Evening gusts moved shadows and air the dogs couldn’t smell.
This late into Niłch’ih Tsoh, with the ground buried beneath three day’s snow, two mutts curled for warmth inside a scrap-wood shelter built against the northeast side of a hogan. Travel this night was unlikely, though not impossible, if someone were forced to venture across the darkness and cold. Many generations ago this land had belonged to Hastiin Łįį›dóó ł›izhé, a pious if not saintly man quick to judge those of us living in imbalance, out of tune with the harmonious songs of the earth and constellations. Who had come to own the property I had no way of knowing other than to look in and observe the doings of those who lived there.
Inside, the hogan was furnished meagerly, several bedrolls with a blanket each, two wooden chests, a loom, a metal wood-burning stove in the center, and a washbasin with shelves for food and dish storage. A couple of saddles were piled near the eastward-facing door, though I had seen no corral anywhere near on my approach.
In the dim light of two lanterns a scrawny-shouldered boy played a game of mimicking an older girl. He wore a shirt a few years too big for him, the darkened skin of being winter-fed circling his eyes. The girl crouched with her skirt flared around her, dirt caking the cracks of her rough-skinned hands.
“Your face is dirty,” she said. “Wipe it off.”
“No,” said the boy, “you wipe yours off. I don’t like it looking at me. It’s ugly.”
“You’re the ugly one, an ugly dirt boy.”
The girl sprang forward, lumbered toddlerlike on her knees, and tackled the boy. Their skinny bodies fell flat against one another in the fashion of a man and woman bedding together. Any sort of play like this between kids in my day was taboo, touching that siblings and cousins were cautioned never to engage in. It was disrespectful, overly sexual, and unbecoming of children who would become adults.
Near the bedrolls, an old, wind-beaten woman hunched over a folded blanket on her lap. She yelled “Yaa’dilah,” and paused her game of seven cards set in a row, stacked according to number, color, and suit. A game I didn’t recognize, but then, so much was unfamiliar to me these days.
“Doo beehaz’áa da. You kids don’t act that way. Nia, get off your cousin.”
The kids continued to wrestle despite the old woman’s urging. Punishment would have been my next impulse, were these delinquents mine. Especially for the boy—it’s boys who grow into irresponsible men, hardly able to mature beyond hungry hands, groping eyes, and temporary hearts.
The old woman’s cards scattered as she rose. Grabbing the girl by her ponytail, she yanked her off the boy, who scampered backward to the south wall.
“You’re hurting me, shimásání,” the girl whined.
She was slapped, let go. The girl sat still only a moment before fake-stepping toward the boy, who flinched. She was slapped again, shoved to the floor. Angered, the girl glared at the boy from her defeated position.
“Flincher diigis,” she said.
“You’re stupid,” whispered the boy, huddled against the wall.
The grandma retrieved her blanket and cards, rearranged and resumed her game.
Ignored or forgotten, the children, like alerted prairie dogs sniffing unfamiliar wind, stood and chased each other around the stove in the center of the hogan. The girl galloped ahead of the boy, taunted him with whinnies as his failed grasps caught the empty space between them. He dove for her and missed, tumbled toward a corner table and into the legs of a younger woman slicing onions for a stew simmering on the stovetop. The woman cut her thumb and cursed; blood seeped into the fine crevices of the halved onion so that it looked like a bloodshot eye. She loomed over the boy, knife in hand, slammed it flat against the cutting board, the blade twanging and falling silent.
It was obvious to me that this was the boy’s mother. Her patience to discipline him was measured—she directed his attention to the physical pain he caused her, allowed him to know that it wasn’t the flow of her blood that hurt her, but his continual refusal to stay quietly seated, to have listened.
“Nia,” she said, not looking away from her son, “clean your cousin’s face. It’s dirty.”
“But . . . ” said the girl.
“I told you to clean his dirty face.”
Nia took the boy’s hand silently, led him to a wash pan filled halfway with filmy water, wetted a rag, and began gently, or reluctantly, to wipe his face. The mother shouted that Nia was only smearing the dirt and so she scrubbed harder until the boy’s face reddened from her effort. She smoothed his thin, black hair and dabbed his face with the cloth.
“It’ll be okay, Grayson,” she said. “It was an accident. You didn’t mean to hurt your mom.”
“Don’t you call him Grayson,” said the mother. “He’s no man’s son. Just a boy. A gray boy.”
The girl, turned defiant against the mother’s dismissiveness of the boy, uttered under her breath that he’d always be Grayson to her. The mother glared at the girl, the crow’s feet at the edges of her eyes deepened, and her mouth opened like a cow’s. Before she could yell at the children, the grandmother told her to not waste her time and youth chastising them, she would only wrinkle faster, turn her hair white.
“You just finish making dinner. I’ll settle the kids down.”
Returned to her chopping, the mother said, “That’s what you were supposed to be doing.”
The grandmother waved off the comment, motioned for the glum children to sit at her feet.
This was how winter was supposed to be spent: stories told to teach, kids playing the moccasin or stick game, not running about wildly—though in my day all this had begun to change too.
A somber quiet settled within the hogan, and the old woman began a story. She had been a girl when she heard it, hardly older than the boy, though better fed. The story was about a woman driven mad, who had killed her children by locking them inside their hogan during winter, where they starved to death, and froze together as a solid, misshapen hunk of ice. When spring arrived, their hardened bodies thawed, and the woman cooked and ate them. Some years later, after the woman had died from the grief of devouring her children, she began to haunt the frozen nights in search of misbehaving children, whom she would freeze and then consume during warmer weather.
The boy and the girl sat horrified. The girl seemed to feign indifference and doubt, but I could see the small wavering of her eyes. The boy turned ashen; the uncertainty of his protection weighed down on his shoulders as if he might disappear into the thin veil of his shirt.
The timing of the grandma’s story wasn’t right, however. There was no way the old woman was a girl when I’d been alive. It wasn’t even possible for her mother to have been alive. Perhaps the old woman’s grandmother might have been a girl then? It’s difficult to say. The only things true about the story were that I had existed and then had ceased to.
My memories occur in no particular order, but all at once, happening continually, in imbalance and disharmony.
My parents and I had lived in Łeejin Haagééd, which was half a day’s walk from the cliffs that overlooked Hałchíítah—the color of dusk skies in summer and, beyond on the western horizon, the blue peaks of Dook’o’oosłííd.
We had been forced from this place by the Bilagáanás and their Bi’éé Łichíí›í. We were allowed to return after years in exile to a barren landscape and a dilapidated hogan, looted but fortunately not burned. My father was surprised to find the two windows intact. Our home had been used, probably, as a safe haven for vagrants or those journeying to some better place. My parents had returned to die in their home and not in exile, though I’d returned to live.
I was one of the few adolescents to survive the many days’ march to Hwéeldi, where we were given rations of bland white dust, pungent brown grounds, and dirty water. Aside from the deplorable living conditions, we were forced to live with a band of Naashgalí Dine’é, who were our enemies, though the reason why I don’t know or remember. Early on we stole from one another and often fought, until we learned that our real enemies were the Bi’éé Łichíí›í guarding us, as well as the Nóóda’í, who were allowed to raid our prison while the soldiers stood by laughing and whooping. It was during these years I was raped, first by a Nóóda’í, and then by a lanky Bilagáaná soldier who kept his cowardly blue eyes shut and called me by some other name. I wanted the pale soldier to look at me, to see me, starved and weak, a bony girl without breasts or hips. I wanted him to know that his strength over me was pathetic.
Before we were marched at gunpoint to Hwéeldi, the Bi’éé Łichíí›í slaughtered our livestock, left the carcasses to rot in the sun, and set our crops ablaze, the dark smoke invading the clear expanse of sky. This was the fate of every family across Diné Bikéyah. Some families fought and were killed, their bodies stripped and burned. Others fled, and were captured. If not bound, beaten, and marched, they were murdered. The girls and women were raped multiple times before their energy and lives left them. Those able to escape hid in the maze of canyons at Tséyi’, did their best to preserve what little of their livestock remained—eating only the old and weak, breeding the young—and foraged piñons, wild onions, and corn.
The old woman’s tale gave no light to the dim corners of my life, the secrets I hid from my kids, or the darkness I made of myself.
My father died young, not too long after we were released and had returned home. I was a young woman by then and pregnant with a second child. He would praise our leaders for negotiating a treaty that allowed us to come home, which offered him a small amount of peace and solace, though he wasted away during the season of our return. My sister didn’t make it as far as my father. She coughed blood until it killed her, and we buried her beneath a tree somewhere between Tóniłts’ílí, our home, and Tsoodził. I don’t remember when exactly, but it certainly was before we left that prison, before my brothers were taken to schools far in the East, well beyond Sis Najiní and Hwéeldi even. The Bilagáanás thought the absence of men would cause the people to fall into disarray and chaos, to depreciate and succumb to the weakness they saw in the women from their world. They knew nothing beyond their hatred for us; they didn’t know that our women did everything a man could, that we held the power Bilagáanás are so obsessed with. I never saw my brothers again and there was no way to learn of their fate.
My mother worked herself to death keeping me alive. During her final years she began to forget me. She no longer recognized what little possessions we owned, or where we lived. Looking across the landscape, barren except for sand, she asked if she was able to go out and play with friends who didn’t live too far off. She’d be home by sunset, she said. What heart-broke me most was waking one morning to find her more lost in her mind, building an invisible fire and stripping naked for a nonexistent ceremony, covering herself in invisible ash.
My grandparents had been lucky. They escaped into the canyons along with the first wave of people who avoided capture. Of those refugees, many weren’t heard from again. No one knew if they had perished, hidden in the canyons, or if they had later emerged and disappeared into unfamiliar landscapes. I knew that my grandparents wished to die on Diné Bikéyah, where the Diyiin wanted them to be, where we all, at some point, should be.
What the grandma got right in the retelling of my story was my lack of husband and the two scrawny kids, the bulbs of their spines nearly bursting through their skin whenever they bent. My spirit faded with every thin meal I was able to give them. One could assume I knew nothing of hard work, cooking, herding sheep, weaving, or storing food. Truth was, I didn’t own a loom. The small plot we were able to maintain sustained us if we rationed, never enough to save. The old woman’s tale gave no light to the dim corners of my life, the secrets I hid from my kids, or the darkness I made of myself.
The work I did was to dance men away from their families temporarily. My slender, hardened body didn’t disgust them; everyone had changed in this way, as if nearing death sucked our skin closer to our bones. We imagined a healthy softness through the desperate need of our bodies closing together. Not a lot of us, it seemed, were looking for forever, though perhaps we should have been.
I also gambled, was good at it. Won jewelry, sometimes livestock, most anything people were willing to surrender—except children, because they can be burdens disguised as gifts. I took this style of life and it took me. The weak men, angered from losing, attacked and beat me at times. One unlucky bastard tried to rape me, but my life had seen enough of that, and I took the deer antler–handled knife I’d won off him and cut his neck down to the spine, swallowed the blood that poured down on me, to get the strength to get back home to my children. It didn’t sicken me, only intensified the bitter taste of my own blood in my mouth. Weeks and months after this I was called the murderous-whore-witch, and even now, generations later, I’m thought of in this way. It’s how I’m bound to this earth.
And so the old woman continued her version of the story of how my children and I met our deaths. One abnormally long and snowy winter I abandoned them yet again to go to a Ye’ii bicheii some unreasonable distance away. My intentions for going I don’t remember exactly, though I could surmise that it was to obtain supplies, seek the false hope of help. A blizzard arrived and the entire landscape froze and was buried. The children had hardly any wood, just as much to eat. The trip should have taken three, maybe four, days. But I never returned.
“Those kids,” the old woman continued, “didn’t have any wood, any food, so they burned their hair first, then their clothes. They began to eat the walls. The woman, far away and unable to reach her children, begged hand-tremblers and crystal-gazers for help. None would, except for a witch who lived in incest with her only son. Those two lived off the suffering and spirits of others. The witch offered the woman help if she promised to give all she owned, which the woman did. She was stripped, covered in an ash mixed with the crushed bones of bodies stolen from graves; the witch told the woman that the ash would keep the cold off her, she wouldn’t feel a thing. The witch sang on the woman, and the son took the woman’s breath into his body and exhaled it into his mother’s, so that the woman’s soul would never find its home and be forever lost.”
My children were discovered frozen to the empty stove, their hair and fingernails gone. The people who found my kids refused to touch the bodies, feared they’d break apart and release spirits that would haunt them. Spring arrived and my children seeped back into the earth. The earth where I walk the nights wailing out names I don’t remember.
I embrace the children I do find and they succumb to the cold of me.
“The woman, like the witch, seeks souls to sustain her. And so, she returned to her children and devoured them.” The silly old woman howled out a few times and cackled, set the children crying and seeking the comfort of her skirt. As if I’d howl in such an obscene way. She hurried away from the kids toward the stove, took a small shovel and scooped some ash out, and smudged an arc on each child’s forehead. This appeared to calm them, though they looked at one another with furled, uncertain brows. The girl, eyes widened with realization, removed a small pouch beaded at the edge of its opening, pinched some tá›dídíín, and placed it on her tongue, then the boy’s. They closed their eyes and prayed, possibly, for protection against a force like me.
In the months before my children passed, they stopped praying. They didn’t greet the sun with open arms and stare at it for a blink’s time, the fire blue-glowing behind their eyelids afterward. They had given up hope that it’d get better for us, for them really. I wouldn’t ever get myself together and find a man, or anyone, to help or protect us. I never demanded they pray. By then I was already a ghost to them.
Wind picked up, rattled the north window where the mother stood slowly cleaning bowls, a cutting board, and the knife she used preparing the night’s meal. She ignored the children, her thoughts a vast distance away. She stroked the palm and fingers of one hand. I could tell by this motion that she was waiting for someone, had a someone in mind. Her face relaxed for a few moments, until the whimper and complaint of one of the children turned it stern, impatient.
“Can’t you kids shut up for half a night? Nothing’s out there. Don’t let grandma scare you. It’s not good to be afraid, anyway. It lets everyone know you’re weak.”
The children apologized, offered their quietude in exchange for assurances of safety, were placated with a snack of piñons.
Behind me on the white horizon, snow crunched as a heavily bundled figure took long strides as it approached the hogan, along with the wind that had begun to blow. The mutts sprang up and barked. The figure, gruff-voiced, yelled at them to hush. As he neared the door, he affixed white stringy hair to his face and put on a hat in the shape of a cone with a white ball at its top. His clothes were also peculiar, all red with what looked like white rabbit fur around his pant-leg cuffs as well as at the bottom of the coat. He had a green burlap sack slung over one shoulder. He was stout and burly. I wondered if this could possibly be the man the younger woman waited for.
The mutts continued to bark.
The man knocked hard, slow, on the door three times. Inside, the children froze with fear. The mother faced her child and niece, an expression of feigned surprise creasing her face.
“Who could that be?”
The children pleaded with her to brace the door shut and not open it, but the mother turned, pulled the door open a crack, and peered through.
“Make the sound,” she whispered to the figure.
“Just let me in, it’s goddamn cold out here,” said the figure.
“Make it or I’m not letting you in.”
The figure grumbled and bellowed out, “Hoo Hoo Hoo.”
The mother opened the door. Icy wind blew through everyone’s hair as the man hobbled in, making the depressed owl noises again. The children screamed. The girl dashed away from her grandmother and dove behind a pile of bedding for refuge.
The boy shouted, “It’s the lady!” He stood, ran toward his mother, then thought better of it, since she had allowed the thing in. He retreated back toward his grandmother, crying, trying not to cry.
A calloused hand, gripping what looked to be a red and white spiraled hook, emerged from the rabbit fur–cuffed sleeve.
What an impossible scene, I thought: this oddly dressed man with a green sack, the mother’s affection toward him though he obviously terrified the children. Perhaps my children had felt a similar terror with each man I brought home, or during the long days I was absent, the wind or some creature thudding the door, scratching at the window. Perhaps my children were too weak to show their fear. Or was it that they were hardened and tough? Was it with lack of fear that they perished during that frozen winter?
The old woman was busy trying to coax the kids from their hiding places by telling them the man was harmless. He was a friend arrived there to bring gifts because it was a special day. A day that Bilagáanas celebrated for children. Meanwhile, the mother readied tea for the figure leaning against the door, his bored and deep-set eyes watching the reassuring movements of the old woman.
“No, no, no. You kids don’t need to be afraid. This man is Santá. He’s a gift bringer from a pole in the North. It’s Keeshmish. Keeshmish is a special day.”
“Then what’s the sack for?” asked Nia, peering out from her hiding place. “Is it for us? Are we going into the sack?”
Grayson was pulled by his arm from behind his grandmother and forced before the red figure.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, son,” repeated the old woman.
As the two neared the plump and matted Santá, he extended his arm. A calloused hand, gripping what looked to be a red and white spiraled hook, emerged from the rabbit fur–cuffed sleeve. It glistened like water or ice and had a blunt tip. It was meant for the boy and he knew it. He flailed like a panicked animal held by its scruff and, once loose, ran a circle around the stove only to be confronted by the laughing Santá bellowing hoos hoos hoos between breaths. Scurrying back in the opposite direction, the boy was confronted again and again, this cruel cycle exhausting him until he collapsed, all snot bubbles and puffy-eyed wetness.
“It’s just candy,” the mother said, taking the hook from the end of the furred arm. “It won’t hurt you. Quit being a baby and look.”
Grayson watched as his mother snapped the hook, which hung broken in half in her hand. She began picking at the straight end, removed in translucent flakes the skin covering the candy. She stuck it into her mouth, crunched the end off, and offered it to the reluctant though curious boy.
“Peppermint,” she said, “it’s called peppermint candy. Have some. Santá brought it for you.”
The boy took the candy from his mother, who smoothed his hair once. He bit a small amount, held it in his mouth, and crunched.
“It’s funny,” he said. “It’s tastes funny.” He crunched with his mouth open, licking at the air as if it might add to the strange food’s flavor.
Nia popped up from the bedding, hurried to Grayson, peered at the candy he was inspecting, and asked where hers was.
The invader extracted another peppermint hook from the green sack and handed it to the girl. She turned the thing over in her hands, picked at its clear skin, and put it to her tongue. She asked the boy if he liked the thing and he shrugged, still suspicious. Each kid stood with their candy in hand, staring from the hook to the red figure and back to the hook again.
“Yaadilah,” said the grandmother, “they don’t get it. We should have said something before. We’re just freaking them out. Larry, take off that stupid beard and give them the presents.”
“Who is Larry?” the girl asked.
The mother rolled her eyes, waved the children off, and poured tea into two mugs.
Larry removed the stringy white hair from his face, which had been hooked around his ears in some way, and shoved it into a pocket of his coat. He took the strange hat off, revealing greasy, thin, unkempt hair. He rubbed a hand over his face, dropped the green sack to the ground, and kneeled down to extract a couple of shiny boxes, one of which he tossed toward Nia’s feet and the other toward Grayson, hitting him in the chest. Both children stared at the boxes on the ground before them, like disappointed and uncertain pups given scraps a goat would hesitate to consume.
“You’re supposed to open them,” said the old woman. “Don’t be scared. Come on now, show me what’s inside.”
While the children bent down to open the boxes, I watched Larry turn his attention to the mother, pull her closer to him by the waist and put his mouth to her hair. He whispered and she giggled, curled into his embrace. She handed him a mug to warm his hands. But it wasn’t the mug that he wanted. I knew this of men and it hadn’t changed.
My body doesn’t recall the touch of affection or want, the ache of hurting or pleasure. It’s transparent, as unnoticeable as unmoving air, the thin light through suspended dust.
The boy watched this all, his fright turned to confusion, anger perhaps. He removed the shiny skin of the box but it sat in his lap unopened. Rather than continue watching his mother and the strange man, he took in Nia’s excitement as she pulled out a doll with wheat-colored hair and pink skin. Its blue eyes were vacant, though they seemed to follow everyone in the hogan. I wondered if the Bilgáanas had themselves begun to use black magic to steal away and change our people. The leveling of land and livestock, trees resembling the deformed bones of the dead—as if this violence and cruelty hadn’t been enough for them.
The girl said, “This doesn’t look like anyone I know. Except the dorm matrons, only prettier.” She walked the doll along the floor before her, mimicking the way Bilgáanas spoke. Yada-yada-yada, yada-yada-yada.
The old woman laughed and asked what in the world the doll was saying, and the girl only repeated the gibberish more, to the grandma’s delight.
The boy frowned, sat determined not to open his box. His mother noticed, but rather than comfort or help him, she turned her attention to the strange man.
“He needs to do it himself,” she said. “He’ll be grown before I know it and then I’ll be alone.”
“The sooner the better,” said the man as he took the mother’s hand, kissed it, and held his cup out for more tea.
My body doesn’t recall the touch of affection or want, the ache of hurting or pleasure. It’s transparent, as unnoticeable as unmoving air, the thin light through suspended dust.
The girl leaned against the boy, asked if he wanted help opening the box, and he nodded yes. But before she could guide his hands through the movements, he slammed the box twice against the ground and shook it near his ear. Surprised, the adults in the hogan wondered aloud what he was doing. Wasn’t he happy for the gift? The boy replied that whatever was inside, he wanted to be sure it was dead so that it wouldn’t attack him once he set it free. The mother, exasperated, turned once again toward the man and the old woman, tired of the evening. She urged Nia to help the boy. The two set to opening the box, extracting what looked to be an oddly shaped wagon with no hookups for the horses. The boy was delighted, even if he struggled to hide it on his face, and rolled the thing back and forth, creating shallow ruts on the dirt floor that the mother would surely wipe away.
The night passed. The children played make-believe with their new toys, the old woman made beds—males on the north, females on the south—and the two lovers sat closely on chairs, whispering, laughing.
In my home, my son had slept alone on the male side of the hogan. As I’ve said, I never had a man around more than a night. Even when my boy was scared because some creature howled out or hurried past our door, wind shaking our windows, I’d tell him as he pleaded with me to sleep next to me that he should quiet, never show weakness or vulnerability, only indifference and strength. In my final absence from my children, I’m certain they didn’t cry. I’m certain. They did the things that would help them survive. Sought the sustenance of the walls that contained them, and when their spirits left their bodies, even then, they didn’t cry. Because of their final silence I’ll never know their sound, never remember what they looked like.
The group prepared for sleep. As Larry moved his bed sneakily close to the boy’s mother, he told the boy that he should get used to him coming around and staying. But the boy gave no response. He remained still, eyes shut against the dim light, the yammering adults, and the cold. The boy was lost to his family in some unknown place in his imagination.
I’ll never be known.
The truth about me, my children, and our deaths will never lead me toward freedom. Forever will I be a nameless fear, the epitome of cold-heartedness, neglect, and failure. The ghost of a culture that values woman most but never speaks the names of their dead. Not like those we fought who arrived from the south, or the Bilgáanas and their Bi’éé Łichíí›í who stormed in with bullets and fire. These people who carry the names of their dead on their hateful hearts and inflict that suffering on other people. Worship their dead with death.
The bodies surrounding Grayson inflated heavily and deeply with sleep, their backs turned against him. The noise of those snoring hid his movements as he got out of bed and put on dungarees and a flannel shirt over his long underwear. Next his socks and boots. Afterward he crept to where Nia slept, removed the doll she placed next to her head, and crept around to his bedding to retrieve his toy. By the door he hesitated. I saw well the fear in his eyes. He tiptoed back over to the stove, knelt next to the shovel the grandma had used earlier, and traced his name along the cold metal surface, gathering ash, which he smeared across his forehead. He collected more from the stove and covered his face.
Pulling on his coat, the boy turned the knob and eased open the door, hurried through it quietly. The wind had quit and the air held a stillness, empty as stopped time. Dawn was a thread on the horizon.
The boy skittered atop the frozen snow, his breath acting as clouds for a cloudless sky. The stars were bright in their multitude, their disordered mischievous origin. Had I a heart, it might have raced. Raced with the boy running the path to the outhouse just over a hill and out of sight of the hogan. Raced against the sun opening the door for the Diyiin to pass momentarily from their world to this one so that the old woman might pray and make her morning offering. Raced against time now and all time.
I wouldn’t lose this boy. I believed that, in some way, he’d felt my presence, was found.
At the outhouse, the boy threw the toys into the pitch of the stinking hole. Stayed a moment to know they were gone, and turned, my boy, my baby, turned to me and I was present to him. He saw me and knew what I was. The cold came up through his coat and into his mouth, into his widened eyes. His breath became invisible, his skin turned the ashen color of his face. And before the mutts could begin barking, and before the old woman could rush to the door screaming his name, I’d taken him home, forever, with me.