It was time to come to terms with so-called reality. Since I hadn’t been able to shake this stubbornly vivid dream, I might as well swing with it. The guy standing there, calling himself Ohlétteh, training his famished grey eyes on me, was evidently in no danger of dematerializing. I was stuck with him.
“You know why I am here,” he said. It was a statement, not a question.
I thought: This is my fevered fantasy and I’m gonna get my entertainment dollar’s worth. “Let me guess,” I said. “I committed some cosmic offense. I paired fish with red wine last night. No, wait – I didn’t finish that last Brussel sprout on my plate.” I took a sideways glance at his malnourished eyes and decided to get off the subject of food and come straight to his point. “Uh, I took your picture.”
“Correct,” said Ohlétteh, ignoring my sarcasms. “You recognize my name and you recognize your transgression. Surely you recognize the penance. That device hanging from your neck like a talisman – it holds a portion of my spirit. Give it to me.”
Before I could prevent it, my hand was peeling the camera strap off my neck. Wait a minute – I’d bagged a nice shot. Why should I surrender my camera without a fight? “What makes you think I stole a piece of your spirit?” I asked, stalling for time.
“If you understood that,” said Ohlétteh smoothly, “you would never have taken that black box out here in the first place.” And he locked eyes with me for what seemed about a decade. “Ah, but I believe you do understand. That image of me adds to the sum of the world. It takes something that is and makes from it something that had never been, as when I shook the tules and the land rose from the water. You also are a creator – of sorts. The question is: to whom does the image belong? You or me? I say me.” And he stretched his arm toward me, palm up.
I felt like a gopher stalked by a … well, a coyote. If I couldn’t outrun his single-minded pursuit of my camera, I’d dive into the nearest gopher hole. “So you’re saying I shouldn’t be out here taking pictures, stealing the world’s spirit? Why shouldn’t I steal that spirit and share it with others?”
He seemed to stifle a chuckle, as if he saw right through my ruse but was willing to play along. Then he knelt, scooped a handful of dirt and let it run through his fingers. “The people who once walked this valley had a word: ‘wachichu’: ‘to take the fat.’ Here’s the fat of the matter,” he said. “That you stole my image merely offends me; it threatens nothing. Your black box is a greater danger to you than me.”
Before I could digest his thought, he stood and said, “It is not only what you see but what you fail to see that creates your world. You are like Wekwek the falcon – always darting around; always in a rush. Your black box makes you feel, ‘I must crest that ridge so I can steal an image before the light fails; hurry home to tell the story.’ You spend too much time marking the passage of time. You look at and seldom into what you see. It is your own spirit that is trapped in the black box.”
I looked away, to where the landscape wasn’t a wavering halo behind Ohlétteh’s head. I knew he was right – right about the camera and me. Yet his rightness didn’t make me more willing to hand over my precious black box. “You’re saying the picture is an instrument of falsehood, not truth?” I said, pressing my disadvantage. “Hey, you’re The Trickster. Which am I supposed to believe: you or the picture?”
Ohlétteh licked his thin lips. A terrible intelligence and terrible hunger crouched behind those eyes. I knew I was playing a dangerous game. I also knew from mythology that the gods aren’t omniscient. They can be deceived by other gods – even humans. But tricking The Trickster? Was that possible? And if possible, was that such a bright idea?
I took the plunge: “If I tell you a story, a story that pleases you, will you let me keep the black box?”
He raised an eyebrow. I’d struck a resonant chord. “I’ll make it a story of cosmic significance,” I said. In keeping with my previous remarks, I had no idea what I was talking about. But I had a plan – something about removing the memory stick from my camera while The Trickster was distracted. He could keep the camera.
Ohlétteh stretched out his arms and raised his head. “When Silver Fox and I danced the world into being,” he said, and lowered his eyes at mine, "that was of cosmic significance. I’ve heard many stories, and told many more. My standards are high.” He smiled, and I caught the glint of saliva on one of his fangs. “Tell me your story. And make it – how do you say? – a humdinger.”
Concluded next week.