The Sunday Rumpus Essay: My Souls Are Out A-Wandering


I first heard about the Raramuri from the backseat of my mother’s 1972 blue Travelall before it broke down one too many times in the dead of winter and was relegated to the graveyard of dead vehicles behind my father’s house. Driving to town to get groceries my mother told me about a people who could run all night and into the next day and even the following night. I imagined a trail in the woods, a group of men running single file, their eyes focused on the path in front of them, the part of themselves that moves turned on, the part that feels on hold. I imagine my mother’s eyes, navigating the Travelall towards the grocery store, and my own, watching her in the rear view mirror, gone vacant as we tried to fathom such a remarkable skill, the skill of escape when there is really no way out and nowhere to go. But this is all just my imagination. I don’t know if my mother was trying to teach me a lesson in negotiating my father’s rage or if she was merely trying to quiet her child, showing me the way into my own world so she could slip back into hers.

The Raramuri live in the highest peaks of the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico. They believe that women have four souls and men have three. Women need an extra soul because their souls are more likely to wander. When one soul wanders, the rest stay behind to take care of her body. As soon as one soul returns, another leaves. Before I knew about the Raramuri belief of many souls per person, I didn’t think of my inner and outer life as a multiplying of souls but rather a division of selves, or a soul halved. I often feel like there is the body you can see and then my insides which I can feel and these are very different places. My body-self is watching you and my shadow-self is watching me. Sometimes my body-self and my shadow-self look at each other and in these moments I experience a fragile balance.

Recently, I spent a lot of time flying between Chicago, where I used to live, and Portland, where Adam, my fiancé, lives. An airplane is a vessel like the heart is an organ both magical and real. On the airplane I am more balanced than when I am living in either place. When I am flying, I don’t see you, I do not live in Portland or Chicago; I live in the sky, I live nowhere at all.

If the cosmos is made up of seven layers, three below and three above and then the layer we are standing on right now, the earth itself, and there is a hole in the sky that connects the upper three layers where a soul might wander, and if it is not a division but a multiplicity as the Raramuri believe, then on an airplane I am closer to my soul or souls that have wandered away. Unlike the Raramuri I don’t believe that only one of my souls wanders away at a time, I am afraid two, three, maybe all four of my souls have gone a-wandering. Out the airplane window earth appears beautiful and ordered, a city looks like an animated dollhouse.

The souls of men wander less, which is why they need fewer souls and are stronger runners. Raramuri men, unable to grow new life, less prone to wander away, are able to run hundreds of miles at a time, through the night and into the next day. Driving into town in the Travelall, hoping it wouldn’t break down, my mother told me the Raramuri were always astonishing their enemies. At night they could be resting two hundred miles away and by morning pounding into enemy camp, weapons raised. How, I might have asked, my small body encased inside my thick snowsuit. It might have taken my mother a full mile to answer, her eyes tracking the black spruce covered in snow, the ravens dipping towards the road looking for frozen entrails, the tracks of the moose just off the road in their desperate search for food, and the long two-lane Alaskan highway that led from one little town to the next, silence in the air as the mileposts ticked from 102 to 103. I don’t know, she might have said, they just did.

Put your mind somewhere else and run. Travel a great distance. The back of the mouth is comfortable and warm for a time. Rely on instinct. On a long walk through a cold winter afternoon think of something else, anything but your brittle limbs, the miles left to travel, or stopping. A knot in the delicate chain of a necklace, a spider’s web, the edge of light around the moon. Allow a soul or two to slip away, sit on a couch covered in blankets, a cat curled in your lap, live inside your tongue, it freezes last, or replay an argument but this time let yourself win. Move your lips, begin a conversation, but don’t stop moving forward, one step, and then another and another and another. Like my mother I want to be able to do what a man can do, I want to be able to run that far, so I keep running, my mother keeps tracking the enemy, but my body is tired, I am almost ready to let these old wounds go, my souls are slipping away.

In addition to the three or four large souls hovering near the head and upper torso, many smaller souls settle in the joints and extremities. When a small soul is frightened, knocked out, or dreamt away, you fall ill. Your wings might feel plucked, a fever might arrive, you might feel nauseous, or panicked. You might feel hollow, your heart might leave your body and escape to the layers beneath the earth. A large soul escapes in dreams, drunkenness or death and travels as far as the stars. Each star is powered by the lights of dead souls. A small soul can be retrieved through the help of a shaman, a few days sleep, or the right dose of medicine. Large souls are more difficult to get back, a shaman again is needed, but also something else. Supporting the seven layers of the world are four pillars, held strong by the souls of shaman, the gentle kind, which keep the world from tilting.

I feel as if I lost a few small souls in my feet and hands in childhood from frostbite. A few more jumped out of my knee and elbow joints when my father did something startling, loud, or violent, screaming at my mother’s bowed head. One large soul that should be in my heart feels missing, dislocated or trapped by my ribcage, wings fluttering against the bones, trying to get in or out, I can’t tell. Another large soul lives in the upper cosmos, watching my mother on her island in Alaska alone save for the bears, walking among driftwood so big and half covered in sand that the beach looks littered with the bleached, hollowed out rib bones of massive humpback whales; or it is with Adam in Portland, alone save for the drink in his hand that he is or is not bringing to his lips; or it is watching myself wherever I am, Chicago alone, Portland alone, Alaska alone. A third soul is stuck in a layer below the earth, with other non-Raramuri like me, spiderwebs covering our faces, discussing the intricacies of betrayal: alcoholism, infidelity, an anger that never lets up, creating and recreating versions of reality that could or could not come true. We are not evil, we are just buried. If I cannot rein in at least one soul, I won’t be able to protect myself. Spiderwebs look like dreams floating, gossamer and jam. From the underworld darkness spills.

How could a shaman do what I cannot? Adam is an alcoholic and the drunk that I encounter looks soulless: wide-eyed, angry, and terrified. The Raramuri would call in a shaman to help retrieve his lost souls. I wonder if the shaman would sit with Adam until it seemed that he was done drinking. Below ground, the dirt walls begin to shake. A small piece of one of the pillars falls through the air. Duck and run or stay and catch the pieces? Would a shaman be able to heal Adam? Or must he heal himself? What does the soul escaped see? Where do Adam’s souls go? What layer of the cosmos do they fly to? What happens there? What should I do about my own souls, all of which seem to be bent on escaping whenever someone becomes angry or I become cold or uncomfortable? If Adam keeps drinking will he become unreachable, as my father is? Inside anger I see nothing but black. We must not say aloud the names of the dead for fear of calling back their ghosts. Yet here I am, reciting incantation after incantation, silver webs floating around the shaking room. If love is a feeling, good or bad, that one can never get away from, then I have loved my father above all others.

To escape Spanish conquistadors who arrived in the sixteen hundreds, the Raramuri retreated deep into the desert canyons of the Sierra Madre Mountains of northern Mexico, settling into remote villages. It is said that the Raramuri settle far and wide because they do not think one should be able to see a neighbor’s house from one’s own house. Upon approaching a Raramuri dwelling it is said that one should wait outside until the inhabitants notice their visitor and come out in greeting. If, after a few hours no one emerges, it is not a good day for visiting and is time to run on. There is no knocking on doors or unnecessary chatter, it seems, among the Raramuri.

My mother would like this about the Raramuri. She doesn’t like to see her neighbors either. When my mother walks on her island I imagine one of her souls leaving to go a-wandering, another propels her body forward, another is with my youngest brother, watching for bears that could hurt him, waves that could swallow him. Where is her fourth soul? Is it making dinner? Or is it with my stepfather? Or is it in limbo, deciding where to go, what to do next? Is she somewhere past, living within the moments in my father’s house? Does she ever have a flash of concrete floor, graying underwear, a television plug that just keeps getting shorter? I remember a vibration in the air that smelled of thunderstorms and smashed plates. The Spanish proved so powerful they gave the Raramuri a new name. They became the Tarahumara. What is marriage but another form of colonization? A renaming? A power taken, a power taken away?

And yet there is still a part of me that wants to marry Adam. When his souls return little silver threads reach out to me, they tell me we are safe, that they are sorry, that they will wait until I come up for air. In the face of hardship, a voicemail from my father, the sick insidious sound of relapse creeping into Adam’s voice, I have the impulse to become invisible for a while, my body-self still there, head bowed, protecting my neck, my inside-self somewhere very far away. My mother taught me this form of escape, but it seems it has been around for a long time, it is what one would need I think, if they were running two hundred miles at the end of which was a long battle and possibly death. I want Adam to know that even though I am invisible I am still nearby, around the block, or in a past life, fighting with something inside me that I can’t quite understand, deciding whether to let the walls down, or build them back up, bring back the souls, or let them all go. I am deciding how best to save myself.

On my last trip to Portland, after I cleaned the Chicago apartment and dropped the cat off at the cat sitter and packed my bag and flew over the flat of the Midwest and then the mountains and finally Mt. Hood, just outside Portland, in the dark, so I couldn’t see the snow, just feel its presence by the light of the airplane wing, Adam took me back to the house he has given half of to me. A little house with glowing wood floors and a small attic and a huge yard. Once we arrived outside our house he asked me to wait in the car for just a few more minutes because he had a surprise for me. I don’t remember what I thought was coming as I sat in the car, in the dark, for just a few more minutes of that day. I might have imagined what my cat was doing in that instant. I might have wondered what he might need ten more minutes to do. I might have been impatient. I might have wondered what would happen if I took the keys and drove away. What if he came out to an empty street? No me, my surprise waiting for me, the surprise remaining a surprise forever. Or maybe I was playing a joke, making his surprise wait while I cooked up my own surprise, by driving around the block, becoming invisible for a few moments before becoming visible again. As I pulled up I might say, Sorry, bad joke! too lightly and he would catch a glimpse of my shadow-soul, the one that it seems no one ever sees, the one that constantly feels as if it is pulling the rest of my souls out of my body and my relationships and into a dream world, the upper cosmos, where we are safe just watching.

I don’t know which soul it was that was pulling me away from Adam at that moment, the shadow-soul or the soul left behind that was trying to take care of my body. But was it an attempt at self-sabotage or self-preservation? Three months from the moment in which I sat in the car, frozen in time, debating whether or not I should flee, Adam would tell me he had been drinking in secret for months. He would tell me this as he drove drunk through the city of Portland, as I lay in bed in snowy Chicago, phone pressed to my ear, unable to cry, unable to say anything, twirling the engagement ring he gave me one sunny day six months earlier, a time in which he had already begun drinking again though I didn’t know it yet, round and round my left finger, debating whether or not I should leave him, quickly redrawing the map of my life that, until recently, had revolved around him, designing something new, all the while remembering the last relapse, fifty-one weeks earlier, and the time I spent driving to and from rehab to visit him, and what it had taken to break down the barriers I had put up to protect myself in order to convince myself that I could trust him again. I thought too about the ways in which I loved him, the ways in which I saw myself falling apart if I did leave him, or if he wrapped his car around a pedestrian, stop sign, or tree trunk. If it is Adam leaning against the pillars I am afraid we might fall.

Back in Portland, ten minutes after he asked me to wait in the car for a few more minutes, and three months before he would tell me he was drinking again, Adam returned to the car where I was waiting and led me into the house and I set my suitcase down onto our rug, and he took my clothes off, layer by layer. He led me into the bathroom into a warm bubble bath, my clothes spread around my suitcase, filling our small living room. And we took a bath, and the water became the right temperature, and I realized that after a long time away I was finally in a place that I wanted to be, with him, in this tiny little house we live in together, in a small bathtub, seeing each other’s flesh for the first time in a month or so, bubbles all around us in the dark. Looking back I feel sick to my stomach that I had the impulse to drive away and that I didn’t follow through with driving away, that I didn’t know he had just recently taken out the recycling which had included cases and cases of beer bottles and wine jugs.

In the 1500s Spanish Conquistadors invaded Chihuahua, where the Raramuri lived before they fled. By the 1700s the Spanish had established mines in Raramuri territory, and the people were pushed into the High Sierras and canyons of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The Raramuri waged three wars against the invaders. After the second, in 1648, the Raramuri split into two groups—the group who stayed, and the group who left. The group who stayed in the lower regions were converted to Christianity and lost much of their tribal identity as they were absorbed into the invaders’ culture. The ones who fled to the upper reaches of the mountain range waged one more war, from 1696–1698, which they lost, but not completely. To the present day, the Raramuri still wander.

My mother told me many stories from the drivers seat of the Travelall and then after the Travelall died the Dodge Caravan, which had a much better heater, and then later the brand new mini-van with the best heater of all, a radio, and automatic windows that Grandpa bought us. But in the times before the radio and the nice heaters, when my father was still providing our vehicles, my mother told me stories, reaching her hand around her seat because I couldn’t calm down without the warmth of her hand on my small ankle. She told me about the death of the dinosaurs and the evolution of humans and the people who could run all night. She told me if women ran the world we wouldn’t have nearly as many wars because after changing that many diapers, after that much work, a mother would never risk the loss. God wants peace; your father loves you he just has a hard time showing it. She drove to the grocery store, warming my leg in her hand, making the best out of a bad situation.


Photographs © Rebecca Schikora.

Emily Schikora was born and raised in and around Fairbanks, Alaska. She has a chapbook, I Thought I Was Your Favorite (Habit Books) and is currently working on a collection of essays about displacement, love, and addiction, tentatively titled, When the Men Come Home. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she writes, manages a consignment boutique, and directs Show:Tell, The Workshop for Teen Artists and Writers. More from this author →