This Close, Coyote

From: All My Sins Are Relatives

byWilliam S. Penn

Some people say "KI-yote," it's true, but to us his name has always been "Ki-YO-tee." As our song says, "Coyote, coyote, nothing but coyote."

This also is true, and it is said this way:

I was thirteen when the barber laid bare my high forehead, waxing a roll of hair to roll like a Dreamer's curl across my widow's peak. Only the curl felt good. The rest felt naked, bare, exposed to rain and the elemental cruelty of chewed gum stuck in my hair by boys who instinctively picked on anyone who was different. And I was different. But at thirteen, I had no idea how. I didn't look that much different. I was not as different as the black kids who looked and dressed the part. My friends were Mexicans or thugs, neither of which ever achieved sufficient numbers at school to be securely a minority from which I might be excluded. Once I had battled the aphasic thugs to the ground, sat on their chests, and made them try in their wavering white voices to chant one of my songs, we were as good of friends as I ever had--which means we said "Hi" to each other, hung out behind the gym at lunch where we smoked and told old jokes, and left each other alone. And alone I liked to be: I came from a culture that was neither transported nor downtrodden; it had been truly removed and all but destroyed but now was mostly just plain ignored outside of Saturday afternoon movies, and what I saw in the movies made me ashamed.

Father was ashamed, too, and a measure of his solitude was that I didn't know he was. Whenever the subject came up--and it did come up, what with grandfather living nearby and with father's brother enshrining pictures of Young Joseph, the Nez Perce Chief, all over his bungalow--father looked away, into the distance, across the playground or football field. I never felt as though I could ask, "Dad, why do I feel so alone?" or, after a week of school with my friends, "Dad, why would I rather be alone?" It was a split: on the one hand, feeling an aloneness akin to loneliness I'd try to join, dancing the Mexican Hat Dance eagerly in cultural studies or playing games like basketball with an uncanny, almost innate ability to target the hoop with the ball. And yet after the dance was over and all of us stood around grinning, some sheepishly, having enjoyed ourselves together, or after the hoop game ended and the boys pounded me on the back with congratulation, I felt, well, uncomfortable. I smiled. They wanted me to be one of them. And though just minutes ago I had wanted to be one of them, I found little joy in being one with them, especially because I knew--somewhere way behind my eyes and underneath the words I gave them--that I could not be like them.

This wasn't the way Blacks describe the feeling of being the only Black in a room of whites. It came out of race, perhaps, but it was not racial. It was why, when finches flew across the street, I called out greetings to them, "Good morning, Juncos! How are you being?" It was why of all animals, my favorite was the frog, and why to this day I wear a scarab-frog necklace around my neck. It was why father looked away from the mention of Indian things, perhaps. It was not a feeling that came from being different on the outside, the way Blacks become different on the inside because of the way people treat the outside. There was that, I suppose, but it was later, secondary to my inside feeling that not only was I different but I was uncomfortable not being different. I could succeed, be a part of the Great Society around me, just like Black kids were beginning to do; but where the Black kids, the Chicano kids, the transformed, re-habilitated thugs and thuggettes seemed happy to be a successful part, it depressed the hell out of me. Somewhere inside of myself I knew that the measure of success was not false--not necessarily--but that it was not mine.

Thus it is that Indians fail. It is not that they cannot do it. It is because they reach a point beyond which they cannot summon the heart to travel. I've seen Indian college students read and understand Heidegger, Binswanger, Sartre, and Ortega y Gasset as easily as they understand the movements of junco or salmon, and yet fail to attend the course's final examination--and for that failure, they do not get "A's" for recognizing the true relation of philosophy to examinations. Choosing to return to their homes before the school term was officially over, leaving college to take care of itself, they fail the course. I've seen the same students return to college the following year, only to bother not to turn in the final English essay because their brother called them home. I've heard professors say that if they can't cut it, then they should receive failing marks. I've heard other professors say they just need counseling, help integrating into the college environment, role models of Indian professors and then they will be successful. And I've heard a full range of sayings in between, even from my father's, my sister's, and yes, my own, mouth--and they are all wrong. If you are a Pit River, a Modoc, an Osage, Flathead, or a Nez Perce--especially a Nez Perce who knows with his heart--and you are enrolled in a class--English, philosophy, wildlife management--and your heart calls you home, you are right to go.

I've seen my father, denying his Indianness with every fiber and vein, come This Close to success. In the world of money and work, he spent seventeen years getting up early and driving downtown on the Santa Ana Freeway, an Indian man riding a Spanish general to a Saxon building where he plugged his knees into a desk like all the other desks, smiling when one of his friends stuck gum in his hair, looking forward to the weekend when he could mow lawn or mend fence and on Sunday, take us to see his father and mother. My mother, who liked the week, felt indifferent to Saturdays, and hated Sundays, was glad when grandfather and grandmother decided to pack up their objects and move four hundred miles to live next door to my uncle. I sometimes wonder whether she'd have so gladly bought new slip covers and curtains if she'd realized that within a year, father would have our objects packed and move us all northward to be close to his parents. We would have lived next door, probably, except mother put her foot down and we skidded to a halt some seventy miles short, close enough to resume Sunday visits without having to live, as mother so eloquently put it, in a hell hole like Napa.

Mother was embittered by the notion that in less than three years, with just a little more gum in his hair, father would have had full retirement from the company he had labored for all those years. She thought she could see that his heart had called father home, and she was bitter towards grandmother. Grandmother, not grandfather, was the one who said day-to-day things, who gave things quick and immediate shape in unstoried words, so perhaps mother had reason. But the blame was too great, swelling like the bitterness in mother's heart, until she could accuse grandmother of wanting father to fail. "That was why she had them move north in the first place," mother would say. "She was evil," she'd say later, after grandmother was cut like a carnation from the earth. "Less than three years. Can you imagine?" she was still likely to ask, even after she and father had been divorced by bitterness. "A witch."

Perhaps mother was right. Perhaps father's heart had called him home. But as Nu-mi-pu, as a non-treaty Nez Perce, it was in his blood to carry Home with him wherever he went--or, more precisely, wherever he was forced to go. There was something else at work, some power mother did not see, could not see--indeed, which I never saw until it had worked in me, and even then I didn't see it, I only heard it, felt it in my heart while I made up excuses to satisfy Them. It was the power to be true. It meant that for seventeen years, father had smiled when they put gum in his hair. He had come to believe in the value of gum, in what he contributed to society by helping an oil company extract and refine and add lead to fossil fuels or develop new chemicals which would rid the world of pests, and he could rattle off a list of things that would not have been but for this contribution. When he quit, he did not quit because he'd changed his mind. These things matter to him forty years later just as much as they mattered to him then, and I've seen him envelop his wife's head in a spraycloud of pesticides to free her from the nagging buzz of a housefly; proof that he does not believe in "all this nonsense about carcinogens." The only change in him is that he has great difficulty smiling and he has, over the years, quit just about every group he ever joined. So what made him give up full retirement, give up all the smiling he had done?

It was not changing his mind. Nor was it the heart calling him home, as powerful as that might have been. I know this. I know that after three years of graduate school at the University of California at Davis, after smiling my way right up to doctoral examinations, after believing completely and wholly in the importance of the 17th and 20th centuries, after reading White, Black, Hispanic, and Indian writers who were alive all around me until I could chew gum with the angriest gay Black man in the Confucius Bar at New York's MLA, after being able to quote, proudly, whatever the seriousness of the occasion, "I have my J&B. The J&B company keeps manufacturing it, case after case, year in and year out, and there is, I am told, no immediate danger of a dearth," making Donald Barthelme's Sadness into a kind of deflective shield, after filling out every possible triplicated form in the world, one summery day, I packed up my old Volkswagen with my objects and drove 800 miles north to Port Townsend, Washington. I never thought of it as quitting or dropping out. Indeed, years later, I discovered you needed to ask their approval to leave and that, the way General Howard had pursued the Nez Perce and destroyed their provisions, they made it impossible for me to return peacefully and take up where I had left off; they were too angry over the fact that I had just left in the first place, as though my sudden leaving were a judgment of their value and proof of my character. I certainly did not think of it as failing. I thought of it as a success. "There was no one fit to examine me," is what I said to people who asked why. But that was only an excuse they could understand, both in its meaning and its sheer, Coyote arrogance. What I meant was, I came This Close to success by another measure and realized--as it appeared in a Dream--my own measure was all that mattered to me. And it mattered in a way that meant something other than criticism of their measure. Let them have their measures. I knew deep down inside that, given the chance, they'd shoot Snowbird from the sky or blow up summery frogs in a celebration of Independence. At least a part of their measure meant death. How much of the Dream were you willing to give up to death in order to succeed. I'd have liked to succeed--more, \perhaps, than my father throughout those seventeen-plus years--enough to cut my hair crew-cut, keeping only the waxed Dreamer's curl in front. But even at thirteen, I could not let the curl go completely, although I could keep the Dream fairly hidden or disguised.


It was my girlfriend who said repeatedly, "You'll finish your degree" with the same authority someone else might say, "You'll no longer walk the earth one day." She was a white girl, a kind and generous and loving normal person to whom I'd whispered, giving shape in words to what was in my heart, "I don't know I can do it." It never entered her head that I wasn't capable of doing it and it clearly never dawned on her that the inability was not intellectual but emotional, almost physical. My saying that I didn't know I could do it was an inadequate and unfair way to try to tell her that it was not my head but my heart that might keep me from doing it, that my heart which Knew the world held secret a Dream--unsaid, undefined, unending--in which I could measure myself by their stick only so far. After three years my heart was telling me that I had just about reached the end. If I got my degree before that end was reached, it would be fine; but the coup-stick end of these ways and days was no longer a mirage out there, it had shape and dimension in here. I could see it in the same way Chief Joseph saw it, fearing it, knowing it was coming, and yet, recognizing that the path which has been travelled until you can see its end cannot suddenly be altered and made into a different path, secretly rejoicing in its coming if that was what was to be. Joseph did everything he could while not signing away the land by yet another treaty to make peace for his band. Even camped at the top of White Bird Canyon, he had a white flag flown on a pole outside his lodge, a sign to the volunteers edging up the canyon that he desired peace. But in his heart, tired of the ways his people had been measured and the measures changed, he knew that when the volunteers fired on the scouts observing their movements, he would if not rejoice feel relief. He would be true to the path's end which would no longer be unclear and wavering like the shadow of Snowbird or the after-image of Coyote who is gone, but as sharp as war.

Graduate school was not life or death, and to use Joseph to explain me, thereby comparing myself to him, was--as I learned in school to say--"literally absurd." To explain this to my girlfriend in these terms would have drawn from her the same confusion it later drew from editors: "Wha..huh?" So when she told me that I would finish, and rolled over, cupping my genitals with her buttocks and resting her cheek on my biceps, I could only give her a whisper. "I hope you're right."

With all my heart, I hoped she was right, as much if not more as father hoped mother was right if she ever said to him, "Don't worry, you'll make retirement." It's an If, but not so big an If. Probably, given the vituperation mother expressed about father's having given up full retirement because of that evil woman my grandmother, mother said it as many times as my girlfriend said it. Nothing else would account for the vehemence of her vituperation but long expectation suddenly disappointed. After the first several times of telling father not to worry, receiving no reply, or none more expressive than "I hope you're right," mother must have thought the matter settled. Or, when father said "I hope you're right," perhaps mother replied, "Is that a threat? What do you mean by that, you hope I'm right?"

I opt to re-remember the former, even though mother was a white woman whose sense of family was perverted by suspicion and greed and whose sense of marriage was skewed by a family dedicated to divorce. I forget the latter because it is possible father thinks he has said what he has to say. Riding that Mexican general's freeway downtown to the Saxon building, the Indian man dreams, doubling back over the same territory, making sense of it, describing it, saying what has to be said until he expects the person he has said it all to to understand what is true. Chief Joseph riding to a meeting with General Howard holds the meeting with the general before he even arrives and the understanding is so good and perfect that the meeting seems almost unnecessary--and Joseph takes his time and arrives three days late. What do three days matter when the understanding has already been achieved? It is such a perfect understanding that Joseph believes that General Howard has had the same dream, has spoken and heard the same words, and their meeting is only a formality, a show for the people who do not understand--the journalists and reporters, the squatters, prospectors, thieves, the army wives who write letters to St. Louis about savages hanging about laughing at Christ mas carols during this wretched season at Fort Lapwai.

When the eighteenth annual Christmas Party rolled around, father mentioned to mother that he was thinking about not going. "You have to go," mother replied.

"But...," father said.

"No buts about it," mother said. "If you don't, they'll think you don't like and respect them."

That was sufficient to end the conversation: not wanting people to think he didn't like them when he did was a powerful argument for going. A Nez Perce can respect his worst enemy, as long as that enemy is true and not conniving or hypocritical, ever as much as Joseph respected Howard, whose heart he knew, but not Sheridan, whose heart was convenient. Father had spent the energy of seventeen years saying to himself that his enemies at work were not convenient but true. He respected them. He liked many.

This time mother rides the Santa Ana Freeway with father. It is a happy drive because all the words father has needed to say to mother to explain what was going on inside of him have already been said. There is no tension. To complete the vision, only mother's presence where the words have been said and re-said was necessary, and there she is, beside him in the finned Plymouth, all dressed up in muted colors and simple jewelry with, finally, someplace to go. Father is so content that he takes no notice of the discordant notes in mother's orchestrated anger when he refuses to pay a valet to park the car and they have to walk a long block from the covered garage beyond the building. Her lips are pursed. He sees that. But he smiles. "What warrior pays a boy to park his horse?" he thinks, assuming mother's lips will unpurse at the thought and her mouth grin with his. He leads her in to the Christmas party.

The party is held in the central reception room, a large open area off which spin the corridors of offices. The hall from the elevator is like a Huron gauntlet, men and women raising their champagne glasses threateningly and calling out father's name instead of inflicting blows with clubs or feet. The light is bright like the winter sun, reflecting off the cold crust of the walls. By the time father and mother pass the third group of glass raisers, father flinches; at the fifth group, his head ducks involuntarily; mother casts him a worried angry look. At the colon of the hall, where the corridor opens onto the bright and decorated main room, mother squeezes in smiling as father stops. To her, it is a room of gaiety and noise, of smells and sounds of people having fun together. To him, it is a web and tangle of different stories. Of so many different stories that each one seems a lie. Each is true in its way, but said in a crowd like this, words gets lost, tangled into other stories, rise quiet to the heat of ceiling lights and fall like lies to the floor, unheard.

Afraid of trampling on their stories, father physically cannot enter that room. His best friends are there. He sees one talking to the president and he makes a start for the corner they're standing in. Stops. A woman he cares little for nods and smiles at him tentatively; she is willing to let bygones be gone, he can tell, and he takes a step or two in her direction and then falters, and returns to the edge of the corridor. He bites his lip. Then he grins and stands there, grinning until he can no longer hold the grin and he lets his face relax into an open inexpressive look, a look that says neither "Look at all this fun" nor "I need to go potty." Just a look that says, "Wha...huh."

When on the drive home mother says, bitterly, "Well that was fun," and father says, "I'm glad," he means it every bit as much as when he says, just before pulling into our driveway to bed down the Plymouth for the night, "I hope you're right." In between "That was fun" and "You'll make retirement" there was a whole conversation in which father explained why he might not finish out the year in the Saxon building. How finishing twenty years no longer seemed to matter. Poor mother never heard these explanations.

Their perfection would have been spoiled, anyway, the way it was when, Berkeley a dissonant chord of lights behind us as my girlfriend and I drove into the rich darkness of the hills, I tried explaining how I'd rather be shot through the teeth with a Henry rifle than sell Death Insurance for a living.

"It's life insurance," she replied, her head turned away, her voice bouncing off the passenger window of her car while I drove.

"It insures I'll live?"


"It insures I'll live longer?"


"It insures someone will get a lot of money if I die."


"Best not to tell them about it, hey?"

"I hate you sometimes."

"I pay someone money so when I die they give a lot of it to someone else. So what it insures is my death, not my life. If it was life insurance it'd pay me to stay alive. Imagine. Every birthday some guy in three pieces comes by and...."

"I'm gonna kill you."

"I should warn you. I'm uninsured."

"It was my Christmas party!" she exclaimed.

"I don't believe in Christmas."

"I work with them. I have to see them every day. They were nice to you. They all tried to make you feel welcome. No, but all you could do was stand in the corner and sneer."

"It was a grin."

"It was a sneer."

Grin. But once I'd passed a mirror at a party and happened to catch my face grinning, and ever since I understood how to some people the grin and gruff of Coyote looked like snarl and sneer. "All right," I said. "I'm sorry."

"Huh," she said, willing to forgive me right now but wanting to say some things she felt obliged to say. Nez Perce, I was finding out, were not the only ones given to having conversations in their dreams. Women do it to. "If you were really sorry, you'd change."

"You're right," I said, wondering how people changed more than their words without dying first. Coyote the arrogant buffoon dies, tricked by his own trickster nature; fox steps over him five times saying words only fox may know, and he is reborn. "I'm sorry."

"You'll try?"


"To change?"

"If that's what you want," I said dully. There was warning in my voice, threat, change. Frog preparing to bury himself beneath the mud of a Sonoran Season, dead to the world as July and August peeled the desert to its vibrant core. But how?

"I don't think I can do it," I said as we left an Oakland A's game. It had felt good and queer to sit in her father's company's private box beside third base. Good, for the privilege. Queer because I did not belong among the Day Care and Mutual Funds of the other privileged in the box. One man kept talking Fidelity to me, a topic I coped with by nodding until it dawned on him that I had no idea of what he was talking about. "I'm talking money," he said. "Ah," I said, glancing at his wife. "I see."

"You can do it. You are not a failure," my girlfriend said.

"No, indeedy," I said.

"Good," she said.

It was this goodness that made me say to her, that loving and generous and kind normal person, when she asked if I didn't want to come over to her house and at least talk about my decision to leave school and town and her that night, "No." The words had all been said too many times.

I felt bad as I drove north with sinking heart into the mud-dark night. All the time and energy she had put into me would be a waste for her. If I were lucky, though, she'd think me the failure.


This is better than true: By the time I was fifteen, my hair had grown back to a respectable length. In between, I found God, the Christian God, the one whose magic is to divide himself into three forms and pounce upon the world when it isn't looking. The Front Man they use to steal your land. The one they believe has a Reason for the horrid awful thing that has just happened to them and who keeps the happy things a mystery. He must have been a real trickster to watch the volunteers route Looking Glas s under the white flag of truce, not long after so many of the Nez Perce had willingly taken up Christianity and its Book. Its magic seemed so powerful.

God explained why I was different. And he forgave me. Every Sunday, I rose early and walked across town where I sat outside the church and watched the old people park their cars by sonar, backing into one car, then reversing forwards into another, turning the steering wheel this way and that until, within five feet of the curb, they were satisfied. God forgave me for enjoying the vaudevillian antics of the near-dead.

He also forgave me--sternly, I might add, with a black and white suit of words from the minister who caught me--for nipping a couple of cookies from the kitchens on my way to Sunday School. And he taught me, after the first time, to rearrange the cookies to look as though none were missing, a skill that has given me knowledge in return. I know if someone has gone through my medicine cabinet or my drawers; I know what someone's medicine cabinet contains even though not a single label is turned or changed on the bottles and vials. I can be in your house and not disturb your dust.

Most of all, he forgave me Cindy. She was two years older than I was with a round, open, freckled face. She believed just the right amount. She spoke in tongues, but she did not throw herself on the floor and writhe like a savage. Cindy sang in the choir and when I heard her singing and surprised her in the bushes, across the stream from church, God was there. He looked away at the local Sparrow when her blouse fell open and a breast dropped into my hand; He blinked, slowly like a window shade drawing down, as her pleated skirt drew up. Afterwards, she knelt in prayer and I believed from the fervor of her voice that God forgave her. Me, well, maybe there was a little doubt in His mind about me. Try as I may, these cookies were a bit more difficult to rearrange. I fell asleep to the song of crickets while Cindy prayed and dreamed of mallard duck girls giggling after copulation.

The real magic of Cindy's God was that he let me be so sure he existed in triplicate that I could walk into a room of strangers and smile, certain that I was superior to anyone who saw in me anything other than a Christian. I belonged to the Youth Group. We played basketball against other Youth Groups and won. We staged wholesome musicals for the church community. We went on retreats where I got to teach Cindy how to feel the animals watching us while she prayed excitedly. We planned a mission for the summer, taking our Triceratops God down to the Navaho (with Hopi Land) Reservation in Arizona and, while doing Good Works, preaching people into silence, if not acceptance and conversion.

At Second Mesa, the bus parked below the village perched like Peregrines or Red Tails along the rim of the mesa. The broad road, hot and white with July, the gravel sharp and glittering, the dust thin and pervasive. We followed a path until we were among the village kids who were as happy to see us as a truckload of Mars Bars. Cindy handed me her camera, posed herself, hugging two of the kids, and said "Chee...eee...eee...". Her smile, almost natural at first, turned hard with effort. "Sah," she said. "Gee whiz," she scolded me. "Take the picture."

The kids were happy to be hugged all over again. They giggled. An old woman stopped in a doorway and watched.

" Sah."

I held the camera. It sweated in my hand as I drew a bead on Cindy and the two kids. But I could not pull the trigger.

"Gee whillikers. You're hopeless," Cindy said with as much anger as her Christian heart could muster. "Give the camera to Steven. Steven will you take my picture?"

I relinquished the camera to Steven, who snapped off a couple of rounds, and then handed the camera over to Cindy.

"You're a real failure as a photographer," Cindy joked as we walked through the village to the quonset hut the girl's were to paint a donated green. "An utter and complete, useless failure."

I joined the boys, digging trenches and holes, laying sewer pipe and planting a septic tank.

That night, Cindy wanted to be shed of me. I left her in the vestibule of the mission church and hiked back out towards Second Mesa. I turned back silently when I ran into Indians guarding their fields below the mesa walls, and met Steven coming in from a roll beneath the Pleiades with Cindy.

"Hi," Steven said nervously, sniffing snot made to run by the clear night air. "There's KI-yotes out there," he added, as if to explain his nervousness..

I grinned..

"Where you headed?".


He was relieved..

But before dawn he was shaking me awake in my sleeping bag. "Cindy's sick," he hissed..

"Wha'd you expect?".

"Wha...? Huh?" Steven said..

The following day, Cindy felt pale and hot and rested on the air-conditioned bus as we took pick and shovel and continued scarring the earth for sewer trenches. Steven worked close to me, almost severing my toe with the point of his spade. Sweat dripped into the folds of my eyes and periodically I had to pause with the pick and catch my breath, wiping the sting and looking out at the hot fluid haze of the desert. A hawk floated on currents of air drafting up the side of the mesa. Saguaro Cactus threw their arms up at the white sky. Somewhere in the canyon, frogs were buried three feet below the earth's surface, waiting patiently for the Rains to invite them to the surface to join the celebration..

The old woman appeared in her doorway, again, watching us. Watching me. As I turned back to my pick, raising it with the joy of one who belongs, on a mission, doing good works, a feeling much like fear, like the anxiety of night falling dreams, riffled through my veins. I looked at Steven, at the way his stubby penis swayed in the stretch cloth of his cut-off sweatpants, his knees you wouldn't wish on a camel. I looked at the other boys, secure in their sunblock and boots, secure in the goodness of their work. I remembered Steven, in the middle of a close basketball game at the Youth Group hall, twisting with epilepsy; as people rushed to his side, I stood apart and watched. I saw the pictures of opening night and my eyes, my musical eyes that shone like crystals among the other eyes of the chorus and remembered how I--the lead--was supposed to walk out in front of the curtain and in all seriousness sing, "Phoebe! What are you doing?" Except for the afternoon wedding of Cary Costello, my sister's friend, and the gay man with the champagne tray, I might have succeeded. I could not be sure whether I got so drunk because I was scared or because I felt This Close to success at doing something father or grandfather never would have done, put themselves before a boast of audience, an audience joyful and willing to accept anything I did as the authentic actions of people like me. And I re-heard Cindy, as she and I sought a private arbor, crashing through the undergrowth on the retreats, intent on our arrival and not the journey. That was why Steven's stubby penis was so pointed, today, in his sweatpants..

As I raised my pick to strike again, I saw the old woman through the sting of sweat, watching, watching, and I dropped my pick. I walked to her in her doorway..

"Wha-huh," she said. "The boy who walks alone.".

She motioned me indoors..

Her name was Laura P. (She warned me never to reveal what the P. stood for.) I made her my grandmother in a book, and although she never was, in most ways she is. The inside of her home was dark, and the mantle was a shrine with candles, red-white-and-blue bunting draped in symmetrical half moons on either side of a triptych of photographs of John F. Kennedy. The kitchen at the back was brightened by an unshuttered window, and I sat on a bar stool as she fed me fried donuts and piki, a fragile bluecorn roll of flake the size of a tortilla. The sweet toasty lingering taste of piki comes to my mouth even now and I have often wished I kept the things she told me more in my mind..

The truth is, I knew what this woman said, have known it, and will always know it, without tense or time, in my heart. I ate piki with her that day and the next and then our grim Christian bus began its roundabout way back to where we came from. In my suitcase I had packed ten rolls of piki she gave me, and a small clay bowl, thrown and etched with sticks, and glazed with signs. In my heart I carried a hidden joy, wanting to remain behind and yet longing to be at home.

Cindy rode the bus more ill than ever beside Steven Shovel-Toes, and that evening in Jerome when I offered to go off with her and she ceremoniously and weakly told me no, her words rose up the presbytery to meet the undusted words of her elders, tangled in them, and fell to the floor at my feet. My heart was full still with the words of Laura P. as Cindy explained it all to death. I bit my lip, grinned, and then unable to hold the grin any longer, let my face relax into inexpression. I felt neither bitterness nor jealousy but only an odd and historied contentment that the path had reached its measure. A touch of sorrow that Cindy never would be healed. But what could I do? I had offered.

"Wha-huh," I said, leaving the church, passing the Grouped Youth playing frisbee in the twilight, and climbing the Cleopatra mine.

By the mine was a ghost town. By now, probably, the ghosts have been driven out, their stories ironed smooth, and the town restored. Then the feeling of being alone was sufficient for my joy as I climbed weather-grayed steps and dusk dark stones, weaving around and through the brush that had overgrown the old mine, trying to avoid the air shafts which were covered by rotted wood. I felt as though I had the coal of fire in my pants pocket as I sat on the steep mountainside and watched the last tines of light rake the valleys below. A dark-sinned man carried a coil of rope on his shoulder. He walked across a plateau below me, past a run-down Catholic church and into a wooden cabin nearby. A light flashed on in one room. He moved a chair into the center of the room, and then the curtains closed on the window. A priest emerged from the side of the church cassocked and hatted--one of those wide French-brimmed hats--his old body shaped like the hiss of an S, his head hung meditatively in sorrow or understanding. He, too, crossed the plateau and after knocking, entered the same cabin. Time unwound itself. I was still sitting there hunched over my knees like Ollokot (Frog) when I realized it was blanket dark, with the lights of the Pleiades and the reflection of the moon giving everything a crisp shadowy feel like the first dusting of snow gives a white fringe to the trees and rivers. My skin felt cold, but with a jacket coldness, and the chill didn't penetrate my dreaming bones. The light in the cabin was out; the church nearby was empty and dark, its batted belfry like a finger jutting up against the starlit canvas of the valley behind it.

It was quiet, as though I sat buried beneath the earth, except for the crickets chirruping away and the occasional hoot of an owl. Abruptly everything went dead, quiet. The crickets held their breath and the wide-eyed owls fell silent. I froze, breathing slowly, stilly, the air shallow in my lungs, just enough to keep from gasping. Brush crackled. A stone tumbled loose and bounced all the way to the plateau below. Still I sat, and stiller. I felt no fear, only the expectation which, in the heart, is knowledge. To my right, an animal snuffled. A low growl.

And then a leap, and I saw him. He stood on a boulder not ten feet from me, still snuffling and growling, silvered with the dust of night light, his eyes burnished with reflection. He stared at me. I stared at him. He was this close. I didn't speak, at first, and then it all came back to me with a rush like water over Beaver's dam and I felt flooded with words.

"Wha-huh," I laughed. "Ki-YO-tee. Ki-YO-tee."

From All My Sins are Relatives, University of Nebraska Press
© 1996 William S. Penn

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