While still in college in New York, John Nizalowski started his writing career by publishing book reviews in science-fiction magazines and scripting radio ads for local radio stations. He is the author of five books: a multi-genre work entitled “Hooking the Sun”; two collections of poetry, “The Last Matinée” and “East of Kayenta”; and two volumes of essays, “Land of Cinnamon Sun” and “Chronicles of the Forbidden” – both on Irie Books.
Currently, Nizalowski lives in Grand Junction with his wife Brenda Wilhelm, a professor of sociology at Colorado Mesa University, where Nizalowski teaches mythology, creative writing, and composition.
The following is an excerpt from “Chronicles of the Forbidden.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist in Creative Nonfiction
In the autumn of 1912, archeologist Nels Nelson was exploring the hills just south of New Mexico’s Pueblo Largo, a ruined stone city built by the Tewa Indians in the 13th century. Above, the sun blazed from within a hazy white sky, its light washing out the landscape’s finer details. To the west, the Ortiz Mountains were a series of dark blue tents pitched on the broad desert plain named by the Spanish cartographers the Galisteo Basin. These lowlands encompassed miles upon miles of juniper covered mounds, mesas, and dry arroyos that stretched north from the Ortiz Mountains to finally wash ashore against the high, snow dusted Sangre de Cristo peaks. The Galisteo Creek bisected this arid world, a wavering silver line that ran westward to vanish into the sandy Cerrillos Hills, where, centuries before the Spanish colonization, the Tewa Indians mined turquoise and transported it hundreds of miles south to the great trading city of Paquimé.
Nelson had been excavating the ruins of Pueblo Largo, and knowing the pattern of the Galisteo Basin’s ancient villages, he expected to discover shrines in the surrounding hills. Still, when he had climbed up into these piñon and sage shrouded knolls, he was surprised by a major find – an intact shrine with a “C” shaped chest-high wall of sandstone slabs enclosing nearly 30 square feet, dry-fitted and neatly interconnected, its opening to the east – much like illustrations Nelson had seen of the Minoan shrine at Agia Triada. Then, as he entered the sacred space, he took a sudden, surprised breath. Propped against the shrine’s southwest wall stood a seven-foot-high stone slab, and on it, a long dead Tewa priest had carved a four foot high image of a lion-deity, with peaked ears, dots for eyes, a tail, jaguar feet, and outspread arms. A mysterious vertical slit pierced its chest.
This was a rare find indeed. In the early centuries of their colonial occupation, the fervently Catholic Spanish had destroyed most of the basin’s sacred stone statuary and stele, perceiving them to be blasphemous. So Nelson believed he needed to ship the ancient stone image to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as soon as possible, before it was damaged or stolen.
Nelson sent one of his laborers back to the main camp near Pueblo Largo to fetch a wagon. He then directed several other workers, all of them farmers of Spanish descent from the nearby village of Galisteo, to dig out the stele and set it on the ground. With practiced taps of his geologist’s hammer, Nelson broke off the top and bottom portions of the slab so it could be more easily packed and shipped back east. Upon completing his task, he regretted his actions. Now shorter than a man, the diminished stele seemed bereft of its power.
By the time the wagon arrived with its paired draft horses the color of polished mahogany, the October sun was nearly behind the Ortiz peaks. Accompanied by diaphanous sheets of sand, a sharp west wind had begun to blow, bringing heavier clouds that blazed orange in the dying light. With the dust stinging their eyes, the men carefully lifted the stele, placed it on a canvas tarp, and then folded the tarp over it. Next, beside the prostrate stele, they placed a set of fragments from a smaller slab inscribed with its own version of the lion-deity. Nelson had found these stone pieces scattered around the hilltop shrine. After the workers placed a final piece of dull grey canvas on the load, the groaning wagon descended the roadless hill towards the main camp. The archeologist and his men followed, shovels resting on their shoulders.
That night, Nelson placed the diminutive slabs with their broken image of the lion deity under his pillow. He told himself he was doing this to protect the images, even though there had never been a single theft during the entire expedition. Despite the October night’s penetrating chill, an exhausted Nelson dropped almost immediately into a deep slumber.
At three a.m. he woke from dreams of flying so vivid that even years later he swore his body had hit the pallet just as his eyes snapped open. In the moonlight pouring through the open tent flap, he gathered the stones from under his pillow and stacked them outside. Returning to his bed, he stared at the tent ceiling and speculated that the lion image on the stone stele was a sky deity, and that was why, upon placing the disjointed god-image under his pillow, he had experienced such vivid dreams of flying. Eventually his heart calmed, his eyes closed, and he slipped into a dreamless sleep.
Upon waking at dawn, Nelson, anxious to get the stele out of camp and safely on their way to the museum, decided to take them north to the train station that very day. After breakfast, he joined the teamster on the hardwood wagon seat, and they began the ten mile journey to the rail junction at Lamy. It was slow going. For most of the way there were no roads, so they traversed the dry wash of the Cañada Estacada, bumping over rocks and sliding through the sand.
Around noon, they left the wash and began crossing an open stretch of prairie. Just as they passed a basaltic dike, its black stone wedge looming ominously above the puny wagon, it began to rain. That morning, before departing Pueblo Largo ruins, they had seen dark clouds far to the west, but overhead the blue, windless sky had promised good weather all the way to Lamy. Now, the skies were overcast from horizon to horizon, and grey curtains of precipitation enveloped the western mountains. Before long the light rain became a torrent, the nearby arroyos filled with frothing water, and the wagon’s iron-bound wheels began to slip in the mud. They desperately needed shelter, but with no habitations in sight, they pressed on.
The deluge worsened. Pummeled by sheets of heavy rain, they grimly followed a set of wagon ruts heading north. When the lightning started, great, blinding flashes rent the sky from horizon to horizon. Jagged bolts struck the nearby mesas, the stone dike behind them, and finally a dead juniper a dozen yards away with a detonation as loud as the end of time. The horses reared, nearly toppling the wagon. The air filled with the sharp tang of ozone. Another strike, and another. As the teamster desperately pulled in on the reins, it came to the archeologist that he was going to die, that the canvas wrapped god in the wagon was enraged at being violated, truncated, and hauled away to an alien land.
Later, when he had survived the tempest and loaded the precious carved stele onto the train at Lamy, Nelson would explain the source of the storm in a letter sent to the American Museum of Natural History, and later reprinted by Lucy R. Lippard in her book, Down Country: The Tano of the Galisteo Basin – “[We] had desecrated the ancient shrine of a great god, whose image we had laid our hands upon and were carrying away with us.”
Nels Nelson had encountered the forbidden.
Sixty miles northwest of Galisteo Basin, in the cottonwood bosque of the Rio Grande Valley, there stands the 13th century pueblo of San Ildefonso. This stone and adobe-walled village is divided into two sections, each representing the separate winter and summer sacred societies that shape the socio-religious rituals of the Tanoan people. Just west of the pueblo, the Rio Grande flows over smooth, silt-covered stones past dense groves of cottonwood and Russian olive trees. To the north rises the dark volcanic mound of Black Mesa, a place of holy power forbidden to outsiders. At the pueblo’s center, the arms of the village’s two sections form a plaza where sacred dances are held. In this plaza, the walls of a great kiva rise into the high desert sun. Most of the kiva’s cylinder rests beneath the earth, but about ten feet of it emerges from the ground. A stone stairway ascends to the roof, where a ladder descends into the kiva’s depths through a rectangular opening. Within, priests perform secret rites in front of a centuries old carved and painted wood altar, and the people of San Ildefonso prepare themselves for their ceremonies to the sun and the earth, the rain and the stars.
One afternoon, I was driving along New Mexico Route 502, returning to Santa Fe from a long hike in the Valles Caldera of the Jemez Mountains. The sun was low over the soft mountains behind me, bathing the pair of bridges that span the Rio Grande at Otowi Crossing in a golden light. I crossed the new bridge and came to the turn-off to San Ildefonso. Influenced by the beautiful light and the tired but satisfied glow I feel from long wilderness hikes, I abruptly decided to start down the narrow paved road towards the pueblo. Soon after the road changed to dirt, I reached a rutted parking area just outside the pueblo walls.
Guided by my previous visits to attend the sacred dances at San Ildefonso, I found my way to the plaza. There, in the dying sunlight, stood the kiva. A sudden desire to touch its walls compelled me forward through the pueblo’s now vacant square. I knew the kiva was forbidden to me, so I conspicuously avoided the inset stone steps leading to its roof entrance and circled instead to the west wall. For a moment, I placed my open palms on the rough stucco walls, warm in the last rays of the sun. Then, with my back to the curved wall, I sat down and closed my eyes, breathing in the numinous silence. Gradually, I felt a subtle vibration at my back, as if I were sitting against the walls of an electric dynamo, and a deep sense of repose, very much like meditating in a Buddhist temple, flowed into my senses.
A sound like a branch being dragged across the nearby sandy ground broke through my calm. I opened my eyes. The plaza was no longer empty. Across the way, a stooped woman in a long black skirt and tan blouse was passing into an alley, a rust-orange bundle under one arm, a black short-haired dog following close at her heels. Nearby, a tall thin man with a long grey braid, faded blue headband, and bright red flannel shirt was crossing the plaza from west to east. His pace was deliberate, his wrinkled face set in a frown. Beyond him, a young man in blue jeans and a new denim shirt, his hair loose like a dark waterfall, peered off to the north, as if studying Black Mesa’s summit. I could not make out what had made the strange sound.
I reclosed my eyes. Time passed. The sun’s glow on my eyelids vanished, leaving me in darkness. The vibrations finally returned, but the peace from before eluded me. Instead, I felt increasingly nervous, as if someone were gazing right into my face from just a few feet away. My eyes snapped open. The plaza was again empty. No one was in sight. And yet the feeling of being watched grew stronger.
I was reminded of a rather disturbing discovery I had made on a hike several weeks earlier. I had been exploring a ruined mesa-top pueblo about a dozen miles west of San Ildefonso, a place most likely inhabited by their ancestors. The ruin’s stone walls, only a few feet high, outlined room blocks along the mesa’s edge and down into the south facing cliffs, where hollowed out spaces held carved niches and smoke-stained ceilings. I had been to this ruin several times before, but I had never followed the cliff past where the ancient pueblo ended. However, there was still plenty of daylight left, so I decided to push past the pueblo boundary to see if there was anything of interest around the curve of the mesa’s ramparts.
The mesa and the ruins were formed from a soft, cream-colored stone created from the compressed debris of the Valles Caldera volcano, and across the mesa’s south face, there was a ledge along which the Tanoans had built their cliff dwellings. I followed this ledge away from the man-made stone chambers and towards a grove of ponderosa pines. At first the mesa walls beyond the ruins were just blank white walls of volcanic stone.
Then, as the ledge narrowed to about the size of a broad sidewalk, I began to find petroglyphs. At first they were classic Puebloan images – stair-step cloud terraces, tasseled cornstalks, a horned serpent, a few shields with star-shapes within concentric circles. But just as the ledge dwindled to an almost uncomfortable width, I encountered a series of enormous mask-like faces deeply carved into the soft stone. Nearly as high as the cliff walls, these masks were grimacing, sharp-toothed gods clearly angry at what they saw. The final mask was the most fierce of all, its goggle eyes drilling death into the pure blue air. I’d rarely seen such menacing petroglyphs, and never near a pueblo, ruined or inhabited. This made me wonder, why would the Tanoans carve such terrifying visages so close to their dwellings?
I pushed along the diminishing path, and the masks passed from my view around a bulge in the mesa’s cliff-face. Then, just before the ledge gave out, I found my answer. Facing southeast, there was a hastily carved larger-than-life Spanish soldier – complete with bandolier, peaked helmet, and sword – astride a horse that could have been torn from Picasso’s Guernica.
Seeing that soldier made me realize that the masks were for protection, that their terrifying visages sent curses towards Santa Fe, the colonial capital of Northern New Spain, from where bands of soldiers would ride forth to collect tribute and round up conscripted workers for the priests and hidalgos of the territorial settlements.
And just as that 17th century Spanish soldier was an intruder in the divine world of that ancient pueblo, so was I an intruder in the sacred space of San Ildefonso. Unwelcome and unbidden, I knew I should leave. Standing, I placed my hands once more on the rough walls to feel the kiva’s holy energy one last time. Then, without glancing back, I left the plaza and the pueblo, got in my pick-up, and headed east down the now darkened highway towards Santa Fe.