We have another Systema Paradoxa title for you, Breaking the Code by David Lee Summers, a part of the Systema Paradoxa series created in conjunction with Cryptid Crate. It releases May 21, but you can pre-order it now via the link.
Friday, February 20, 1942
Cheryl Davis parked her Ford Coup in the Gallup High School parking lot and walked to the gym under leaden skies. 1942 was off to a dismal start. The United States had declared war against Japan and Germany and now they needed young men to fight their battles for them. As a teacher, she’d been asked to spread the word among former students who might want to enlist in the Marine Corps. The Marine recruiter who contacted her was himself a former student. He showed a special interest in recruiting Navajos well-versed in their native language. Cheryl was part Navajo, on her mother’s side, but most wouldn’t know it to look at her. She had inherited her strawberry-blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin from her father’s side of the family.
Cheryl entered the gym and found the bleachers full. The high school band played “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” She groaned as a tuba went flat for two notes, but no one else seemed to notice. The crowd cheered and whooped as the band finished the song.
The principal, Sherman Smith, stepped up to the mic. After a burst of feedback, he introduced Cheryl’s former student, Duke Ogawa. She smiled as the young man approached the mic. She had taught him during her first year at Gallup High. He’d graduated five years ago. Now he wore a smart blue uniform with yellow and red sergeant’s stripes.
“It’s good to be back home,” Duke said. “I spent a lot of time in this gym learning teamwork and sportsmanship. I’m here today because I need people on my team for something far more important than beating Farmington in the basketball championships.” A cheer went up at that and Duke flashed a charming smile. “As you know, the United States is now at war and Uncle Sam needs your Tiger pride and your Tiger courage to defeat the Japanese and the Germans.”
“So why does the Marine Corps send a Japanese man to recruit Diné to do their dirty work?” A hush fell over the crowd and all eyes turned to a teacher named Frances Todachine. Cheryl noted the woman used the name the Navajos used for themselves. It was shorthand for the story of how five-fingered people came into the world. The small, wiry Navajo woman had earned a grudging respect around the school because she worked with known troublemakers and helped them find jobs around town when they graduated. Murmurs spread throughout the auditorium. Miss Todachine’s words seemed to have struck a chord with the audience.
Duke’s smile didn’t falter. He waited for the murmuring to die down, then responded with the certainty that had always served him well on the school’s debate team. “Ma’am, my parents were born in Los Angeles and moved to Gallup during the last big war to open a feed store. Their action helped feed the troops. The United States is the only country I’ve known. It’s my country.”
Cheryl clapped her hands at the succinct, polite response. Soon other people around the gym joined in. An icy chill went down her spine and she glanced toward Miss Todachine. The woman glared at her for a moment, then turned her attention back to Duke.
“Why should Navajos give their lives for a country that killed so many of them?” Miss Todachine shouted so she could be heard over the applause.
The applause ceased and the murmurs resumed.
Another Marine joined Duke at the mic. Cheryl didn’t recognize him. “My name is Sergeant Randall Yazzie. My people live over in Arizona, near Show Low.” A hush fell over the crowd. The man wasn’t a local like Duke, but he was Diné like many people in the audience. “I joined the United States Marine Corps because it gave me the chance to fight for my homeland. Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito want to take our country away from us and we can keep that from happening.”
Miss Todachine scowled but fell silent. She couldn’t be more than a year or two older than Cheryl, but she carried herself like a much older woman. Several young Navajos huddled with the history teacher and spoke in hushed tones while Duke and Randall continued their presentation. The recruiters highlighted the rewards a soldier could expect, including good pay, regular meals, a pension, and lifetime medical coverage. Cheryl knew these things would all sound good to families who had scraped by through the Great Depression. Although Western New Mexico had been spared the dust storms that plagued the eastern part of the state, Navajos had still suffered through a bad drought.
“You’ll get valuable training in the Marines that will help you find a good job after the war,” Duke said.
Duke and Randall wrapped up their presentation and mentioned they would go to the gym’s foyer and sign up anyone who wanted to enlist. “We’ll be back on Monday to make another presentation,” Randall said. “Be sure to tell your friends. We’re interested in any recruits between the ages of eighteen and forty-four. A bus will pick up those who enlist a week from Monday. It’ll take you to Fort Wingate to be sworn in and then we’ll catch the train to San Diego where you’ll enter boot camp.”
They opened the floor to questions. Cheryl feared that Miss Todachine would try to cause more trouble. She couldn’t quite understand her fellow teacher’s objections. She knew relations between the Navajo—all American Indians, really—and the United States had been strained by westward expansion. She understood the bitterness, but did Miss Todachine really believe that Hitler or Hirohito would be better leaders than Franklin Delano Roosevelt?
Once the question-and-answer session finished, people filed out of the gymnasium into the foyer. Duke and Randall sat at their table and walked a handful of young men through the enlistment process. Cheryl hung back, hoping to speak to Duke. One of her current students, Jerry Begay, approached the recruiters. She couldn’t hear what they said to each other, but they shook hands and Jerry signed a piece of paper.
She looked around and noticed Frances Todachine along with a half dozen Navajos standing in the shadows. They also seemed interested in Jerry Begay’s conversation with the recruiters. His family had a hogan a short distance from town where they raised sheep. They may be poor, but Jerry’s grandmother was a respected matriarch in the Rock Gap clan and he was a good, well-liked student. People paid attention to Jerry and expected him to go far.
As Jerry Begay stepped away from the table, Miss Todachine and her followers seemed to lose interest. They stalked off into the cold night.
That was odd. Miss Todachine wore a fur coat—a strange choice for a Navajo. Most Diné considered wearing a predator’s pelt taboo. Then again, Cheryl couldn’t see the coat well in the dim lighting. It could well have been rabbit or imitation fur. Even with her fair skin, Cheryl wouldn’t wear fur at a gathering with so many Diné. There could be talk that the person wearing the fur might practice witchcraft. Though Cheryl was only part Navajo, she had grown up here. She knew the legend of the skinwalkers, witches who sought the knowledge of magic for power, not healing. Whether she believed or not, she would never give the community a reason to wonder about her the way Miss Todachine did.
Cheryl made a point of stopping Jerry Begay on his way out. “Did you just sign up?”
He flashed her a broad smile. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I’m pleased you want to defend your country, but don’t you think it would be a good idea to finish your high school diploma first?”
He shrugged. “I’m eighteen. I don’t need my diploma to enlist. What I’ll get from the Marines is more than the diploma will be worth. Plus, they said I’d get extra pay because I speak Navajo.”
Cheryl narrowed her gaze. “Did they say why that would give you extra pay?”
Jerry shook his head. “I should get going, my parents want me home before it gets too late.”
Cheryl sighed and nodded. “Have a good night. Will I see you in class on Monday?”
He nodded. “I’ll be there. The bus won’t come through for new recruits for another week.”
As Jerry left the gym, Cheryl began to wonder if Miss Todachine was right to question these recruiters.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
Duke Ogawa’s voice made her jump. He no longer sat behind the recruiting table, but had come up behind her.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you, Miss Davis.”
Cheryl put her hand to her chest and smiled. “It’s good to see you, Duke. It looks like the Corps is treating you well.”
He nodded and smiled. “Actually, my enlistment ended last month, but I signed on again after Pearl Harbor.”
Cheryl sighed. “Yeah, it’s a bad business and I’m glad the United States is finally taking a stand against the fascists and the imperialists, but…” Her voice trailed off as she followed the direction Jerry had gone.
“You don’t like seeing kids as young as Jerry Begay signing up for war,” he guessed.
Duke led Cheryl back to the table and introduced his partner. “Randall Yazzie, this is Miss Cheryl Davis, she was my math teacher here my senior year.”
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am” Yazzie said. “Call me Rand. So, who was that woman with the smart mouth?”
“Oh, that’s Frances Todachine.” Cheryl shrugged. “She’s a history teacher. She actually does good work with a lot of the kids. She helps them find jobs.”
“I got a strange feeling from her.” Rand shook his head. “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something more than concern going on there.”
“Yeah, she had a chip on her shoulder. She was looking for a fight,” Duke said.
“Single woman, a group of close followers, all men,” Rand mused. “Back home, there’d be talk…”
Cheryl snorted a laugh. “You don’t think she’s having an affair with any of those young men, do you?”
Rand shook his head. “That wouldn’t be the worst of it.” He leaned in close and whispered. “They’d be talking witchcraft.”
As Jerry Begay drove home from the recruitment rally at the high school, snow began to fall. At first just a few light flurries drifted through the air, then the flakes fell heavier as he cleared the city limits and drove the ten miles south to his family’s land. Smoke wafting from the stovepipe poking from his family hogan’s roof gratified him. It would be warm inside. His mother no doubt left some stew on the fire for him. He guessed two inches of snow already blanketed the ground by the time he walked from the pickup to his front door.
The hogan was a small, cozy home. A cast-iron wood stove sat in the building’s center and the scents of lamb and vegetables simmering told him he had been correct about her having dinner ready for him.
“Yá’át’ééh,” his father said, speaking the traditional Diné greeting, which asked whether Jerry was well.
Jerry responded by saying he was well, “yá’ánísht’ééh,” and sat down at the table. His mother brought him a bowl of stew and he began to wolf it down.
“So, how was the meeting?” asked Jerry’s mother, Maria.
“Good,” Jerry said. “Lots of people showed up.” He took another bite, then swallowed. “I signed up.” He said the last quietly.
Jerry’s father, Javier, frowned. “We need you here on the farm this season more than ever.”
“You need to finish your high school diploma,” his mother chastened.
“I’ll earn money faster in the military and I’ll get skills that can help me after I’m back.” Everything the recruiters had said about joining up sounded better than continuing to feed sheep and take boring old classes. “Besides, if people don’t go, evil men like Adolf Hitler will send his soldiers to take our lands away from us.”
“It has happened before, and we have survived.” His father sounded tired.
“You sound like that history teacher at school, Miss Todachine.” Jerry scooped up the last of his stew.
His mother’s jaw tightened. “Don’t speak her name in this house.”
“What?” Jerry shrugged. “She’s just a loud-mouthed do-gooder. She found a job for John Claw, of all people. I thought the sheriff would throw him in jail for sure.”
Maria Begay nodded. “She consorts with all kinds of troublemakers and keeps them from finding justice. She spends way too much time with those high-school boys.”
Jerry snorted a laugh. “She’s not much older than we are. She’s gotta spend time with someone.” He took his bowl to a washtub near the wood stove and put it in to soak until the morning when it could be washed.
“Mark my words, she’s trouble,” Maria reiterated. She walked over to the woodstove and tossed in more wood from a nearby stack.
“When would you leave us?” Javier’s eyes narrowed.
“A bus will come through Gallup week after next. It’ll take us to Fort Wingate where we’ll be sworn in, then they’ll take us to San Diego for training.”
Javier grunted. “California is very far. How long will you be away?”
“Three years,” Jerry said.
Maria put her hand to her chest. “So long?”
Jerry held out his hands. “I’ll talk to the guys at school. I can find someone to help you here on the farm.” He walked over and gathered his mother up into his arms. For the first time he could remember, she looked sad and frail.
“Our need for help is not our main concern,” Jerry’s father said. “We’ll miss you.”
Jerry gave his mother a squeeze then sat down opposite his father. “If this were the old days, warriors would be sent out to meet a threat. This is no different.”
Javier pursed his lips and nodded. “I suppose you’re right…”
“But three years?” His mom shook her head.
“I’ll write,” Jerry promised. “And if you guys ever let them install a telephone out here, I could probably call now and then.”
“We’ll consider it,” Maria said, “but only for this reason.”
Javier reached out and took his son’s hand. “We’ll miss you, but I understand why you believe this is necessary.” He stood and walked over to the bed. “Now, this snow is arguing with my bones. I think it’s time to get some sleep.”
The hogan didn’t allow much room for privacy. Many families had moved into homes in town, only to lose those homes during the Great Depression and return to traditional dwellings out on their land. Jerry’s family was one of those. His parents had a bed along one of the hogan’s walls. Jerry’s bed was along the wall across from it. They’d set up an old-fashioned privacy screen between the two. Jerry’s dad blew out the oil lamp next to him. Cloth rustled as Jerry’s parents changed into their nightclothes.
Jerry followed suit and climbed under a stack of warm blankets. Despite the snowstorm outside, he was snug in his family’s home. The idea of sharing a barracks with other soldiers didn’t bother him. His parents began to snore, and the wind whipped outside. His eyes grew heavy and he began to drift off to sleep.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The tapping caused his eyes to spring open. No trees grew up against the hogan to cause the noise. He listened. Maybe he’d just dreamed the sound as he’d started to drift off to sleep. His parents still snored. Whatever he had heard, it hadn’t awakened them. His eyelids grew heavy again.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Again, Jerry’s eyes sprang open. The tapping resumed. It sounded like it came from the wall beside him. He tried to picture the outside of the hogan. He didn’t think there was anything there but grass. The wall had been constructed from solid logs. Nothing light could make a tapping loud enough to wake him. He tried to dismiss it as his imagination.
Wide awake now, he thought more about the Marine Corps. He wondered what boot camp would be like. He had no doubt he would cut it. He’d been up early in the morning and working hard ever since his family moved back out to their traditional lands. His chest swelled with pride as he thought about continuing the long tradition of Navajo warriors.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The sound returned. No doubt about it, this was no dream. He thought more about what could cause the tapping. He wondered if some wood had broken loose in the high winds, or if the roof had been damaged. It could probably wait until morning, but he thought he’d better go check it out. He wouldn’t get to sleep until he knew what it was. He shoved back the blankets, pulled on his trousers and heavy boots, and lit the lamp.
As he walked toward the door, he looked back at his parents. Still asleep. He went outside. The snow was coming down heavier than before and swirled in white eddies. He stayed close to the house, so as not to get lost in the storm, crunching through snow deeper than the tops of his boots. He reached the back wall of the octagonal structure, and inspected the building.
There were divots in the snow, as though an animal had been there and left. Had a sheep gotten loose and butted the wall?
He held up the lantern and looked around.
In the distance stood a tall figure on two legs. Its long ears lay back and it snarled, revealing long, sharp teeth. A forbidden word came to mind—a word as shocking as the vilest pornography. Although this did not involve ripping off clothes, it involved ripping off the very skin to reveal the monster underneath.
Yee naaldlooshii in the Diné language.
Skinwalker in English. It didn’t mean the same thing, but it sounded almost worse.
The creature turned and walked away.
He knew he should follow his path back to the front door, blow out his lantern, and forgot what he’d seen. Good sense almost prevailed, but curiosity got the better of him. He took a step away from the house and then another.
The skinwalker continued to prowl through the snow.
Jerry followed a few more steps.
The wind picked up. The snow came down faster until he lost sight of the creature.
He ran forward a few more steps, heart pounding furiously. The skinwalker had vanished.
The cold began to seep through his clothes. He needed to get back inside before the storm grew worse. All he had to do was keep a clear head, turn around and follow his path. When he turned, he could no longer see his footprints. He could no longer see the hogan. He should only be a few steps away. He began trudging the direction he thought home should be. Despite the cold, exhaustion came over him. It would be so good to lie down and go to sleep.
David Lee Summers is the author of a dozen novels and numerous short stories and poems. His most recent novels are the space pirate adventure, Firebrandt’s Legacy, and a horror novel set an astronomical observatory, The Astronomer’s Crypt. His short stories have appeared in such magazines and anthologies as Cemetery Dance, Realms of Fantasy, Straight Outta Tombstone, After Punk, and Gaslight and Grimm. He’s one of the editors of Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales from WordFire Press. He’s been nominated for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling and Dwarf Stars Awards. When he’s not writing, David operates telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. He’s also been known to drive lonely desert roads, watching for cryptids. Find David on the web at http://www.davidleesummers.com.