Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
During the first part of my stay the Sun, "our father," has had his will. Each day unhindered he has pushed his way through his own thin white curtain of dawn, passed serenely through the broad blue curtain of daylight, relaxed at the curtain of yellow evening light, and in a parting blaze of glory succumbed to the curtain of darkness.
But at last the Water Sprinklers begin to contend with him. They card cloud puffs of purest white wool. The Sun, joining the contest with mirth, dyes their fluffs, for a time overcoming them, but they gain on him continually. They start with small wisps which hang delicately here and there on the horizon. Then they whisk their towcards harder, and the white wisps rise higher in the sky. At last the Rain gods become drunk with their own effects, and as they card they blow. They send black wind after the white clouds, which chase one another madly across the sky.
I emerge from my hole to retrieve the flour sacks I have hung on my piñon to dry, and to see that the knot of the sack containing the mutton ribs Maria Antonia gave me is tight over its wire strung between the branches. I compress my lips over my teeth as tightly as possible. I make my eyes into the narrowest slits. Even so when I come back to the hogan I am grinding sand between my teeth.
For some days Sun and Water gods play their comedy, the Water People gradually gaining in strength. But we have had so many pseudo-storms we stay inside and forget that the dark edges of the puffs are daily becoming darker and may some day achieve their end.
At last the rainy season is on. I sit in my hogan weaving; the light becomes dimmer; I hear a light patter on the sand roof. Diagonal streaks of water shoot past my door. I rise to experience this wonder. But I first throw my shed for the next row and insert the batten.
"Don't ever leave your stick in when you are not weaving," says Marie. "If you do you will not finish your blanket."
She says it with an expression on her face which I interpret, "So they say, but I don't believe it," but I pull out my batten and lay it on the floor.
We stand before the opening of my house, we see this dry wetness, feel it, breathe it. The first rain is a marvel, all rains are miraculous. We breathe in the dust which rises under the splashing raindrops. It is no longer gritty but earthy and refreshing.
"It is good, altogether good." We say it like a prayer of thankfulness as we return to our work.
This day the Water Sprinkler is not playing with the Sun. He has called on his friend Black Wind, and the two have decided to bless us. And now quite suddenly there is another shower; but this one is heavy. No thunder, no lightning, but rain and wind and more rain. This is the test for our hogans. Rain blows in at the door and makes a puddle on the floor. The puddle grows larger, trickles toward where we sit. We grab up the wagon cover which serves as a carpet.
Rain comes in at the small ventilator in the center of the
roof, splashes on the floor, and spits sand on our blanket. We put the wagon cover over the blanket and wool-box and each finds herself a place to sit away from the puddles. The flock is on the way home, and Ruby drives them as quickly as possible into the corral. The way lies over my hogan. Slim pointed feet on soft sand make numerous perforations which the water, seeking a channel, rejoices to follow. The roof is now like a sieve. Marie puts a blanket around her shoulders, I don my raincoat and hat. The books are in their trunk and papers in their briefcase; I lay a tarpaulin over the trunk. Both Marie and I, by abbreviating ourselves as much as possible, succeed in finding dry spots on which to sit. But we are constantly changing our dry spots as they become fewer and fewer.
At last the rain slows up, and once more we emerge, looking like drenched prairie dogs. The downpour was so ferocious that everyone stayed exactly where he was. Now Tom, his blue shirt sticking to his skin, comes up to inquire smilingly how the house is.
"Not so good," I reply. "The goats went over it after the sand got wet and made lots of holes."
Tom untwists the balewire which fastens the shovel to the rear end of the car and applies himself to the pile of sand which lies about the house, the surplus dug out when it was made. He shovels it in great damp chunks onto the roof, pounds and stamps it down, particularly over the holes and around the ventilator. Then he digs a small trench inside the door. The overflow stands in the trench, the little puddles have disappeared, sunk into the sand of the floor.
Tom and Marie now go to their own house to inspect its soundness. I have a headache and decide to go to Ganado as
soon as the water runs off a bit. The ground is wet; I should have to sleep inside the hogan; I will spend the night with the traders. I put on the chains, fasten the shovel, and, after a brief interval, announce my intention and depart.
But this afternoon the sun acknowledges complete defeat. I have not gone half a mile before it begins to rain again. I take the old road which is over a hill and into a dip. I come to a low part of the road, which I have previously hardly noticed. Now it looks like a lake. I stop at the top of the slight incline. The rain pelts down. A wash runs angrily at my side pouring its foaming yellow filth into the newly made lake. It is cold and windy and wet. I know only one thing, that is to wait.
I wait for some minutes. Time has ceased. At last the rain lessens and I test the crossing in the usual Southwest fashion. Take off shoes and stockings and wade it. It is fearfully cold and before I have gone a rod gets deep. I need go no farther. The water is halfway between my knees and hips; it is too much for Jonathan. There is no going forward. The ruts of the road are too deep and too slick for me to turn around in even if the furious wash at my side did not terrify me. I wait longer.
After a while enough water has run off the landscape to allow the car wheels once more to take hold. I back up for nearly a quarter of a mile. At last I can turn out of the ruts and turn around on the nice rough sagebrush.
I arrive back at Red-Point's settlement to find all the family blanketed and wading outside the houses. The rain has ceased, but everything is soaked. This was the test for the houses, and none of them passed it. It rained in, it rained through, it rained under. My relatives are drenched and busy
but smiling. Red-Point's house is the worst. The empty bucket and washbasin are swimming about, hitting the loomframe now and again. The few other objects which usually stand on the floor have been hastily stowed in the crevices formed by the overlapping logs of the roof. The blankets and sheepskins are hanging where all good housekeepers put them each morning, over a pole supported by wires hung from the ceiling. The top one inverted has streaks of red clay from the roof, the others are dry.
Marie's house has leaked least, and it would be reasonable to suppose that Maria Antonia and Red-Point could go there for the night. Unthinkable! A respectable woman sleep in the same house as her son-in-law! Sleep in a running stream rather! But Yikadezba's-Mother is not home. Her house has not leaked at all and Red-Point moves in for the night.
After I satisfy my curiosity as to all these arrangements I return to my own house—return to find it completely dry. Tom's patching has made the roof watertight, the door was closed and mine is the most comfortable of all the dwellings.
I am cold. My wading, the wind, the wetting, all have combined to give me a chill. I have no smokehole, but I have some dry wood; and I decide to make a little fire even at the risk of considerable smoke. I am coaxing it along, slowly but successfully, when Tom comes up with a large armful of splintery newly split juniper. "I will make you a fire under the tree," he announces, "so you can cook your supper. It's too bad your house leaked."
"I'm not going to eat any supper because I have a headache," I answer; "but I am cold, so I am building a fire in here. You needn't worry about the house. You can see it is better than your own."
"The smoke will make your headache worse," he protests. "I don't think it will smoke much now. But if it does I will put it out."
He goes, leaving me the dry wood.
I lay my bed as far from the door and ventilator as the space allows. I have never slept inside before. The only drawback the house has, noticeable chiefly in the quiet of the night, is the activity of a big black beetle which burrows in the wall, allowing sand to run down the sides. I hear it, snap on my flashlight, see nothing. I hear a tsuk! tsuk! tsuk! above me, see nothing. This is the noise of a wood-borer—"Wood-he-eats," the Navajo call him. He spends his time boring holes in the ceiling logs and shedding rivulets of sawdust or sand.
But with an aching head and back tired from weaving and driving Jonathan in the slime, I do not long remain conscious of these busy insects, which never come near me anyway, except rarely when they drop from the ceiling.
The next thing I know, the sun, high in the sky, is casting streaks of gold on my floor, filtering through cracks of my crazy door. I am warm all over and rested. But I hear loud snicking sounds just outside. Those wood-borers never before made that much noise. I get up and peep over the door, trying to locate one at work. To my amazement there is a huge crackling fire of juniper. Not a fire such as I make myself of scattered sage and broken branches, but one gay, sputtering, flaming, of heavy chopped cedar sticks. Do the Navajo have fairies, gnomes? They have Toms.
We are prepared for rain now. Our houses are all patched, our goods well stowed, no unused oddments lying about, our covers—tarps, ponchos, sheepskins, blankets—within easy
reach. Once more I sit weaving, with Marie chattering amiably, somewhat sleepily at my side.
"Do white women ever sleep in the daytime?" she asks. "Why—uh—uh! Why, yes, sometimes we do when we are tired."
"The Navajo women never!" she remarks, suddenly lifting her head with a look of surprise. "It's raining again." And that look of satisfaction typical of the Navajo when they are pleased, settles on her face.
We continue our weaving placidly although the storm is gaining in velocity. This is a male rain with wind, thunder, and lightning, sharp lightning. I have learned to lay my door over the supports of the entry when it rains. Quite satisfactory to keep the house dry, but it cuts off most of our light. So we cover the weaving and just sit, as small as we can make ourselves, and look at each other. Suddenly there comes a cry from Maria Antonia's house, a startled cry of fear. The settlement is galvanized into action. Marie darts up, I thrust the army blanket at her. She rushes out while I put on my rain things.
I try to go out but the rain sends me back. There is no going between drops, no walking between puddles. The settlement has become a single puddle in which shoes slip and slide. I see my relatives running about barefoot. The women have hastily thrown on their blankets, but their ruffled skirts drip water. Tom and Curley's-Son have been shovelling to divert the water from the houses, and they are soaked. No one has time to watch Yikadezba even if he wants to, and she is enjoying a thorough drenching.
Marie comes back to me in no time. "You must go to
[paragraph continues] Ganado and get the old man," she says excitedly, "the sheep have been struck by lightning."
Tom comes in. "We must go at once," he says.
"Yes," I answer. "We will go, but we'll get there quicker if we wait until it stops raining. You put the chains on for me and see that we have the shovel, ax, and tow rope."
This is an almost superfluous remark for, even in the brightest weather, Jonathan has a shovel, ax, and tow rope, just as he has headlights or tires. But at this uncertain season the shovel may be resting against the door of my house, the tow rope may have been used for our dyeing activities. Better to check up for an emergency.
We huddle for twenty minutes in my hogan until the rain becomes lighter. As we wait I ask about the sheep. "Were any killed?"
"We don't know. It looks as if three or four were maybe." "Where were they?"
"Just off there." Tom and Marie point with pursed lips to a spot directly in front of Maria Antonia's hogan, where many white dots are still moving among the dark piñons.
"But why don't you know? Didn't you go over to see?"
"Ruby ran right back to tell us."
"Didn't you go out?"
Their answers are vague and indefinite. The fact remains that no one went over to see. No one even drove the surviving sheep in. That is why they must have Red-Point at once. Until he comes and, with a prayer, releases the survivors from further harm, they are as afflicted as the possible dead. This is one of the few occasions upon which I have seen Navajo in a hurry. There is need for great speed. Jonathan will help. But he will go faster if we wait a little.
Tom and I get started. We make the half-mile from our houses to the highway easily, the road is of hard sand. The highway is new, it has ditches on both sides for drainage. We slither along, now toward the ditch at the right, now Jonathan prefers that at the left. But he wants to go into some ditch. Tom is good with a shovel, but I try to save him by guiding Jonathan and curbing his desire for leaving the road. We proceed a mile and suddenly find the car holding the road. The tracks are only damp and in a few more rods we are on a perfectly dry road.
Red-Point is at the dam. For weeks he has been bossing a gang of Navajo with teams at repairing the ditches and flume. Today they are reinforcing the spillway. We approach within a half-mile of the place they are working and again run into deep mud. We leave the Ford in a sizable puddle and proceed by foot.
Red-Point and his gang are a sorry-looking lot. Rain spills from their four-gallon hats. Their coats are soggy, wrinkled, and shapeless. They are barefoot, having hung shoes and moccasins under the wagons to keep them dry. They have worked hard ever since the rainy season began, repairing the spillway. A twenty-minute shower washed it out entirely. But, as the water runs down over their faces like copious tears, to a man they smile characteristically as they point to the results of their work. They shrug their shoulders fatalistically as they say, "Hola!"
All are duly excited by our news. Red-Point has his horse, so cannot go back with us. But he arrives at White-Sands very soon after we do. For the rest of the evening all is quiet. The sons-in-law have gone off to cut trees and branches to build a new corral. Red-Point goes out to the sheep, taking with
him several little pouches of pollen and medicine from his large medicine bundle. He goes to pray and to remove the dead sheep to the cañon. The women wait.
When he returns, the women drive back the rest of the flock. They may once more go near the sheep. The lightning striking into the flock as it did, had contaminated all within its range. Red-Point had freed the survivors from the immediate taint by his sung prayers, by sprinkling pollen, and by removing the dead. The remainder of the flock must be kept in a corral by themselves until he removes the permanent results of the catastrophe. By the time the sheep return the boys have made the new corral. They have left the branches on the trees and have laid them so the flock can eat them during their eight-day incarceration. For four days during which they will be treated for their ill luck, they must remain, for four days more they stay in order that the medicine may take effect.
Next day Marie tells me nine animals were lost, one of her own goats, a lamb and sheep belonging to Maria Antonia, and six sheep of Atlnaba's. This morning another of Atlnaba's lambs died. "They" have been sent for sheep medicine. I have to this day never been able to find out exactly who "they" are. When Red-Point wants herbs which must be gathered at a distance, he sends "them," evidently messengers, probably relatives, he is able to call upon at a moment's notice.
Red-Point, tired and coughing, comes in for a cigarette and visit. He says: "Nine were lost. When I got there they were all swollen up. But if I had got there sooner I could have sung and brought them back to life again. It is too late when they are swollen up. It's too bad I wasn't home."
I remark to Marie—my remark carries no weight—that
they had their singer in two hours after the sheep were struck. "The Navajo don't usually get a singer that quickly, do they?"
"No," she agrees, but her faith and her father's have not been shaken by a jot or a tittle.
We weave only for short periods today because Marie must go help Red-Point or Atlnaba and I must go with her to see the short ceremonies and all that they do. They do not mind my tagging along; they are only surprised that I want to.
In the intervals when I am alone I continue my marvelling at my grandfather and at his firm belief in himself. It is more than conceit, it is over and above that. It is absolute faith in the efficacy of the sing. He knows it perfectly. If then he performs it without a mistake, why should it not be powerful, even sufficient to bring life to that which is dead?
But I, with my un-Navajo type of mind, say to myself: "Ordinarily it takes, with good luck even, half a day for a man to find his horse. He then rides perhaps half a day or longer to the home of the singer he wants to hire. If he is in luck the singer is home and it takes only half a day to wrangle his horse and another half-day for the two to ride back. Two days is then about the minimum time when a medicine man may be expected. Two hours is about the greatest speed they might achieve. And yet Red-Point is sure he could have brought the sheep to life—if he had been here sooner...."
A dull day, a hot day, a still day. Even in the morning the sun does not shine, nor does he ever peep between clouds causing them to part and scuttle away. An ominous silence lies over us all. The air is heavy and dead. The sounds of humans and animals are startling even in their appropriateness.
[paragraph continues] It has been unusually hot and oppressive for a week, but today it seems as if threat, of what I am not certain, must culminate in action. It is one of those days when something dire seems about to happen, a time during which one holds his breath and crosses his fingers. Life seems to be running along smoothly. One thinks of the possible calamities on the principle that it is the unexpected that happens. If then we expect something awful, it at least won't be that something.
For some reason I am restless today and for some other reason I have no visitors, not even Marie. My weaving does not hold me, and I tire quickly of learning my Navajo language, a pursuit that usually interests me for hours, more hours than there ever are. With a conscience guilty at reading in the daytime I open a book. It is not interesting, nor are the magazines I have. I must be tired; I will try to sleep, even if Navajo women never do. But there is a fly on my nose—its buzzing sounds like a saw in the tense silence. I will go outside. But there is no wind and the flies are worse than they are inside. Besides, ants crawl vigorously over tarpaulin and over me. I go back in. I think I am hungry and eat some crackers. I repeat my list of entertainments. Those hours which usually flit so fast I cannot see them, now drag interminably.
The silence is broken at last. I go out. This is no ordinary sandstorm. As I watch the clouds I am the only living thing between the fury of the sky and the earth it rages over. From the southwest thick clouds, black as night but not in a solid curtain, roll up, gather fierceness, and in anger pass madly over White-Sands. They contain, I see easily, every possibility for destruction. They pass over us so swiftly that they are not able to drop on us any of their contents. They race madly to
the northeast. There they meet all their own kind and others too; all unite to become the embodiment of cataclysm. Black puffy wind clouds, smooth black thunderclouds, gray rain clouds, yellow, hail-bearing masses. They knot up in the northeast, snarl and snap and finally, releasing their accumulated frenzy, vent it on the earth. Wind, male rain, thunder, lightning, hail.
I, from my roof-top, view it all, seeing only the general calamity, unaware of details. As suddenly as the storm gathered, earth and sky relax about me. The air is cool and fresh; sounds take on their usual matter-of-factness; the earth is sweetly fragrant. A smooth black cloud lies long and horizontally an arm's length above the western horizon. At last the sun triumphs; he breaks forth under the cloud in a red-gold glow, grinning so broadly the eye cannot bear him. But the presence of the cloud has let him turn our little world, which seems to me immense, to copper.
I am the only reality. The herdboy, whom I have always heartily disliked, has turned into a statue of living bronze. The thought passes fleetingly through my mind, "Why, Paul is really exceedingly handsome!" The sheep grazing near by are fluffy fulvid beings, no longer stupid and impolite, but something existing only in the imagination of a super-being.
A moment of superb insubstantiality, and we are back to the comprehensible, a well-run, prosperous Navajo family driving sheep into corrals, cedar fire crackling in the fireplace, mutton boiling, children teasing, dogs barking.
Next day we learn the results of the tornado and take a trip to survey the havoc. It has raised the water level of the large reservoir near Ganado, empty all summer, five feet. But
it has ripped out entirely the diversion dam which controlled the ditches. The place where it stood used to look like a smooth lake. It has now become a wide forty-foot cañon. Concrete piers are torn completely away, their mass dumped in the side of the wash at intervals half a mile down. The traders tell me the waves rose as high as the telephone poles in front of their place. In the sixty years of their experience they remember nothing like this. Poor old blind Tonto, the twelve-year-old son who led him through life, and his little grandson were drowned just outside their hogan. No one knows how many sheep were lost.
We continue our pilgrimage in the bright mellow sunshine. We drive toward the storm belt, come to a halt nine miles southeast of Ganado where the chief sights are to be seen. Cutting an eight-mile swath the storm has denuded every tree of branches, leaves, and cones. This is a year for piñon nuts. Within this belt every tree has become a spiked trunk.
At the right of the road is a pile of hailstones, packed as if in an icehouse five feet high. I had never believed the tales of "hailstones big as hen's eggs," but these were larger than walnuts five days after the storm. The wall they made melted gradually for three weeks afterward.
We walk a short distance to our left. There we see how the wash brought down stone slabs twenty-eight feet long, uprooted trees three feet in diameter. The débris brought down forms a natural dam so that the wash which formerly ran west by north has now been turned and runs nearly directly south. As we gaze on it and contemplate what we saw at the diversion dam, we realize in a feeble way how the Grand Canyon could have been possible. These last days have shown me
wonders my senses almost repudiate. They are uncanny but as actual as this lacerated earth itself.
My friends add their observations of nature's freakishness to mine. After the world turned to bronze the moon came up. But some rain lingered between it and the clear western sky. The moon reflected its quiet rays through the light rain streamers of the night, causing a white rainbow. It happened to fit perfectly over a well defined little hill, and the effect was of a great empty white stadium.
A few days later in the course of our conversation Red-Point remarks casually: "It's awful dry. We need rain."