their bikes and she slipped the bandanna off her long, gray hair before sliding off the Harley. Rock told her she was still as beautiful as the day he met her, but some days she was slightly envious of the way he seemed to age better than her. He still didn’t have a touch of gray in his hair, and in hers there was barely a touch left of the dark brown it used to be. Her crow’s feet weren’t as “distinguished” as his, in her mind anyway, and her high cheekbones seemed to get lower every time she looked in the mirror and watched as gravity took possession of her skin. But she tried not to dwell too much on aging. If the truth be told, had she died that very moment, the only regrets she had would be the ones she had about her relationship with Tommy.
The couple came toward them. The man was big, taller than Rock and slightly broader in the arms and chest. His eyes were dark and his face scarred. Ajei noticed the thick scar just above his collar right away and she felt a chill run through her as she felt his suffering. Ajei didn’t fancy herself as a psychic or seer, or whatever people were calling it these days. She’d just always thought of herself as an empath; she deeply felt the pain of others sometimes.
The big man had his arm around a woman, whose light blue eyes were the crowning glory of her beautiful face. Wild blonde curls framed her delicate face, but those eyes, and the lean muscles in her arms and legs that rippled as she walked in her boots, told a story that her pretty face might otherwise hide. “I’m Rock, and this is My Heart,” Ajei’s husband said. “Welcome to Phoenix. We’re looking forward to having you as our new neighbors.” The big man shook Rock’s hand and said:
“Thank you. I’m Jace and this is Rebekah.”
“Beck,” the pretty woman said, offering her hand to Ajei.
“And you don’t have to call me My Heart,” Ajei said with a smile. “I’m Ajei and it’s a pleasure to meet you both.”
“Please, come inside,” Beck offered. Ajei and Rock gathered their gifts and followed Beck and Jace inside the little house. They’d only been there for a week, but it already had a warm, comfortable feel to it. Ajei told them so and Beck laughed and said, “I grew up in Phoenix. My mother and grandmother still live about twenty miles from here. They came and decorated the house before we even got here last week. Probably because they knew I’d just toss down some sleeping bags and eat takeout if it was up to me. Please, have a seat.”
The four of them sat and Rock presented them with the gifts they’d brought. Jace and Beck both seemed genuinely grateful, and Beck seemed particularly happy with the blankets. She set the third one aside and said, “Finn is out right now but when he gets back I’ll make sure he gets that.”
“Finn,” Ajei said. “That’s an interesting name.”
“He’s Irish,” Beck told her. “He’s only been in the US for about a year. He’s young and he has a lot to learn, but I think he’s a good kid, at heart.” Ajei could see in Beck’s eyes that she still had questions about the young Irishman. It wasn’t her business however, so she moved on.
“Our son is the same,” she said. “I wish he could have come with us today. He keeps himself busy with his projects. He just recently graduated from college and hasn’t found a permanent job yet, but he never stops doing his own research.”
“What kind of research does he do?” Beck asked.
“He’s got a degree in environmental services,” Rock answered. “He’s interested in anything to do with the land and the indigenous plants and animals. Sometimes I think he should have gone for a degree in Native American studies instead. He has a lot of interest in our culture and history.” Ajei smiled. Her husband explained their son’s “obsession” much more diplomatically than she could. She opened her mouth to ask Beck if they had any children but was interrupted by the sound of a man’s voice, calling out for Jace. It was coming from outside, around the back of the house. The four of them jumped up and Ajei saw Rebekah grab a gun off the top of the refrigerator as they ran outside. Jace stopped first and Beck nearly ran into him before she came to a dead stop as well. Rock stood on the other side of Jace, looking at what had stopped them all in their tracks. Ajei saw it, and the young, heavily tattooed man with the long hair standing next to it, and then she turned to look at her husband. Rock wasn’t looking at her. Maybe that was good. Maybe if he looked at her she wouldn’t be able to hide the fear in her eyes or the fact that her heart was slamming into her rib cage. She sucked in a shaky breath and looked back in the direction the rest of them were still staring in.
“What the fuck is that?” Beck said, appalled, with good reason.
No one said anything for a long time. Rock still wouldn’t look at his wife. They all stared at the big tan-and-white jackrabbit...or what was left of him. It was simply a carcass, without a head, and the four feet had been nailed to a post behind the house. Written in what looked like blood above it were the words, “Go Away!”
Ajei couldn’t see anything inside of her head at that moment other than the bloody fingers of her son. She was looking down at her own hands and she felt like she could see blood on them too. Rock finally glanced over at her and when she felt his eyes on her face, she looked up. She could see the worry pouring out of his dark eyes. She wanted to deny that her son did this. She couldn’t imagine Tommy killing any animal just for sport, much less mutilating it. But sadly, she had to admit if only to herself that since he’d come home from college, it seemed there were a lot of things about her son she didn’t know. She opened her mouth, ready to tell their new neighbors that she might know who did this and that she would take care of it, when Beck, clutching her gun tightly at her side and speaking through clenched teeth, said, “When I finish with the motherfucker who did this, that rabbit’s going to look like the lucky one.”