Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
My Little rug is strung up and well along. It is over two hands long, not quite two wide. It has a white background and not very much design. This piece is so small that it begins to get tight before it is one-quarter done. I use smaller battens and release every millimeter of tautness. I have no particular difficulties with it except tightness and the need for speed.
On Monday, Marie says, "Silversmith is having a sing for his daughter tonight."
"What kind is it?"
"The girl's sing. Last week he came over to ask my father how old she is. My father says she is fifteen, so they are having it."
"How far is it to his place?" I inquire guardedly.
"About fourteen miles toward Water-in-Ground."
"Shall we go?"
"I guess I can get this done on Tuesday anyway," I remark. "We'll be back early in the morning."
I have a dress like those the Navajo women wear, but I have never worn it. I have waited for an auspicious occasion. Today I tell Marie I have it. "Would you like to see it?"
"Yes," she says eagerly.
So I take it from the depths of the trunk. A black blouse of fine velvet lined with red calico like the skirt, which is ten yards around its ruffle and modest at that. Marie loves the feel of the velvet. She and her relatives always have velvet shirts, but the velvet is cotton-backed and does not have as much of a sheen.
"Shall I wear it tonight?" I ask, knowing there will be no whites at the sing.
"Oh, yes!" she assents, looking pleased.
We are all ready just about dark, I in my black and red dress and with a red cap and sweater. Marie and Tom, their little sons Ben and Dan, Atlnaba and Curley's-Son, all done out in their best blankets, wearing their jewelry. Even the little boys have small four-gallon hats—about two-gallons, I should say.
The sing is actually only about fourteen miles from our place, and we arrive about eight-thirty. There are only a few people there when we arrive. A well-made shade under which the women are cooking has an excellent fireplace with a large fire.
We are cordially welcomed by Silversmith's family. My sisters sit down at the back of the shade, the hostess brings me a kitchen chair. Marie and Atlnaba smile at the thought that I need it, but I sit on it for a while to be polite. As we wait and watch the extensive cooking operations, various Navajo filter in. The young men shake hands somewhat bashfully, then stand about outside the shade. Women enter quietly and sit in the semicircle with us.
I am as usual fascinated by the cooking activities. The women have many irons in the fire, and all are watched, none
is neglected. Ribs are broiling on grates bent with use to fit the places they have occupied during their existence.
Silversmith's older wife, shielding her eyes and face by holding her hand a short distance from her face, is tending the boiling. Several bucketfuls of a corn and mutton stew are bubbling on a pile of hot coals. The woman finds the water for the coffee is boiling. She lifts it off the fire, measures out coffee in the palm of her hand for the five coffee pots standing before her, fills each with the boiling water. Then with her stick she skilfully separates more embers from the blazing fire and arranges them about the coffee pots. When she is through she turns the ribs.
Another woman, bronze in the flickering firelight, is mixing dough, which she pats into flat flabby round shapes and bakes in a frying pan. Beside her a pile of tortillas, nicely browned, stands on a clean flour sack. This woman's sister is shaping her dough in the same way; but she has a Dutch oven full of sizzling fat into which she gently lowers the limp round portions of dough. Each time she puts one in, the fat sputters and spits, the dough bubbles up in irregular spots. Soon she turns it to display a blistered golden surface; a delicious form of breadstuff is the result. The yeast-raised bread has already been baked in the adobe ovens of Spanish shape, and the round loaves sit in rows covered with flour sacks on a shelf above our heads. Meat hangs on the various posts of the shade, high enough to be safe from the numerous marauding dogs. Tonight at least they will get their fill when this large crowd of people throws out bones and scraps.
About one hundred yards to the left looking past the cooking fire, there is a wide bed of glowing coals. Now and then a man devotes a short time to splitting some of the wood
from a pile house-high near it. The fire is over a pit in which an enormous sweet cake is baking. This is the pièce de résistance of the occasion, corresponding to a birthday or a wedding cake. The fire will be kept blazing all night.
Like a mighty huddled, uneven, opalescent mirror a large flock of sheep reflect the light of both fires at my right. A herdboy sits before them, occasionally driving them a little nearer to the shade, or scattering them a little farther away. From a hogan at the left come sounds of the laughter of the men. The girl whose party this is, sits demurely wrapped in her blanket at the center of the west side of the hogan. She looks modestly at the floor while the guests enjoy themselves eating, smoking, and gossiping.
Just before midnight we all go into the hogan where the girl is. It is a small house and one wonders how it can possibly hold all these people. But they all have the faculty of fitting themselves and their clothes into a minimum space, just as they do in hunting the only six-inch space of dryness in a hogan during a rain.
A chorus of young men accompanies the singer. They sing as they beat time with the rattles. There is a cedar fire in a sordid stovepipe and galvanized tin arrangement which furnishes heat without light. The cedar smoke combines with the perspiration of the tightly huddled audience to produce a typically Navajo odor. We pay our respects to the girl and her family by withstanding the warmth, the close air, the smoke, the monotonous singing. It is a perfect soporific to which we must not yield, for the purpose of the sing is to keep a vigil. Anyone may go to sleep, but he should not do so inside the hogan. A little after one, there is a pause to allow the chorus a short rest before they start off on a new group of
songs. I pass about a package of cigarettes, gratefully accepted by the women around me. Marie keeps nudging me, "What time is it?" I hold out until two. Marie says she is going to stay.
I go to the car. There I find Tom and Ben wrapped in Tom's blanket on the back seat, Dan spread out with my blanket over him on the front. I haven't the heart to wake them, and I saunter up to the shade. I will lie near the fire. But I no more than show signs of retiring than one of Silversmith's wives hunts two soft sheepskins, shakes them out and smilingly lays them down for me. No mattress ever felt so good. I am just dozing off when she comes again with a woman's blanket which she lays over me. Exactly the way they put their children to bed. I am too sleepy and too much touched by her thoughtfulness, her version of hospitality, to think more than dreamily of the implications. I drift into a sound sleep.
I am aroused at dawn by a general bustle and by the changed and energetic character of the songs. The chorus has started with the dawn songs. I get up. The magic and the glow have faded. The fires are low. The air is cold, the sheep are uncivil balls of milling white, even the colorful clothes of the guests have become dulled. The sun is only a promise; his rays are long, faint, and cold.
Young fellows stand on both sides of the entrance to the hogan, some of the women collect in bevies farther away. Two continue to watch the cooking. One group of women has gone over to the pit and is engaged in uncovering the sweet cake with cunning fingers so that no sand gets into it.
We stand shivering for some minutes. Then the girl rushes
out and tries to run toward the east. She is partially blind and the race the boys have with her is pathetic. But they let her win. After they return, all gather about the sweet cake. This is the reward of all participants. The singer and his aides are served first, then we each get a generous piece served on a clean brittle corn husk. It is rather soft and soggy, saccharine to my taste, thus early in the morning. We pull off bits of the confection delicately as we sit about the renewed cooking fire. That which we cannot eat we tie up and take along to be criticised by the stay-at-homes.
The sun has not even become warm when we drive up before Red-Point's house. We have only one passenger more than we took, one of Tom's aunts who wants to visit us a few days. We are not guests, but we pause for a time while the dogs settle down and Marie looks into the house to locate her mother. She reports favorably, and the husbands go into the hogan to eat with their father-in-law. I proceed to my own ablutions and breakfast, thence to weaving my little white blanket. Today is my last chance and I should be much humiliated to require Marie to finish it when I have vowed that not one stitch shall be hers.
I am left alone for several hours. I suppose the others are sleeping. I could do nicely with a nap myself, but I will not be defeated. I am not very efficient. I make no major mistakes but the batten frequently snaps down from its horizontal position and that when my fingers are between the sheds. It makes me grumble the things I say when a hammer goes wrong in driving a nail. I find there are two reasons for its snapping, one that the warp is tight, a circumstance not to be overcome. The second is that the batten is at an angle which
will not allow it to accommodate itself to the tight warp. One can learn to change this angle so that it does not snap very often.
By noon I am not nearly as far as I ought to be, and I notice the blanket is getting narrower toward the top. Soon after, Marie and her mother and her aunt come in.
"Did you sleep?" I ask her.
"No. I lay down, but every time I nearly went to sleep I began to cry; so I got up again."
"Why was that?" I ask innocently.
"I feel lonesome when I think of you going away.
"Well, I am going to miss you all too. But I hope I shall come back next year. How does your mother like the cake?"
"We don't think it is very good. It ought not to be soggy like that in the middle. My mother is the only one who knows how to make it real good."
"They used to chew the sprouted wheat for it, didn't they?"
"Yes, my mother can remember that; but never in my time. Instead my mother boils sugar in water and makes a syrup which she mixes with the dough made of sprouted corn. This was made of sprouted wheat and the sugar was just sprinkled over the top. Everybody says my mother's tastes better than anybody's."
"I think the sing was kind of tame. Not nearly as good as I have seen," I remark by way of summary.
"Yes, it was. You know it's always like that with those people. They always do things that way."
"Did you stay in the hogan all night?"
"Yes, and even the singer and all the people went to sleep right in there."
"Isn't that terrible! The girl will not have good luck, will she?"
"It is not a good way. She is pitiful anyway. Not very strong, and she can hardly see."
As we talk one of the educated Navajo boys who acts as an interpreter comes in with a geologist. They are prospecting for coal. Although our conversation is indeed pleasant I am on pins and needles, for I must get that blanket done. I get impatient about it. I have never been so tired and kept on weaving. I have never before been pinched for time. I think, "If I could only be left alone to do it!" but I have company more steadily this afternoon than ever.
I think it strange that Atlnaba has not come. Marie says she is busy finishing her little rug. At length she appears with it as I am forcing in my last stitches. I am the friend for whom she was weaving it.
The sun sinks low and finally they all leave me. After all there are chores to do. I work until after six, when I take down the little web. It is not sinuous like the first, but neither is it uniform like the second. The upper end is three-quarters of a thumb joint narrower than the lower. At a number of places the warp shows—a sure sign that the weaving is too tight. But a new fault appears. On the back of the piece, which ought to look the same as the front, there are peculiar lumps, loops made by setting the weft too loose.
I am glad to be alone as I endeavor to keep my disappointment from dissolving in tears.
I have, by my lateness, missed much of my favorite hour on this my final day with it. But the last minutes of the sunset hour have somewhat dispelled my disappointment when I hear the chug of a motor. The trader has brought Cha. They
bring my mail. They say they do not think the third blanket bad. They comfort me on having made it all by myself. "It is so little I don't know what you could use it for," says Cha.
"You could fold it up and it would make a nice handbag," suggests the trader. "The wide part could be the flap, and you could fasten it with a silver Navajo button. The designs fit perfectly for that too."
The idea is a good one. I have always held it in reserve as a symbol of the comfort it gave me. My friends, both white and Indian, have the faculty of spreading balm on the wounds of my discouragement.
Next day the whole family helps me pack Jonathan. Red-Point and the women embrace me in the Navajo way, arm around the waist and bowed head of one lying on the other's shoulder for a second or two. Then I start off as quickly as possible, not looking back.