Anna Lee Walters
PLACE:Canyon de Chelly
Johohah-eh peeked through the loose feathered clouds the wind had scattered free. His copper-gold face tinted the yellow flowers on the chamisas that grew well in the thirsty land of Arizona. The light from his smile gave life to shadows that hid from gray clouds. The strength of his touch brought warmth and encouraged gentle smiles on the faces of those people below.
They had long waited for this day. It had been the first in many years that their crops had not been destroyed by drought, insects, or even soldiers. Many days had been spent planting, caring for small fields of corn, squash, watermelons and pumpkins. The people had done all this secretly, hidden by the great walls of Canyon de Chelly. Only two or three people would go at one time to the fields to tend the crops. They were always very cautious and suspicious of those who came too close to their tiny fields, for there were, at any time, rumors of soldiers in the area.
The people worked hastily preparing for a feast. Much time had gone into this celebration since they had decided they were safe. Maybe it was the brightness of Johohah-eh on those peaceful late October afternoons, when the winds danced gracefully across the canyon floor. Maybe it was the weariness of the people, maybe they were tired of running from soldiers, and maybe they needed something to make them laugh. Maybe it was all of these things. Whatever the reason, they were having a feast.
Besides, had it not been said that "Rope Thrower," the one whom the belliconas called Kit Carson, was being critized about his method of warfare against the people? Even his own chiefs were finding fault with his technique of dealing with the people. For he'd never actually been able to bring the people out to fight openly. Instead, he went about destroying their sources of food, eventually forcing them into submission by starvation. Whether or not that was the reason for the little activity on his part in the past few weeks, the people were beginning to feel a faint hope of making it through the winter. And it would very definitely be another hard winter; all nature said so.
It seemed like forever to Natanii since he had felt solid food in his stomach. He watched his mother in the distance, expecting her to call very soon to come and eat. In all his seven years he had known only fear and hunger. Now, with the air filled with smells of meat and bread, his stomach became impatient and growled for attention.
Looking about at some of the people eating in the shelter of dark green junipers, he wondered how this came about. Silently he asked himself why the people were hungry all the time. He asked himself about the fear they lived with daily. His great dark eyes that claimed most of his face flashed from the earth to the clouds that lived in the sky, begging for an answer. But if the clouds knew, they gave no sign and ignored him.
Welcome sounds of laughter from a nearby family brought his eyes to the squash they ate and woke up the hunger that slept inside of him. Finally his mother called to him. "Eat," she said softly. She carried bread in her arms and held a battered container. As she came toward him, its contents spilled from side to ide. Finding a place of smooth red rock and fine red sand, they settled down to wait for Natanii's grandfather. Natanii could see him making his way toward them, his gray hair flying in the wind. He was slow in coming, for old age, not thinking much of time, held him back. Natanii's mother, sensing that her son was anxious to begin, pulled out warm meat and squash and urged him to begin. Natanii ate rapidly. It had been many days since he had had more than a thin piece of bread at one time. He ate so much so quickly that his stomach became almost sick. His mother, realizing this, pushed him gently against a large red rock that sat behind him and told him to wait for his stomach and food to settle.
His grandfather had finally arrived and started to eat when Natanii heard his mother speak of soldiers. It seemed to Natanii that they were always talking about the soldiers. Half listening to their conversation, he studied each carefully. He examined every detail that came to sight and all their words that came to mind. With frank admiration for both, he decided that he was glad they were his family. Beside them, he had only one uncle whom he did not know well. He could not really think of him as a part of the family.
His mother was a happy young woman, he thought. As happy as one could be under the circumstances they lived with daily. He found no unpleasantness in looking at her; in fact she was quite pretty, although she now looked a little tired from all the morning work. A strand of loose, black hair hung over her smooth cheek, and she pushed it back from time to time. Somehow it made her appear much younger than her twenty-two years.
Placing her hands below each ear, she drew her head forward slowly and at the same time moved her hands backward, catching the stray wisps of hair in her long fingers. As her slim fingers gracefully retied the string that held her hair together at the back of her neck. Natanii noticed the silver bracelet that hugged her small wrist. The bracelet that gleamed like daylight had once been his father's. Natanii thought often of him. And always when the face of his father came to visit in Natanii's mind, his eyes became warm and stung until the water of his tears washed away the loneliness and the face of his father.
A little more than a year ago, when the people were again fleeing the soldiers, Natanii's father went with a group of men to hold off the soldiers at a pass in the canyon. While they did this, the remainder of the people successfully made their way to the base of the mountains, but Natanii's father was one of those who remained in the desolate canyon. Life had been pushed out of his strong body by the big guns fired by the soldiers. The people told Natanii that his father had been a very brave man. He died a hero's death, they said.
After that, Natanii's grandfather exercised most of the authority in the family. He comforted his grandson and his daughter by telling them that his son's death was given by his son in exchange for the lives of his family. Being a medicine man, his grandfather was learned in the ways of life. He gave Natanii much in the endless stories he told. With his grandfather's powerful beliefs to console him, Natanii finally came to accept his father's death. He even began to understand that if he were to live, someone else must die. That was one of the rules set down by the holy ones, the Yeis, and the people honored those rules.
Natanii had spent much time in thought, trying to understand the Yeis. There were many strict laws, and understanding came slowly when talk of soldiers rang loud in his ears.
According to his grandfather and all of the old ones, after First Man and First Woman were created from two ears of corn, they were told that they would always live within the land between the four sacred mountains and that only the natural barriers of the river gorges and mountain ranges would limit their wanderings. Natanii could not remember when he first heard this story, but if it were true, why then were there soldiers who carried guns and chased people from their homes and changed their way of life?
The wind had become cool and blew sand in Natanii's frowning face, as if to take away the worry and play with him. Thoughtfully he chewed on more bread, and its taste warmed him. His grandfather, through with his meal, watched him, questioning the quiet of him. The old one worried about the young one. Natanii had lately grown too old for his age, and it somehow seemed wrong.
To interrupt the little one's disturbing thoughts, his grandfather said. "Natanii, go and gather wood for the fire." Immediately Natanii's strong legs carried him swiftly into the beginning of another canyon that promised more firewood than the empty one which now hid his mother. A small cornfield came into view, and he stopped to admire it. Picking up forgotten kernels of colored corn, he studied the field. He could see that the corn stalks had turned from the light-green colors to faded yellows. As he walked closer to the middle of the field, he noticed the crinkly sounds that came from the husks that lay everywhere. He was impressed by the height of the stalks. They grew taller than Natanii. Far off he heard his grandfather calling for the wood. Making his way between the rows of dry cornstalks, he finally reached the clearing. As he walked away he thought to himself that with all those steep cliffs to hide it, no one, not even the soldiers, would be able to find it. He began gathering loose pieces of wood that were lying about. When his arms became tired and refused to hold any more, he started back.
As he neared camp, he thought he heard children crying. The closer he came, the louder the crying. People were talking in hushed, upset voices. His short steps quickened as he turned in the direction of the crowd to investigate. Suddenly, from the mouth of the canyon came loud popping noises that echoed in other canyons. Natanii knew those sounds well. Gunfire! All around him came the thunder of rifles. His first thought was of his grandfather, and he started for him but was knocked down by people running for cover. The wood he held tumbled in the four directions when he hit the ground. He didn't know why, but he tried to gather those logs that lay near him once more. Then he got up and tried to run, but found it hard to move. The full meal in his stomach made his legs lazy.
He had gone only a little way before he fell once more, face down, pushed by a horse. He fell on top of the wood and one of the sharp sticks pierced his arm. He pushed himself upon his knees and looked at the blue-eyed rider on the horse. The man was raising his sword, aiming for his target. His target was Natanii. Natanii's heart drummed loudly, singing of fear. He moved his small hands over the earth and jumped up. When the horse came for him again, as Natanii knew it would, his short brown arms threw two handfuls of dirt into the horse's face. The horse reared and staggered backward, and the soldier disappeared into the midst of dust. Natanii stood waiting for the dust to settle. The taste of fine red clay was heavy in his mouth. His arm ached a little and he checked it to see how badly it was cut. Someone bumped into him and he looked up. The people were running all around, trying to gather a few of their belongings before getting away.
Natanii ran searching for his grandfather only to find him lying in the red sand dead. He had tried to protect his family in the only way he could. Knowing his grandfather as he did, Natanii guessed that he had fallen in the middle of a prayer for protection. His left hand still held the sacred pollen bag and near his right hand lay a stone ax, a powerful protection symbol. Nayenezgani, "Monster Slayer", one of the twins in Navajo religion, used the ax ceremonially for protection. It worked for him, they say, but Natanii's grandfather lay alone in an arroyo covered by the dark red flesh of Mother Earth.
Although he hated to leave his grandfather's side, his fear of the pale men in uniform was great, and he ran for cover. Not too far from him grew thick young junipers. He moved desperately for the protection they offered and wrapped himself in the prickly green blankets of numerous stems and boughs.
He stayed there for the remainder of the day, cautiously watching, quietly sitting, barely daring to breathe. His eyes kept finding his grandfather in the distance, and his ears became lonesome for the music of his grandfather's voice. His heart knew that his grandfather preferred to find death in this way. Many times he was not pleased with old age. He felt he might be a burden to his family and requested to be left alone in a canyon with some water and food to wait quietly and with dignity for death.
Natanii's mother felt that the old one's time was near. She also felt sure he knew it. Others before him had been known to predict their deaths in the same manner. Natanii had heard of other grandfathers and grandmothers who had passed on in the lonely canyons in the old days when the people were few and the enemy were many. When an old one knew his weak body could mean the very life or death of the people and so elected to remain alone. "How many canyons, how many grandfathers?" Natanii asked himself.
Forcing himself to turn his head in another direction, Natanii saw that the battle was almost over. During the entire fight, he did not see his mother at all. He checked those people on the ground and found that she was not among them. He knew well the faces of those who lay everywhere. His young mind could not believe or understand that they would move no more.
A small cluster of men, women and children had come together in the defenseless open spce of the battleground, trying to protect themselves by grouping together. The young ones were in the middle, the men and women on the outside. But this seemed only to make a game for those on horses. Two or three would ride threateningly at the helpless people on foot. The people, trying to avoid the deadly riders, would scatter everywhere. They would quickly regroup in another part of the canyon, pushing the little ones to the center, only to have the horses charge at them again. The men on horses played this game a long time, Natanii thought. For some reason, the whole thing reminded Natanii of the days when he had helped his grandfather clear patches of land for small cornfields. His grandfather would choose a certain place for the fields. Then he, with the help of Natanii, would make a fire. The wind would blow in the direction that the field would be. Soon the whole area would be empty. Watching the bloody scene, Natanii decided the horses could have been the wind and the people on foot could have been the bushes and tumbleweeds. The people, like the bushes and weeds, would soon disappear. Natanii didn't know why he thought of this but he did, and he was ashamed of making the comparison.
The men on horses were beginning to tire of their game. Eventually it all came to the same end with more of the people scattered on the ground. The weaker people fell quickly. The were easy targets for the powerful horses. The stronger ones made the game last longer for those on horses. But finally even those people fell, if not from the horses' speed then from the bullets that came from the guns that rode the horses. Seeing so many fall from the same source, it came to Natanii's mind of all the times he and other children had played a game of life and death. They had chased each other with make-believe guns. But these men played no game. They carried real guns.
Now that the battle had quieted down, the silence was strange and uncomfortable. The smell of burning cornfields filled the canyon. Those in uniform began to talk among themselves. They hobbled their horses for the remainder of the day. The food Natanii's mother had diligently fixed and then left behind, the men enjoyed. Walking about destroying all that they did not want for souvenirs, or things they could not take with them, they came near the bushes that cared for Natanii. Too near, he thought. Worrying in a way he'd never done before, he closed his eyes and waited to be discovered. Somehow the ones in uniform did not notice him. He relaxed a little. Knowing that he would not be able to leave in the light of day, he unconsciously checked Johohah-eh's place in the sky. It would not be too long before he would be able to leave. In his heart he thanked the junipers. He ignored his cramped position and tried not to move when the needles on the stems pushed him away. Later he tried to make himself more comfortable, but the junipers would not let him. He continued to watch fearfully.
The large meal in his stomach could surely have put him to sleep had it not also reminded him of the other natural functions that he could not control. After a serious struggle with himself, he forced away the uncomfortable and unwanted feeling.
Checking once more on the men who surrounded him and satisfied that he would not be discovered, Natanii placed his heavy head on two dusty, tired knees. He folded thin arms around skinny legs and listened to the wind's mournful song. It sang to Natanii of that long, long day.