One night while the icy wind whistled through the cracks of Grandma’s hogan, the owl came and screeched his prophecy. My Grandma rolled on her side as if to ignore the owl’s cry. She seemed to understand the message, for she gently squeezed my hand, and began to stroke my hair like she was brushing it with her fingers.
After dancing, he wandered into an arroyo on a moonless cold night. Torturous icy winds ripped through his cotton cowboy shirt, his new pair of Wranglers, and onto his already numb body. He tried to nestle underneath a juniper tree, snuggling it for warmth, and clutching the branches for salvation. But his lucky Tony Lamas [boots] were not enough to save him from the bitter cold, and he exhaled his last breath.
His name was Frank, and he was an alcoholic. A Vietnam veteran with only horrifying dreams of blood and death. Hem and I were related as father and daughter, but since he went to war and came home a stranger, he wanted to be known as Uncle Frank.
Before he was drafted, Frank never paid attention to numbers, unless it was on his paycheck or the speedometer. At nineteen, he was enjoying a new found independence. He was employed as a truck driver for a uranium extraction company, and had begun to invest in a used black Ford pickup truck. Frank also fell in love with an eighteen-year-old receptionist named Loren. She was employed for the summer and had made plans to attend the University of New Mexico. Their relationship progressed, and Vietnam was only a topic for the media.
“Yeah! my number came up while I was shifting the truck into third gear, and Creedence Clearwater Revival was the only band worth listening to,” he said.
Frank was captured while on patrol near the Ho Chi Mihn trail, and he spent the next two years in captivity.
“They caught my ass behind the line and I’ve been a lucky son of a bitch ever since,” he said.
They say when Frank came home he wasn’t the same because he left as a boy with dreams of becoming a mechanic, and he returned as a man scared of living. The world progressed, and he couldn’t seem to catch up.
It had been four days since the owl had warned me. My Grandma Rosa and I were side by side grinding corn, and at the same time watching an episode of “All My Children.” My grandmother didn’t understand a word of English, but she seemed to know exactly what Erica Kane was saying or doing that day.
“Erica, she’s doing something mischievous again, she reminds me of coyote,” she said in Navajo. Coyote is a mythical figure in Navajo origin stories, and he always engages in mischievous endeavors when he thinks it will benefit him.
“Maybe you should tell Erica about the coyote,” I teased.
She chuckled as she put another handful of corn on the grinding stone and she began grinding as if she were doing an aerobic exercise that would probably tone even the saggiest bosom.
Grandma was a firm believer in maintaining the Navajo tradition. Her wrinkled face encompassed various aspects of a fulfilled life: humor, beauty, knowledge, wisdom, philosophy, and history. She would recite in great detail the many hardships that our ancestors had encountered during the past three generations.
“My grandfather walked all the way to Hweldi, then when it was time to come home, he walked until he couldn’t walk any further, and that is why we live on this mountain,” she would say.
The Navajo people refer to their incarceration of 1864-1868 as the Long Walk, or Held as it is called in Navajo. It was a chaotic time. The Navajos were forced to walk eastward to present-day Fort Sumner, New Mexico. After four years, a treaty was signed and the people were set free to roam home. Most Navajos settled within the boundaries set by the United States government, and after five generations, the people still live in the same designated area.
The mountains of west-central New Mexico are diverse, some made up of solid sandstone, and others matted with an evergreen canopy. It was there, at 10,000 feet, where my grandparents’ hogan sat. We lived on the receding end of the northern plateau in the Zuni Mountains, so we hardly had any visitors. It seemed as if the world consisted of only my grandparents, and my aunts who lived near and around my ‘s place the ranger Rufus was the only person came to visit, but all he wanted was information about the eagles that lived within the canyon.
In the midst of Erica Kane’s whining, and corn grinding, the dogs began barking, which alerted us that someone was coming for a visit. My Grandma’s attention immediately switched from the television to preparation for a visitor.
“Get the folded chairs out from behind the door, put the grinding stones outside, turn off the television, and disconnect it, while I put another pot of coffee on the stove,” she instructed. I began running around putting everything away, and I anxiously prepared for the visitor.
Moments later, a bouncing maroon Chevy truck slowly made its way up the rocky dirt road. The dogs were excitedly barking alongside the truck, jumping and howling to proclaim that they were in fact the first to hear the truck coming. From behind the curtains, curious neighbors were positioning themselves to get a better look, and I could see my aunt Velda moving from window to window trying to be discreet.
The visitor was not a stranger to me. It was Frank’s mother, my Laguna grandmother, Ana-Maria. Like my Grandma Rosa, she was full of knowledge and emphasized that the Pueblo people also had their share of journeys and hardships. I remember once during a visit to see Frank, Ana told a story of how we got our family name of Tobias.
“We got our name from a Franciscan priest who adopted an orphaned ancestral grandfather,” Ana said. “It was when the Pueblos revolted in 1680, and the priest found him wandering atop the ridge near Cabers.”
I wasn’t really sure whether to be excited or shy, for I hadn’t seen Ana since the San Lorenzo’s Feast Day four years ago. I was eight then, and knew nothing of why people were dancing in the plaza, but it was explained that people danced to give thanks for the harvest.
Ana came in with a laundry basket filled with pueblo bread, tamales, and roasted corn as a greeting gesture. Grandma Rosa accepted the gifts by nodding and uttering a thank you in Spanish. She offered Ana a cup of coffee.
Ana embraced me as soon as she was rid of the laundry basket, and we exchanged greetings in Laguna. She looked as if she had been crying, and I knew the visit was connected with the warning of the owl. With her face puffy, and the tears welling up in the corners of her eyes, she began to cry and talk at the same time.
“Frank’s dead,” she said. Her tears streamed down the contour of her face and onto her blue dress, where the wetness created a dark blue circle. She was crying and unable to stop at this point, so I embraced her hoping that she would be better soon.
“Old Water Charlie found him this morning, and Grandpa Tobias is getting him ready for burial,” she said.
My father had just died. The man I couldn’t address as Daddy because I’d grown accustomed to calling him Frank. My feelings were scattered, and I was truly unable to create an emotion. It was hard. The brief encounters I had with Frank, he commented that I looked like my mother, and that even if he didn’t know how to act like a father, he loved me.
My mother was a very slender Navajo receptionist, who worked at the uranium company until she was six months pregnant. She worked hard to keep her mind off Frank, and the war. She was very lonely, and she couldn’t wait for her baby to come. Two weeks before her due date, Ana had informed her that Frank was missing in action, and she went into labor that day. At 9:34 a.m. Loren gave birth to a healthy little girl, and two hours later, she died of complications due to childbirth. Grandma Rosa said she was lucky, because she walks with the holy people now.
“How’s Grandpa,” I said.
“We have to go, because we’re going to bury him before the sun rises tomorrow,” she said.
“I don’t know if my Grandma would let me go,” I said. “You have to come, everyone expects you to be there,” Ana said.
Grandma Rosa then interrupted our conversation with her question to me in Navajo.
“What does she want?” Grandma asked.
“She came because Frank is dead,” I said. “She wants me to go with her so that we could bury him.”
Grandma Rosa tugged at my arm, and ushered me toward the kitchen table. She firmly explained to me in great detail that a Laguna burial ritual went against our Navajo beliefs, and that I was probably going to get sick. That I would need a medicine man to cure me from the evil spirits that would invade my body. Then she told me how the topic of death should never be discussed in a Navajo home, for it was bad luck and it warranted unwanted intrusion of evil spirits. Grandma Rosa looked horrified, and didn’t want to hear of me going to a burial ritual.
“Ana, Grandma doesn’t want me to go with you.”
“You have to come. It’s our way,” Ana pleaded. My grandmothers were confusing me. I seemed to have been put into a situation where a choice would cost me a grandmother. So I turned toward my Grandma Rosa, and squeezed her hand.
“I want to go with Ana,” I said. I think 1 said it because I was curious, and I had Frank in mind when I made the decision.
Grandma Rosa was shocked. But she accepted my decision, and gave me some advice, more like instructions.
“Watch yourself, put ashes on your forehead before you go to sleep, don’t leave strands of your hair where spirits can get them, and don’t clip your finger or toe nails,” Rosa instructed.
“Okay,” I said.
It was a smooth ride after we left the dirt road. As I looked back at the mountain, it became majestic, and it swallowed every crevice that was so apparent when I walked across the mountain top. I had already begun to miss my home, and especially my Grandma Rosa.
We headed eastward on Interstate 40 toward the town of Grants, and I could clearly see Mt. Taylor. Grandma Rosa called it the turquoise mountain, and at a glance it was outlined by turquoise haze. It was green on the bottom, then toward the top it looked gray and dipped in snow. The view from the interstate was still the same; I could recognize some of the houses etched alongside the mesa at McCartys. It seemed so bare on the eastern side of Mt. Taylor, only valleys filled with sagebrush and cacti. Nothing to bide the village of San Fidel.
The village of Old Laguna was in our view now, and I could see the church on the hill. It was white with a sand ring on the bottom. It seemed to take a lifetime to go seven miles after we got off the interstate, but we finally arrived at Old Laguna, and Ana’s house. Grandpa Tobias greeted us with a hug, and led me to the table for something to eat. Many relatives were gathered within the little square adobe home. Some cooking. Some laughing and remembering with joy. It was really a happy and sad time.
I really didn’t notice anything around me. When I sat at the table, I glanced up to get the salt shaker. That’s when I saw something that scared me half to death.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?” Grandpa Tobias asked.
It was Frank in his coffin. He looked like he was sleeping and dreaming about something that put a smile on his face. Till then I had never seen a dead person before, and I became scared. My heart was beating fast, and I wanted to run out. I wanted to cry. People from the village and relatives were going up to his coffin, sharing their food with him. It was something I had not anticipated. I had not encountered anything like this before, so I believed I was caught behind the line and probably would be a lucky son of a bitch from then on too.
I was frightened. It was my turn to put food in his mouth, and T hesitated for a moment to contemplate whether or not I should or shouldn’t. As I approached the coffin with my pasty cornmeal, I thought about my finger prints being held hostage by an evil spirit, and regretted my decision to be a part of this burial ritual. I gently eased the cornmeal in his mouth just as Ana showed me, and softly whispered, “Please don’t steal my finger prints.”
That night, I vowed that I would not sleep because I was scared of Frank or the body of Frank. But I went to sleep, leaving my fears behind and outside my dream.
A cold draft rolled into the house, and my feet were numb. I tried real hard to cover them with my blanket, but it kept blowing off. I seemed to have been floating. I was dreaming. Then I saw Frank being removed from his coffin onto a Pendleton blanket, where the two masked kachinas began to stitch the edges of the blanket. The shared food was put into a pot that Ana had designed for Frank, and then laid on top of him when he was carried out. I followed the two kachinas because I didn’t understand why they wanted to steal Frank’s body. And we ended up near a mesa just south of the pueblo. The kachinas had disappeared and left Frank’s body near an entrance to a cave. The wind whirled and whistled as it blew the covers off Frank’s face. His face was painted with white circles, yellow dots, and blue zigzags. The wind was blowing harder, and it was trying to move a huge flat rock away from the entrance, but it wouldn’t budge. So I got a cane-like branch from a twisted juniper tree, and we teetered the rock away. When I turned around, Frank’s body was gone, so I walked around the mesa. Nothing. Then I heard laughter, and felt a rock hit my shoulder. I turned. I saw the ugliest woman 1 had ever seen. Her hair was made from old corn husks, her tablet a torn and backwards. Her body seemed to have been covered with white paint. I noticed her dark circled eyes, and her awful screechy laugh. She stood atop a huge boulder holding Frank’s body and laughing like someone was tickling her.
“Why did you take him?” I asked.
“You’re not supposed to be here. Now, go back home,” she said.
“No. Why do you have my father?” I asked.
“I need someone to wander with me,” the ugly woman said. “Besides, you left him by himself and helped the rock. You’re never supposed to let someone be by himself. Not here.”
“But I was trying to push the rock away, so I could leave him there,” I explained.
“You don’t act Laguna. It shows me that you don’t believe in traditions. You’re scared to be near your father,” she said. “So now I can take him.”
“No,” I pleaded. I ran toward them, but she faded with her laughter, and my father’s limp body.
I woke up with sweat running down my temples, and I silently sobbed, knowing that once again my father was a prisoner, his fate decided by others, rather than himself. And I wondered if he would ever go home this time.
A day after the ritual, I returned home. Then I got very sick. I couldn’t breathe, and my body was so hot that it felt like I was in Grandma Rosa’s barrel fire place. Rosa had taken the opportunity to summon a medicine man, so he could perform a two-day vigil to balance the human spirit again. On the second night, I had a dream.
I was walking near the same mesa where I last saw Frank. The same ugly woman was there. She had that same screechy laugh, and she was holding someone familiar in front of her. It was me. I tried to run, but she was holding me so tight that I couldn’t move. “Help me!” I cried. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. Suddenly the ugly woman dropped me, and she fell off the boulder. Someone had pushed her. It was Frank. I was so happy to see him.
“Daddy,” I cried. I embraced him so hard that I could feel his ribs in my palms.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Daddy, I’m sorry for not helping you,” I cried.
“Hey, look, I’m okay,” he said. “I think you stayed here too long the last time, and she took your living spirit.”
“Daddy, I’m scared.”
“Don’t worry about her, she won’t bother you anymore,” Frank said.
He stroked my hair, trying to ease my crying. He held and rocked me till I realized that I was walking home behind the medicine man. I looked back to see if my dad was with me, but he was walking away into a grayish membrane that separates my reality and my subconscious. He was free. He lives only within me, and I am happy.