Chapter 2 from the novel Layers of Painted Earth

by Dawn Senior

                                 ^^^^
The Blue Stallion ^^^^



Rippled sandstone scraped the pickup as Dad eased it over the ridge. When they came down the other side, Nizhoni looked eagerly toward the hogan across a quarter-mile stretch of brushy desert. Dad drove no closer, but parked the pickup between two pinyon pines, where he always had, and Nizhoni and her parents soon set up the tent.

Nizhoni walked along the base of the ridge and felt under her moccasins the desert soil, soft and moist from recent rain.

She looked up at the convoluted mesas towering into the late afternoon sky. She studied the highest, most rugged mesa, dark as dried blood. "Rock of Refuge," she whispered to herself. She imagined the Ancient Ones who, story told, had fled across the desert and, surrounded by enemies, sought refuge upon its soaring heights. She could feel the pain shooting through her chest as her lungs grabbed for air. She could hear panting and the pounding of feet behind her as women young and old ran up, up the rocks, carrying their children along the narrow secret trails among the cliffs. She stopped to look back. She cried as the outnumbered young men on the desert far below fought desperately, sacrificing themselves for time, time for the others to make it to the top of that impregnable mesa. 'Rock of Refuge," she whispered again.

Her mind returned to the present, and Nizhoni walked up the ridge. At every few steps her feet touched earth of a different, subtle color. Tan, sienna, burnt umber, ash, white, green, blue, red and, at the top, yellow. "She Yearns for the Rainbow." The words from her Eagle Dream haunted her mind. What did they mean? Would she ever know? She felt an urgent desire to understand the whole dream. It seemed important. But for now, she could only wait. Nizhoni looked at the hogan, silent in the distance. She listened. Into the silence came faint, musical notes. While the sun slowly slanted through the greasewood and yucca and made the cholla glow like fuzzy ghosts, the sound became gradually more distinct. Bells. A small band of sheep and goats came over a ridge beyond the hogan and down a steep clay slope toward a fold constructed of pinyon branches piled high and interlaced into a strong barrier. The base of a sheer, yellowish-white cliff rising a hundred feet into the sky formed the back wall of the fold. The sheep and goats jogged toward it in bursts, stopping to crop what sparse grass they could find along the way. Behind them walked a man, minuscule in the landscape. As Nizhoni watched him pause at the top of a ridge and stand motionless, she felt tranquility spread from him through the atmosphere all the way to her soul.

A sudden crack split the air. Before the hogan, a woman in a long, dark blue Navajo dress swung an ax. It cracked against a thick, gnarled trunk of firewood in an untiring rhythm, again, again, again.

Nizhoni knew that the man and the woman were aware of the pickup and the tent. She knew that they would acknowledge her family's arrival when they were ready. Meanwhile, she sat among the rocks and trees on the ridge and waited.

She heard footsteps on the rocky path below her. A tall, slender youth had come from the road on the other side, and he now descended the ridge toward the hogan. He wore cowboy boots and hat, jeans, and a threadbare blue shirt. His shoulders swayed with the masculine grace of his stride, sending a thrill through Nizhoni. In a panic of shyness, she pressed herself to the stone so he wouldn't see her. But, he appeared so lost in thought that he didn't even see the pickup and the tent until he had almost passed them. He became aware, looked over, and faltered.

Dad said quietly, "Hello, Anselm."

Anselm approached him hesitantly, his eyes lowered to the ground in respect and embarrassment.

"Have you just now come from school?" asked Dad
.
"Yeh," said Anselm, ending the word with the same short grunt as if he had said " 'aoo' " --the Navajo word for "yes".

"Where do you go to school, then?"

"Canyon."

"Canyon! But that's sixty miles from here."

"Yeh."

"Well, I'm glad. That's where we'll be, again, and Nizhoni will go to school there, too. So, we will see you."

Anselm nodded without looking up.

"Would you like a cup of coffee?"

Anselm said nothing, just glanced toward the hogan.

"Anselm, I was wondering, is it very important for you to go to school tomorrow?"

Anselm stood silent.

"Because if It's all right with you and your parents, I wondered if you could take me, my wife and daughter up to the top of the Rock of Refuge. I could take them by myself, but it's been awhile--and last time, I was lost for three days." Dad laughed.

Anselm said nothing.

"Well, you ask your father, okay?"

His head still bowed, Anselm turned and continued toward the hogan.

Nizhoni's blood pounded in her ears. Anselm going to Canyon! But still, they would be in different schools and she would hardly see him. She was only in eighth grade, and he would be a senior by now. No--she thought of all those beautiful Navajo girls. Madeline, with her proud, golden face. Dolores, who ran like a lizard around the track four times and no one, no one had taken their eyes off her, but stood frozen in their games. And most of all, Gwendolyn, whose kind, radiant eyes entranced hundreds as she stood before an assembly in the gym one day last spring and sang the Song of Beauty.

No, why would Anselm even look at a skinny fourteen-year-old whose dusky skin and dark hair were Anglo and a smidgeon of Cherokee, not Navajo? And what did he think of her name, which seemed to her almost as much an embarrassment as an honor? Wouldn't her Navajo friends find it odd to call her Nizhoni, when none of them went by their Navajo names, or would even reveal them to strangers? 'Nizhoni' -- 'She is Beautiful.' She had never thought of herself as beautiful. When Gwendolyn and three others--among the prettiest girls in Junior High--had surrounded her in the library one day and told her she was beautiful, she thought they mocked her. They looked sincere, but she thought, it was probably just her dress they admired. And when Grayson had hidden behind the bookcases and peeked out at her flirtatiously, she hadn't believed him until he came, sat in silence across the table, looked at her an instant, and fled the room.

The sun sank behind the Rock of Refuge. Rays came out from the mesa's sides and lined the far ridges with fire. In the shadows below, white smoke rose from the hogan. Nizhoni joined her mother and father at the campfire. Mother buried some potatoes under the ashes to bake.

After the family had eaten and the stars shone in the darkness, Mr. Yazzie walked across the desert. "Y't'h" ["May the Gods be Good to You"], he said softly, and sat beside the campfire.

"Y't'h ." Dad poured him a cup of coffee. In the firelight, Nizhoni marvelled again at how kindness and integrity could show so plainly in a person's face. You could almost tell the story of his life without a word. He nodded toward the crescent moon rising low above a cliff. "Oolj'," he said.

"Oolj'," Dad repeated.

"Oolj' dah yiita'."

Nizhoni brought out the big book and gave it to Dad. It had always been their favorite pastime when Mr. Yazzie came. Mr. Yazzie took it from Dad with a smile, and fingered through the pages. He held it up so they could see and pointed to a photograph. "Ma'iitso."

"Ma'iitso," repeated Dad. "In English that's 'wolf.' 'Wolf.'"

Dad," whispered Nizhoni, "Ma'iitso means 'big coyote.'

They continued this exchange for a while, then Mr. Yazzie put the book down and spoke in Navajo.

Dad shook his head. "I don't understand."

Nizhoni said quietly, "He says he has seven horses and a donkey, out roaming the mesas. He said something about water, too." Nizhoni understood snatches of Navajo, but she dared not speak much because the language seemed as thorny and abrupt as the landscape, always surprising her tongue with insurmountable obstacles.

Dad asked, "Did Anselm ask you if he can take us to the top of the Rock of Refuge tomorrow?"

Mr. Yazzie only smiled.

"Can Anselm go?"

"'Aoo'." He gestured toward the east and then toward the hogan. "Tomorrow, come to hooghan." Mr. Yazzie rose and disappeared into the night.


^^^^

At daybreak, Nizhoni awoke to the sound of distant chanting. Mr. Yazzie sang to the rising sun. Soon, Nizhoni and her parents stood near the hogan and waited. Mrs. Yazzie came to the doorway and smiled shyly. She laughed. She disappeared inside. She wasn't much bigger than Nizhoni, but her weathered face and knotted hands betrayed a lifetime of hard work. Mr. Yazzie beckoned them in. Nizhoni did not look at Anselm. They all sat on sheepskins around the little iron stove in the center of the hogan, its pipe going up through the old smoke hole. They ate slap-around-bread, blue corn mush sweetened with juniper ash, and small bits of crisp mutton. It all tasted delicious.

On a loom hung an unfinished rug of the most exquisite design and colors Nizhoni had seen. She couldn't take her eyes off it, and Mom and Dad exclaimed over its beauty. "Mrs. Yazzie, you are the most talented weaver I have ever met," said Dad. "At the trading post you won't get what it's worth. I wish we could buy it, but I'm afraid we only have the seven dollars left to pay the rent when we get to Canyon. If it's all right with you, we will stay two days. We want to visit the Clahs, too."

Anselm translated without looking at Dad. He spoke very few words. Nizhoni wondered if he was angry about something.

Nizhoni said softly, "Mrs. Yazzie, tomorrow I will help herd the sheep."

Anselm rose and went outside. Nizhoni and her parents followed. Dad carried a knapsack and canteen on his belt.

"Anselm," said Dad, "are you angry at something?"

Anselm studied the ground, then shot a hard glance at Dad. "You looked at my mother."

"Oh. I didn't mean to. You see, I'm an artist, and I have to look at everything. If I looked at your mother, it didn't mean anything more than when I look at that cliff there."

While he still looked at the ground, Anselm's body relaxed into silent acceptance, and he led Dad, Mom and Nizhoni up a rainbow ridge and a steep, winding ravine. They came to a slope of adobe, still wet from rain and so slick that climbing it was a long hard struggle. Dad held on to Mom and pushed. She laughed, trying to keep on her feet.

At last they came to firm ground again, and they wound among the rocks, higher and higher. Above them stood spires, like giant stalagmites, which balanced huge, overhanging rocks on their pointed pinnacles. Below, sheer drops plunged to a confusing welter of ravines, hills, and mesas. Nizhoni already felt her usually strong sense of direction vanish, and found herself wondering whether the sun had risen that day in the east or in the west.

It didn't matter. She followed her parents and they followed Anselm, who walked the maze of paths and canyons with the air of a desert bighorn following the migration of a million years.

Their breath sounding in gusts, Mother and Dad stopped to rest among huge chunks of sandstone and a rubble of erosion. Anselm stopped and looked back. He waited.

Dad pointed to the ground beside the path. "Is this what I think it is?"

Anselm came and turned over a large stone. He picked up a smaller one and placed it on the large one.

"A grindstone," said Dad. "It must be from the Ancient Ones, a long time ago."

"Yeh. You can have it."

"Gosh. Are you sure?"

"Yeh."

"That would mean a great deal to me. I will ask your father, though. I can't carry the big one now. Do you think we can come back for it tomorrow?"

"Yeh."

They climbed on. As they turned and twisted up the mesa, every few yards brought a new view, a new challenge of the path, if any path existed at all. Sometimes, they crept along an eroded bank that threatened to crumble and hurl them down. Sometimes, Anselm took them a long way around when it seemed simple to go a shorter way. Once, Dad called out
to Anselm, "Should we take this shortcut, or should we follow you?"

"If you want to," Anselm called ambiguously over his shoulder. Dad gave a confused smile, then he and Mother tried the shortcut. Nizhoni shook her head and lagged shyly behind Anselm. Sure enough, after a great deal of scrambling and exclamation, Mom and Dad had to backtrack to Anselm's trail.

Nizhoni turned a corner of cliff, and Anselm was gone. She walked ahead, looking. She hurried. She stopped, not sure where to go. She listened. A rock clicked above her. She looked up the cliff, and glimpsed Anselm dive behind an outcrop. She watched him. He peeped out at her. He came out and walked across the rock face like a mountain goat, then
jumped down to the trail in front of her.

Up and up the mesa they climbed, and Anselm silently teased her. He vanished again and again, and she strained her senses to detect him. He wordlessly taunted her, but she dared not follow him up the cliffs or leap from boulder to boulder.

At last, they reached the top of the first mesa. It stretched for several miles ahead in a rolling plain, and beyond its far edge the great Rock of Refuge jutted into the sky. "Oh my gosh," thought Nizhoni, "it looks as high from up here as from where we started."

After a rest, they walked across the plain through sand, sparse dried grass, cactus, and greasewood to a sheer edge of the mesa. An abandoned hogan and sheep corral overlooked the most incredible view Nizhoni had ever seen. Far, far below, red and yellow hills crawled endlessly toward the horizon, where mesas, mere slivers from here, melted into the sky. Much closer towered a gigantic spire of rock, rising in subtle layers of white and yellow. Connected to the mesa near where the people stood, and separated from them by a sheer, narrow cleft, stood a series of clay spires which rose from the desert floor below. Overhanging stone caps somewhat protected the spires from erosion.

Nizhoni's parents sat under a tree near the abandoned hogan. Nizhoni wandered off a few yards along the edge of the mesa. Anselm disappeared. Nizhoni listened. She heard dirt crumbling and falling away, bouncing down to the bottom of the mesa. She carefully approached the mesa's edge and looked. She saw only the weathered clay and rocks. Suddenly, her breath caught in her throat as Anselm appeared part way up the nearest dirt spire. He climbed. The earth crumbled from under him at every step and dropped hundreds of feet straight down. Anselm swung himself atop the rock overhang and stood looking across the landscape for a long time.

Then, he vanished.

Nizhoni listened and listened. She could only hear her blood pounding in her ears like a drum. After a long time, Nizhoni tiptoed to the old sheep fold, sprang to the top of the pinyon wall, and called, "I see you! You can't fool me, Anselm." Anselm stood from where he had been creeping along inside the fold. He jerked his hand in a gesture that meant 'Oh,
darn,' and smiled. Nizhoni blushed with pride.

Then, they joined her folks. Dad brought sandwiches and apples from the knapsack and passed around the canteen. After a while he asked, "Who lived in the hogan?"

"Grandfather."

After a silence, Dad asked in a subdued tone, "Is he inside?"

Anselm frowned and looked away.

Nizhoni wondered why Dad had dared to ask that. Besides, no pole stuck from the smoke hole. But since Dad had spent so many years with the Navajo people, he knew many things of which Nizhoni had no inkling. He must have had good reason to ask.

They sat without speaking. Nizhoni gradually became aware of the intensity of the silence. She could hear the nothingness of all the death this place had known over the eons. Then she noticed that the silence itself had a sound, the very faintest tone anyone could imagine. It seemed to come from everything, from earth and sky, from within herself, everywhere. Then, she began to hear the breathing of Mom and Dad and Anselm. A bird's note, far away. A grasshopper's tiny rustle across grains of sand.

^^^^

Hours later, the four travelers struggled up a vertical slope and squeezed between huge rocks. Now Nizhoni understood how the Ancient Ones had been able to keep their enemies at bay, for they only had to defend this one narrow cleft. No other way up existed. The rocks looked like heavy liquid--not the sandstone of the lower mesas, but smooth, red-black lava. It looked like newly hardened blood that had flowed from the Giant Monster when slain by the Hero Twins. As Nizhoni stepped onto the flat top of the Rock of Refuge, her feet crunched shards of painted clay. Broken pottery, hundreds of arrowheads, and thousands of flint chips covered the entire stone surface. From here, the world spread out beneath her, but Nizhoni was hardly aware of it. Only this small expanse of mesa, only the sky and the besieged Ancient Ones seemed true. What had been legend for her was now her strongest reality, though she did notice that for the first time Anselm stood beside her. A shadow fell over Nizhoni. She looked up to see an eagle soaring in a spiral high above.

The four people slowly scattered. Each meandered alone. As she walked, Nizhoni saw arise among the broken fragments of vanished lives a desperate village, a few stone walls thrown together for quick shelter. She saw gray-haired men gathered in the shade of the walls, where they made arrowheads and spoke in quiet voices, praying, planning strategy. Young men guarded the path against the enemies which surrounded them below. The young men also ground pits into the black stone to hold precious rainwater. Women mourned the dead who had sacrificed themselves that the others might escape to this stronghold. They cooked mush from desert roots and piki from parched corn, and made yucca baskets and clay bowls. They comforted babies and kept the fires going. Children played and became all the creatures of the desert and all the heroes of their grandparents' stories, not realizing that they, themselves, were heroes who would be remembered as legends. The Ancient Ones endured their danger with patient courage. The people prayed and sang. They dreamed. They quarreled and they loved. The people died, and the people lived, undefeated.

Soon, Nizhoni's family and Anselm drifted together again. Nizhoni sensed that everyone felt overwhelmed, felt the Rock of Refuge too powerful, too sacred for them to linger long.

After they had descended the steep cleft in the black rock, Nizhoni realized that Anselm led them in a new direction. "Why aren't we going back the way we came?" she wondered.

Everything went so fast now, with her mind in such a trance, that it took her awhile to notice that Anselm teased her from the rocks with even more fervor than before. A new mood overwhelmed her shyness, and with a singing laugh of joy she leapt after him, her moccasins gripping the rock and running down the steep slopes with a sureness that surprised her. "You can't hide from me now, Anselm," she called as she scrambled atop a boulder in time to cut off his dodge into a cleft behind it. With a grin on his dark, handsome face that shone smooth with afternoon sun, Anselm used all his skill to outwit and lose her. But by miracle she seemed to anticipate every surprise of gully and outcrop and sudden turn. So sharp was her concentration that she felt shocked and disoriented when they came down into a huge hollow of rock, and a rough log trading post and some corrals confronted her.

"How did we get here?" she laughed.

When Mother and Dad caught up, they all went into the dark store which smelled of mutton, flour, lard, rope, and wool. One middle-aged man stood behind the counter, looking through a stack of Navajo rugs. He and Anselm spoke in Navajo. Nizhoni and Mother looked into a glass case and admired the silver and turquoise jewelry which Navajo customers had traded for groceries. Dad bought four pomegranates, and the family and Anselm left. They walked up to the top of another, small mesa, and ate the red, juicy fruit.

Anselm gave Dad four arrowheads. "From the Rock."

Dad studied them. "Look how perfect they are. Thank you, but are you sure we have any right to have them?"

Anselm looked at Dad with a puzzled expression.

A husky old woman in long russet skirts appeared on a path in a ravine below. She carried an armful of branches, and dropped them beside a pit in the dirt. A small band of sheep and goats grazed nearby, often looking up to watch her.

"What's she doing?" asked Dad.

"She builds a hogan for her sheep, for winter."

They all went down to help her. She looked startled and uncertain as they approached, but when Anselm called out to her in Navajo she greeted them with bubbling laughter and smiles. Nizhoni thought she must be eighty at least, but so strong and hardy that she seemed to enjoy their help more as a rare social event than because she really needed it. Anselm finished digging the pit and they all helped interweave pinyon branches into an impenetrable shelter. Only the old woman's dignity could contain her excitement as she spoke to everyone in Navajo.

As the hogan progressed, the sheep and goats gathered around. They seemed to know it was for them, and they kept crowding into it, bleating and basing, even before it was finished. The old woman laughed because she could hardly chase them out of it, they liked it so well.

So many helping hands soon finished the little hogan. The old woman smiled and nodded her thanks, then disappeared down a trail, herding her flock before her.

Nizhoni's family and Anselm took another path down a steep, rocky descent. Then their way twisted down a slope of pinyon pines and they arrived at a spring regulated with pipe. Seven horses galloped up, surrounded the people at a distance and pawed, whinnied, and whirled in a skittish frenzy. Nizhoni gasped in delight, for she had never seen such a breathtaking harmony of buckskin and sorrel, black and palomino and blue roan against deep reds and greens of mesa and pinyon. She remembered Mr. Yazzie's words and wondered, "Where's the donkey?"

Anselm turned the spigot and a stream of water splashed into a natural basin of rock. He filled it. The horses flared their nostrils and snorted, tossed their heads and stomped, but their wildness triumphed even over their desperate thirst, and they would not come for the water until the people had drunk and walked away.

Anselm glanced at Nizhoni and raced down a gentle, flat slope. She leapt after him, and swiftly overtook and passed him. She stopped, laughing, and called back, "You are a bighorn--but I am a pronghorn!"

Anselm caught up and ran ahead, while Nizhoni ran at his heels. At the bottom of the slope he suddenly jerked and sank to his calves in quicksand. Luckily, it was a small patch, so he jumped out of his boots onto firm soil.

Nizhoni and Anselm both leaned down, grasped one boot, and yanked it out. Then the other one. Anselm wiped them on a sagebrush and put them back on.

Suddenly, Nizhoni felt embarrassed. Anselm walked farther and farther ahead while she hung back with her parents.

The last sunbeams hid behind the Rock of Refuge and vanished just as the family reached their camp. In the distance, a red spark of light glimmered through the dusk from the hogan. Then Anselm shut the door behind him.

Later, as she lay in her bedroll looking up at the stars, Nizhoni imagined being married to Anselm. He would expect to live in Wyoming with her people and on her homeland, if she correctly understood the matrilineal tradition. But Nizhoni also imagined living out here, herding the sheep, hoeing a corn patch with a cradleboard on her back, singing a Navajo lullaby, following the way of beauty and tranquility all of her days and nights.


^^^^

When the sun rose, Dad went with Anselm and Mr. Yazzie to get the horses and to fetch the grindstone, which Mr. Yazzie agreed Dad could have.

Tired and sore from yesterday, Mother laughed and groaned at the same time, as she stiffly bent to pick up the empty breakfast pans from the fireside. "I couldn't possibly go on another long walk today. My bunions are killing me! Nizhoni, you don't mind going alone with Mrs. Yazzie? You sure? Okay. I'd really like to stay here and rest, and write Laura and Flint all about the adventures we had yesterday." Mother's eyes followed the dawn's light which picked out red-black glints on the Rock of Refuge. Mother turned to Nizhoni. "I'm sure you'll have a fabulous time with Mrs. Yazzie. Be careful. Have your canteen?" She gave Nizhoni a hug.

Nizhoni felt a little sore, too, but she walked toward the fold to help Mrs. Yazzie with the sheep, as she had promised. When she approached, Mrs. Yazzie had already opened the gate. The sheep and goats burst from the fold and galloped in a clamor of bleats and bells up a steep hill. "Oh my goodness, they're not supposed to go that way," Nizhoni thought, and rushed after them. She hadn't caught up when, puffing, she paused to look back and to her surprise saw Mrs. Yazzie returning to the hogan, no doubt to work on her weaving. Nizhoni was on her own. She felt proud that Mrs. Yazzie trusted her with nearly all the wealth her family had in the world. But now, that wealth had swiftly vanished in a direction unfamiliar to Nizhoni.

Worried, she climbed after the sheep. She followed their tracks and the sound of the bells up and around the rugged hills, never catching sight of them. Gasping for breath, she reached the top of a ridge, looked down the other side, and stared horrified. Far below, the sheep had crossed a fallen-down wire fence and now happily chewed somebody's corn plants. Nizhoni recalled local stories of Anselm's cousin, who came to people's houses at night and stole things, and who had been in prison for slashing a man with a knife. The corn patch was probably his wife's.

Nizhoni raced down the hill, around the sheep and, throwing sticks to one side of the herd and the other, drove them from the field out of sight along the bottom of the mesa. The sheep bolted away again and as she looked up at the vast mesa they were about to climb, fear urged her ahead to cut them off. She boxed them into a little nook surrounded by walls of rock. Her legs shook. After she foiled some scattered escape attempts, the flock settled down to graze the sparse brush and grass. A young goat climbed into a pinyon tree and nibbled twigs.

Slowly, peace began to descend on Nizhoni as she watched, and listened to the silence, the tinkling bells, the hooves clicking delicately on the rocks.

But soon she sensed someone watching her and felt uneasy. Laughter sounded above her, and she looked up. Four pinyon jays flapped among the rocks. "Oh, you!" she laughed back. The jays flew away, but Nizhoni still felt watched. She turned, and on a slab of sandstone nearby stood a big nanny goat, whose white hair hung down her flanks in long, silken ringlets. The goat scrutinized Nizhoni with intelligent, yellow eyes, as if questioning her qualifications for this job. "You're right, of course. I am being silly, keeping you boxed up like this. I should stop being scared of a bunch of sheep! All right, I'll trust you if you'll trust me. Okay?" The goat looked her up and down and gave a soft bleat. Nizhoni calmly gathered the flock and followed them to the top of the mesa.

They grazed across that high plain all morning. When the sun stood high, Nizhoni sat under a juniper and ate her lunch from the knapsack. The sheep grazed far ahead, but she didn't worry now. She took out a sketchbook and made a drawing of the Rock of Refuge. She concentrated with such intensity on the intricacies of rock and shadow and value, that after she finished the drawing she "came to" with a realization that she had forgotten her own existence. She added a tiny figure of Anselm walking in the foreground. Underneath, she wrote a little poem:

He does not tell us
where he's going. We follow
him to the sun's house.


Nizhoni slowly caught up with the flock, circled ahead, and urged them back the way they'd come. When they got down into the hills, she felt a shock of panic. She had no idea where the hogan was. She smiled at the thought that the sheep which had scared her so much that morning would now be her salvation. She followed the sheep, but they began to run. She fought to keep up, churned down the mesa through thick sand that grabbed at her ankles and pulled her back, jumped from rock to rock along the edges of chasms, for she knew that if she lost sight of the sheep she wouldn't be able to follow their tracks in all the weltered maze of sheep trails, and it might take days for someone to find her. Fear turned her into a goat herself, and in exhilaration she ran, leaped, careened down the mesas after the bleating flock. They led her to the spring. She turned the water from the pipe into the stone basin, splashed her face, drank and sang, while the frenzied sheep butted and fought each other for places around the water. Nizhoni noticed that the biggest, strongest sheep crowded out the little ones so they couldn't drink. She hauled the bullies out of the way, pushing and shoving and yelling, to make sure the sheep all got a drink. One stubborn ram kept coming back and butting the others so mercilessly that she shoved him down the slope with her foot.

She heard laughter above her. Jays again? She looked up and spied Mr. Yazzie and Dad standing among the rocks. "Oh, you!" she laughed back.

They all walked home behind the sheep.

"We couldn't find the donkey," said Dad. His knapsack bulged heavily with the grindstone he'd fetched. As they neared home, they heard sounds of commotion. Dad and Mr. Yazzie helped Nizhoni herd the sheep into the fold and shut the gate, then hurried toward the noise.

A neighbor on horseback had helped Anselm round up the horses, and six of them stomped and snorted in the corral, while Anselm tried to cinch a blue roan stallion hitched to a post. The stallion pinned back his ears, squealed, bucked and kicked. Anselm talked to him sternly but softly and kept working. The afternoon glow on the yellow cliff behind him exaggerated the roan's blue color, so that he looked made of turquoise.

Mrs. Yazzie came from the hogan and joined her husband, Nizhoni and Dad as they watched Anselm. Nizhoni wondered if Mrs. Yazzie had finished her weaving.

Nizhoni took the sketchbook from her knapsack and showed her drawing to Dad. He looked pleased. "Hey, that's very good."

He handed it to Mr. Yazzie, who looked at it for a long time. He looked up at the Rock of Refuge, then down again at the drawing, back and forth, back and forth, studying both intently. Nizhoni couldn't tell if he was amazed or critical.

Finally, he gave it to Mrs. Yazzie. She looked at it, smiled, and gave it back to Nizhoni.

A scruffy, shaggy-haired young dog came along. Mrs. Yazzie looked at Nizhoni and pointed to the dog with her foot. "Lchaa'."

"Puppy," said Nizhoni.

Mrs. Yazzie hid her mouth with her hand and burst into giggles. "Puppy," she laughed, "Puppy."

Suddenly, it seemed to Nizhoni the silliest sound she had ever heard, and she and Mrs. Yazzie laughed until their eyes watered. "Puppy, they said, over and over. "Puppy. Puppy."

Anselm led the stallion up and held it firmly by the rope bridle. The stallion pawed the ground and tossed his head.

"Well," said Dad, "I'm afraid we have to go now. We want to visit the Clah family this evening, and tomorrow we'll go to Canyon so Nizhoni can be in school Monday. Maybe we will see you there, Anselm."

"Yeh."

Dad continued, "First, I have something to ask you and your parents. It's important, so please translate for them, okay? You know that we have land and a small cabin up north in Wyoming. Next summer, we plan to build some new rooms onto our house. We don't need much money for it, because we get dead trees from the forest for the walls and beams, and rocks from our hills for the foundation. But we'll need help. We wouldn't be able to pay you much, but I wondered if you would like to come work on it with us this coming summer. Would you?"

As Nizhoni listened, she had gradually backed farther and farther away, and when Dad asked the climactic question, she disappeared behind the hogan. She stood and listened to Anselm translate to his parents and discuss the matter in few words. Her hands grabbed each other fiercely, separated by a layer of sweat.

"Yeh," said Anselm, "I want to go."

"Your father and mother understand? They agree?"

"Yeh."

"I'm glad. We'll have a wonderful time."

While Dad and the Yazzies shook hands, Nizhoni ran toward the tent, leaping over bushes and gullies. Mr. and Mrs. Yazzie's soft laughter followed her. After Nizhoni and her parents had packed the tent, they eased the pickup over the sandstone ridge and down the other side to the dirt track. They had gone half a mile when Nizhoni looked back and saw Anselm on the blue stallion, galloping across the desert so fast that it seemed to Nizhoni that he caught up in an instant. He glanced at her once, careered past, and vanished among yellow hills. He appeared again, racing toward her full speed, the stallion streaking the pollen-colored earth with sky, Anselm's black hair flying above his carved pipestone face and his white shell smile. When with sheer abandon he shot past her, Nizhoni kissed the pickup window. She turned and looked for him, but he did not come again.


^^^^

Miles later, Dad steered off the track, drove over another ridge, and across the desert. They parked near a new, tar-papered hogan, some corrals and sheep fold, and a tiny cinderblock house. Six children of all ages surrounded them as they walked toward the house. A pregnant woman in a short dress came to the doorway and smiled. An older woman in a long olive green Navajo skirt appeared behind her, stepped out, and greeted them, all smiles. "Ya'at'eeh," she said, "ya'at'eeh."

"Ah," said Dad, "Mrs. Clah, we've known each other for twenty years or more, haven't we."

Her daughter, Clara, translated, and the older woman laughed and nodded.

Clara said, "Come in. It's almost time for my baby to be born, and we plan to go to the clinic in Ganado tomorrow morning. But please stay with us the night. John will be home soon. He will be glad to see you."

Dad looked around. "But where is your father?"

Clara looked at her mother and motioned across the desert to a tumbledown hogan beneath a clay cliff. Even from a distance Nizhoni could see a pole sticking from the smoke hole.

"Oh," said Dad softly. "I am very sorry. I will miss him."

Clara nodded. "We wanted her to bury him at the cemetery so she wouldn't have to have a new hogan built, but she's used to the old ways."

They all went into the house.

"Nizhoni, come look." Eleven-year-old Mary beckoned and led her to a corner where a little loom stood with an unfinished blue sash hanging on it.

"How pretty," said Nizhoni.

Clara handed her a narrow red sash. "Here, you can have this one."

"Oh, Clara! Thank you!" Nizhoni tied the red sash around her waist. Mary smiled happily.

A white hen came through the open doorway and scratched the hard dirt floor. Little Carlene shooed it out, stamping her bare feet and waving her chubby arms.

Nizhoni noticed a shallow basket of dry corn kernels sitting next to a grindstone on the floor. "Let me grind some of this for you." While the grownups talked and laughed over old times, Nizhoni bore down on the hand stone and pushed it forcefully along the worn hollow of the large stone, back and forward, back and forward, in the ancient rhythm. She noticed, again, how long it took to grind a handful of corn finely enough, and a weight of time settled on her back. She felt it bind her to countless unknown women, thousands, millions of women, grinding the corn of the centuries.

"Mrs. Clah," said Dad, "remember the first time I came out here, when Clara was smaller than Carlene is now?"

Clara translated.

"I came and asked if I could borrow a horse to ride to Pinyon. I never forgot how you and your husband let a stranger ride off on your best horse. We wandered around the desert for many weeks, and had incredible adventures, that horse and I.

"Once, I hobbled him for the night, and the next morning I couldn't find him anywhere. I searched for him all day. I thought I was doomed, because I knew I was a long way from anyone, and I depended on the horse to find water and to find the way home, many days' travel. And the sun was torture. I hunted for that horse for hours, called and whistled. Nothing. Then toward evening as I returned to my camp downhearted, I came to a gully, very steep, narrow, and deep. There was the horse, wedged in tight, all four legs stuck up in the air."

The children laughed.

"Luckily, he wasn't hurt. Remember how glad you were to get him back safe?"

Soon, Nizhoni's arms ached so, she could hardly stand it. Mary touched her shoulder. "Come out and help us get the sheep." Nizhoni and the children ran in a bunch across the sands and clay. They laughed, leaped and raced. The oldest boy, about ten, dashed with her ahead of the others. Nizhoni spurted forward and ran in a wide circle around the scattered band of sheep. The children surrounded them and with shouts sent them galloping toward the fold.

As Nizhoni chased the sheep, the distinct, deep colors of evening swirled and leaped around her to the vast, spinning horizon, and the sky came down and clasped the blurred bushes and pebbles in glowing light. Nizhoni choked on a knot of joy and sadness--for an instant she felt acutely aware that these were her last moments of childhood.

The children closed the gate behind the sheep and surrounded Nizhoni on the hillside.

"Look!" Little Carlene pointed to Nizhoni's bare leg.

Four white cholla thorns stuck in her calf, and blood flowed down her skin. She pulled them out. "I didn't even see any cholla," she laughed.

The children all grabbed her and dragged her down the slope to a sandy spot. They wrestled her to the ground in a heap of squirming bodies, flailing limbs, and laughter. Nizhoni and the oldest boy leaped to their feet and squared off. Just as their hands grappled, the children hushed and froze.

The boy stopped. Nizhoni saw an older girl running up from the house.

"Hide, hide," she gasped, "John is drunk!"

With squeals of fear the children dashed toward the pickup, and the tent which Dad had pitched under a tree, and stood beside now, sketching a broken-wheeled wagon that sat on a sandy knoll nearby. Nizhoni ran with the children, panic-stricken. They dove into the camper shell and lay huddled atop each other.

Out the window Nizhoni saw Dad gaping at the pickup with a puzzled expression.

He looked toward the house. Someone was coming.

Nizhoni ducked down. Voices. Clara and Mother clambered into the camper and crouched among the boxes and crates. Clara cried. "He hit me," she whispered, "and he bashed in the stovepipe with his fist because I took the keys from his car so he can't go off and get drunker. Hush. Here he comes."

Nizhoni peeked out. Dad stood before the tent, nonchalantly scrumbling his pencil sketch with his finger. But Nizhoni saw his boots planted squarely on the ground, ready for anything. She felt a twinge of fear and awe--what courage he must have.

A huge man in a cowboy hat confronted him. John swayed a bit, but the rage and strength of a bull lurked in his silence.

"Clara," Nizhoni whispered, "John has a gun."

"Oh," Clara gasped in anguish, "Michael, here, take him the keys. Don't be afraid, take it."

After a few minutes Dad said, "It's all right now. You can come out.

They stood around the pickup and the tent in a knot. Old Mrs. Clah came from her hogan. In a few minutes the same young girl that had warned the children ran down from behind some rocks, crying, "His car is stuck in adobe--he's coming back!"

"Jump in," said Dad.

Clara and Mother crowded into the pickup cab, the others yanked up the tent and threw it in the back. Nizhoni, the children, and old Mrs. Clah huddled in the camper shell, and Dad drove off.

Nizhoni looked out. John ran after them, shaking his fist, then ran to his car, and Nizhoni heard the roar of the engine and grinding of wheels. She hoped he would just get stuck deeper.

The pickup jounced across the desert and along a maze of tracks. Soon, darkness surrounded them in secrecy. They stopped.

Hidden among huge slabs of sandstone, Mother and old Mrs. Clah lit a campfire, boiled water, and steeped sprigs of the wild plant called Navajo tea. Mother looked at Clara with worry and sympathy in her face. She fetched a blanket and wrapped it around Clara's shoulders, and as Clara touched and rubbed her swollen belly, Mother soothed her with questions about her older children, and made the fear fade from her eyes, and her smile shine again on her family and friends. The children gathered around Nizhoni. They taught her a few Navajo words and sang a song while Dad wrapped cobs of corn in foil and roasted them in the ashes.

After everyone had eaten, Dad said, "I think John must be gone by now. Clara, you can't stay out here all night."

"No." She gestured. "Take that trail, down toward the road. My cousins live there. We can all stay with them, and in the morning they can take me and Mother to Ganado. The children can stay with them until it's safe to go home."

They drove across the darkness with no headlights, in case John still lurked out there somewhere, looking for them.

 

Copyright 2001 by Dawn Senior





You can go home again.