Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
Early in a fourth summer I appear once more at White-Sands. I am alone and of course expect my usual joyous welcome. I drive up early in the morning. Daily activities should be started, but even so I expect some of the family to be at home. Not a single dog protests my arrival. Maria Antonia's shade is crazier than ever, but not picturesquely so; it looks forlorn. Closer approach shows a lock in the hasp of the large hogan, bars across the shade entrance. A premonition comes over me. It may be Maria Antonia is at the garden, but this looks like a more permanent absence. For there are no chickens and the ground around the house is not hard. Strong frequent winds have blown sand about it, sand long unmarked by little tracks of children and goats. Atlnaba's house and Marie's confirm my suspicions—not a sign of life.
Deeply disappointed, I go up to my own house. On the way I find a strange vacancy: the house of Yikadezba's-Mother is gone; only a ring of black ashes indicates it had ever been. The storage hole which for three years I have considered one of my homes, that simple place where I have had a complete sense of well-being is utterly desolate. It looks like a sand dune. Great heaps of sand, borne by never-ceasing dry winds, fill in the vacant spaces which set off the storage pit
from the rest of the landscape. In fact, Jonathan pursuing his usual track, almost gets stuck.
In the former three years of my sojourn Tom had cleaned out the place before my arrival. Today it smells of sheep, there is a lot of loose dirt on the floor, the extra eagle feathers which Red-Point has kept there for two years are pulled all over the place as if by an animal. The poker resting on the ridgepole alone seems like home. There is no temptation to stay. Outside I find large posts standing close to the storehouse, so near as to spoil the freedom of my sleeping-place. But the posts, so carefully cut and partially set up, look as if the builder had been suddenly interrupted in the midst of his exacting labor.
My experience has taught me not to give up in the quest for my family. The bleakness of White-Sands is due to more than temporary absence, but I will try the garden. A short drive to a fenced-in sand dune, and the same desolation. Last year I had walked through it to Maria Antonia at the opposite end, wondering when they were going to plant it. She had later pointed with the greatest pride to tiny green blades pushing with all their force through the deep sand. I had marvelled at the stalwart fight these seeds had made in the face of the odds against them. Like the hardy junipers, aged but small piñons, intrepid and valiant like the Navajo themselves. But this day I find no stooping black speck at the end of the "garden." There are green shoots, but it is as deserted as White-Sands.
My next try is the sheep camp over the hill from the garden. Last year we had frequently visited Atlnaba there, where neat clean corrals were built and used for the lambing. It should be over now, but it had strung along before, it might
now. I approach from the wrong side and come to the wash, which like house and garden has been the butt of the wind for months. I see a moving red speck on the opposite hillside, the dogs have started at the sound of the motor and run toward me barking as ominously as ever.
I decide I'd rather walk through that sand more surely than shovel Jonathan out more doubtfully for the greater part of the day. As I walk toward the piñon-dotted hill I see lively wads of white farther on. Suddenly the moving red spot comes from behind a tree. "Hello, Tom! Where is everybody?"
"We're living here now. I came down because I thought someone was stuck in the sand."
"No, I left the car on the other side. It looked too deep and steep for me, so I thought it less work to walk."
And now Marie advances, lays her head on my breast, as I put my arm around her waist. The tears well from her eyes. I repeat: "Are you all staying here now? I went to White-Sands, and no one was there. Where is your sister's hogan? It looked as if it was burned?"
"That little ’Kadezba died," says Marie with a sob in her voice. I grasp her tighter as for minutes we remain silent.
She then goes on to explain. "It was May the sixteenth. My sister wasn't here when she got sick, and she didn't know what to do. She just seemed a little sick for two days; then she brought her here, but it was too late for my father to sing or to call the doctor or anything. I think she must ’a’ had pneumonia. So we are staying here now."
She leads me to a shade, roofless but well made of posts slanting inward and covered thickly with green boughs of juniper and piñon. Here Red-Point, Maria Antonia, and
[paragraph continues] Atlnaba greet me tearfully. As we smoke, I get a little of the news. "It has been terrible dry. It didn't rain since you went away."
"It hadn't rained much up to that time either. Did you have any snow?"
"Yes, lots. The grass was good at first, but somehow the snow melted so it didn't go into the ground."
There has been much sickness and death, especially among the people we know well and think much of. "My father was to sing that same sing I had over Totlani's-Wife, but she died early in the spring," communicates Marie, and there is a silence at this announcement.
"Poor thing! I never thought she'd get over that illness she had last summer," I condone at last.
"Yes, she got so she could walk around the house again and she was well. But she got another cold and she didn't die from the cancer but from pneumonia."
"I hear John is Judge at Fort Defiance!"
"Yes," answers Marie with the old light in her eye, "and his wife has a baby."
"Is there any place I can stay?" I ask Tom.
"Yes, I have picked one for you. I'll show you."
We walk over a sage-covered slope to a protecting pine which Tom indicates as a possible residence, far enough from their settlement of shades not to be intrusive, near enough to be a part of it. "I'll bring my things tomorrow when you can fix it up for me."
"Tomorrow" I arrive bag and baggage. In no time at all Tom has dug out a place under the piñon so that it is hard and clean. Using such supports as are convenient near the tree, he adds others so as to make part of a shade. I do not intend
to stay long this time, so it will do. I want to collect plants and experiment with vegetal dyes, something my family does not make. I am hoping Red-Point will go with us, but he cannot do so until the end of July at the very earliest. There is to be a War Dance soon at Water-in-the-Ground, and the family have decided to participate. This is a tremendous undertaking, and the combined resources of all the members of the family will be none too much. I resolve to see this through.
Marie tells me Big-Man is here. He is going to have a prayer for Djiba's-Mother. Yikadezba's-Mother, at the death of her oldest child, has become Djiba's-Mother, named for her oldest living child. She is not exactly sick, but does not feel real well. She is tired, and her mind is somehow not in order. She gets dizzy and feels all mixed up. Her husband has consulted a diviner who finds that Ben has his mountain camp on an old deer trail. In the old days the Navajo chased the deer over it to impound them. Then the deer would turn back and get "all mixed up" when they saw the men who were hunting them. The mind of Djiba's-Mother is like that now. They will have the prayer today.
A little later Marie calls me to her father's shade. The family is there, and as I look around, the faces of the women are drawn with sorrow. Djiba's-Mother, who is nursing her first son, about five months old, looks thin and ill to me. She is worried and sad; perhaps that is why her mind is not in order. Big-Man has made a "prayer painting" in sand. He treats Djiba's-Mother much as Marie and Ninaba were treated from the big paintings of the Shooting Chant. She holds her baby and nothing which is done for her is omitted for him.
[paragraph continues] He undergoes the blowing, anointing, pressing, and the rest without a protest.
The evening part of the prayer includes the "blackening." Red-Point calls me about an hour before Big-Man begins to sing. He has several flat stones and some sticks which he uses as tongs, and larger or smaller amounts of plants assembled before him as he sits near the glowing cedar fire. With consummate skill he burns the weeds. Some are dry like straw. Holding them with his improvised tongs, he ignites a bunch at the flame and hastily lays them on one of the flat stones to burn up. Others are hard, thick, but dry roots. These he puts into a small bed of hot coals and leaves to burn into charcoal. There is a large amount of a greener sort. This he ignites but coaxes to burn on one of the stones for quite some time. The root charcoal is hard even when burned, so he grinds it fine. The finished product is a mass of fine soot which he lays aside for Big-Man to use later.
About nine-thirty the medicine-man begins singing. For an hour ceremonial acts familiar to me continue. Every time a medicine is applied to, or drunk by, the patient it is passed about to the rest of us. The women take great care to include all the children who are present in all of these matters. They are treated while asleep or even wakened for some of the acts. The blackening is next in order. Djiba's-Mother is thoroughly blackened by rubbing the specially burned charcoal over all her body except her head and face. Then her baby who is sleeping, is aroused, undressed, and held standing with his tiny feet in the charcoal, while his mother and grandfather see to it that he is thoroughly covered with it. He does not even whimper.
His mother will leave the paint on for two days, but she has no other taboos.
The next morning Red-Point leaves to sing at Black Mountain.