I loved Virgil Coates ever since the tenth grade, when he first moved to Horse Canyon from some town in Ohio. His green eyes were shaded by dark brows, and his sandy blonde hair stuck out every which way, like he had crawled through bushes to get here. But he was hot and brooding as a young Christian Bale. I knew I didn't have a chance in hell. I saw the way he looked at girls, not boys. By tenth grade I was already used to unrequited love.
Mrs. Birch made Virgil stand up front and introduce himself to homeroom. He told us how they moved to four corners for his father 's job at the Mogollon power plant. His father was Irish-German, but he had Dineh blood coursing through his veins, too, from his grandfather on his mothers side. It was this grandfather, Virgil revealed, who had passed on to him the shamanic powers of precognition and spiritual projection.
This revelation elicited waves of laughter, coming as it did from a blonde boy in a classroom of mixed Zuni, Hopi and Navajo students. Mrs. Birch hushed everyone up, but even she had an amused smile on her face.
Virgil often sat by himself during breaks, reading from books of philosophy, or books of native lore. When he did join us, he regaled us with dark tales of skinwalkers, who could posses animals by locking eyes, or of witches skulking the canyon bottoms near Bluff with two hearts and a lust for blood. Virgil liked to paint the world as a dangerous place full of magic. I was mesmerized by his tales. I didn't much care if they were true. Still, I had to wonder if Virgil really believed what he said, or if he was putting us all on.
Before long, Virgil's stories edged from improbable to insane, like he was just testing the water with skinwalkers. He once told us, during chemistry lab, that he had missed the day before, not due to sickness, as his forged letter would have admin believe, but because he had shape-shifted into a gigantic crow, and spent the sunlight hours flying atop mesa and riding thermal columns, finally coasting in the wake of a government helicopter that was mapping out our uranium mines. Virgil called the shift a major achievement.
“Yeah fucking right,” Jack Chee said, measuring sodium bicarbonate into a glass tube, where it quickly bubbled over the top. Virgil replied calmly that he had no reason to lie, because he didn't give a damn what Jack Chee or Lindsay Pete or anyone else thought of him. And did anyone calling him a liar want to go outside and settle this? Nobody did. Maybe because Virgil had arms like ironwood trunks. That, coupled with a slight aura of institutional madness.
“Crazy white boy,” Jack Chee whispered. But in his voice there was a hint of demure respect for such a bold self image.
It was the day of assembly that Virgil came into homeroom with skinned knuckles, swollen fists, and two black eyes. The cops collared him during open gym, took him away in handcuffs and basketball shorts. We learned that Virgil had sent his father to the emergency room that morning. Put him into intensive care. None of the kids were too surprised to see Virgil taken away in cuffs, although they didn't know, as I did, what home was like for him.
I won't ever forget our night at the Turquoise Inn. Me and Virgil stuffing our faces with 99 cent tacos and listening to Johnny Cash wail on the jukebox, not paying attention to our phones' dinging notifications. When Virgil finally looked, they were all messages from his dad, saying Virgil should kill himself. That if Virgil was dead it would be better for everyone. He listed different ways he might do so-by drinking lye, by soaking himself in gasoline and lighting a match, by hanging himself from a high tree branch-or why not all three, to be thorough?
When he passed me his phone to read, my heart thrashed in my chest like a fish dying on sand. The only upside was, it was the one time my boyhood love let me really hold him. I hugged Virgil desperately, like I was shielding him from bullets.
Days after sending his dad to the ER, his pops returned the favor and sent Virgil to the Starr Institute--a boarding school in Phoenix for troubled teens, a phrase which, I had to admit, fit Virgil pretty well, even if the prick had gotten exactly what he deserved. I didn't see Virgil again until the following summer, on the day he took me out with him to the shale cliffs.
We hiked for miles in unfamiliar country. Virgil sometimes checked a map he had folded to the right spot. My feet, housed in inappropriate footwear, bled and blistered through my cotton socks. We followed the rocky, parched washes that were waiting for summer monsoon. We passed stock tanks and a stranded sedan that bled black oil from a busted pan out there along a badly chosen line.
Virgil finally said, “I am being so quiet because I am preparing myself for the task ahead. I've become a very powerful brujo since you last saw me. I brought you with me today because I want to show you something special.”
My whole body buzzed with excitement. That day I believed him—believed there was some kind of great magic in store for us. That Virgil would show me something truly unforgettable. Maybe it was a faith you can only have when you are a romantic sixteen, blinded by love.
We came to the edge of a mesa that dived off several hundred feet into a wide ravine. It was here that we broke and ate our turkey sandwiches under the shade of a large mesquite tree, chasing them down with blue Powerade. I asked Virgil if this was the spot. He nodded, said his grandfather had cured the rug-weaver's throat cancer on this exact mesa. Danced a power dance right there under the nuclear desert sun.
My legs and feet were aching and I was slothful from turkey sandwich, so I began to doze off, but Virgil started speaking again.
“Energy,” Virgil said, “is all there really is. That's the secret to shapeshifting. There is no matter. When you look close enough at a tree or a chair, it's just patterns of dancing energy. It's waves of probability. When you look even closer, there is nothing there at all. A shaman uses this. A shapeshifter is just someone who decides what form his energy will take.
“Crows and wolves are the easiest,” Virgil went on. “Don't ask me why. I'd rather be a crow than a wolf. I'm meant to fly, must be.” He spoke dreamily.
“The hardest thing about turning into a crow is coming back,” Virgil said. “Everything is so different when you are a bird in the sky: the color, the wind, gravity. Everything is better. To come back to human is like waking up from a beautiful dream, only now you're choking on dirt. Nothing is worse.”
Virgil looked at me, his eyes bright and serious. “Thing is, I've figured out how to do it. How to stay a bird forever. Its all I really care about.”
Virgil sprung from our spot in the dirt and he sprinted to the cliffs edge, arcing his body in the parabola of an olympic diver. I didn't see the fall, but I heard the thud against the rocks below, which caused a family of corvids to explode like an inky starburst from the bottom. And for a moment, just a moment, before it all sank in, I thought ,'Virgil has done it! He's done it!' and watched him fly away, a black bird squawking freedom in the huge desert sky.