J.R Rustrian is a Latino writer of speculative fiction living and working in Southern California. When not writing, he enjoys playing video games, hiking and cooking. He has been previously published in Alebrijes Review, Bards and Sages Quarterly and Etherea Magazine. Check him out on Twitter @J_R_Rustrian
Watch Me Through the Sagebrush
Stay away from the cursed ravine. It’s a place of black magic, evil spirits, and otherworldly creatures.
My grandfather’s words ring inside my head as I enter the mouth of the ravine. The narrow trail ahead is overgrown and covered in great, gnarled oak trees and thorny sagebrush. To my right, a dry creek bed runs parallel with the trail and is filled with sharp rocks and dead foliage. Brown leaves cover the canopy of the forest, casting ominous shadows across the trail. I pause for a moment, trying to still my beating heart. Leering eyes sting the back of my neck. The trees are unhappy that I’m trespassing on their ancient grounds.
My younger sister Morning Star keeps close behind me. She’s afraid of the animals that called the cursed ravine their home and with good reason. Nobody wants to be a meal for a mountain lion or bitten by a wayward rattlesnake so far from our village. I try to walk slowly, trying to match her limping pace. She hasn’t been able to walk properly since falling into the river over a year ago.
I push the thought out of my head and continue deeper into the wilderness. The shade keeps the bottom of the ravine dark and crisp, and the high walls echo our words back into our ears. Our footsteps, even as slow and silent as we go, makes our presence known to anything that might be hiding out of sight. If there was one word you couldn’t attribute to this place, it would be lonely.
My hair stands on end. There is no shaking the feeling that something or someone out there is monitoring our every move. Morning Star immediately notices it, too. She looks around her, fearful of every little sound that pops up. Her hands clasp around my arm like a rattlesnake surrounds its prey and hugs me close. I take her in, feeling her pulsating veins next to mine. I can’t let her know that I’m terrified as well.
Something rustles in the bushes besides the small trail. “What is that?” she says with rising panic in her voice.
“Probably just a rabbit,” I tell her. We’d seen many on the way up here, so that should calm her down for now. I don’t feel guilty about her terror, least of all when it's tamping down on my own. At least with myself, there had been a lingering curiosity about the cursed ravine and the mystery surrounding it. My mind wanders back to frigid winter nights in our village, huddled around the bonfire with my sister, listening to the older children's ghostly and macabre stories of monsters and evil spirits lurking inside the ravine’s shadowy nooks and crannies.
We hike up the narrow canyon as overcast skies block out the bright sunshine. Everything is drenched in a dull grey, devoid of the bright greens and browns that painted a beautiful picture that, at the very least, made the forest visually appealing. The sound of wildlife softens, leaving an eerie stillness to the ravine and dry creek below. Behind me, I hear Morning Star’s teeth chattering.
“Brother, I don't think I can do this,” she whispers.
“We can’t stop now, Sister. We are almost there. Just keep close to me.”
I urge my sister onwards. She’s made it farther from home than I’ve anticipated; more than most others would have dreamed. Our village of Kapungna lies only a stone’s throw away from the ravine, making it the closest of the Tongva settlements in the land. Venturing into its shadows is a rite of passage not only for our village, but for every Tongva child that is bold enough to try. As such, every summer there are a few children who bluster about conquering their fears and reaching the waterfall, marching courageously into the mouth of the canyon, only to scamper out screaming with their tail between their legs.
My excitement grows alongside my fear. None of our peers has ever returned with a smooth, bright waterfall rock. Some have even tried to pass off a jagged riverbank stone as the real thing to our disapproval and mockery. No such thing will happen to us, I tell myself. Morning Star and I are getting close. We can be the first. We will be the first.
There are still miles to go. Morning Star breathes heavily behind me. Her waist long black hair sways from side to side as she struggles to keep up with my pace. She looks at me with her light brown eyes, before darting back to the forest around her. Her face sneers, trying to hide her anxiety as she climbs up the rugged path with her hide-skin tunic caked with dust and broken leaves. It wasn’t anything new. Her clothes are always dirty, either covered in mud from fishing in the creek or in cornmeal from baking food.
People tell me that I’m the spitting image of my sister and I admit that we share more than a passing resemblance. Our eyes share the same shade of brown and our noses are both wide and prominent but where we differ is in size, with Morning Star being thicker and stronger than I despite her being younger. Even in demeanor and attitude we are similar as I consider myself stubborn, but not to the extent she is. The only thing we don’t share is her injury, for which she still gets strange glances. I tell her to not give onlookers any power, that they are just filled with jealousy over our shared beauty.
“Finally, Black Star. The way to the falls,” I hear my sister say. The narrow, overgrown trail ends at a small gulch which leads down to the right into the dry creek. From here on, it's hopping over boulders and avoiding poison ivy on the way up to the falls. My sister gazes at the massive boulders with concern and turns it back up to me. It becomes painfully apparent that Morning Star needs to wait here.
“Stay here, sister. You will be safe and the way to the waterfall isn’t too far. I’ll grab a stone and return as soon as I can.”
“Are you sure? We both know about how fast these streams can fill up. What if you dro-”
“I’ll be fine,” I declare in a stern voice. She nods, hopefully understanding the situation and waves goodbye as I lower myself onto the streambed. I am surrounded by massive boulders, covered in painted graffiti from those who came before us, marking the furthest extent of their exploration. Sagebrush, brown chaparral, and poison ivy litter the sides of the creek, dense in some places but open in others. I squeeze myself through the openings, feeling the roughness of tree branches and thickets on my open skin.
The ravine narrows the entire way up to the waterfall. Whatever silence we had coming up here is magnified tenfold. It is so silent that my thoughts echo off the vegetation-covered stone walls. I try to ignore it, focusing instead on jumping from one unstable boulder to another. At one point, I scramble on my hands and feet, trying desperately not to slip off the sides of the moss-covered rocks.
A soft whir resonates in the distance, sending a chill down my spine. I freeze and sink low to the ground, trying to hear more from the phantom sound. After a few seconds, all I can hear is my own breath. Probably just the wind, I tell myself. The rest of the way is easier after the rock scramble and, in a few minutes, I stand before the mighty stone walls of the waterfall.
It would be more impressive if water was actually falling here. I shake my head and eagerly grab a flat, smooth brown stone. The kids back in the village are going to be very interested in this. Images of victory resound in my head. They’ll stop teasing me about my short stature and Morning Star about her leg. No more barbs about how our parents passed on. No more pranks, no more fights. More food, more toys, and the ability to start games of our own. Respect and admiration? We will have it in spades, thank you very much.
The whir hits my ears again, this time much louder and closer. My eyes instinctively dart around, examining my surroundings at whatever may be out there, only to find nothing but green and brown vegetation. The trees watch me with agape smiles, taunting me in my fruitless search for the source of the noise. My heart pumps so fast I can hear the blood in veins rushing towards the various parts of my body. It’s apparent that I was overstaying my welcome.
I back away from the landing with short steps and keep an eye on the forest. The whir follows me down the creek. The boulders are smoother up here and prove more of a challenge back down than they did the way up. After a minute of careful climbing, I jump off an overhang and take shelter underneath a jagged boulder. I stay silent and listen for the mysterious sound, only to be greeted with silence. After a few minutes, curiosity gets the better of me and I stick my head out from under my makeshift safe dwelling.
The cursed sound gets louder, approaching closer with every second that passes. Maybe if I move to my left and pop out, I can catch whatever is making the sound in the act, I ponder. Silently, I move to my left. The whir reaches the top of the overhang where I previously was. I take hold of a rock, pull myself up, and scan the environment.
There, looking down into the creek, stood something terrifying, alien, and completely majestic existing in one package. The body is skeletal and shiny, reflecting the color of grey river stones, with four legs sticking out from under its thin, lanky spine. The hooves, if they could be called that, are darker than the rest of the body, but thicker, softer, and covered in tiny fissures. Brightly colored red and green veins run down the length of the creature, connecting into several thick points in its hard body, such as the stomach, calves, and head.
The head. I was not prepared for what I believe is the head. It is thin, elongated and shaped like a thick wooden flute with one glassy eye at the very front. The neck is separated into several parts, each independent of one another but working in tandem to move the head. I gasp at the sight of it. It must have ears because it quickly turned its head around to view me as I did.
The creature reacts and backs away, frightened at the revelation of my presence. It loses its footing on the mossy surface, and falls over the side of the overhang, landing with an audible thud. Again, curiosity gets the better of me. I lean over and spy the creature furiously trying to free its legs from between two boulders. The creature’s whir, so scary before, is pitiful and sad.
I scramble down and approach it with extreme caution. The creature calms down and watches me with its one, big eye. Somehow, it knows exactly what I intend. The creature’s leg is cold and hard like a stone, but smooth like polished glass. It hits me that I have stumbled upon one of the ravine’s fabled creatures. Truly, the place has lived up to its reputation.
With all my might, I push away one of the heavy stones and free the prisoner from its trap. It pulls its leg, scrambles some yards away and watches me, waiting for me to make a move. I rise to my feet, trembling but invested in my new discovery. Seconds pass before the creature turns to its left and steps towards the heavy brush.
“Wait!” I find myself yelling. “Don’t leave!”
Surprisingly, the creature stops. It slowly turns its head to look at me. The eye pierces its gaze at me, as if nothing else exists for it.
“Do...do...you think I am going to hurt you?”
The creature looks at me for a second and then shakes its cylindrical head.
It is intelligent. It understands me.
“What are you? Where did you come from?”
The creature mulls over the answer and then looks up at the sun.
“From the sky? The sun? The stars?”
It shakes its head and taps the boulder in front of it six times.
“From a place beyond our time?”
It stops and nods its head, seemingly surprised. The creature steps forward, suddenly very interested in my presence. I step forward, trying to show that I am not afraid of it, which is mostly a lie.
“What do you call yourself?”
The creature cocks its head. It can’t talk, I think to myself, how can it reveal its name to you?
“My name is Black Star. My sister Morning Star is down the creek waiting for me. Would you like to meet her?”
My new friend shakes their head. Maybe it was too much for a first meeting.
“Are you hungry? Is there anything I can get for you?”
It stares at me for a second. I can tell that it is considering the question. Just as I begin to inch closer to the thing, I hear my sister’s voice off in the distance.
“Black Star! Brother, are you okay? Where are you?”
The creature looks down the creek and then back at me. Suddenly, it leaps onto the overhang and disappears from sight. I sit there for a minute, processing the scene that unfolded before me. Fear begins to fill my heart once again. I dash down the dry creek bed, taking unnecessary risks before I finally scramble up the gully and back into my sister’s arms.
“Brother, what is the matter? Is everything okay?” she asks me.
“It’s true, Morning Star. The stories, they’re all true. We need to get back to the village.”
We return to our village excited and imagining their reaction to our incredible discovery. Would they be astonished? Amazed? Scared? Maybe it’ll be all three since our village, and the Tongva people in general, revel in folk tales about magical beings from beyond our lands.
I probably should have seen this coming, but nobody believed our stories. Our circle of peers laugh at us and tease us, calling us liars and accusing me of playing a trick on them, even with the proof of the waterfall stone. Even worse, the adults in our village chastise us for disobeying their orders to stay away from the ravine. We’ve become the laughingstock of our village, alienating us from all except my grandfather.
The frown on his wrinkled face displays his disappointment about our little journey into the ravine and his consternation about me bringing along my younger sister. However, the look in his clouded eyes tells me he believes my story. He smirks at me and sits both of us down.
“I believe you, children,” he says as he fashions a length of rope out of shrubs and buckwheat. His hands are thick and calloused, but methodical and gentle from a lifetime of repetition. “You met one of the Watchers.”
“What is that?” I ask him. I feel Morning Star lean in closer behind me.
“They’re the feeling that shivers down your spine. My father told me once that they lurk deep in the shadows of the trees and brush, observing our every move, like a little child learning from their parents.”
“You’ve seen one, Grandfather?”
He stops momentarily to put away the rope and turns back towards us. “Once. It was not a very good look, but for a moment, we locked eyes.”
“You saw its eyes?” says Morning Star.
“I did, but it wasn’t looking back at mine. It was staring beyond that. The feeling it gave me...it was as if it was gazing deep into my soul.”
I shudder. The feeling of being in that ravine tingles behind my neck. Behind me, I can feel Morning Star getting uncomfortable.
“Why do they watch us?” she asks.
He smiles with hesitation. “I don’t really know. The feeling that day in the ravine was one of melancholy and sadness, as if you are watching the last days of a close friend before they pass.” Grandfather looks at us and frowns. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to bring anything up.”
“It’s fine, Grandfather. I have to say, though, I did not get that feeling in the ravine at all.”
“That may be, but you still need to stay away. The Watchers can be dangerous if they are trifled with.”
I arch an eyebrow. “How so?”
“The Watchers will not harm a single hair on your body. Rather, they rain harm onto your mind and soul. They take something from you that can never be healed. Whatever that may be is entirely up to the person that meets them.”
Grandfather puts the rope down and ushers us outside to start our punishment for venturing into the ravine. I am to forage the hills and surrounding chaparral plains for acorns, nuts, and berries for the upcoming winter season, while Morning Star finds more vines and brush for rope making and basket weaving. My grandfather reminds us not to return to the village until sundown.
Morning Star and I march out among the grasses, seemingly unable to forget about what we learned about the Watcher. For an entire hour, we don’t say a word, rather content to focus on our work. Was he really that afraid of the Watcher? What was it about it that scared him so much? All I can remember about that time was curiosity, intrigue, and wonder.
“You are thinking about it, aren't you?” Morning Star asks. I look up at her in confusion. The look on her face reflects exactly what I was thinking. It was impossible hiding anything from her astute observations.
“You want to go back, even after Grandfather asked you not to. All I want to know is why, Brother?”
I look at her and sigh. “Don’t tell me you're not at least a little bit curious about the Watcher, Sister. I want to know what it is and where it came from.”
She frowns at me, conceding that she won't talk me out of it. We continue our work until the sun sets below the hills that border Awingna, our ancestral homeland. The two of us walk back in the failing twilight, serenaded by the music of crickets and owls. The land is peaceful and serene, continuing a harmony that has existed since the time of our ancestors. What a shame it would be if that were ever to change, I wonder.
“I am curious, but I’m going to make sure that you stay safe, Black Star, or they’ll be naming that ravine after you,” she says, lugging a half-filled sack full of vines and brush.
I smile. I knew she couldn’t resist.
Morning dawns and I wake up with limitless energy. My sister and I immediately decide to skip our punishment and return to the ravine. It is just as uninviting and terrifying as the day before. The sagebrush and oak trees loom over the barely blazed trail, judging us for daring once again to tread on their ancient lands. A soft wind blows through the canyon, dissipating the silence from yesterday but leaving an eerie chorus of howls, whistles, and the rustling of dry chaparral. The forest is trying all it can to dissuade us from venturing further.
Morning Star follows a little further behind now. Her bright, brown eyes are focused on the trail ahead, ignoring the environment around us. She’s just as curious as I am, only a bit more cautious as a result of her injury. Her courage is boundless, limited only by her own physicality. I, on the other hand, can’t keep from shuddering slightly. I walk slower, content to stay near her and the limitless confidence she exudes.
The gully presents itself to us. My sister sits on a stone next to the path and holds up one finger to me.
“One hour, Brother. You get one hour,” she says sternly.
“One hour,” I say as I turn towards the gully.
“Promise me. One hour.”
“Promise me, Black Star!”
“Promise, Sister.” I give her a hug to sooth her worries and quickly make my way down the steep path, landing square on a flat stone. It takes me half the time it took me yesterday to get to the waterfall. It’s quiet, with no sign of any of the foreign sounds that would indicate the presence of the Watcher.
I sit and wait, listening to the natural sounds of the forest. After half an hour, there is still no sign. Clouds drift low overhead, casting a shadow over the waterfall. It makes it harder to see but keeps me cool on this hot summer day. I wipe my brow and fidget with my fingers. The sound of my foot tapping on loose dirt and broken rocks echoes through the ravine. I can hear the seconds drift away before I have to journey back down the creek.
A twig snaps to my right. The Watcher is here. I turn my head and spy a glint of light through the sagebrush. It backs away, not wanting to be seen. Had it been watching me this whole time? I immediately bolt straight and put up my hands.
“Wait! Don’t leave. It’s me! From yesterday!” I cry out.
The Watcher stops and pokes its shiny, pointy head through the foliage. My heart races. I slowly put my hands down and reach into a small pouch that hangs from my hips. Inside, I take out a few acorns and several seeds.
“Would you like some food?” I toss an acorn to its feet. It looks down at it, and then back to me. “You don’t eat?” I ask. It shakes its head and looks around.
“How about a gift? Look, I brought you one.” I take out a necklace interlaced with soapstone beads and present it to the creature. It cranes its neck out, more interested in it than the acorn. The Watcher gingerly steps onto the rocks, keeping its eye on the necklace.
I smile and place it on the ground. The creature stops only a foot away from the necklace and turns around to head back to the brush.
“Stop! Please! Don’t go! Nobody will believe me! I can’t face everybody if I go home empty handed!”
The Watcher stops and turns its head back to me. Despite its lack of a face, I somehow see a frown creep across its face. It begins to circle around the waterfall landing, pacing, and keeping its head low. The multicolor veins that crisscross its cold, solid body somehow shine underneath the overcast sky. Ten seconds pass and it stops near the bushes.
Near the bottom of the creature, a loose, red vein hangs loose. With an audible click, the vein falls off and lands uneventfully to the ground. It looks down at the vein, back at me, and then bounds off into the wilderness, crunching loose gravel and breaking branches as it did.
I’m so eager to grab the vein that I scrape my fingertips on the stone that it rests on. It is soft on the outside, easily pliable in my hands but inside I notice the lack of blood, fluid, or any sort of soft, warm flesh. Instead, it is a kind of metal, bendable and lightweight, unlike anything I have seen before.
The vein quickly goes into my pouch, and I take off down the stream in a hurry. I am going so fast that I nearly slip and cut myself on the steeper sections of the hike. In seconds, I’m up the gully and back into my sister’s arms. My heart is pounding, and my breath escapes me. It takes me several moments to choke out the right words.
“Breathe, Brother. What happened?” she asks me. I reach into the pouch and toss her the artificial vein. Her eyes marvel at the gift from our friend from beyond.
“Is this…?” she says, examining the vein.
I nod. She’s fully committed now.
The kids laugh even harder at us. They love the vein, no doubt about that, but it is still not enough to persuade them of our adventure in the forest. One of them, a boy by the name of West Wind, leads the mob. He and the rest scoff at us. The look in his eyes shows no mercy.
“You faked it, didn't you? Or maybe you just found it in the stream?” he accuses us.
“I told you, the Watcher gave it to us!” my sister yells in vain.
“It’s true, West Wind. I went down there and talked with it,” I said.
“It? No way. Admit it, Black Star, you’re making this whole thing up. You're a liar and a coward, like your sister over there.”
I step back. “Shut it. I won’t take anymore from you.”
“It’s why Sage died. You were too weak to rescue him and your sister from that stream.”
A second passes, the time it takes for my fist to fly through the air and collide against West Wind’s jawbone. His knees buckle to the ground, sending blood flying through the air and onto the dirt below. My fist pulsates a deep pink hue and violet around the knuckles with an incredible amount of pain. I ignore it, instead focusing on West Wind below me and the kids in front of me with shocked expressions.
I dash out away from the village, towards the thick and dangerous wilderness. My sister flies after me, crying out my name, but in minutes I lose her in the thickness of the oaks. I can’t hold back the tears. West Wind was out of line, I tell myself. It was stupid to try to convince them of the Watcher. Now I've made pariahs out of myself and my sister.
An hour passes by, surrounded by hills, shrubbery, and the sound of my own sobbing. Instinctively, I’ve made my way back to the ravine. The trail, well-marked by our previous journeys, flies by and the creek itself is nothing more than a short stroll to the home of my otherworldly companion. I sit near the dried waterfall in silence, looking again for signs of the Watcher.
The silence turns into a memory and the memory turns into the sound of a babbling river. Morning Star laughs as she catches small fish near the river. Sage is nearby mashing acorns and maize, his assignment for that day. The sun is bright and happy, the flowers blooming in brilliant colors and the wind keeping them company as I collect firewood.
I hear the scream, so distant yet so close. Water splashes in frenzy as Sage calls out her name. I drop my bundle of wood and run towards the riverbank. In the few seconds that I reach the shore, they’re already downstream fighting the current. I scream and chase after them.
Morning Star screams again as they smash against the rocks. Sage grabs her and tries to push her towards the riverbank. I sprint as fast as I can, trying to fight through the pain, but my legs betray me. In an instant, they go under the water, near a wooden dam meant to collect fish. I’m out of breath, sweaty with my heart pounding so hard I’m afraid it will burst.
Miraculously, Morning Star crawls onto the riverbank, heaving, coughing and covered in mud and blood. Her right leg is bent inwards towards the left. She screams and cries, asking where Sage is. I look over to the dam. He’s silent and still, floating face down in the water. I scramble over to him, pulling him out of the dirty water and lay him flat on his back. Sage is cold and pale, devoid of any of the colors that made him so warm. My sister weeps harder now. I take her in my arms, her sobs the only thing keeping us company until we are found a few hours later.
Leaves crunch underfoot to my right, snapping me out of my own mind. The Watcher appears, unafraid of my presence. It cocks its head in observance, possibly noticing something different about me. There is something different about it as well. Something softer, something mortal.
“Do you know where my friend Sage is?” I find myself asking it. No answer.
“You’ve come from the heavens, haven’t you? Isn’t that where he is?” It moves closer and over to my left.
“Please, you have to know something!” I say, unable to stop my tears from flowing. “Why did he have to leave me? It’s not fair. He didn’t deserve it!”
In anger, I grab a rock and throw it at the Watcher. It misses it by inches without any reaction.
“You stupid creature. All you do is come here and watch. What good are you to anybody? Just leave and don’t come back!”
The Watcher lowers its head but, much to my surprise, it doesn't run off. It approaches me with caution, lays on all fours and rests its cold head onto my lap. It's a strange sensation, but welcoming, comforting, and wonderful. My hand wanders over to its narrow head and softly trace my fingers over its smooth, flawless surface. What sort of friend is this that I have made?
We sit there, not wanting to move for a good long while until the setting sun pokes its rays through the brown forest. Out through the trees, I hear my sister’s voice echoing throughout the ravine. My friend cocks its head up, hearing her cries as well. It instinctively pushes itself up onto its four skinny legs and turns towards the patch of thickets from where it came. Before disappearing once again, it turns to me, taps its skinny body, and circles its head with its right hoof, then jumps into the undergrowth.
“Black Star? Can you hear me? Let me know if you’re okay!” I hear my sister call out. I wipe away my tears and head down from the waterfall, meeting her several yards downstream next to a patch of chaparral. She flies into my arms, gripping me tight. I squeeze her back, so grateful to be in her arms again.
“What happened?” she asks me. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, Sister, I’m fine. Our new friend...I think it understands...well...us.”
We stay in our embrace for minutes, sitting still in the isolated silence that the ravine affords us. Morning Star leads us down the creek and back up the trail towards our village. I calm down enough to realize that I am probably in massive amounts of trouble for punching West Wind across his fat face. Morning Star smiles and reassures me that I won’t be punished alone.
Grandfather goes out on a limb and defends us from the village elders. He tells them that we have had to deal with much: Morning Star’s accident and the death of Sage. Nonetheless, they punish us with menial tasks of firewood gathering and hours of berry and acorn foraging, telling us not to return until three massive baskets are full of food and wood.
Foraging is tough work, mostly finding what we need and then carrying them back to the baskets. Fortunately, we don't have to be bothered by the other kids, whom I have heard have been teasing West Wind mercilessly since our confrontation the day before. It's a small comfort; one that I try to hang onto while my sister and I try to stay out of the hot sun.
I’m unable to push the thoughts about Sage out of my mind. The look on his face when I told him a joke, the way he looked after Morning Star when she fell ill, and his ability to just listen. He was athletic and won just about every game we played. There was no fear in his eyes, and I wonder about what stories he would have brought back if he had gone into the ravine. He was a boy of pure kindness, courage, and humor.
Thinking about the way he passed still hurts, but I remind myself I still have a sister because of him. He ended up giving me what is my whole world. A present that I probably will never be able to repay him. Morning Star smiles at me. She knows I’m thinking about him. Was she thinking about him too?
The humming and chirping of crickets signal the end of our day. I grab two of the heavy baskets packed with berries and acorns and sling them over my back, swallowing a ball of emotions as I do. Morning Star takes the lighter one loaded with broken twigs and kindling and follows me as we return to the village. The kids are preparing their nightly rituals and begin lighting a bonfire near one of the huts. I give West Wind a snide glance. He turns away, embarrassed.
“What is that?” I hear my grandfather say. I look around and notice everybody looking up at the sky towards the direction of the ravine. Rivers and beads of red, green, purple, and blue dance among the stars and blackness of the night sky. Near the tops of the forest, small bursts of light continue in five second intervals. Nobody seems to be afraid, being far too mesmerized by the light show.
“What’s going on?” Morning Star asks my grandfather.
“Maybe it's the gods. They’re making their presence known this evening,” he says, not taking his eyes off the night sky.
The lights become brighter, and the flashes increase in intensity. I have a sneaking suspicion that it has to do with the Watcher. I quietly walk towards the edge of our village, into a brightened darkness that the lights afford me. I feel a presence; a crackle of energy that worms its way up my spine. Near the spot where I hit West Wind, I look down and find the Watcher’s vein covered partially in dirt. It glows a translucent yellow, resembling the midday sun.
Then, a sparkle of light catches my eye from the tree line. The Watcher notices me spying it and turns away back into the darkness. I run after it without abandon, narrowly avoiding fallen timbers, rabbit holes, and thickets of thorny brush. Ahead, I can hear it scampering through the undergrowth. Behind me, Morning Star chases along with my grandfather, crying out for me to return.
I follow my friend towards the dark, foreboding ravine. Curiously enough, it does not return to the creek, but rather goes up a gently rolling hill which sits adjacent to the main trail. I scramble over loose rocks, soil, and vegetation, losing my balance only once and falling onto my backside. In the low light of the overhead show, I can see my arms covered in scrapes and bruises. Blood mixes in with sweat and soil.
Near the crest of the hill, I stop to catch my breath. The Watcher appears next to the pulsating light, which inside rests a large box of what seems to be made of obsidian. It peers inside, watching or possibly inspecting whatever this box is.
“What are you doing? Are these lights yours?” I call out to it. It turns towards me, like if it was expecting my presence. The box pulsates with bright, divine lights in every color of the rainbow which reflect off the Watcher’s bones.
“Are you leaving?” I ask. It nods regretfully.
“Please don't go. We can make you a home here. You’ll be home with me,” I plead.
The Watcher slowly scampers towards me as the flashing increases in intensity. I kneel and stare right at its face. Through its eye, I can feel whatever is behind it, sad but perhaps longing for home.
Several distorted noises come from its head. The Watcher speaks in a strange tone. Its language is coarse, slow but full of emotion. It talks to me in a soft, matronly voice, soothing yet melancholy.
“Will you...will you say hi to Sage for me?” I ask. It speaks again, nods in agreement, and walks back towards the pulsating box. Downhill, Morning Star and my grandfather walk their way up the hill. Just as I turn around, the light disappears along with the show in the sky. The Watcher is gone, leaving the three of us alone in the light of the half moon.
“That was your friend?” my grandfather asks.
“Where did it go?”
“It went home, Grandfather. Back to the heavens.”
We linger in the darkness, stunned at what just transpired before we carefully make our way down the hill towards the trail. Grandfather walks at a quick pace, eager to make his way back to the village while I keep a vigil back on the hill for any sign of the Watcher. As much as I desire it, I resigned myself to the fact that it was gone, back to where it had come from.
The days following the light show, the story of my interaction with the Watcher spreads like wildfire among the other Tongva villages that populate our homeland. Little by little, traders, merchants, and the curious minded visit our village asking about the Watcher, the cursed ravine, and even about my version of events.
Grandfather keeps them at bay, allowing me some respite from the events of the previous days. I still don't fully understand what occurred, but I know it really is not for us to comprehend what only the gods know. The Watcher came to observe us, to understand us mortals of this earth, and perhaps to learn from us. We certainly learned something from them. There are most definitely realms beyond our understanding and secrets that we may yet discover.
Some of these traders have brought reports of foreigners from faraway lands traveling around these lands, scraggly, sickly, and riding great beasts. The stories range from friendly traders curious about our people to outright hostile interactions. I imagine if we ever meet these mysterious voyagers, many things will be different around these parts, perhaps forever.
What if the Watcher was a portent to all these changes? There’s a chill in the air now. Everything feels different, but perhaps I, myself, have changed. Sage was always in the back of my mind but now he is in the trees, the wildlife, the ravine, and in my sister and me. A constant companion on our journey.
I miss Sage and I miss the Watcher. Wherever they are, I hope they are happy and watching over us. Maybe one day we will see them again, somewhere out in the forest. For now, we let the outsiders take a chance at exploring for themselves. They keep coming in, asking about the story about the visitor. Morning Star points down the trail, saying, “Down there, in Black Star’s Canyon, you might see something for yourself.”