“Spring came with hardly any notice except that the days were warmer and the nights not as cold. A few cacti, using the last of their moisture reserves, sprouted bright pink blooms, and a few antelope and jackrabbits bounded across the desert early in the mornings.
“The Mother and Father of the Chisos knew it was time to answer the prayers they had received daily for the last several months from their devoted children.
“One day, The Mother called The Father and announced, ‘The Great Vase is ready. Look! Isn’t it beautiful? We can now fill it from the Great River Cloud!’
“The Father, upon seeing the Great Vase completed, was overjoyed. In his enthusiasm, he grabbed up The Mother and began to swing her round and round through the wispy clouds that had formed in the early Spring sky. Swirling and spinning, she was laughing with glee as he shouted, ‘It’s magnificent! It’s wonderful!’
“But The Father didn’t realize how close they had been dancing next to the Great Vase. In an instant, they both slammed into the Great Vase with their bodies, knocking them both down. The Great Vase began to sway back and forth, slowly at first, dribbling water from its lip. Soon, it began to rock back and forth violently as the water in the massive vessel sloshed back and forth like waves on the ocean. They both rose to their feet and stood, shocked by what they were seeing yet powerless to stop the Great Vase from losing its balance.
“‘It’s going to fall over!’ The Father shouted.
“‘Oh, no!’ The Mother cried, holding her hands on her head.
“The Great Vase finally became too unstable to remain upright. It fell over. It was so big it seemed to take forever. When it did finally tip, rather than coming to rest on the thin clouds, it broke through and began a long descent towards the desert. Down and down it went, tumbling and spilling water as it fell.
“The Chisos, scratching in the dirt with their wooden hoes, were preparing their fields for a Spring planting of sotol and corn when they saw the sky begin to darken. When they looked up, they thought it was the time of the great Sun Cloud, that time when the moon would cover the sun and blot out the light. They were in terror of the Sun Cloud as they thought it was a sign of doom, and so fell to their knees to begin prayers of salvation. Some soon realized it was not the Sun Cloud, but instead it was a great object falling towards them. It sometimes appeared round, and other times appeared to have a neck and head on it like some great monster as it tumbled lazily towards them. The Chisos ran in all directions. Some fell and tried to shield themselves with their arms above their heads. Others tried to hide behind the few small rocks that lay about, or in the tiny dry creek beds.
“Before long, the Great Vase crashed upon the desert floor. It shook the Earth and sent dust and water cascading in all directions. It shattered into thousands upon thousands of pieces. Some were small and appeared as hills with rounded edges. Others were tall, buried themselves halfway in the desert, and thus created gigantic mountains with rugged ridges and towering peaks. Pieces of the Great Vase were thrown wide across the desert for miles in all directions. Some of the fragments of the Great Vase came to rest with their painted sides showing, revealing the vivid colors of the Mother’s works. Others lay flipped over, displaying the texture and tone of dark, wet clay. Still, other fragments, exposed directly to the sun, were bright tan, orange, and yellow. Near the center of where the Great Vase had hit, a grand mountain of stone had come to rest, rising as high as the clouds. Canyons and valleys had been cut from the flying clay shards, forming mesas and escarpments in the now-settled rubble.
“The water in the Great Vase had been unleashed in torrents of rolling waves and white-tipped swells that flooded the plain. Soon, however, the water began to settle and found its way in between the giant formations of clay protruding from the ground. Before long, the water ran in small rivulets, gathered, and then formed into one enormous river. This river went from one end of the desert to the other as far as the eye could see.
“The Mother and Father looked down helplessly on their children far below. They feared they had killed them all, wiped out by an immeasurable mass of hardened clay and a sea of rushing water.
“However, as the mist cleared and the water receded, they looked down not upon a desert, but rather a panorama of resplendent, majestic mountains and hills full of vibrant, earthy colors. Running throughout was an emerald green ribbon of water, flowing from one end of the desert to the other, bending only to yield to the great mountain at its center. The Mother held her breath with her hands over her mouth, for she was still fearful for the fate of her children.
“Suddenly, the Father shouted, ‘Look! Our Children!’
“Down below, they began to see small figures move about. There were just a few at first, but it soon became clear that the entire tribe had endured the fall of the Great Vase. The Father and Mother saw, too, that they were dancing gleefully about, looking skyward, with their arms waving above their heads. They were giving thanks to their Father and Mother. Not only had they given them a river of plentiful water, but the land was now adorned with hills and mountains, caves, and escarpments. Rocks were piled on top of rocks, creating monuments for which the Chisos would bestow great names: Turtle Rock, Sleeping Chief, and Mule Ears. There were now spaces and places for all manner of animals, birds, trees, and flowers to flourish. And yet there was also spacious, flat land embracing the river in which to plant their crops.
“‘Our Children are safe! The Mother cried.
“‘Yes, and I shall keep the land rich and their harvests bountiful from this day forward,’ The Father promised. “They will never want for water from the Great River that has been created. I shall keep it full and flowing. Their crops will thrive, and they will have abundant herds of animals from which to feed and clothe their children.’
“The sun began to set on the Chisos as they explored their new land of wonder and beauty in the dwindling daylight. The stone mountains, clay hills, and soil-rich plains were now shades of blue, black, red, and orange in the twilight, ultimately turning into dark purple all around them as the sun disappeared below the rugged landscape. Stars came out, and the moon illuminated the vast and magnificent landscape. Deep in the hills, coyotes could be heard howling a chorus of praise to their new surroundings. The Chisos, full of awe but feeling weary, finally turned and went into their tiny adobe huts. Before falling asleep they each offered up prayers of thanksgiving to their great Father and Mother for their salvation.”
Landon paused. Here, across the sprawling land surrounding the Starlight Theatre, the desert sun had set, and the first few stars were making their appearance in the Terlingua twilight.
“That is…that is quite the tale,” I remarked, still hypnotized by the sound of Landon’s rusty voice. I looked over at Ms. Branaugh. Her eyes, welling with tears, were transfixed on the sawtooth horizon of Big Bend in the distance. “I...I just never thought such a rugged, hard place could have such a beautiful beginning,” she admitted quietly.
Landon looked at the ground. “Well, sad to say, the Chisos are no longer here. In fact, the word “chisos” is now translated as “ghost.” The river and rich lands brought Apaches, Comanches, and explorers from Spain, all seeking to claim this territory for themselves, and they ran the peaceful Chisos Indians out.” He folded his arms across his chest. “But it’s forever their land. I take lots of satisfaction knowing it came from their great Father and Mother, and how, even now, it don’t change.”
The calling of our name from the doors of the Starlight echoed down the sidewalk and broke us free of our gaze.
“I guess we’re up,” I said, slowly helping Ms. Branaugh from the bench. “Landon, why don’t you join us for dinner?”
“That’s mighty nice of you, but I got some stew cookin’ back home. I ‘spect I best wander home and tend to it before it gets too dark, and the tarantulas start scurrying about.”
Ms. Branaugh’s eyes widened. “Tarantulas?”
His grin reappeared. “Oh, yes. This desert moves about at night, ma’am,” he said gleefully. “If it don’t jump, it crawls, and if it don’t crawl, it slithers about.”
With that, he, too, rose and stepped off the plank sidewalk. His boot sent up a tiny cloud of dust all around as it landed on the hardpacked dirt. He then began a slow walk towards the narrow highway and the soft light of the small stone house down the hill below the Starlight.
He waved without turning around as we wove our way through the crowd towards our host. He greeted us with a smile and large leather menus tucked under his tattooed arm. “Branaugh?”
“Here,” I replied.
“Please follow me,” he beckoned with an outstretched hand. We dutifully followed him towards the massive, carved wooden doors of the Starlight Theatre.
I looked over my shoulder at the darkening mountains, now bathed in soft pastel, framed by the expansive West Texas sky. I paused as I heard the faint chorus of coyotes howling, no doubt singing praises for the magnificent legacy of the Chisos and their Big Bend home.