Lullaby: White People and Snow

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Out Of the wind she felt warmer, and she could watch the wide fluffy snow fill in ere tracks, steadily, until the direction she had come from was gone. By the light of the snow she could see the dark outline of the big arroyo a few feet away. She was sitting on the edge of Cabriolet Creek, where in the springtime the thin cows would graze on a grass already chewed flat to the ground. In the wide deep creek bed where only a trickle of water flowed in the summer, the skinny cows would wander, Loki nag for new grass along winding paths splashed with manure. Ayah pulled the old Army blanket over her head like a shawl.

Jimmies blanket-”the one he had sent to her. That was Eng time ago and the green wool was faded, and it was unraveling on the edges. She did not want to think about Jimmie. So she thought about the weaving and the way her mother had done it. On the tall wooden loom set into the sand under a tamarack tree for shade. She could see it clearly. She had been only a little girl when her grab madman gave her the wooden combs to pull the twigs and burrs from the raw, freshly washed wool. And while she combed the wool, her grandma sat beside her, spinning a silvery strand of yarn around the smooth cedar spindle.

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Her mother worked at the loom with yarns dyed bright yellow and red and gold. She watched them dye the yarn in boiling black pots full of bedded petals, juniper berries, and sage. The blankets her mother made were soft and woven so tight that rain rolled off them like birds’ feathers. Ayah remembered sleeping warm on cold windy nights, wrapped in her mother’s blankets on the Hogan’s sandy floor. The snow drifted now, with the northwest wind hurling it in gusts. It drifted up around her black overshoes-”old ones with little metal buckles. She smiled at the snow which was trying to cover her little by little.

She could remember when they had no black rubber overshoes; only the high buckskin leggings that they wrapped over their liked moccasins. If the snow was dry or frozen, a person could walk all day and not get wet; and in the evenings the beams of the ceiling would hang with lengths of pale buckskin leggings, drying out slowly. She felt peaceful remembering. She didn’t feel cold any more. Jimmies blanket seemed warmer than it had ever been. And she could remember the morning he was born. She could remember whispering to her mother, who was sleeping on the other side of the Hogan, to tell her it was time now.

She did not want to wake the others. The second time she called to her, her mother stood up and pulled on her shoes; she knew. They walked to the old stone Hogan together, Ayah walking a step behind her mother. She waited alone, learning the rhythms of the pains while her mother went to call the old woman to help them. The morning was already y warm even before dawn and Ayah smelled the bee flowers blooming and the young willow growing at the springs. She could remember that so clearly, but his birth merged into the births of the other children and to her it became all the same birth.

They named him for the summer morning and in English they called him Jimmie. It wasn’t like Jimmie died. He just never came back, and one day a dark blue sedan with white writing on its doors pulled up in front of the boxcar shack where the rancher let the Indians live. A man in a khaki uniform trimmed in gold gave them a yellow piece of paper and told them that Jimmie was dead. He said the Army would try to get the body back and then it would be shipped to them; but it wasn’t likely because the helicopter had burned after it crashed. All of this was told to Cheat because he could understand English.

She stood inside the doorway holding the baby while Cheat listened. Cheat spoke English like white man and he spoke Spanish too. He was taller than the white man and he stood straighter too. Cheat didn’t explain why; he just told the military man they could keep the body if they found it. The white man looked bewildered; he nodded his head and he left. Then Cheat looked at her and shook his head, and then he told her, “Jimmie isn’t coming home anymore,” and when he spoke, he used the words to speak of the dead. She didn’t cry then, but she hurt inside with anger.

And she mourned him as the years passed, when a horse fell with Cheat and broke his leg, and the white rancher told them he wouldn’t ay Cheat until he could work again. She mourned Jimmie because he would have worked for his father then; he would have saddled the big bay horse and ridden the fence lines each day, with wire cutters and heavy gloves, fixing the breaks in the barbed wire and putting the stray cattle back inside again. She mourned him after the white doctors came to take Danny and Ella away. She was at the shack alone that day they came.

It was back in the days before they hired Navajo women to go with them as interpreters. She recognized one of the doctors. She had seen him at the children’s clinic at Aconite about a month ago. They were wearing khaki uniforms and they waved papers at her and a black ballpoint pen, trying to make her understand their English words. She was frightened by the way they looked at the children, like the lizard watches the fly. Danny was swinging on the tire swing on the elm tree behind the ranchers house, and Ella was toddling around the front door, dragging the broomstick horse Cheat made for her.

Ayah could see they wanted her to sign the papers, and Cheat had taught her to sign her name. It Was something she was proud of. She Only wanted them to go, and to take t heir eyes away from her children. She took the pen from the man without looking at his face and she signed the papers in three different places he pointed to. She stared at the ground by their feet and waited for them to leave. But they stood there and began to point and gesture at the children. Danny stopped winging. Ayah could see his fear. She moved suddenly and grabbed Ella into her arms; the child squirmed, trying to get back to her toys.

Ayah ran with the baby toward Danny; she screamed for him to run and then she grabbed him around his chest and carried him too. She ran south into the foothills of juniper trees and black lava rock. Behind her she heard the doctors running, but they had been taken by surprise, and as the hills became stepper and the school cactus were thicker, they stopped. When she reached the top of the hill, she stopped to listen in case they were circling around her. But in a few minutes she heard a car engine start and they drove away. The children had been too surprised to cry while she ran with them.

Danny was shaking and Ell’s little fingers were gripping Ayah’s blob use. She stayed up in the hills for the rest of the day, sitting on a black lava boulder r in the sunshine where she could see for miles all around her. The sky was light blue and cloudless, and it was warm for late April. The sun warmth relaxed her and took the fear and anger away. She lay back on the rock and watched the sky. It seemed to her that she could walk into the sky, stepping through clouds endlessly. Danny played with little pebbles and stones, pretending they were birds eggs and then little rabbits.

Ella sat at her feet and dropped fistfuls of dirt into the breeze, watching the dust and particles of sand intently. Ayah watched a hawk soar high above them, dark wings gliding; hunting or only watching she did not know. The hawk was patient and he circled all afternoon before he separated around the high volcanic peak the Mexicans called Guadalupe. Late in the afternoon, Ayah looked down at the gray boxcar shack with the paint all peeled from the wood; the stove pipe on the roof was rusted and crooked. The fire she had built that morning in the oil drum stove had burned out.

Ella was asleep in her lap now and Danny sat close to her, complaining that he was hungry; he asked when they would go to the house. “We will stay up here until your father comes,” she told him, “because those white men were chasing us. ” The boy remembered then and he nodded at her silently. If Jimmie had been there he could have read those papers and explained to her what they said. Ayah would have known then, never to sign them. The doctors came back the next day and they brought a BIB policeman with them. They told Cheat they had her signature and that was all they needed.

Except for the kid s. She listened to Cheat sullenly; she hated him when he told her it was the old woman who died in the winter, spitting blood; it was her old grandma who had given the children this disease. ‘They don’t spit blood,” she said coldly. “The whites lie. ” She held Ella and Danny close to her, ready to run to the hills again. L want a medicine man first,” she said to Cheat, not looking at him. He shook his head. “Its too late now. The policeman is with them. You signed the paper. ” His voice was gentle.

It was worse than if they had died: to lose the children and to know that somewhere, in a place called Colorado, in a place full of sick and dying strangers, her children were without her. There had been babies that died soon after they were born, and one that died before he could walk. She had carried them herself, up to the boulders and great pieces of the cliff that long ago crashed down from Long Mesa; he laid them in the crevices of sandstone and buried them in fine brown sand with round quartz pebbles that washed down the hills in the rain. She had endured it because they had been with her.

But she could not bear this pain. She did not sleep for a long time after they took her children. She stayed on the hill where they had fled the first time, and she slept rolled up in the blanket Jimmie had sent her. She carried the pain in her belly and it was fed by everything she saw: the blue sky of their last day together and the dust and pebbles they played with; the swing in the elm tree and broom stick rose choked life from her. The pain filled her stomach and there was no room for food or for her lungs to fill with air. The air and the food would have been theirs.

She hated Cheat, not because he let the policeman and doctors put the screaming children in the government car, but because he had taught her to sign her name. Because it was like the old ones always told her about learning their language or any of their ways: it endangered you. She slept alone on the hill until the middle of November when the first snows came. Then she made a bed for herself where the children had slept. She did not lie down beside Cheat again until many years later, when he was sick and shivering and only her body could keep him warm.

The illness came after the white rancher told Cheat he was too old to work for him anymore, and Cheat and his old woman should be out of the shack by the next afternoon because the rancher had hired new people to work there. That had satisfied her. To see how the white man repaid Chat’s years of loyalty and work. All of Chat’s founding’s English talk didn’t change things. It snowed steadily and the luminous light from the snow gradually diminished into the darkness. Somewhere in Cabriolet a dog barked and other village dogs joined with it. Ayah looked in the direction she had come, from the bar where Cheat was buying the wine.

Sometimes he told her to go on ahead and wait; and then he never came. And when she finally went back looking for him, she would find him passed out at the bottom of the wooden steps at Assize’s Bar. All the wine would be gone and most of the money too, from the pale blue check that came to them once a month in a government envelope. It was then that she would look at his face and his hands, scarred by ropes and the barbed wire of all those years, ND she would think, this man is a stranger; for forty years she had smiled at him and cooked his food, but he remained a stranger.

She stood up again, with the snow almost to her knees, and she walked back to find Cheat. It was hard to walk in the deep snow and she felt the air burn in her lungs. She stopped a short distance from the bar to rest and readjust the blanket. But this time he wasn’t waiting for her on the bottom step with his old Stetson hat pulled down and his shoulders hunched up in his long wool overcoat. She was careful not to slip on the wooden steps. When she pushed he door open, warm air and cigarette smoke hit her face. She looked around slowly and deliberately, in every corner, in every dark place that the old man might find to sleep.

The bar owner didn’t like Indians in there, especially Navajo, but he let Cheat come in because he could talk Spa knish like he was one of them. The men at the bar stared at her, and the bartender saw that she left the door open wide. Snowflakes were flying inside like moths and melting into a puddle on the oiled wood floor. He motioned to her to close the door, but she did not see him. She held herself straight and walked across the room slowly, reaching the room with every step. The snow in her hair melted and she could feel it on her forehead.

At the far corner of the room, she saw red flames at the mica window of the old stove door; she looked behind the stove just to make Sure. The bar got quiet except for the Spanish polka music playing on the jukebox. She stood by the stove and shook the snow from her blanket and held it near the stove to dry. The wet wool smell reminded her of newborn goats in early March, brought inside to warm near the fire. She felt calm. In past years they would have told her to get out. But her hair was white now and her faced was wrinkled. They looked at her like she was a spider crawling slowly across the room.

They were afraid; she could feel the fear. She looked at their faces steadily. They reminded her of the first time the white people brought her children back to her that winter. Danny had been shy and hid behind the thin white woman who brought them. And the baby had not known her until Ayah took her into her arms, and then Ella had nuzzled close to her as she had when she was nursing. The blonde woman was nervous and kept looking at a dainty gold watch on her wrist. She sat on he bench near the small window and watched the dark snow clouds gather around the mountains; she was worrying about the unpaved road.

She was frightened by what she saw inside too: the strips of venison drying on a rope across the ceiling and the children jabbering excitedly in a language she did not know. So they stayed for only a few hours. Ayah watched the government car disappear down the road and she knew they were already being weaned from these lava hills and from this sky. The last time they came was in early June, and Ella stared at her the way the men in the bar were now staring. Ayah did not try to pick her up; she smiled at her instead and spoke cheerfully to Danny.

When he tried to answer her, he could not seem to remember and he spoke English words wit h the Navajo. But he gave her a scrap of paper that he had found somewhere and carried in his pocket; it was folded in half, and he shyly looked up at her and said it was a bird. She asked Cheat if they were home for good this time. He spoke to the white woman and she shook her head. “How much longer? ” he asked, and she said she didn’t know; but Cheat saw how she stared at the boxcar shack. Ayah turned away then. She did not say goodbye. She felt satisfied that the men in the bar feared her.

Maybe it was her face and the way she held her mouth with teeth clenched tight, like there was nothing anyone could do to her now. She walked north down the road, searching for the old man. She did this because she had the blanket, and there would be no place for him except with her and the blanket in the old abode barn near the arroyo. They always slept there when they came to Cabriolet. If the money and the wine were gone, she would be relieved because then they could go home again; back to the old Hogan with a dirt roof and sock walls where she herself had been born.

And the next day the old man could go back to the few sheep they still had, to follow along behind them, guiding them, into dry sandy arroyos where sparse grass grew. She knew he did not like walking behind old ewes when for so many years he rode big quarter horses and worked with cattle. But she wasn’t sorry for him; he should have known all along what would happen. There had not been enough rain for their garden in five years; and that was when Cheat finally hitched a ride into the town and brought back brown boxes of rice and sugar and big in cans of welfare peaches.

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Lullaby: White People and Snow. (2018, Mar 24). Retrieved from

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