“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams…no, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live as we dream—alone…” — Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

“Many Navajos believe firmly in the existence of skinwalkers and refuse to discuss them publicly for fear of retribution. They believe skinwalkers walk freely among the tribe and secretly transform under the cover of night. The term yee naaldooshii literally translates to “with it, he goes on all fours.” According to Navajo legend, a skinwalker is a medicine man or witch who has attained the highest level of priesthood in the tribe, but chose to use his or her power for evil by taking the form of an animal to inflict pain and suffering on others.” — Anonymous, Navajo Legends

Navajo Territory, 1863

The inexperienced but ambitious young lieutenant had pursued the rebel Navajo tribe relentlessly…underestimating them, he found himself unexpectedly fighting a running battle. The “hostiles” picked off his riders and thwarted and parried his every move at their capture. Maddeningly emboldened, they even mounted damaging counterattacks before melting away unscathed.

Hungry for promotions to flaunt in front of his skeptical rivals back at the fort, he relentlessly pressed  on. Slowed by the infirm and elderly and young, the braves resolved to make a final desperate stand with no expectation of quarter. They would die as they lived: free.

The Tribe encamped amid towering red rock formations rising austerely from the vast stretches of desert.

Those who could not fight were ushered into a cavern. Mysterious petroglyphs adorned the walls. As the torchlight illuminated the anxious faces, the shrill of the bugle grew ever nearer.

The shaman’s eyes were anxious as well….yet for what he deciphered in the petroglyphs…cryptic figures combining traits of men and beasts…he closed his eyes transcendently, trembling with haunting  red visions before turning away from the huddling figures and into the night, like a sleepwalker.

The primal throb of drums quickened in tempo, in synchrony with the blood-chants of their rallying hearts. Firelight thrown wildly on the red rock formations, rebel’s bastions like crenulated towers. They were besieged…the cavalry was nigh upon them. The ordeal of harrowing flight had taken its toll.

A sentry cocked his arm to cast a tomahawk as a shuffling figure approached awkwardly. The nameless one, the boy who had been orphaned and permanently disfigured and mutilated by cavalry sabers during a massacre by bluecoats, butchered so that he could not bear a lance in battle with the braves. His tribe had been taken from the world…all but him. The last to draw breath, if not a warrior’s bow. They did not hinder him. They offered no greeting nor met his eyes. He was an outcast…yet the aged Shaman had taken him under his wing and he was his apprentice.

The boy watched with sad craving as lovers embraced. He sought the aloof figure of the wizened shaman watching from aloft a crimson tor as warriors cavorted, silhouetted by the riotous flames, swaying in crimson danse macabre. From afar, the Shaman could see the crimson pinpoints of the cavalry’s camp. His aquiline profile was outlined against the sunset and hid soulful eyes looking on in haunted vigil. He approached awkwardly yet determined.

“You promised,” he urged the Shaman.

The Shaman looked away.

“The ritual…” he persisted.

“The gift….”

“Gift?” the Shaman echoed.

“It’s a curse you ask…son.” The lingering word uttered with a depth of sadness and regret….

“If I cannot run with the warriors, I will run with the wolf pack…”

“The wolves will likewise shun you,” the Shaman replied tonelessly.

“I care not…I care for nothing,”

“Then maybe you are ready after all. Come then,” the Shaman intoned, his voice

becoming haunted and distant.

The Shaman beckoned the acolyte, leading him away from the fires and refuge of the red haven to a cavern, a sinister of portal of stone, like a wound seeping crimson light. In its depths, drums beat incessantly, ominously.

“What is this place?” the boy asked in awe.

“It was a necropolis, where warriors of old were buried…then it became a place of sacrifice and dark rites of exiled shamans who delved too deep in profane rituals.”

Their footfalls crunched on bones littering that shadow-haunted abattoir.

The tempo of the drums quickened, thundering in the confines of the cave.

He looked for the beaters of the drums, yet there were none…

The Shaman gestured him to lay down painfully on an elevated funerary bier of thorny wood.

The ritual chanting of the Shaman seemed to conjure dark spectres, seemingly granted form and face, reveling to the drumbeat in spectral revel, swirling cauldrenously and kaleidoscopically around him.

The youth had the impression of the ghostly faces of elders and braves before reverting to amorphous smoke. Vaporous limbs dissolved again like an artist’s mad vision lost after awakening. He saw the pelt lowered on him like a beast leaning down to feed on its quarry….smothering him…he thrashed under it like a nightmare-tortured dreamer beneath a blanket. He had donned the white pelt and like a parasitic creature, it seemed to latch on him, like a wolf feasting on him and then regurgitating him in disgust….twisting his limbs, reshaping him like a mad sculptor. He shuddered spasmodically in tortured metamorphosis’ writhing throes. His face contorted and the scream of tortured agony became a howl, erupting like a quavering ghostly battle cry.

The torchlight cast his misshapen shadow on the red slopes as he rose nightmarishly…taloned hands raised as if in defiance of the gods. He bared his fangs in a wild, wordless battle cry that seemed the cry of the land itself….his eyes smoldering emberously as he basked in the apparitional spotlight of the moon amid a rush of night winds. He felt the heady intoxication lent by the speed of powerful new limbs. He was ravenous from the ordeal of transformation and like an animated gargoyle scaling the red cliff face, he bounded with feline agility and landed in the midst of the dancing warriors triumphantly.

“Tell me! Am I not a greatness to behold, brothers?” he roared triumphantly in rapture.

He felt more than a man. Like a dark demigod demanding worship from awed mortals.

He felt invincible then for the first time in his years…

He eyed the warrior women with open desire…

He looked loftily at the braves who once towered over him as frail. He laughed madly, as his eyes gleamed crimson in the torchlight.

War-painted faces looked uncertainly at him betraying fear and brandished weapons intended to hold him at bay. He broke through their ring easily, seeking the wilds beyond the fire and evading their spears.

His limbs were supple and explosively strong. A wild lycanthropic rapture seized him. Frail boy no longer, he emerged a wild force of nature.

He was intoxicated with the roar of the night wind, sweeping his soul like an elemental battle cry. It was a weapon and he intended to use it. He stopped suddenly in mid-stride, scenting the air…sensing approaching horses and men….

To his nocturnal hunter’s eyes, the cavalrymen marching on their fires were apparitional pale figures. He moved then to confront them. Their lead horse reared, throwing its rider.

He didn’t have time to scream as bared fangs fell on him before moving to the next prey.

“Have the scouts returned?” their commander questioned.

“No, sir.”

“What about the skirmishers?”

“No, sir…”

A flicker of uncertainty haunted his eyes before he turned away…

“Orders, sir?”

“Not yet…”

The desert night in the remote stretch of desert was eerily silent…no cries of coyotes nor drone of insects…

Do they sense something?

The horses look nervous…

Was the tribe moving under cover of darkness?

The sentries were doubled…

He sat with his rifle on his lap by the fire…

The twilight seemed a crimson slash across the horizon, lighting the cascading dunes and rock formations in crimson resplendence.

The faces were grim at war council…

He turned to the brooding Native scout…

“That word you used among the trackers…what was it?”

“Skinwalker?” he replied cryptically and in a hushed tone.

His calm façade was noticeably shaken…

“The desert heat gets to the mind after a while…the heat…”

“You’re evading the answer…”

“The skinwalker…it’s a foolish legend only…perhaps it will alarm the men…morale and all.”

“A story to tell around the fire then…let’s hear it!” he persisted.

He sighed heavily…casting a nervous glance to the deepening darkness as he described what was hunting them.

The tense hush of the crimson dawn was torn by the shrill bugle call. Men saddled for the final attack on the rebel stronghold. They advanced inexorably with their colours flying brazenly and the staccato of regimental drums.


Their commander drew reign before a threshold of a labyrinthine canyon…the horse stomped and shied. He dismounted aghast at the grisly display before him.

He had found the scouting party and skirmishers. They had been massacred.

The wounds on them were terrible. The scavengers been at them?

No. These wounds weren’t inflicted by weapons. They were mauled…

He held a cloth over his nose and mouth as he leaned down to inspect the bodies…then with sickening comprehension, he saw they were left alive…groaning…and trembling with agony…

He looked into the terrified eyes and ashen face of a private. His disemboweled horse had fallen on him, breaking his legs.

“What happened here?”

“The…the beast!” the mortally wounded youth replied.

“Had the hostiles been forced to cannibalism?”

“No…they’ve provisions…venison stored and an oasis in their stronghold,” the Native scout replied.

“Then why this?”

“It’s not the Tribe who has done this….They fear it too…”

Pivoting, the commander drew his pistol on the scout.

“What’s happening here?! Speak!!” he demanded.

“The skinwalker…”

Something in his voice and eyes.

The officer turned slowly…and saw it then…the Skinwalker…

It was crouched over the mortally wounded horse and rider….it raised its head from feeding, over its kill and met the man’s eyes…

That’s no wolf…

He saw the grotesque caricature of a gargoyle-like figure, its eyes smoldering red…burning with insatiable hunger. The face of a man, cowled by a pale wolf’s head pelt…blood striped his face like red tears or war paint. He lowered his face again to feed as the man writhed and screamed…

He drew another pistol and the beast snarled, yet didn’t recoil from the weapon, as if contemptuous of it…he rose on his haunches to confront him…limbs tensing to lunge and seemingly dematerialized like a nightmarish mirage…

“Show yourself!”

The commander strode forward, firing at dancing shadows on the fissured canyon walls…

Bullets ricocheted as the shots echoed and re-echoed off the red walls…he turned then…disembodied chanting seemed to haunt the canyon, that bore carvings of ancient civilizations that hewed dwellings from the cliff faces…

He called for the scout and for his men…no answer…he had strayed deeper into the canyon than intended…disoriented and conscious of his isolation…he had been lured here…the sickening realization…and the primal fear of being hunted…

He fumbled to reload his pistol and almost shrieked as a pebble hit his forehead. He looked up and there, perched on an outcropping, was the beast…sphynx like, smug in its riddle…he dropped his gun as its shadow fell over him. It was laughing at him…playing with him…

He drew his sabre and screamed out.

“Let’s finish this, then!”

Maddeningly the creature drew back into a crevice…silence again, followed by laughter…if it was that…a choking, maniacal chuckle…like a dark jester…then suddenly, it took him and crawled up the sheer rock face.

The officer’s arm clenched was in his jaws as the man thrashed and flailed…bearing him up effortlessly…

He shot the beast’s torso with a second pistol, but it absorbed the shots, ‘til they reached the dizzying height of a high plateau.

He rose and gripped the cavalryman by the throat over a chasm…he realised this was a sacrificial ritual.

Like a hound delivering his quarry to a huntsman, the beast dropped the wounded man in front of the gaunt figure of the elderly shaman, resting on his staff, beckoning with an obsidian dagger. The Shaman ignored the screams as he made a series of cuts on his exposed chest while chanting.

The skinwalker paced like an impatient scavenger awaiting a lion to finish its kill.

“Finish him, master! Finish him! Finish him with the dagger! Let me feed!”

“You misunderstand me, son…” the Shaman replied.

“The dagger is really for you….forgive me son…forgive me for everything...”

The sacred blade fell and fell again. The beast roared in agony and leapt on the Shaman…their limbs entertwined….as they swayed over the crushing brink and fell.

The skinwalker felt the rush of night wind…the impact…

He sat upright…chest heaving…soaked in sweat….

He raised his hands to his face….they were restored and whole again….


“Where am I?”

“Who am I?”

He rose.

The strange young warrior with handsome aquiline features and brawny limbs rode into the Encampment. The Tribe was roused for a final battle that never came.

He didn’t shy at the challenging lances and leveled rifles as if he feared the touch of no weapon…he led a fine captured stallion. Draped over its back, like a huntsman’s prize stag, was the corpse of their blue-coated tormentor. The spurs of slain men jangled like spangles with every hoof fall.

People emerged from the cave, blinking into the light to behold his striking presence.

They raised their leveled spears and looked at him with something approaching reverence. He looked up suddenly at the shadow of a circling desert falcon and he saw the figure of the Shaman silhouetted against the vermillion dawn before it faded like a mirage.