Cindy Burkart Maynard has extensive experience teaching and writing about history and the natural world. She is the co-author of two previous nonfiction works about the Colorado Plateau and the desert southwest. “Soyala: Daughter of the Desert” is the author’s most recent historical fiction.
In this novel she weaves a compelling, dramatic story based on the pre-history of the desert Southwest.
Her first historical novel, “Anastasia’s Book of Days,” is set in what is now Southwest Germany in the 17th century. Based on the purported diaries of Anastasia Burkart, the author’s great-great grandmother, the story reflects the momentous changes sweeping across her beloved Black Forest homeland.
The following is an excerpt from “Soyala: Daughter of the Desert.”
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 Authors League winner for Western Literature
Soyala named Yoki’s baby Malia, Sea of Bitterness. She strapped the baby to her back when she roamed the hills and mesas. She relived every moment of her daughter’s childhood through Malia. Soyala once again gazed in wonder at tiny fingers curled around hers. She held her breath as Malia took her first unsteady steps and smiled with satisfaction when she uttered her first words. As Malia grew, Soyala beamed with pride when she forged her first friendships among the other small children playing on the roof of the Tower Kiva. Soyala was desperate to keep the child safe, never letting her stray out of her sight. On each birthday she begged Hania for insight into Malia’s future. Hania said nothing. If Hania had any premonitions of the girl’s future, he would not share them.
Soyala fashioned corn husk dolls, simple gourd rattles, and toy deer made from willow twigs for Malia. Tima and Ashki doted on the child too, bringing her gifts – a miniature necklace of travertine beads, a rattle of copper bells – from their trips. Life went on as normal. Still, a fog of foreboding obscured Soyala’s happiness. The girl so resembled Yoki, tiny and delicate, that she sometimes forgot she was not her precious daughter.
The people were excited each time Hania and Tima returned from a trading expedition. The stories they brought back opened the people’s eyes to the wider world. Around campfires, the wanderers displayed their exotic trade goods and told tales of the villages they visited. Recently the news was frightening.
“We visited a village where we have traded many times before. We were horrified by what we found.” Tima began. “There were dozens of dead people scattered through many rooms. Some had been savagely attacked, their heads bashed in. Children, even infants lay about with arms and legs twisted at ghoulish, unnatural angles. The skull of one man was naked, its skin and hair hacked off.”
Soyala breathed heavily, clutching Malia, now five summers old, to her chest. The children old enough to understand the story wailed, eyes wide with terror. Men instinctively gripped their axes and bows.
“We have heard that people are sweeping in from the north. They are not like us. They do not live in towns. They are driving the people out. Entire towns and villages now sit empty and people flee, leaving behind most of their possessions. Some shamans have deliberately burned the kivas to purify them before the newcomers desecrate them.”
There was turmoil in the kiva societies. Some wanted to leave immediately. Others considered that these outrages were happening to people far away from the Old Pueblo and the marauders would not come this far south. They wondered if they should post guards and night patrols? The hot-heads suggested going out to confront and kill the outsiders before they could reach the Old Pueblo. Tension and unrest engulfed them like a flash flood thundering through an arroyo.
Hania grew restless. He paced back and forth in the plaza. He visited his place of power nearly every night seeking insight. Soyala begged him to explain why he was so anxious.
“What has become of your calm wisdom?” Soyala asked. “Why have you changed so?”
“Do you remember the story of how I left my village?” He asked.
“Of course, I remember your story.”
“Can’t you see the similarities? I can ‘see’ a force like a huge dust storm driven forward by the hot breath of some evil spirit rolling down on us. I am not worried for myself. I have lived my life. I feel my own death approaching. That is not what troubles me. I worry for Malia and the other young people who must face the future.”
His voice changed. It became like low tones of a great drum rumbling and vibrating.
“You and I will not see many new springs.” He admitted. “You and the other women should keep the children away from high places.” Soyala was stunned, not only by his prediction of her impending death, but by his warning about the children. What high places? She wondered. She resolved not to take Malia to the hills where they could be surprised by raiders when she was foraging.
It had been another dry summer season. This drought had lasted much longer and was more unrelenting than any that had gone before. The men and older boys ranged farther and farther to hunt game. They were often gone for days at a time. When they returned they told ominous stories of hostile encounters with the fierce northerners who now appeared more frequently and in greater numbers. They also talked to people from other pueblos, farmers like themselves, who had given up trying to survive in this place. They feared hunger. They feared violence. Desperate people had begun to raid the granaries of their neighbors. The prayers of their shamans and rainmakers were no longer effective. Their gods had deserted them. They sometimes saw columns of downcast, defeated people trekking southward like migrating Monarch butterflies or Sandhill Cranes. Despite these sad stories the People of the Old Pueblo continued to argue, unsure about what they should do. Kiva societies met more frequently, hoping their prayers would rise to the gods on smoke from their sacred fires. They performed ceremonies to persuade their gods to protect them. The Great Kiva and Tower Kiva, always the heart of the community, were now seldom empty.
Tima and Ashki encouraged the people to abandon the false security of the old walls. “We are not safe here. If we leave now, we can plan our move, take our food and valuable possessions with us as we did when we first arrived. If they raid us, we can only flee for our lives. Empty-handed,” Tima argued.
Still the older people resisted, not seeing the danger. Most of the People were confused and hesitant. The comforting routines of daily life dulled their urgency. Their ancient fields were familiar even though they failed to produce enough to feed them through the winter.
One warm autumn evening, Soyala, Takala and a few older women, gathered on the roof of the Tower Kiva discussing the dilemma as they watched the younger children scampering across the adobe roof. Soyala tilted her head back, closed her eyes, and inhaled the smell of the ripe autumn earth. Cottonwood leaves glowed golden as they gave up their lives. The topaz sky no longer threatened thunderstorms. She wondered why the sweetest time of the year was a time of dying. A soft breeze bathed her weathered skin when a sudden gust of wind broke the calm of the dusk. A spiral of dust rose up and danced across the dusty land.
In the kiva below, Huli the old shaman, began another of his perpetual round of ceremonies. He was lighting the ceremonial fire when the hot whirlwind shot down the ladder hole making the flames shiver wildly. Splinters of fire and sparks licked up the poles reaching toward the sky. Streams of acrid smoke painted the rafters black. The shaman stood paralyzed among the spreading blaze as the ancient roof, dried from so many seasons of drought, caught the flames.
The smell of smoke interrupted Soyala’s reverie. It did not smell like a cooking fire. Her brain struggled to identify the smell wafting up from the ladder hole. Soyala exchanged glances with Takala, but their bodies and minds were slow to react.
Tima shouted at them from the plaza below. Soyala looked down into the plaza wondering why he was frantically waving his arms. Tima grabbed a ladder from the roof of a nearby dwelling and propped it up against the tower kiva. Now Soyala could feel the heat of the flames licking the roof below her feet. The memory of Hania’s voice rang in her ears as clearly as if he was standing beside her. “Keep Malia away from high places.”
As Tima’s head peeked above the edge of the Tower Kiva Soyala thrust Malia into his arms. “Go!” Soyala screamed. “Save the baby!” Tima scuttled down the ladder clutching the terrified child under one arm like a bundle of laundry. Terrified, Malia screamed for Soyala. Soyala watched them go.
When he reached the bottom of the ladder, Tima withdrew the eagle bone whistle from his waist pouch. Its pure high tone sliced through the hot air. People could now smell the fire. The piercing tone of the whistle penetrated the stone walls with an uncanny strength. The people streamed into the plaza.
The women and children on the tower kiva roof mobbed the ladder jostling each other trying to escape. The unbalanced ladder tilted then fell away from the wall with grandmothers, mothers and children clinging to every run. Some women still trapped on the roof of the Tower Kiva jumped to the roof below them. Others dropped their children into the arms of husbands and sons thronging below. Those trapped on the roof could do nothing but run in circles screaming.
With a jolt, the ancient timbers cracked. The roof sank a few feet. Soyala fell silent, closed her eyes and prayed. Hania’s voice echoed in her brain. I’m sorry, my friend. I could not tell you what was to come. Go in peace. A part of my spirit goes with you. You have fulfilled your purpose. The baby lives to see the future. The people live on. The huge beams supporting the massive roof gave way. The women and babies still stranded fell into the fire. A fountain of sparks and burning coals mushroomed into the darkening sky. Embers fell, pelting the pueblo like fiery hailstones.
Hania and Tima, still gripping Malia, stood shoulder to shoulder just beyond the pueblo’s encircling arms. Hania shook his painted gourd rattle. Tima’s whistle called. “Come, come! Come away from the fire. Stand with us.” He whistled until clusters of stunned people, gathered at the outer edge of the plaza.
“Now there will be no more hesitation,” Tima told them. “Tomorrow we will leave.”
That night, with the smell of smoke hanging over them, the bedraggled, sooty people camped in the eastern fields of the Old Pueblo. The following sunrise glowed orange in the smoky air. Ashki, cradling Malia in his arms, and Tima watched as clusters of dispirited people gathered in the plaza.
Hania called the clan leaders to join him standing before the people. His voice was hoarse from smoke as it rose above the restive crowd. Angry voices called out. “Why didn’t you tell us this was coming? Didn’t you see this in one of your visions?”
“I knew only that there would be an omen for us to move on,” he said quietly. “I knew the wind would bring the message to us. I could see no more than that. I warned the women to stay away from high places. That is all I could do. I could not prevent the fire. We leave in sorrow, but we must leave, nonetheless. It is time to go. We must now perform the ritual of leave-taking.”
Hania handed each clan leader a bundle of sagebrush. Each of them lit his firebrand. One by one they returned to their kivas and dropped the burning wood into the sacred space. Smoke rose from dozens of holes caressing the morning tenderly, waving a gentle goodbye.
As if reenacting the corn dance ceremony, each clan formed uneven streams that merged into one river flowing away from the Old Pueblo. Tima, Ashki, and Malia led them away toward the pueblos along the Great River River.
In a few more decades, the entire area lay in silence under the fierce summer sun. The thriving villages, cliff dwellings, and adobe pueblos were deserted. The dust that would soon bury them was already piling up against their western walls. Only the ghosts remained to rifle through the belongings they left behind. If each forsaken remnant was a word, and each empty room a sentence, they could write an epic greater than Gilgamesh, Beowulf, or the Odyssey. They left much behind, but they took their culture with them to the new homes they found along the Great River River. The People live on.