By Chad Valdez (Diné)
The story below is an excerpt from a larger work titled “Four Directions” that I completed as part of my thesis in my graduate program. It is a collection of connected short stories. The collection works in layers. On the top layer is Coyote, the trickster in Navajo stories, at a fire with other animals. There, he tells them stories, as is tradition when winter starts. These stories are interlaid in the larger four narratives (directions). Coyote also interacts with these characters in his human form, albeit not always directly, as he is tricky in nature. Below is an excerpt of the first story and first direction, East.
I hear them all laughing on the winged peak of the mountain jutting from the ground below. The path is freshly white from the first snow and their tracks are easy to follow. It’s so high up that I can see all of the different paths winding around Dinétah. Some circle, some lead out. I stop to drink from a puddle of melted snow. Near it is sweetgrass, somehow still dry for use. Their laughter is coming from just above and Hummingbird’s wings flutter loudly with each chuckle. Another joke about me, probably. They’re always doing this. I sneak around and peek from behind a sagebrush. Skunk, Badger, Jackrabbit, Hummingbird, Horned Toad, Old Man Turtle, Prairie Dog, and others are sitting around a fire where their shadows dance together, stepping to the sound of the crackling orange flames.
“...And then he threw the stars in the air when Turtle was placing them delicately in the sky,” Prairie Dog says and laughs. “Look at them all.” They point to the stars above us and their sporadic placement and patterns. They all laugh along with Prairie Dog.
“I was simply trying to help the Old Man,” I say, and step from behind the bush.
“Coyote,” Old Man Turtle says to me without turning around. “Winter is here. It’s time for stories. Join us.”
I pace behind them in their circle. My shadow from the flames towers over them.
“Stories, yes. It seems you like the stories about me. I have plenty.” I smirk at Skunk, who rolls his small, black eyes. “I like that one. Besides, he would’ve been putting those stars in the sky for years if I wouldn’t have come along and thrown the blanket up.”
“They were supposed to be our maps, placed carefully to show us all the way in this new world,” Badger says in anger.
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t have trouble finding my way around.”
“They’re for the Diné,” Badger says.
“And when the People are lost we help them get back, do we not?” I say, stepping in the middle of them next to the fire.
“Some of us,” Hawk says, his face full of arrogance.
“Oohh. You don’t think I am helpful. You think of Coyote as simply a trickster. A troublemaker. Never wondering why I might be so tricky.”
From the inside of my cheek I take the ball of sweetgrass I found earlier and spit it into the flames. It roars the fire to life and the sweet smoke envelops us all. The smoke drifts and forms four people standing and facing different directions. The smoke people grow until they are around us all, walking in a circle.
“You want to hear stories? I will tell you stories. And if you want tricks, I will give you tricks.”
I will tell you the story of Bin Ziz Bah. Sneaking away from the death march to find more of her people. I watched her ascend the mountain to where he was. There was no path to follow, only the footprints of a passing few she could make out. When she arrived at the top she was met with the bewildered faces of men in her Tribe. Chief Manuelito, one of the last surviving leaders of the Diné, took her in. He offered her food, water, warmth. But she refused them. She came to him with stories of what was happening below. Her experiences filled them all with a sorrow that rose from deep within them and poured from the pores of their skin. You know what those sorrows feel like. A snake coiling around our bodies and tightening, our minds awash in the emotions of a passing wave. She weaved her stories to him, rivers of blood, stomachs turned inward, the white washing over the land.
The woman Maria saved at the bar braided her hair in the jail cell. She hummed under her breath, muttering “sunrise” every few seconds. Car horns and the bass of music playing in the busy street next to them interrupted the soft vibration of her voice. The braids were tight and Maria sang to comfort the woman so she could have good thoughts put into her hair. Her grandmother told her when she was small that anytime someone braids hair they need to be in the right mindset, that energy will transfer from fingers to strands, affecting power, and hers was thick and heavy. Maria picked at her scraped knuckle, the blood finally drying. One of her nails was broken—split down the middle.
“Maria Largo.” A heavyset police officer stepped from around the corner with a clipboard. The jail cell bars made him vertically striped and she imagined them being on opposite sides, him in the jail cell and her yelling names from a list.
“Jim Nez,” she said back. “Do you guys have to pretend like we don’t all know each other? I still remember when you peed your pants at your 10th birthday party.”
“I’m almost done with her hair,” the woman said, her tone matching the tight pulls and twists she made with her hands.
“Your bail has been posted,” Jim said to Maria.
“No shit? Who did that?” Maria asked.
“Just hurry up, eh?” Jim said and unlocked the cell door. It was only the two of them in there.
The woman kept braiding. “Who’s bailing you out?”
Maria’s head bobbed with every yank and release.
The woman put the braids over the front of Maria’s shoulders, both tied with string at the end. “Well, you’re all done.”
Maria pulled them gently, letting them roll through her hands, tight braids with only a few hairs sticking out. They were a comfort in the cold concrete walls of the cell. Her hair was already starting to warm her.
“Thanks. Guess I’ll go find out. Sorry, you’re stuck here,” Maria said.
The woman laughed. “It’s worth it. That piece of shit had it coming. Thank you,” she said. “If you weren’t there… I don’t know what he would’ve done.”
Maria stood and swung the cell door open, the squeaking metal filling the silence.
“I never asked your name,” she said.
“I didn’t feel like giving it,” the woman said.
Maria walked to a counter with a thick glass window between her and Jim. Her reflection was on the face of him and she stepped slightly to the right so as to not see their morphed faces together.
“Maria,” Jim said. “You better stop getting in trouble. You’re lucky you’re in a small enough town where we all know each other. Imagine doing this somewhere else. All those white cops out there would love to keep you locked up as long as possible. And the ones that aren’t cops are even worse.”
She snorted. “Sure they are.”
He shrugged his shoulders and began to read off a piece of paper listing the items they took when they arrested her. “A small backpack with one Tribal ID, a tiny leatherman, twenty dollar bill, cell phone, three keys on a keychain.” He trailed off, not bothering to finish reading the rest of the list, and signed his name.
“Go on, take your shit and leave.”
“Where’s my belt?”
“Ah, of course.” Jim passed a belt inch by inch through the slot.
“Where’s my belt buckle?”
“Can’t give that back to you.” Maria only got out a sound before Jim interrupted her. “You know I can’t give that back to you. It’s an illegal weapon. Just because you stick a metal pin on a pair of brass knuckles doesn’t make it an accessory for your belt. That’s a myth. You’re lucky you didn’t use that last night or I would’ve kept you locked up.”
Maria clenched her jaw, snapped her belt around her waist through the loops and let it hang loose, then walked away.
“See you soon!” he said.
I sat above the cave they were all in and listened to Bin Ziz Bah tell Chief Manuelito of where they had just passed. A dead lake with fish floating atop it. Of the smell that entered their noses and does not leave. A jailer that reminds you of him with every breath you take. The colors of the land completely erased with gray. Barren trees with no sound of the animals within them. The ones that want to stop but know they cannot give up. She spoke clearly, with a sadness and strength in her voice that the warriors all drank from. I drank deep from her well.
Maria pushed the heavy doors of the jailhouse open. The sun felt warm in the cold breeze of the morning. She breathed deep, but the smell of bleach in the jail cell had seeped into her brain and she wanted nothing more than to get rid of it. She focused on a bed of flowers near the door and inhaled again. They were the only color against the dark gray building. Some windows were cracked and all of the doors had metal bars on them, too many rocks thrown over the years. Maria’s stomach growled at the McDonalds down the road in a plaza with a car wash, a bar, an emergency clinic, and a store selling knockoff Christian merchandise. She took a step forward before someone called out to her.
“Bin Ziz Bah!”
She froze. That was her great-great-grandmother’s name, passed down to her. Nobody was supposed to know that name except very close family members and Medicine people who would use it in ceremonies. She turned to where the voice came from, where a tall and skinny man leaned against an old Ford Mustang wearing a Chiefs jersey with pressed tan khakis and red moccasins. Dark sunglasses wrapped around his eyes. His hair was longer than Maria’s, and when he smiled, his teeth were reflective white, sticking out against his wrinkled dark brown skin.
Maria stepped towards him, eyebrow raised.
“Shásh yáázh, you’ve grown up so much!”
Little bear. It was what her mother would call her.
“Who are you?”
“Ah, I’m your Uncle Mai!” He said the end of his name like Fonzie with finger guns. “That’s okay you don’t remember me, I haven’t seen you since you were running around in diapers. I’m your mom’s cousin. Grandmother said I’d find you here in town. I remember your mom running around this town, getting into trouble, so I thought maybe I’d check here and I lucked out. Chip off the old salt block, huh? What you doing sniffing fake flowers for?”
Maria couldn’t say anything. She was in a mud pit, sinking down with weighted arms and legs. She didn’t remember him or a mention of him, and he seemed like someone that people remember.
“No lies. Just saw your grandmother at her house.”
Maria technically lived with her grandmother, but it was more of a place where she slept at night. “Yeah? Well, what was she doing?”
“She was drinking coffee and offered me some, but it had corn pollen in it. Who does that?” He laughed. “It was gross. But she did spike it with some Irish liqueur, so it made up for it.”
Maria kept her eyes locked on him. She knew that was exactly what her grandma would be doing around that time. That and yelling about something on the news.
“Why’d you bail me out?”
“You’re family. And you’re Diné. That’s like being in jail when you’re already imprisoned. And I came back to give you something. Something your mom wanted you to have. Come on. I went to see your grandmother and she said to take you over to it. Then she ranted about you not paying bills and getting fired from your job recently. So it sounds like you’re free.” He walked to his door and swung it open, that sly smile exposing long canine teeth. The sunglasses he kept on were too dark to see his eyes and she didn’t know if she should trust him. That did sound like her grandmother, though. Especially the complaining about her part. He opened the passenger door for her from the inside and started the car. The engine shook the already broken concrete at Maria’s feet.
“Come on, we’ll go to McDonalds first. I’m buying.”
“I know you want to hear the stories of my tricks, of my nature, so that you can continue your jokes. But I did not trick any of our people during this time. What was happening was the worst time in our history. You all remember this.” I looked to the others in the circle around the fire as they all nodded their heads and looked down.
“I gave water where I could. Food when I could find it. I dug many graves during that time. So many graves. And I could not stop. We all could not stop. Because they would not.”
They drove past the border to the reservation an hour ago, falling deeper into the land strife with footprints. There was a single tree about three miles east of the road growing in the middle of the desert that Maria was focused on. It was dark green and full—completely still, even with the wind whipping the dirt around. Something sat atop it but she couldn’t tell what. A tumbleweed blew into the road and Mai swerved around it.
“Fucker,” he said, looking back.
“Your car’s all scratched up, what do you care if you hit it?” Maria asked.
“Hey, you be nice to the ‘stang. My noble steed.” He tapped the dashboard and the radio started playing distorted rap music.
“Fuck man, where you taking me? We’ve been driving forever and there’s nothing out this way, we’re too far in the rez. Just sporadically abandoned trailers. And I don’t think this ‘steed’ is gonna like the dirt roads coming up.”
“You should be more like your mom. She was never trying to get anywhere. She liked the trip more than where she was going.”
He hit a large pothole and Maria bounced up, knocking her head against the metal roof. She rubbed her temple. “Come on, dude.” Clouds were blowing in above them and cluttering up the sky. “I don’t really remember her that much. I was pretty young when she passed. What was she like?”
“Why were you in jail?” Mai asked.
“Answer me first.”
He stayed quiet and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to a slow beat that sped up at the same time he did. A voice crackled from the speakers that made her chuckle, the rez accent rapping to a steady beat. “My grandmama named me Nataanii Nez for a reason/ So I can lead and free your minds from extinction/ And believe in freedom/ Throw that government money back cuz we don’t need em/ Sovereignty’s a myth in a nation full of ignorance.” It cut out.
“I got into a fight,” she said.
“Shiiit,” he said, drawing on the ‘i’ like he was exhaling smoke. “Don’t look like it. ‘Cept your knuckle. Looks more like you handed out a beating.”
“I was at the bar and some guy kept grabbing this lady. Nobody was doing anything. His friends were watching and laughing. She tried to leave and he followed her, still going at it. I tripped him and he spilled all his beer.” She laughed at the memory of him on the ground. “He was all mad. He got up, all, ‘what the hell, bitch!’ and pushed me down.”
“I stood up and punched him in the teeth,” Maria said and laughed. She wasn’t sure why because that was the end of it before the cops showed up, but she lied and kept going. “He swung at me and I ducked because he was drunk so it was slow and I punched him again. When he fell I was kicking at him until the cops came in and separated all of us.”
“Ho-lee,” Uncle Mai exclaimed. “Wish I was there to watch that.”
Maria thought about that while sitting in jail. Wishing she would’ve done more to that asshole. But the truth was she was terrified to punch him, and when she did it hurt like hell and she was scared the entire time.
A hogan came into view in the distance where the dirt road they were on ended. An old traditional home for Diné. Rounded and made beautifully from mud and wood. There were objects scattered around it but they were too far to make out.
“Your mom was just like that. Always ready to kick someone’s ass and she didn’t care if it was a guy or some coyote coming around the sheep. Everyone loved her. She was funny, easygoing. You look a lot like her, you know.”
Maria sat in the silent pause after.
Bin Ziz Bah asked Chief Manuelito to give her water and food to carry back to the People. She was going to return to them. No matter how much convincing they tried to do, she was going back. She embodied her name. In the white man’s language, it translated to ‘Being Surrounded in War.’ She was born into conflict and in it she knew what to do. She descended the mountain carrying a pack on her back and water in her hands. I followed her close by. Made sure she was on the right path. The moon was our only light to guide us back. When she was tired, she rested on a boulder and looked to the moon.
“You can come out,” she said. I searched around us, looking for another who she could be talking to. Perhaps a warrior followed her and I did not see or smell him.
Then she turned and watched me as I sat above her on the mountain.