July 1, 2013 by The Citron Review
Nick mistook the sound of the whispering engine for wind rising out of the canyon or for the low hum of a robber fly. No one came from the east unless they lived on the reservation lands, and nearly all who lived in Sawmill drove Jeep Cherokees or Ford Broncos—vehicular beasts capable of charging through the washouts on Indian Route 7, hulking cars that announced their approach with chuffing roars and metallic brays.
Tourists drove in on the paved road from Chinle, the town west of Canyon de Chelly. From time to time, an unsuspecting traveler would continue over the mountain pass on their way to Albuquerque, following the digital path traced on their GPS with mindless obedience. Nick cringed whenever he watched a luggage-bloated Volvo disappear into the Chuska Mountains. When black thunderheads rolled across the sky, he and his grandmother found spinouts and wayward vehicles mired in the squalor. Nick liked taking stranded travelers to the garage at the Chevron station where his grandfather Sike worked—it was his only chance to talk to outsiders, to hear word of the world beyond the reservation.
The humming engine neared. Through the branches of the roadside juniper brambles, Nick spotted a red-dusted Prius.
“Ashhh,” his grandmother hissed as a strand of beads slipped through her fingers, spilling a red and yellow rain over the trinkets they sold for grocery money. Her fingers, once steady, now trembled at the sound of approaching engines, either in anticipation of a customer’s arrival or in fear of the dejection that followed each time a car passed their roadside stand.
Years of waiting in the desert heat had marked his grandmother, hardened her eyes to black beads, channeled her skin in the image of the water-carved landscape of the canyon below. Nick glanced down at his own hands, scorched the color of the red canyon walls.
He held his breath as the Prius neared the entrance to the asphalt lot, slowed, turned, and parked. He did not exhale until a dazed young woman emerged from the driver’s side and stretched. He and his grandmother watched in silence, concealed by the shade of a stray tamarisk tree, as the young woman did two jumping jacks and twisted her blond hair into a loose knot. She started toward the canyon rim, then flinched back as she caught sight of her two observers.
“Hello,” Nick called to her.
She hesitated. “Hello.” Her voice was thin as cotton on skin.
His grandmother eyed the terracotta flecks on the woman’s car.
“You drove down from the mountains.”
“Yes. Down Route 7.”
“Did you stop along the way? At the Chevron station?”
Nick was surprised to hear his grandmother’s questions; she had few words to spare on travelers, and she never asked after Sike.
“I bought a water there.” The young woman fingered one of the bracelets on display.
His grandmother inhaled sharply, as if preparing to speak, before she settled into silence again. Her reticence made Nick ache; he ached for her lifetime of selling bracelets and bottles, ached for the thousands of hours he sat at her side in the sparse shade of the tamarisk tree, barely earning enough to cover gas money to drive to Canyon de Chelly.
The young woman bent to examine something. “I love this one.” She held up a sandstone slate carved with corn stalks and hummingbirds, traditional petroglyphs. She turned toward him, and the sun pierced the fabric of her top, revealed the contours of her breasts. The sight drilled longing through him, less for the woman than for the world she inhabited. In that moment, he wanted to climb into the passenger seat of her car and drive with her, first to Chinle and then to Flagstaff or Denver, to leave his grandmother on the roadside, her cane in one hand, her plastic water jug in the other.
She would not regret his leaving. She would understand.
In the end, the young woman did not buy anything, not even a soda from their cooler. Nick and his grandmother watched as she walked to the metal guardrail and studied the dilapidated Sliding House Ruins on the canyon floor before she returned to her air-conditioned car.
“There’s nothing to see in that canyon,” his grandmother said.
“The ruins,” Nick said.
“The ruins are only rocks stacked on rocks.”
“There’s history in the ruins.”
“No one is left to speak that history. These beads,” she shook a line of blue and white at Nick, “are not ours. They are made in China, Niyol.” Strands of sun-blanched hair drifted across her face as she eyed the lip of the canyon. “Do you know why I don’t talk to Sike? He promised to take me off the reservation, out of the highlands, to Chinle.”
Nick knew the rest of their history. After his father was born, Sike took over the garage, towed people out of the mud while his wife sank into the earth.
The old woman returned to her work. As her fingers knit jewelry, Nick carved a symbol on a shard of compressed sediment. His people had long ago forgotten the meaning.
Sarah Kravitz is a writer and educator armed with a degree from UC Berkeley. Currently, she teaches English at an alternative education high school near San Francisco. In the near future, she will return to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in psychology. She invites readers to explore her work at http://holonymy.wordpress.com.