The Blood Stone


Irvin Morris

The plane rumbles down the runway, past weeds and grass and patches of bare earth. It climbs in a noisy arc around the granite cliffs and spires of the Sandias and begins the long journey over flatness. Snow-splotched mountains to the north and west dissolve in the haze, and the land turns from brown to green.

Hózho naashá dooleel, hózho íishlaa dooleel. 'Ayadííshi hózho naashá, 'ayadííshji hózho íishlaa.

I am rising on a sunbeam, traveling on a rainbow. I am going to meet my father, the Sun. I am holy with pollen. I am dressed in sacred jewels. Far to the west, Tsoodzil, sacred mountain, passes, a mere anthill. Yé'iitsoh is dead. His blood congealed, solidified black. El Malpais.

"Complimentary snack, sir?" I shake my head. The smell of peanuts drifts through the cabin.

I am approaching the house of the Sun, steeling myself for the test to confirm my identity, when she returns.

"Would you care for a drink?" I look up and see my brown face reflected in her blue eyes.

"Some white wine, please." I reach into my pocket and scoop coins and bills onto the tray. A spot of red gleams amid the dull coins and crumpled bills.

"Is that jasper?" She smiles, setting down my glass.

"No, it's just an ordinary stone." As if it were an ordinary thing, carrying stones.

"Well, it's pretty."

The plane tips slightly to turn. Sunlight flashes on the wine and stone. The stone glows like a live coal.

"Díí nani'á dooleel, shitsóí." I hear the words distinctly, as if they have been whispered in my ear.

"La'ígó hane' hólo ndi, la'beedasína lá," she says. Hank Williams is singing about being so lonesome. Flames crackle in the barrel stove. A coffee can of sage and water perfumes the room with steam. The small stone nestles in the cup of her upturned palm like a drop of blood. It is egg-shaped, shiny, deep red with hints of copper. She closes her fist on it, curling her yellow-nailed thumb over gnarled fingers. She is motionless for several moments, staring into her lap. Then she grasps my wrist. She shakes my hand flat and drops the stone onto my palm.

"Díí naní'á," she says, folding my fingers over it. I nod that I will.

"Nichei yee sheiní'a nt'ee." She smiles. The old man, her father, is twenty years dead. I hadn't thought about him in a long time. Now, he steps into my mind. Tall, ruddy, red-haired and blue-eyed in a land of brown-skinned, black-haired people.

"Ei hwééldigó na'isdee' yee daa' nízhdii'a jiní." She points with her lips at my closed fist. The stone is warm from her touch. I remember the pictures I'd seen of the people huddled in brush shelters at Fort Sumner. They are ragged and thin. I am surprised to see that my thumb is rubbing the stone.

She is an archive. Countless nights we listened to her telling, captivated by the scenes she painted with her words. The ordinary landscape we knew - the desert, the mountains, the plains - transformed into a place where magic prevailed and monsters prowled.

There had been three worlds before this one, and this, the fourth world, the Glittering World, is the final one. Each of the previous worlds ended in cataclysm, its destruction brought about by the inhabitants. This time lahgo nááhswdoodáál. A whole new existence we cannot imagine. No one knows except the Holy People, and they are keeping it a secret. Another emergence. Hajíínéí , when we emerged as Diné and the Hero Twins undertook the journey to meet their father, the Sun, carrying with them the weapons of lightning and rainbows to do battle with Yé'iitsoh, the Giant. They rode into the sky on sunbeams and rainbows.

This is what the land must have been like from their vantage point in the sky, I think. Sisnaajiní , an anthill. And the land an archetypal tapestry, a work of brown and green and yellow and white.

Thin streamers of vapor swirl off the polished wings as we skim through clouds. Sunlight glints on the slick surfaces, on dents and rivets. Clouds pass like trees.

Hajíínéí . I do not question it. Her words are confident, rich with nasal tones, clicks, and glottal stops. "A lk'idaa'jiní," she says. A long time ago it is said - ancient, magical words. She stops frequently to spit into the can she keeps by her bed. She does this with delibration, so much a part of the telling. Long silences punctuate her stories, and we drift off into the world of her words. Then she shifts on her bed and the squeak of the springs is a summons.

"Nichei yee' áníinee'," she says. She reaches into her flour sack of belongings. She puts a pinch of Skoal in her cheek. The mole on her eyebrow bobs as her parchment lids blink. She puckers her lips and spits into the can. The clock on the table across the room ticks. A moth whirs around the kerosene lamp. Her calico cat leaps onto the tabletop and swats at the moth. "Doo 'álhályaada, héi!" she mutters with a shake of her head. Crazy thing.

I wait for her to continue the telling. The cat comes and purrs on her lap. Her hands caress it absently.

"Nichei yee ájíníinee --"

A small boy is alone in the white sun. Sheep nibble on saltbush in the broad wash below. The only sounds are the tinkle of their bells and the occasional bleat of a lamb. A hawk circles overhead, dips, flaps higher, veers off to the north. The boy sings in a high pitched voice. "Nich'i'lá hooghée' ndi, nich'ilá nízaad ndi . . ." The words proclaim devotion of a sort he can't fully understand: The distance to your home may be far, and the journey arduous, but -- The sheep dog comes to him, wagging its tail.

"Nísh 'aahnidishní."

Then the peace is shattered. Haashkiiltsooí, his older brother, clatters down the rocky hillside behind him. His horse is dark with sweat. Its chest heaves. There is green foam on the bit.

"Ti'!" shouts his brother. "Bilagáanaa bighiizh dee yinéél!" The boy gasps; fear squeezes his bowels. He pictures the soldiers spilling through the gap in the mountains.

His parents are waiting with four loaded packhorses. The cookfire is dead. A dark stain of grease on the ground buzzes with flies.

"Nóóda'í naalchila' seesghi, jiní." The broken body of the Ute scout had been found at the base of the cliffs lining the pass. The soldiers swarmed around it like angry ants. They are to be feared now more than ever. The packhorses toss their heads and snort. His mother says nothing. The boy looks at the peach trees his father had planted and turns away.

Two months later, in the dead of winter, they are staggering east. They cross the Rio Grande at Albuquerque and file past the twin bell towers of the mission. The Pueblo neophytes come out to stare silently at the long column of dead-eyed people moving past. A girl tries to stop a soldier from selling her newborn to the Spanish villagers, and is killed. The boy screams at the sight of the girl's cleaved, bloody skull. His mother faints and has to be carried by his father. The soldier returns and hacks off the head. Let this be a lesson. A scrawny dog drags it away, to the amusement of the soldier. The boy cannot forget the sword for months afterward.

He learns to eat flour and beef on the arid plains in a bend of the Pecos. They build the fort under guard and channel the river to irrigate their crops. There are plagues of grasshoppers and worms and four years of drought. His father turns gaunt. His eyes grow vacant and he is unresponsive. In the spring of the fourth year, his mother's belly begins to grow, but there is no joy. At night, she thrashes and moans. He covers his ears not to hear, but he does anyway. "Dooda! Dooda!" she pleads with the hairy face looming over her, straining red, breathing liquor in her face. His father dies before the baby is born. After four days, his mother gathers rocks and piles them over the grave.

She keeps two things from that time: a red-haired, blue-eyed child, and a stone pried absentmindedly from the ground as they sat listening to the discussions about the treaty and the conditions of their release. The stone is red like blood, and she tucks it into the waistband of her skirt. Now and then she takes it out. Gradually, it acquires a polish from her hands.

We hit turbulence, and the plane shudders. We are between enormous thunderheads. Lightning leaps from cloud to cloud. The masses flicker like strobes. The man across the aisle laughs at the antics of Bill Murray on the small monitor overhead.

"Why don't you have it polished and mounted on a nice chain?" Skye says. She is watering the ferns this morning. She has neglected them and their edges are brown. They are not things I'd keep in my apartment. She is like that: forgetful, self-absorbed, but kind otherwise.

"We've been over this before," I say.

"It's just that I think it would be safer, that's all." That's another thing about Skye. She is transparent. I know it bothers her. I have seen the expression on her face, tight, a put-on smile. She'd rather I let go the tangible evidence of my background. Be American. She doesn't understand.

"It would be like wearing my mother's head around my neck," I say. Streams of water pour from the hanging planters and she scurries for bowls and pans. I pour coffee and wait. She is not finished.

"You know what I mean," she says. "It'll get scratched, carrying it around in your pocket." She is exaggerating. The stone rarely travels with me. Most of the time it keeps my underwear in the bureau. I know she contemplated theft - a friend snitched - but lost her nerve. How could she explain it when I have nothing worth stealing, least of all the stone? I know it scares her. It represents a part of my life that exists, and will continue to exist, without her. The stone must seem to her, after all, only a chunk of - quartz? It may contain the skin oils of my direct ancestors, but do I consider my skin oils a special blessing to pass on to my children?

"Jamie's friend asked about you." Skye wipes her hands on her T-shirt. "The anthropoid, I mean."

I smile. I can guess what's coming.

"He remembered you from the party. He told her about the way you had that little group in your palm. All you had to do was mention the stone." She bites her lip. It is an unconscious act. She looks wonderfully childlike. Her eyes search my face. What will I say? Will I compromise?

"Those anthropoids know the score," I say. They know how to namedrop. Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu. Chaco Canyon. I picture a pin dropping in slow motion and bouncing thunderously.

"That thing means more to you than --" She cannot finish the indictment. The coffee goes down like sand. I should explain to her in Navajo, I think.

"Yáadilá," I say. "It's just a stone."

"I'm sorry." She sits beside me. Dinétah and Boston, I think, oil and water. A breeze turns the ferns slowly. I see that her nails are painted the same color as the stone.

The plane slices through the clouds. The stone is in my pocket, hidden, and the man across the aisle snores. I flip up the tray and signal the flight attendant. There is a brief moment when I imagine that I am approaching myself. I am naked but for a breechcloth and paint. I exude a wild greasy smell. The attendant smiles. I give her my empty glass and watch her walk back down the aisle. Far below, Illinois natives see a glowing red stone hurtling through the sky.

The old man is nearly bald, but his blue eyes are clear. He looks at me and laughs. "Héiyee' ánít'i?"

I identify myself. He thinks for a moment, snorting through progeny and relations. Then he nods. " 'Aagí, 'áagí." He reaches out and grasps my clammy hand. I have come, boldly, to talk. Now I am at a loss. He waits, and I scratch one foot with the other. My knees poke through my jeans. He rests his hands on his cane. The pearl snaps on his western shirt gleam. His jeans are rolled up and a little toe sticks halfway out of one black sneaker.

" 'Aa'?"

I am startled. What does an eight-year-old kid have to talk about? I swallow. A chicken squawks outside. Other kids shout. He closes his eyes and asks after my mother, my link to him. She is fine and so are my siblings, but what I wanted to ask was - I falter. He is listening! "Ha'át'íílá béénílniih?" A stupid question. What does he remember.

"Da'hwééldi dee'ná'íldee' yeedaa'?" Yes, what was it like when they returned? Hwééldi. Fort Sumner.

I sit in the small, sage-scented room all afternoon. He makes tea and shares his cache of graham crackers. I am full as I leave his house. I try to picture him as a child. Did he wonder about his father? Did he feel the tug of some land across the ocean in his dreams? Did he rage at the Holy People?

I pick at the mushy disks on my plate - the promised medallions of beef, swimming in thin sauce. The sky flames yellow and orange and red as the sun drops below the horizon. The clouds glow like coral. Man-made constellations glimmer below. The man across the aisle licks his fingers.

"Yáah," I say.

"Excuse me, sir." Those blue eyes again, that non-stop smile. "We're about to land. Please fasten your seatbelt."

I had fallen asleep. The city's spectacular skyline is framed in the window; the red lights atop the skyscrapers blink. I click my belt into place and my fingers brush the stone. "Koo náánéit'ash," I tell it. "Náánéit'ah, yee'."

After the landing I walk down the corridor in a stream of chattering people. Eliseo shouts and hugs me. I laugh. We skirt regiments of yellow chairs and walk toward the escalator. He tells me what has happened in my absence. Maria is sulking, he says, but he doesn't give a damn. She is getting too . . . too. He rolls his eyes. Ai, that woman!

"How was your trip?" He says finally, as we begin to slide down to the lower level.

"The folks are fine, bearing up well. I think they're relieved that she's gone, finally. You know what I mean."

Eliseo nods. "Si."

"I'm glad that I took this." I take out the stone. There is a commotion behind us. I turn just as two guys come hurtling down the escalator and crash past, knocking the stone out of my hand. The stone bounces down the stairs and lands near the bottom between the moving teeth. Eliseo curses. An old woman above us moans. She has collapsed on the stairs. We are at her side in four steps. "My purse," she says. Someone stops the escalator and I hold her hand. There is a flurry of activity. I wait until the old woman is carried away on a stretcher. "Thank you," she says. "God bless you."

After they are gone, I fish in my pouch of pollen from my luggage and, ignoring stares and whispers, sprinkle a pinch on the spot where the stone vanished. Then we leave. Outside, it is warm and the air vibrates with the din of the city. We are quiet during the long drive to my apartment. The streets are lively on this Saturday night.

"Tell me a tale," says Eliseo. "Something that will help me deal with an angry woman."

"A tall order," I say, swirling the brandy in my glass.

"A long time ago, there was a young man. He was in love with a girl who lived on a hill across the valley. But there was no hope, he knew, because the girl's father did not approve. They could just ignore him and get together, that was done in those days, but the father's blessing meant much to him. So he plotted elaborate strategies and began raising a bride price. His neighbors raised their eyebrows. Who in their right mind would want him? Who would want to subject themselves to ridicule and scorn? But love is unreasonable, if not indominitable.

"Finally the day comes that he has enough to offer for her hand. He dresses in his best velveteen shirt and brand-new Levis, silver concho belt, silver and turquoise bracelets, bowguard, rings, strands of coral, and turquoise beads, turquoise nuggets dangling from his ears. He is magnificent. At least he thinks so, as he sets out on his best horse outfitted with his best saddle and trimmings. He practices what he will say as he ascends the hill to her home. A pack of mangy dogs charge at the top and bark and nip at the horse's hooves. They halt near the ramada. He feigns confidence, but a bead of sweat rolls down the side of his face. He wipes it quickly and clears his throat. Nothing happens. He blows his nose loudly, holding it between his fingers. Still nothing. He hacks and spits. Then he does it, tosses decorum out the window.

"Yá'át'ééh," he says, his voice higher than he'd intended. "Yoowehdi naních'iidii!" Get the hell away from here. He feels his heart curl like a sun-dried peach.

"He cannot go home, so he builds a fire over the lava rocks at the sweat lodge. He strips and sprawls in the sand. What is wrong with me, he wonders, looking at his naked limbs. He slams his fist into the sand. He is pale as a lizard's belly where the sun has not browned him, and his pubic hair blazes orange. He moans and tears at the hair on his chest and belly, and the pain brings him to his senses. He goes into the sweat lodge and sings. His songs are soaring hope.

"He does not go to her home again; instead, he throws himself into numbing physical labor. His mother's homestead, where he still lives, is transformed. Corrals spring out of the ground, two new hooghan appear. Her ramada, where she sits most days, is the envy of the local women. The livestock aren't neglected, either. The horses ripple and shine, the cattle bear fine calves, and his mother loses none of her sheep. The local men cannot help but notice. Maybe there is something to this guy, they think.

"The girl, too, has been watching. As the days pass, her resolve grows until finally, one day, she packs her belongings. Her father blusters and threatens - "You'll have freaks! He'll poison you with his blue eyes! You'll get sick, laying with that Bilagáana!' - but she doesn't listen. She walks down the hill one evening and appears to him out of the growing dusk as he sits outside smoking and contemplating the day. He leaps to his feet. They do not speak. They do not need to."

"Maybe Maria isn't so bad, after all," Eliseo says. "Maybe I'll give her another chance." He is jealous because she spoke to a stranger at the KC dance.

After Eliseo leaves, the apartment lapses into silence. I wander through the rooms. I am for a moment on the balcony. There is a breeze and it seems to fan the lights of the City. The sound of traffic is tedious. I do not answer the phone, though it rings and rings. I open the bureau drawer. For a moment my hand rests on the cloth inside in the hollow where the stone once lay. Finally, I smooth over the depression and click on the lamp.

Tomorrow, Eliseo and Maria will drop by with some wine or something. Eliseo will pretend nothing happened, that he never said anything about Maria. And maybe, if they ask, I will tell a story.

From Neon Powwow edited by Anna Lee Walters, Northland Press.
© 1993 Irvin Morris Buy Now

The Bloodstone & Squatters are included in Irvin Morris' book From the Glittering World : A Navajo Story, University of Oklahoma Press. (Hardcover)

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