Raven's Missing Wing

by Robert McKay

Copyright© 2010 by Robert McKay

Mystery Story: Darvin Carpenter investigates a ceremonial raven's wing fan that shows up in a Santa Fe art gallery - almost certainly stolen from the Lahtkwa Nation.

Tags: Puzzles   Western  

This story takes place sometime between May of 2008 and March of 2009

We were walking in Santa Fe, Cecelia, Darlia, and I, looking in the windows of galleries, admiring some of the art on display – and wondering why anyone would want to waste money on some of it. There may be artistic merit in splotches of red, blue, and yellow on a white canvas, but I can't see it. I don't demand photographic realism in painting – my favorites are the Impressionists, after all – but a painting that looks like a drunken monkey was playing in cans of house paint doesn't attract me.

I was looking out into the street for a moment, my old law enforcement habit of always paying attention to everything around me, when I heard Darlia cry out. "That's Lahtkwa!" My father was a full blood Lahtkwa Indian, and Darlia's been spending more and more time on the reservation in Washington, learning the language and the culture. I grew up as though I were all white, but she's going to wind up a traditional if she keeps going.

I turned to look. I couldn't have sworn to it, but what Darlia was pointing to did seem to me like Lahtkwa work. It was a fan made of a bird's wing – a raven's wing, in fact, and Raven is the most powerful spirit in the Lahtkwa religion. Such a fan would belong only to a revered holy man – my brother Memphis, who's lived most of his life on the reservation and is something of a holy man himself, says the closest one word English translation is priest – who had demonstrated great power.

I moved closer to the window. For just a moment I could see our reflections. I looked as I always do – faded jeans, scuffed boots, a cowboy shirt, and my brown bullrider hat. Cecelia's reflection was just an inch shorter than mine, but narrow and angular, with her kinky hair pulled back into a short ponytail at the base of her skull and her skin the color of broken milk chocolate. Darlia, who's tall for her age but so chunky she doesn't look it, showed in the window as a golden brown young Valkyrie, with her hair in two braids that fell over her shoulders to just below her waist.

Then I was too close to the window to see reflections. I examined the handle of the fan. The wrapping that bound the wing to the handle looked like old hide – buckskin, probably, since Raven is a male spirit and doeskin only figures in objects sacred to female spirits ... and just knowing that was stretching my knowledge of Lahtkwa beliefs. The handle was wood – and could have been pine or oak or pretty much anything but ebony or cedar to my ignorant eyes. I once read a book where the narrator knew at first sight that someone else's blouse was slubbed silk. I had to look up slubbed, one of the few esoteric words I don't know, and when I saw some pictures of the material online I wondered how anyone could tell what it was at a glance across a room. I guess the author was imputing his own knowledge to the narrator. Anyway, I know wood is wood, but I can't tell 50 different kinds apart at first glance.

"It looks Lahtkwa," I said. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," Darlia said in her raspy voice that reminds me of Ana Gabriel, or Melissa Ethridge, or any of several other singers with husky voices. "Uncle Memphis took me to visit Randolph Picket Horse last summer, and he had one – not as old as this one, I don't think."

That was the best identification any of us could provide – Cecelia knows even less about Lahtkwa ceremonial objects than I do. She's led a choir, and she knows the Bible forward and backwards, but she's got even less knowledge about my father's people than I do, and I grew up with relatives of my mother in the Mojave Desert a long way from the rez.

"Let's go in," I said. "That's a steep price on the tag, but we can afford it, so we can be believable if we say we're thinking about buying it."

I led the way inside. We didn't look like the typical customers of a Santa Fe art gallery. Santa Fe is a weird city – it's a status symbol to live on a dirt road, and it's so self-consciously trendy it makes Hollywood almost look normal. I dress all the time like the cowboy I once actually was, Cecelia is elegant but makes her clothes according to her own ideas of what looks good, and Darlia goes back and forth between tomboy and imperial princess. Just now Darlia was in her own jeans, a pair of Navajo style moccasins a friend at school had given her for her last birthday, and a t-shirt she'd gotten on our last trip to Enterprise, Alabama – with a print of the famous boll weevil monument on it.

But the owner, or manager, or clerk, or whoever it was coming toward us – how do you tell, when it's a stick-skinny blonde in a sleeveless black dress? – couldn't assume that we didn't have the money to buy. Her tone sounded like Generic Willingness to Help as she asked, "Is there something I can do for you?"

"Yeah," I said, "that raven's wing fan in the display window – is that genuine Lahtkwa work?"

"Do you know Lahtkwa artifacts?" she asked as she led the way toward the window in question.

"A bit. I'm more familiar with some of the work of better known tribes – the Lahtkwa aren't big or famous, you know – but I like ravens, so I've paid a little bit of attention to the mythology about them."

The woman unlocked the wooden back of the window and lifted the fan out by its handle. "Yes, this is genuine Lahtkwa work. It appears to date from the early 20th century – we estimate, based on the style of the wrapping and the handle painting, around 1907. As you may know, such fans are used in ceremonies to waft sacred pine resin smoke toward the person who is to benefit from the ceremony."

"Yes, that's what I've understood." I didn't mention that most of my understanding had come from my daughter – while she doesn't look white, as I do, she does look even less like an Indian than I do. At least my permanent tan has the dark brown of an Indian, while her golden tint looks like something else ... what else, I'm not sure.

"A shaman, having previously collected the resin with the appropriate prayers, throws bits of it onto the fire at the correct point in the ceremony, and then, using the fan, brushes the scented smoke over the person who had requested the ceremony. Raven – a Lahtkwa spirit – can heal, or he can reveal the future, or he can provide guidance, something like a Plains Indian's spirit guide, though the Lahtkwa don't have that exact concept in their religion." As far as I could tell, she had it right, though it sounded more like a memorized spiel than actual knowledge. And though I'm far from an expert, I've never heard any Lahtkwa speak of a shaman.

"That's very interesting," I said. "The price is within reach ... I presume you can demonstrate provenance?"

She hesitated just a fraction of an instant too long. Most people would never have noticed it, but I've been interviewing people – most of them criminals – since 1986, and I know the signs. Whatever she was going to say wouldn't be entirely truthful. "We can provide documentation, yes."

That wasn't what I'd asked her. Again, most people wouldn't catch the difference, but though I usually talk like I flunked kindergarten 12 years running, I know words and their meanings, and the ways people use them to evade saying what's really in their minds.

I glanced at Cecelia. She's never paid much attention to my PI business, and though she's now working as my secretary, and has helped me out on a couple of cases, she's no trained investigator. I couldn't tell, though, what she was thinking – her serene face can be just as unrevealing as a professional poker player's. Darlia's face was carefully expressionless – she's had no training at all in keeping her thoughts and feelings off her face, and so her expression gets stiff when she's trying to do so.

I glanced back at the woman. "I'll tell you what," I said. "I'm definitely interested. I've got some Lakota stuff, and of course Navajo is common around here. But I don't have anything from the Pacific Northwest. Would it be possible to put a hold on that – for 24 hours, say?"

"We could do that, yes. If I could just make a copy of your drivers license..."

That was better than giving her a card – if she saw I was a PI, she might get suspicious. After all, I'm the only PI I've ever come across who could afford to pay for a sacred raven's wing fan that I was morally certain was stolen property. Most PIs are just like the rest of us – they make enough to live on, and not a lot more.

I slipped my license out of my wallet and handed it to her. She took the license, put the fan back on its stand and locked the back of the display window, and took the license into a back room. In a minute or two she was back. "Thanks," I told her. "And if I could have a card? As you see, I live in Albuquerque, and I'll call you when I make my decision, and then if I decide to buy the fan I'll come up and pay for it at my convenience."

She led us over to the counter, where smaller works sat under glass. I know a lot less about Indian art than I'd let the woman believe, and so I couldn't tell what was Hopi, what was Navajo, or what was Pueblo – never mind which pueblo – without the tags. She handed me a card, I thanked her again, and we walked out the door.


I waited till we were a couple of blocks away, and around a corner, before I reached into my pocket for my cell phone. I don't think I'm paranoid, and I know I'm not devious, but I didn't want to arouse any suspicions either. I scrolled through the menu, found the number I wanted, and hit Send. The phone rang twice, and then a heavily accented female voice came on. "Hello?"

"Miss Kim, it's Darvin. Is Memphis there?" Cecelia made a face that I didn't think she was aware of. For some reason she doesn't like Miss Kim at all, and the feeling's mutual.

"Yes ... you wait."

I waited. "Yes, Darvin," came my brother's voice next. It too had an accent – the breathy accent of an Indian whose first language isn't English. To me all Indian accents sound the same, but I've heard Memphis distinguish between various tribes just by hearing their accents when speaking English. I used to be able to do it with Spanish-speakers – Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Chicanos – so I know it's possible, even if I can't do it.

"Yeah, Memphis, I think I found a stolen raven's wing fan in Santa Fe."

I heard him breathing for a few seconds. "Someone broke into Luke Split Hoof's house two months ago and took his. It's a hundred years old or nearly that. He's been worried about it ever since."

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