Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
On Sunday Old-Mexican's-Son is home with his brother, Big-Mexican. They had come by way of Water-in-the Ground about midnight, and like all good Navajo they had stopped at the sing. Instead of monotonous dancing and a large jesting audience they had found a serious council of many men. Talk back and forth, forth and back, always controlled but in an atmosphere charged with deep emotion. After the celebration of the white people the crowds had increased; besides wagons and horsemen there were many automobiles. About nine o’clock a large one had turned around in a well worn auto track and had unknowingly run over a Navajo, Little-Singer, who had chosen that particular spot in which to lie down and go to sleep. Probably he had not chosen it. He was just there when he wanted to sleep, and so he lay down.
He was not killed. Hushed excitement attended the calling of the ambulance and the transporting of the injured man fifteen miles to the hospital. Several hours after, the guests convened to "talk it over." An injury or a death is bad enough at any time or under any circumstance, but for such a thing to happen at a sing held so that "all might be restored"—this is incredible, a bad omen, the bitterest blow fate can deal.
The orthodox accused the young sophisticates of causing it because they danced those steps in the summer. "They should only be danced in the winter, and that is the cause of this misfortune. Anyway we have too many white innovations. Automobiles are bad, but we are getting too many of them. They are bound to bring disaster."
The young educated men defended themselves reasonably: "You dance the dances of the Night Chant yourselves at the Ceremonial, and the snakes are not frozen up then, for it is only August. And if you are going to do away with everything you get from the white man you will have to give up all your silver, your sheep, and even your horses. We got all of them from the whites. Besides it isn't as if someone said, "Don't do it." Nobody said anything."
"And so the argument went on," report my friends. "You know those fellows can certainly bring out their points well."
"They surely do," I answer. "But what conclusion did they come to?"
"How could they come to any? The old men still believe the breakdown of custom is the cause of all disaster; the young ones do not believe it. It's the old story."
On Monday morning I go to Water-in-the-Ground, making a slight detour to deposit the lamb in Red-Point's shade. I find Marie's wagon at the trading-post. She tells me her mother is ill back there on the other wagon. This is not just "not feeling good." There is tension in the very air. Marie says Angela is with her, and if I will take her mother home she can rest better. I find Maria Antonia reclining against a pile of sheepskins and quilts in Atlnaba's wagon, feeling too wretched for even the faintest smile. She has a bad headache;
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TWO OF MY SISTERS AND MY GIRL CHILDREN
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A VERY LITTLE GIRL ON A VERY LARGE PLAY-
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HASTIN-GANI'S WIFE ATTACHES THE WARP
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THE FIFTEEN FOOT LOOM
her cough is alarming; a knife stabs at her left side, sometimes even turns over slightly.
Angela helps her into the front seat of the car, and we bundle her up in quilts. How many times in the last few days I have bowled along this road considering it fairly smooth, excellent indeed as roads go out here! Now as I drive as carefully as I can it seems to me each tiny stone is a boulder, each groove a jolting rut. I realize the torture Maria Antonia is going through, and I can do nothing to prevent it. In an interminable half-hour we are back at the shade. Tenderly Angela helps her grandmother and makes her as comfortable as possible on her sheepskin bed. Djiba, as frisky as ever, wonders at her grandmother's lack of response to her many diversions but does not cease, in fact increases, her efforts to attract attention.
I retire to my own bower, worried but helpless. Angela struggles to make dinner out of nothing. Soon Djiba walks as briskly and purposefully as Atlnaba to my abode. She clutches in her tiny hand a note: "Will you please give us a match? Angela." I wrap a few in the note, give her an orange, and off she goes, her little full skirt swishing to the rhythm of her diminutive bare feet, her bright face set in the direction of her important errand.
On Tuesday I go to the shade to see how my grandmother is. She is worse. "Has she been sick at her stomach since she got home?"
"No," answers Marie, "it was just from the jolting of the car, I guess."
Red-Point is glad I came. They are talking over a plan.
"You see we can't possibly take her to the hospital. Little-Singer died there yesterday afternoon."
I am shocked. I understand perfectly why my grandmother cannot go there. A place where one dies is contaminated, and if anyone goes there, he puts himself in the way of the worst. I know, too, as do they all, although they do not say it, that Little-Singer is the fourth person to die at the hospital within a week. After considering the implications I suggest, "But could the doctor come here to see her?"
"Yes, my father says that would be all right."
"Does he want to go down and get him? If so, I'll take him," I offer.
"He wants to go over toward Cornfields to get a man to sing. He sings the Knife Chant and he cured my mother twice before when she was like this."
Secretly I demur, as I suggest that we stop to get the doctor on the way. Red-Point agrees, but somewhat hesitatingly. I take him first to Old-Mexican's-Son, who persuades him, after a little talk, to get the doctor. As we drive nearer the hospital, Red-Point, this staunch independent veteran of life's wars, sinks in his seat. As I stop before the door, he is fairly cringing. Horses, warriors, shots he is brave enough to face, but this thing, Death! His only technique for it is avoidance. I do not even go in but call out my question. The doctor is not there. Perhaps he is at his house, and I hastily drive my grandfather away from this house that strikes him with terror. We do not go far, not even off the Mission campus, before he regains his composure.
Now, after using all our powers of persuasion trying to force our medicine upon him contrary to his confirmed belief, I spend forty-five minutes searching within a space of two
acres for that doctor. There is a girl in charge here, she does not know where he is. Another is in charge of the office, phones, and does not know. No one even knows who might know. It would make a great difference in my decision if I knew whether he would be back in ten minutes, forty-five, or not until dark. As I fail in each inquiry to get any satisfaction whatsoever, Red-Point becomes visibly more cheerful.
Finally I give up as someone mentions that today is the Fourth of July. Perhaps the doctor is away for the day since it is a holiday. Grimly I reflect on the circumstance that here, as in the city I come from, one must get sick between ten and five of a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. Let him who gets his lungs pierced in the night or on a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday look to his own fate. By the time I have given up, Red-Point has himself and the situation in hand once more. I surrender to him. I drive him to the home of his Knife Chanter.
He is not home either, but his wife knows where he is, just about to ride out of sight under yonder cliff. Red-Point whoops and motions. In a twinkling he has turned his horse, and in no time he is back. Red-Point explains his errand, slips some money into his hand. He dismounts, darts into his hogan for his bundle which his wife has already reached down from its nail, and in less than ten minutes we are on our way back to Red-Point's.
At three o’clock the Knife Chanter begins to sing. Maria Antonia has high fever, and she can hardly breathe because of the pain in her side. There is no sun today; the sky is dark, and a strong wind is blowing. The ceremonial acts are neither new nor elaborate. There are no sand-paintings. But before anything else is done, Maria Antonia must bathe and
shampoo her hair in the yucca suds. The basket is prepared with its attractive foam, its five pollen crosses and circle of yellow. There is quite a large expanse of clean sand behind it, and on it the Chanter has described four little crosses of yellow pollen.
He bids her walk around the basket on its sand foundation from east to south to west to north, placing each foot in a designated spot. She is so weak she staggers and cannot step carefully. I almost cry out as she goes on, no one helping her, and finally falls to her knees on the sand. She goes through with the shampoo, unties her own hair string, as the Chanter and Marie help her. Her hair is wet as the cold wind, touched with a few drops of rain, blows through the shade.
No one could be gentler or more tender than Marie as she finally helps her mother to her bed and wraps her up when the bathing is over, and the Chanter continues his steady singing to the accompaniment of his deerhoof rattle. Angela warms a piece of outing flannel at the fire and wraps it around her grandmother's feet. They are not cruel; their pity is as poignant as mine. The sing must be done properly, if at all; the details of it are no more cruel than the surgeon's scalpel. No one would rush in and grab it from him; it is just as unthinkable for the profane to step into the corner of the hut where only patient and Chanter should be.
This sing, even more than the others, furnishes opportunity as well as food for sober meditation. Here is no feast with merriment and sociability. This is a matter to be compared with the doctor's sitting, watch in hand, as he counts the beats of a vacillating pulse. My sympathy has run the gamut from the weakest sort of pity to bitterness at not finding the
doctor, from grim fatalism at being compelled to fetch the Chanter to the most abject futility at watching Maria Antonia shampooing her hair in that wind. It now flares into feverish anger which dies down in despair as I see her rest once more disturbed, when she is forced by the tenets of the cure to sit up while the Chanter blows medicine—pine leaves floating on water—on her side where the pain torments her.
"After all," I ask myself, "is this more futile than the administration of oxygen or the shot of adrenalin, each of which is a hope against hope?"
But this is only rationalizing, for after all we do have a chance to cure pneumonia, and I am sure that is what my grandmother has.
The afternoon singing with very little business lasts a little over two hours. In the evening it begins about eight. One must not go to sleep in a place with a sick person; the children carefully excluded. One may not come in while the singing is in progress, but one may go out when a particular song is finished and ere another has begun. I go out during a long intermission. From my bed I hear the burden and the rattle until after midnight.
Next morning Marie says her mother is a little better. My bitterness mellows to fatalistic tolerance as I hope Maria Antonia may recover. "Twice at least before she has survived not only the disease but the treatment. She is unbelievably wiry; perhaps she will again. Even if the doctor had come, what good could he have done? He would have ordered complete rest. They would have the sing anyway, and what hope could he have of success for his treatment? If she does not get over this, at least he will not be blamed. They are following
their own creed. Whichever way the balance swings, they will be better satisfied so."
Red-Point has promised to sing for a man at Black Mountain. He has complete confidence in his friend, Knife Chanter, who will sing for four nights. He goes off to attend to his own duties.