Kendall drank the bitter brew, trying not to gag when his throat closed. In a few minutes he would vomit, and the cleansing process would be finished.
Piñon smoke and sweating bodies filled the sacred kiva chamber. Barefoot and wearing his deerskin breechcloth, Kendall shuffled across the smooth rock floor, following the other dancers. Drummers knelt beside the altar, and the steady pounding sound filtered through the opening in the roof. The gentle rhythm rocked Kendall’s heart like a baby in a cradle. There was no other place he would rather have been.
From the head of the circle, the medicine man took the wooden bowl of herbs from Kendall’s hands.
“Your great-grandfather would be proud,” the elderly man said solemnly. “But as the last Snake Runner, you will have a difficult journey.”
Kendall nodded. “He told me there were snake dances in the ancient days.”
The elderly man looked into Kendall’s eyes. “The old ways are lost to us. We must rely on the gods to guide you.”
Before Kendall could speak again, the medicine man raised a hand to signal the last dance.
Joining the boys from the other clans who were also being initiated into the kiva ways, Kendall lifted his feet for the final song to the gods. Bells around his ankles jangled softly. Prayer sticks and smoothly carved bear bones clattered at his waist, keeping time with the ancient drumbeats. This day was the final step in becoming a full member of the tribe.
The kiva chamber was filled with fathers, brothers, uncles, and grandfathers from each of the village clans. They were there to watch their sons on this important day. Bear, Antelope, Corn, and Eagle—more than a dozen clans. Kendall was still learning them all. But he was the only member of the Snake Clan.
Kendall wished Armando, his great-grandfather, were there dancing beside him in breechcloth and eagle feathers, his long white hair majestic in the firelight.
Nobody spoke. The singers sang, the drums pounded, feet dusted the stone in steps that were centuries old. Kendall suddenly scanned the chamber, sensing those eyes that watched him from the spirit world. Armando and Kendall’s mother observed his dancing, listened to him speak Keresan. He always felt their presence when he was here at Acoma. He wasn’t completely alone.
The center fire crackled, throwing shadows onto the adobe walls. Paintings of rain gods and bolts of lightning lit up under the fire’s yellow glow. Through the doorway in the roof, stars sparkled from an inky desert sky.
The other boys turned in a circle around the fire, and as they danced their bodies became a single watery outline. Kendall resisted the urge to wipe his eyes, then realized there were no tears. The forms of bodies, fire, altar, and kiva walls were merging and shifting. He brushed back his long black hair. The room began to spin.
The entire kiva chamber, as well as every man there, began to dissolve and disappear. Kendall lurched and fell toward the fire. The hair on his arms singed, and he felt a sharp burning. The room turned black, like a night without stars or moon. Then the bottom of the world fell away, swallowing him whole.
Firelight pricked his eyelids, and when Kendall opened his eyes, he saw the stone ceiling overhead and recognized the paintings on the kiva walls.
Sweat trickled down his face and ran like warm water into his ears. How much time had passed? He was sure days had gone by—or had it been only minutes?
Several warriors bent over him. He saw a black night through the roof’s opening, but the drums were now silent.
“Is he sick from the emetic?” a voice said in the Keresan language.
“There is no vomit,” another voice answered.
“Look at his eyes,” a boy said.
The deep voice of the medicine man said, “He has seen a vision.”
“How long has he been fasting?” an elderly man asked, coming closer.
The crowd of bodies came into focus, and Kendall could see one of the oldest drummers kneeling over him in his leather breechcloth.
The medicine man spoke again from somewhere near Kendall’s feet. “Two weeks. The boy is determined to be a good warrior. Even at night when he’s allowed to eat, he barely fills his belly during this fasting period.”
“He must be ill,” the first voice said.
“No, he is not ill,” the elder replied softly as he watched Kendall’s face. “I think the spirit world has spoken to him.”
“No more talking,” the medicine man commanded. “Help him to his feet.”
Arms escorted Kendall to the stone seat built into the circular walls. He was ashamed to have collapsed like that, as if he’d fainted. But they said he hadn’t been sick. In fact, his stomach gurgled with the emetic brew sloshing at the pit of his belly.
“What day is it?” he asked.
“It’s not a new day, boy. It is the same night.”
“Perhaps he has traveled to a place where time stands still,” said the older man.
The group retreated, but Kendall felt every eye study- ing him.
It felt like he’d been gone for days instead of just moments. The kiva floor had dropped out from under his feet and taken him to another time. A time when some kind of presence overshadowed everything. Something sinister that lurked and spilled into every corner of Acoma. Even the corners of this sacred kiva. But how could that be? No ordinary men were allowed here. This was the kiva where Kendall had learned the Acoma tribal ways, the Keresan language, and the stories of Creation. This was also the place where he had passed his initiation and been welcomed as one of the clansmen, part of them at last. His great-grandfather’s dying wish had been fulfilled, but now that Armando was gone, Kendall was the last member of the Snake Clan. The last Snake Runner.
It was a hot, sweaty July night, but Kendall felt cold. Coldness like he’d never felt before, deep inside his soul, that made him ache. Armando had bestowed his Snake Runner power onto Kendall that night he lay dying on the desert, but Kendall couldn’t stop thinking about how the powerful running magic carried by the Snake Clan would die whenever Kendall died. Kendall followed the dancers and drummers as they filed out to retch over the cliffs and finish the cleansing. Afterward, they would return to their families to close the fasting with a huge feast.
As he walked along the edge of the cliff, Kendall shivered in the hot summer air. He knelt and looked down the sheer walls of pink and cream-colored stone. A bed of boulders lay at the bottom of the desert floor four hundred feet below. The end of summer was coming too soon, and Kendall knew he would be sent home again, back to reality and school and his other life. He fingered the turquoise necklace at the base of his throat. Emotion tugged at his face. Digging into the sacred bundle at his waist, Kendall pulled out a prayer stick that he’d carved into a wriggling snake. He smoothed his hands along the shape of the piñon wood reptile, then touched it lightly with his lips.
“Grandfather, I promise I will always run with all my heart.”
When he knew he was alone at the mesa’s edge, Kendall tied back his long hair and threw up in private.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Last Snake Runner by Kimberley Griffiths Little. Copyright © 2002 by Kimberly Griffiths Little. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.