In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh
Red Moon Rising
[p.199]The year I turned fourteen, my parents decided to take in a Lamanite child. That’s how I still think of Sarah Red Moon—as a Lamanite child—even though I have learned to say Native American when I’m talking to someone outside the church. I mean the LDS church, which is what the people of White Bluff always mean when they say “the church” because almost everybody in these parts belongs to it. The church helped us get Sarah, and because she was my age, my mother said it was my responsibility to teach her to be a good Latter-day Saint.
I can tell you, I wasn’t thrilled with another responsibility. I am the oldest of four and my mother married to a man with six little kids of his own, which makes me the oldest with a vengeance. With my mother running the Primary program in our ward, I was always getting saddled with babysitting, and I’d had my fill of responsibility. By the time Sarah came into our lives, I was out of patience with other people wanting me to take charge, and I guess it showed the day Sarah arrived. When my step-dad carried her battered blue suitcase in and set it down in the hall, then nodded to me to take over, I felt like they’d put the whole weight of Sarah’s life on my shoulders. It was bad enough that I had to share my room with somebody, but when I saw who it was, my skin prickled. I knew Sarah—had seen her around town and in [p.200]church over the past four or five years without really noticing her. One reason I hadn’t thought much about her, even though she was my age, was that none of the girls in my class ever talked to her. She had an ashen, almost invisible quality—her dark dress and glossy hair veiled by something mysterious that kept us at a distance. Plus, she was Navajo Indian, and they’re known for keeping to themselves.
She said nothing, only stared back at me.
“I’m really glad you’ll be living with us. Welcome.” The words were right, but there was no music in them. Maybe because I didn’t feel too pleasant about somebody moving in on the little bit of space I got to call mine. Plus, I didn’t know what my friends would say when they found out I had a Navajo “sister.” That is, if I had any friends left since my mother married Mr. Bolton. He was the only man for miles around who bred goats and sold them for their milk or their meat—anything he could do to make a living off them. “The kids are so dang cute,” he’d say, when my mother asked what on earth had possessed him to make him want to herd goats. We knew we weren’t the kids he was talking about.
When I said hello, and welcome, Sarah didn’t say a word. Her black eyes spoke for her. They said, “I know you’re lying, and guess what? I don’t want to be here either.”
Silently we climbed the stairs to my room. I showed her the sliver of closet I’d cleared out for her, and the two drawers in my dresser I’d emptied (murmuring the whole time), but Sarah didn’t have anything to hang in the closet except her one black dress, and all her possessions fit into one drawer. I felt ashamed, then. I thought about what my mother had said about me learning more from Sarah than she would ever learn from me. And then resentment sat bitterly on the back of my tongue—here was another reason to feel guilty.
Now I picked up a hairbrush from my dresser and pulled it viciously through my red curls. The more it hurt, the harder I yanked. I hated my red hair. Sarah watched me from where she sat, kind of slumped over on the twin bed. She saw the pain in my eyes, and saw me yank the brush through my hair again, and she gave me a look.
“I do that. Look—I’m all clean,” she said, and lowered her head so that I could see the dark line of her part. Then she raised her head and stood beside me, and her eyes cleared. I knew she was referring to what had happened when we were ten years old, and I didn’t want [p.201]to talk about that. When I said nothing, Sarah pulled up the sleeve of her dress and held out her arm. There, traced into her dusky skin, was a drawing of an eagle made with pinpricks and a ballpoint pen.
“It helps me remember.” Her voice was fluid, like it was something else—rain or river water or blood flowing.
“You did that to yourself?”
I shook my head. “You shouldn’t do things like that to yourself. No matter what.”
She stared out the window. “I don’t know why they make us do this.”
I wasn’t sure who “they” or “us” would be, but I thought she might be talking about grown-ups and teenagers, and then I thought maybe she was talking about white people making her people do something. And then I wondered what it was we made them do. I took a breath and tried to remember exactly what Jesus said about loving one another, so I made myself smile at Sarah in the mirror. She ducked her head then, but not before I saw a shy grin spread over her face.
At first I was glad for the twin beds, and for the space it put between us, but before the week was out, Sarah and I were sitting side-by-side on one bed, looking out the window and giggling at my step-dad chasing down one of the goats. Then we watched my younger brothers and sisters tussling on the lawn, and she told me that in the Navajo way, everyone is a brother or sister—that it’s all one big family. I pointed to the houses we could see from there, and told Sarah what I knew about who lived there. In a town our size, everybody knows pretty much everything about everybody—and anything you don’t know is bound to be bad news.
Within two weeks I had told Sarah how I felt about my real dad, and I talked about how hard it was to watch him die, and even though it made me feel disloyal to my new step-dad, I told her what I missed most about him, how he always knew when to tease me or tell a joke or make me laugh. And Sarah nodded and said she knew, she had lost special ones, too, and there was a way, she said, of walking with them when you went out into the red hills. And then I told her how I hated being the oldest, how I could never lock the bathroom door and take a long bath and paint my toenails without one of the little ones whining to come in. After that talk Sarah pitched in, helped me babysit and do chores. Somehow her presence softened my parents’ sharp attention [p.202]and that rigid way of doing things on time in just this way. They made allowances for Sarah, and in bending to accommodate her, they bent a little for me, too. Life began to feel easier somehow—more like it had been when I was small, in the years before my first dad got sick and my mom got so sad.
Sarah didn’t say much about herself, but I started piecing together the little bits I knew of her life, trying to make things fit into something that would explain the needles that prickled my heart every time I looked at her. I first met her when she came to church with her mother, Wanda, both of them dressed in black skirts and blouses, their hair twisted in long shanks with bright yarn at the ends. Even though she had six brothers and sisters, Sarah was the only one that attended our ward meetings. I remembered the Saturday Sarah was baptized; she had to borrow white clothes for the baptism, and she was confirmed in the same old dark dress she always wore; it was the year before my father died, and he had stood in the confirmation circle, putting his big hands on Sarah’s head. When he returned to his seat, his eyes were wet. “That girl has the spirit,” he whispered. I just looked at him; how could he know she had the spirit when the girl hardly spoke a word?
Life in White Bluff plodded along same as always until the day Sarah turned up with cooties. Our Primary teacher, Sister Pritchard, had us all lined up out in front of the wardhouse, getting us ready for the Primary Children’s Parade. It’s part of the Pioneer Parade that happens every July 24th to celebrate when the first Saints entered Zion. Sister Pritchard brandished her metal comb and started digging a part down the center of Sarah’s scalp when all the sudden she stopped and looked close, then closer, then jumped back. She couldn’t have been more disgusted if the Serpent himself had coiled his body around Sarah’s throat and winked. Sister Pritchard marched Sarah inside and down the hall to the bishop’s office and they called Dr. Pritchard out of priesthood meeting even though he’s only a dentist. Sister Pritchard said he’d know what was going on with Sarah. But when Sarah saw Dr. Pritchard walk into the bishop’s office, she made the cry of a frightened bird and ran out of the wardhouse. Pritchard shrugged and scratched the back of his balding head.
When the Pioneer Parade was over and all the watermelon rinds thrown away, we went home and changed our clothes and did the chores, and then my mother took me with her to help clean up the Red Moon hogan. We stopped to pick up LuPriel Pritchard who settled [p.203]herself in, brushed off her blue jeans, and said it was a good thing the Primary got involved or the whole ward would fall apart. But the Relief Society sisters had already descended like the clean-up crew at a disaster site: they wore branding jeans and long-sleeved shirts; they had their hair all tied up in kerchiefs and they’d swathed their hands in rubber gloves. They carried soap and shampoo and lye, brushes and sponges and pails. They rousted Sarah and her nine brothers and sisters from the hogan and made them stand in line before the tailgate of my father’s milk truck. They poured warm water from milk cans into a washtub and washed every dark head with some special kind of soap that kills cooties. The little kids giggled, craning their necks as the warm water trickled down their spines. Sarah stared mournfully at her feet, her long hair dripping as she shivered beside her mother. After the women washed Wanda’s hip-length mane, LuPriel Pritchard had a conference with the Relief Society presidency. Then she opened her alligator bag and took out a pair of silver hair-cutting shears. She made all the Red Moons undress and drop their clothes in the big pot of boiling hot water, and then told them to wrap up in clean blankets. Then she whipped out a plastic hair-cutting cloak that she must have brought from her in-house beauty salon. LuPriel Pritchard didn’t ask. She just started snipping away at Wanda’s hair. Now, I want you to know, my stomach seized up like a bulldog had grabbed hold, maybe because I’d heard LuPriel go on and on about how unfair it was that Wanda had so much hair and that it grew so long when she didn’t know a thing about taking care of it properly, while she, LuPriel, who was trained in haute couture by one of the leading stylists up in Logan, had such a limp, thin head of hair. Now, as LuPriel snipped away, Wanda’s black eyes got big.
“You must cut it round,” Wanda said.
LuPriel just kept snipping. “What’s this?” she said, popping her gum in time to the scissors snipping.
“The earth is round. All life makes a circle. Please cut it round if you cut it at all.”
LuPriel popped her gum and snipped away. “This is no time to choose a hairstyle, Wanda.”
LuPriel kept snipping and Wanda kept smiling and squinting. Her eyes grew bigger and wetter by the moment. Then LuPriel whipped the cape off Wanda and snapped it around Sarah’s neck. Strands of dark hair fell like feathers of a fledgling eagle around Sarah’s dusty [p.204]bare feet. She didn’t look up. She stared at her feet as though everything depended on it. Wanda watched and the tears spilled over. “It should be cut round. Like the curve of the hill. Like the curve of the horizon,” she whispered, but LuPriel kept snipping away until Sarah’s head was spikey as the arched back of an angry cat.
Then we all sat out in the sun—the Red Moon kids and me on one side of the fire-pit and the Relief Society and the Primary presidency on the other, all of us wolfing sandwiches like we’d put in a hard day as field hands. Then the Relief Society president and LuPriel Pritchard marched toward the hogan armed with brooms and brushes, aiming to scrub it clean with lye and boiling water.
Albert was the only Red Moon who did not get his hair cut and his clothes washed that day. When the women pulled back the blanket to go inside, he stood and the air moved like great wings flapping in that small round room. He stared at LuPriel and Sister Blanchard and they stared back. Wanda watched them all and finally she said, “Albert. Please.” He stepped around them and strode from the campsite, his back straight, his head high, his long hair fanning out behind him. He strode toward the white sandstone edifice that jutted like a giant thumb overhead, the bluff that gave the town its name and threw its oblique shadow across the reservation. LuPriel Pritchard complained about Albert getting away from them, and said it was only a matter of time until the whole town had lice, since Albert was “a carrier.”
One day when my mother and LuPriel were on their way to deliver a cake to Sister Arintha Flowers who played the piano for the Primary and had been a widow as long as anyone could remember, LuPriel stopped griping about the bad shocks on my step-dad’s truck long enough to tell us the latest: Albert Red Moon had his blanket booth on Highway 17 closed down because some councilman caught him selling beer.
“The county closed him up quick as that,” said LuPriel Pritchard, snapping her fingers. “My brother, LeGrande, served the papers himself. ”
“How will they live?” My mother bit her lip the way she does when she worries. My mother is even worse than I am when it comes to worrying about people. “I guess they’ll have to go on relief. That’s hard on all of them—especially the men.”
Sister Pritchard sucked her teeth. “People who don’t take better [p.205]care shouldn’t be allowed to keep their kids. The state needs to take charge of that family. Either that, or the church.”
My mother looked at me, and I knew she was thinking that LuPriel Pritchard didn’t know anything about taking care of kids. But what she said was, “Remember, LuPriel, the Lamanites are direct descendants of the House of Israel. They’re the Chosen People—the apple of Heavenly Father’s eye.”
LuPriel snorted. “Well, I guess this particular apple’s got a few worms in it then. Somebody needs to save them from themselves.” Her voice had that brittle edge on it.
But LuPriel rattled on, waving a long-nailed hand. “It makes me sick. They come into the office and open mouths that haven’t ever seen a toothbrush and expect Don to fix everything.”
“LuPriel, you know what the Savior says about judging.” My mother’s voice was steady, but I could see a spot of anger in either cheek. LuPriel must have seen it, too, because she changed the subject then. I was the one who got the brunt of it, LuPriel telling my mother how I needed to lose at least ten pounds and it was time I started using make-up even if I was only twelve years old at the time.
Six months after the Relief Society washed and cut the Red Moon heads, Wanda Red Moon died. One of the Navajo boys that sat by me in geometry said it was because her hair had been cut; his grandfather had told him that when Wanda was little, a medicine man had told her that her spirit was woven into her hair—something like Samson, I guess. When Dr. Andrews came down to perform an autopsy on Wanda’s body, all kinds of strange things happened. Somebody bashed in the stained-glass windows of the mortuary. And somebody else fired a .22 rifle into the storm door of the jailhouse. My mother wanted to know why on earth they were doing such a gruesome process on a heart attack victim, and after she’d wondered aloud to all of us—who didn’t want to think about what an autopsy was, let alone why they were doing it—she took her questions to the town. She found out from Rachel Stowe, who worked part time as the sheriff’s dispatcher, that LuPriel Pritchard had called her brother, LeGrande Bell, and insisted that they check the cause of death because she knew for a fact that Albert beat Wanda regularly.
“I suspect that rumor is my fault,” my mother said, blaming herself as usual. “I told LuPriel about the time I saw Albert trying to pull off that brown corduroy jacket I gave Wanda. He kept yelling at her. I [p.206]didn’t see any beating, but you know how LuPriel makes mountains out of molehills.”
It took Dr. Andrews two days to be sure that Wanda had died of a hole in her heart and not of a beating, even though she didn’t have any bruises. By then LuPriel Pritchard and Sheriff Bell had farmed out all the kids to people up in Salt Lake. All the kids but Sarah. She was the oldest, and she stayed with Albert, cooking his meals and helping him at a new roadside booth where he sold turquoise and silver jewelry. After Wanda died, Albert turned to drink for a while. Sarah would wait until he fell asleep on his arms, and then she stowed the bottle and lowered him into the shade. Later she folded up the black velvet cards with jewelry pinned to them, and brought down the wood flaps of the booth and hooked them in place. And when Albert had slept it off, he’d get up and then they’d go back to the hogan and start a fire and fix something for supper. On the nights when Albert drank at the Silver Spur outside of town, he usually ended up in the county jail. I found out about this from LuPriel before had any idea Sarah would be sharing my bedroom. LuPriel had come over after supper to get my mother to put this platinum rinse on her hair. She’d pulled little wisps through a pink plastic cap till she looked like one of the dolls leftover from my childhood—after my ferocious bathing and brushing of their synthetic locks, they looked like cancer patients. When the haircoloring was done and LuPriel’s hair washed and dried and swept up in a French twist, she sat at the kitchen table painting her nails and talking like she was Queen. “I talked to my brother LeGrande about Albert’s problem,” she said. “He’s gonna order Albert into one of those government rehab programs over in Vegas. And I’ll have Sarah come live with me. Don likes her okay. She can do the dishes and iron to earn her keep.”
“I don’t think she likes Dr. Pritchard,” I put in. It wasn’t like me, and both women turned to stare. “Maybe … maybe she’s scared of the dentist,” I said. “She ran away from him.”
LuPriel sucked her teeth. “Well, we’ll just send her up to Salt Lake like the rest of the Red Moons. There’s always a church family willing to take these poor Lamanite kids in.” She twisted the cap tight on her bottle of nail polish. “Then Albert will be handled. And so will Sarah. And that’ll be that.”
My mother stood up, her face all huffy. “LuPriel, why don’t you butt out of other people’s business?”
[p.207]LuPriel looked up at my mother, and her eyes narrowed. “Ramona, what is this? I never thought you’d turn on me.”
My mother had been a good friend to LuPriel; she’d seen her through all those miscarriages and umpteen fertility tests. She’d even gone with her up to Salt Lake while LuPriel went through that artificial insemination thing like they do to cows. Nothing worked. But I guess my mother had run out of patience with LuPriel’s critical nature and her know-it-all attitude, especially since LuPriel had never raised a kid herself. My mother studied the rag rug by the kitchen door. “You better go now, LuPriel. I’ve got some things to do.” It was the rudest thing I’d ever heard my mother say.
LuPriel tucked a wisp of platinum hair into her French twist. Then she picked up her car keys and stalked out the kitchen door, leaving a trail of put-out pride behind her.
As soon as she was gone, my mother called my step-dad and all the brothers and sisters and me into the living room for a Family Council. Now in my experience, a Family Council means serious business. That’s how we heard about my dad having cancer, and how we knew that Grandpa Wilkins had to sell his farm. So I felt sober as we sat waiting for my mother to speak.
“I want to take in Sarah Red Moon,” she said. We looked at each other. Nobody had said anything for the longest time.
“Well?” my mother said in a loud voice.
“But she’s an Indian,” Buck said softly.
“And ?” my mother’s voice strained.
“And we’re not.”
My mother lifted her hand, then let it fall. “The Indian people are Lamanites. They are direct descendants of the House of Israel. At least, that’s what our scriptures tell us.” She shot a look at my step-dad. “Ervin?”
My step-dad jumped as if he’d been rammed with a hot knitting needle. “Okay.”
“Just okay?” my mother retorted.
“OKAY!” He got up. “But don’t drag me into this quarrel with the Pritchards.”
My mother looked at him. “Who said anything about the Pritchards?”
My step-dad rolled his eyes. Then he stood up and pulled on his Levi jacket. He looked at me. “Seems I just fell off the turnip truck.”
[p.208]“Me, too,” I said. Because I knew darn well that I’d have to share my room, even though they hadn’t said a word about it.
For a month or two, it didn’t look like it would happen. The state said no, and then the reservation council said no, and then the church said no. And while my mother was still moping around and praying about it, they all three turned around, just like that, and said to go ahead, we could have her. And then it was my turn to mope-about the cooties and sharing my room and what my friends would do about me having a Lamanite sister. As if it isn’t hard enough to be fourteen and get your first period during math class and have to go up to get the hall pass and have that old goat Mr. Powers tease you in front of everybody and all the while you don’t know exactly what’s happening and when you get to the bathroom, there it is, a dark, ominous stain you’ll never get out. And all day long you’re sure you’re going to bleed down your leg in front of Isaac Noble and Joseph Caldwell and everybody. Your head tells you that you are probably all right because you’ve seen those health films they show in seventh grade, but you don’t know for sure, because another part of you is certain that something very big is happening, and you wonder why everyone keeps it so secret and why it makes you blush to even think about it, and since the only emotion you recognize is shame, you decide it only happens to people God is particularly peeved with. And then you are sure that this is the beginning of the end.
If it hadn’t been for Sarah, I wouldn’t have talked to anybody about it, not even my mom. I mean, my mom can’t take it when one of the boys farts in the middle of dinner. So I knew for sure she’d get all flustered about this. But Sarah was the coolest. She saw the opened box of Kotex under my bed and told me we should have a party.
“A party?” I bent my head and laughed. “For what?”
“To celebrate you becoming a woman. That’s what we did when I got my period.”
“You had a party?”
“You mean … with your girlfriends? Like a slumber party?”
Sarah shook her head. “We invited everybody. It lasted for four days.”
“You’re kidding.” I could feel the flush creeping up my neck and onto my cheekbones.
And so Sarah told me how all the clans got together and she made [p.209]a huge cornmeal cake, baked it in the ground the way a woman holds a baby inside her, and then after the four days of Running to Greet the Sun, and then dancing and singing and celebrating, she took the layer of rocks off the dug-out oven and served the cornmeal cake to everyone. This way she started the potlatch so then her grandmother could serve her black bean-rattlesnake stew and her grandfather gave away his best arrowheads and her mother gave beaded tassels she had made herself and her father doled out venison jerky from the last hunt. And Sarah herself climbed on the hogan and threw peppermints to everyone.
“You are ashamed,” Sarah said. “But it’s no shame to become a woman. We will make a celebration.”
“Okay. But just you and me. My brothers would tease me forever if they knew.”
Sarah’s black eyes glittered. “Just you and me, then.”
Sarah showed me how to dig the pit and then make a fire and let it burn down until the coals were right. But then my mother didn’t have any cornmeal, so we mixed up a Betty Crocker Brownie mix and spread it on an old cookie sheet and covered it with maple leaves Sarah said cornhusks would be better—and then we spread dirt and then more coals and then rocks over the top. And then we danced and we sang some of my old Girl Scouts songs like “Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other’s gold.” And we sang a song in Sarah’s tongue that is something about beauty walking behind and in front of me all the days of my life, and I got a feeling of being beautiful in spite of what LuPriel said about my freckles and about being too fat. And the next morning I did get up and run toward the sun only it was a few minutes late, and the next morning it was Sunday and I was too tired, so I decided to celebrate being a woman by sleeping really late, and then after church while we were waiting for Sunday dinner, we went out and uncovered the brownies and they were black and crispy as the inside of a chimney, so we ate the red licorice I was going to give to my brothers and sisters. And that night, before we went to sleep, we opened the window and sang until the dog started howling and my step-dad said it was time we shut up and went to sleep.
One Sunday Albert showed up at the front door and asked for Sarah. The deputy sheriff brought him by, and waited out in his car. I invited him in, and he shook his head the slightest bit. “She’s in the [p.210]bathtub,” I said. I didn’t tell him she was shaving her legs for the first time ever.
But he seemed to know. Because he scowled at me and said, “You are teaching my Sarah your strange ways—to be a little girl, instead of a woman.”
I shook my head, then felt like a liar so I nodded. “But … she teaches me stuff, too. About … about potlatches and cornmeal cakes.”
He smiled then, but his face didn’t move one jot. The smile seemed to glow from deep inside, lighting up his whole face without changing the shape of his lips or crinkling his eyes.
When Sarah came to the door, with her hair dripping around her shoulders, he took her around the side of the house, and I could tell by her face that he was telling her something bad. And when he held her close and kissed the top of her head, I knew he was leaving for the rehab program.
As I have said, it wasn’t so bad having Sarah around. Since she had so few clothes, I gave her the ones I didn’t like. My mom said stuff like, “I see that red jumper is going to get some wear after it took me two weeks to sew. I’m glad somebody in this house will wear a dress.” And I couldn’t help it, I felt jealous even though I never did like that red jumper. Having Sarah around was like that—almost as much pressure as it was joy.
We walked to school together, leaving the house at 7:45 each morning, and stopping to pick up Elaine on our way to the high school. One morning I leaned over and caught Sarah sketching during Mr. Humphries’s geography class. She carefully folded the page and handed it to me. I recognized the face. “Mr. Humphries! You’re really good!” I was surprised at how the coach’s bulldog look came through Sarah’s lines. She giggled behind her hand.
After that Sarah saved her drawings and she always showed me what she had drawn. She caught something real and honest in the lines—the way Mrs. Evans’s skirts hiked up over her broad behind when she wrote on the board; Miles Beaumont’s bared teeth as he opened his pocketknife. Another she showed me was of a young Navajo man, dressed in blue jeans and denim shirt, his long black hair braided, one hand in his pocket.
“This is my dream-boy,” she said.
“Who is it?”
[p.211]“My dream-boy,” she said. “But in my dream, he rides a chestnut horse.”
“You mean you dream about him?” I couldn’t remember my dreams anymore, and this bothered me no end.
“Whenever I choose,” she said. She smiled mysteriously and tucked the drawing into her purse. After a month of marveling over her art work each morning, it occurred to me that Sarah was drawing instead of doing her school work.
“Where’s your English assignment?” I asked one day. Sarah smiled and took out a sketch of Miss Avalon, the English teacher. “Won’t she fail you?” I asked.
Sarah smiled slyly. “Not Miss Avalon. She likes my drawings.”
One Friday in October we came into English and Miss Avalon passed out white ruled sheets of paper. “Today I want you to write about your worst fear,” Miss Avalon said.
I stared a long time at my paper before I wrote my name in the upper right-hand corner: Ora Daneen Baker. Then I stared a longer time before I wrote the first line: “I’m afraid to go to the dentist.” Then I crossed it out. It seemed so ordinary, and the way I felt about it wasn’t ordinary. I’d close my eyes, and LuPriel Pritchard’s face hovered there, her blond hair pulled into a tight French twist. I’d think about her uniform starched stiff and white, her rubber-soled shoes squeaking on the tile. And then behind LuPriel came Dr. Pritchard, the long wispy strands he combed over his bald spot falling forward as he whispered, “Are you feeling sleepy now? Count backward from one hundred.”
Then the ten minutes was up and Miss Avalon was calling for our papers. I raised my hand.
“I … I couldn’t think of anything.”
A shadow crossed Miss Avalon’s face. “Anybody else have trouble?”
Several hands went up. Not Sarah’s.
Miss Avalon gave an elaborate sigh. “I know you have fears. We all do. Even here in White Bluff. It’s a matter of finding the courage to admit you’re afraid.” She chewed on her lip for a minute. “All right. Take them home. But on Monday, I want two pages from every one of you.”
We were walking home when Elaine burst out. “I don’t want to do it. ”
“Do what?” I asked, like I hadn’t been thinking about the assignment myself. Elaine sniffed.
Sarah walked silently, her shoulders tucked around her books.
[p.212]“Do what?” I asked again.
“Write about my biggest fear.”
“Oh.” I said. We walked silently until the sky pressed down on us, and the sun was a heavy metal ball and we had to hold it up. “Maybe we could work on it together. Remember—we were gonna sleep over tonight.”
Elaine forgot about the assignment then, and got me to make all the decisions, like she always does—what time we’d meet and who would bring what and what we would do—toilet paper the Hastingses’ house or dump garbage cans out at the Mills farm or just make prank calls to everybody in town.
That night, when Sarah and Elaine and I had spread out our sleeping bags and we were staring up at the stars, Elaine let out a big sigh.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna do it,” she said.
“Do what?” I asked. Elaine could drive you crazy, the way she always expected you to read her mind.
“I am afraid, too,” said Sarah in her quiet voice.
“Afraid of what?” I rolled over and stared at them. Elaine was staring at Sarah.
“How did you find out?” Elaine demanded.
“I wish I knew what we were talking about!” I said loudly.
If Sarah knew, she wasn’t saying. “What are you afraid of?”
Elaine hid her face in her hands. Sarah stared impassively over her head at the trees shifting in the wind.
“Elaine, cut it out. It doesn’t help to cry, does it?” I sighed and sat up.
Elaine moved her hands and gave me the meanest look I’ve ever seen on her face—and I’ve known her since we were two. “How would you know? You don’t have a clue.”
“I know some things.”
Elaine and Sarah waited. I knew they were both waiting for me. “Okay,” I said. “What shall we do?”
“Do the assignment,” Sarah said.
“But something could happen.”
“That’s up to Miss Avalon. She’s the one who wants to know what scares us.” Sarah gave me a steady look. In that moment I realized how beautiful she had become, her hair dark and shiny and thick around her shoulders, skin glowing in the soft light of the moon.
I nodded. “Get us some paper, Elaine. And bring another flashlight. We’re gonna do that assignment right now before we chicken out.”
For a long time the only sounds were of pencils scratching and wind riffling the leaves. Then I looked up and saw that Sarah and Elaine were waiting for me.
“I’ll read mine first,” I said. “But you’ve gotta promise to show me yours.” The girls nodded, and Elaine held up the Girl Scout sign. So I read:
My mouth grows very dry while I sit waiting. The seat squeaks when I move. The receptionist has left early and I want to leave, too. I will tell my mother that everybody was gone. How can she get mad at me then? But then he comes out. He has a white coat. His face is almost nice-looking, except for his eyes. His eyes are like two blue marbles on small white dishes. And he says, “How are you, Ora? Have you been brushing every day?” I nod. I don’t want to give him anything, not even my words. And then he pats the chair and puts the mask on my face. “Pretty blouse you’re wearing, Ora,” he says. He stares down at my lap. “Are you getting sleepy? Count backward from one hundred.” And I vow I will stay awake until I reach number one. But I’ve never made it past ninety-two. I hate going to the dentist.
“That’s it,” I said.
“That’s it?” Elaine’s face screwed up and her nose started twitching like she was going to cry. She handed over her paper. It wasn’t a lot different from mine, except that she wrote about how Dr. Pritchard had been cleaning her teeth since she was a baby and how she never had cavities. And how her mother thought Don Pritchard was the best thing since sliced bread.
I shrugged. “You’re lucky. I get cavities that have to be drilled and filled.”
Elaine could hardly talk. “He … always … uses … gas.”
“So? My mom says that’s good—life hurts enough, without the dentist.”
[p.214]Elaine wailed. “Don’t you get it? He gave me gas to clean my teeth. He used it for sealants!”
“So?” I was getting mighty tired of Elaine’s dramatic side, and I was getting ready to tell her so.
“SEALANTS … DON’T … HURT!” Elaine shouted. She got up and ran into the house.
I sat there blinking and wondering if I should go after Elaine and wake up the whole Jorgensen house. Then Sarah nudged me. She handed me her paper. It was a drawing, very clear, very vivid. There was Sarah in the dentist’s chair with her eyes closed and her blouse unbuttoned. And there was Dr. Pritchard. He had one hand up her skirt. His cheek was pressed against her breast, his mouth pursed in a smile that made me want to throw up.
“Sarah … ,” I whispered. “What made you think of this?”
“It happened,” she said quietly.
“But if you were asleep … how do you know?”
“I remember. I watch myself sleep.”
“It … it was a dream?” I couldn’t remember my dreams anymore.
Sarah shook her head emphatically. “No. No dream. It happened.”
I lay there wide awake in the darkness. Elaine never did come out of the house, and Sarah started into a deep, sighing sleep. For a long time my thoughts flickered like moonlight through my mind. Then something bright and sharp flashed through me, and I knew what I had to do.
The next morning Elaine’s mother teased her about being afraid of the dark. Elaine didn’t smile. We ate our waffles silently and then Sarah and I rolled our sleeping bags and went home. Sarah disappeared upstairs, but I headed for the kitchen. My mother was rolling pie crust for Sunday dessert.
“Mom,” I said. “I gotta talk to you.”
“Okay,” she said. She kept rolling the dough.
“No, Mom. Come sit down.” I took her by the floury hand and pulled her to the table. Then I took out Sarah’s drawing.
She gasped. “That’s Dr. Pritchard. And Sarah! Who drew this? It … it’s terrible. Ora—did you do this? I didn’t know you could draw! What on earth … ?”
I shook my head. “Sarah drew it.”
My mother caught her breath again. “What’s gotten into that child! She’s always been so proper.”
[p.215]“Mom, it happened.”
“Well, I know it happened. I can see it. And I don’t know what I’m going to do about it. We mustn’t let your step-dad see this. He’d get worried about the little kids and send Sarah away.” She started to tear it up.
“No!” I snatched it away. “It’s evidence.”
“Evidence?” My mother looked up at me through bleary eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that Dr. Pritchard is a dirty old man!”
“Ora! He’s one of the brethren. He’s a priesthood holder. He … ,” her voice trailed off. “No. It isn’t possible. Sarah must have made it up. Some girls have fantasies. And now her mother’s gone, well, she must be starved for love.”
“Mother. It happened. I know.”
“What do you mean, Ora?”
So I told her about the assignment, and about Elaine’s sealants. And then I told her what I remembered the night before while I was talking to the stars. The purple spot on my breast and the ache between my legs after my last routine dental check-up.
My mother sat silent and unmoving for a long time. Even her eyes seemed to lose their color. Then she started to cry into her apron, leaving smudges of flour on her cheeks. The harder she cried, the more color she got in her face, and pretty soon it was bright red. That was when she grabbed her car keys and the drawing and marched out of the house without even taking off her apron.
At first I was sorry I told her. Why hadn’t I just handed in my assignment and waited to see if Miss Avalon would figure it out? But then I thought about Miss Avalon, with all her good ideas, so pretty and pale, who wouldn’t help us plant the trees in the cemetery on Arbor Day. And then I knew I’d done the best thing.
The next day was a blur. Bishop Hastings called Sarah and Elaine and me into his office. We went in, one at a time, and told our story. The bishop was nice. He was always nice. He listened to us and nodded and shook his head, and then shook our hands and told us to remember our prayers. Then he invited my mother in, and he said, “I’ll call everyone to repentance. But there’s not much else I can do, besides report it to the authorities. I’m bound by law to do that.”
After the bishop’s report was filed, we had to go down to the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Bell sat us down around his big desk, and he propped [p.216]up his cowboy boots. His legs were the longest legs I’ve ever seen. He squinted along his legs and across his desk at us like we were a brace of ducks he was aiming at.
We smiled nervous, cooperative smiles.
“Understand you girls cooked this story up at a slumber party,” Sheriff Bell said suddenly. He took his feet down and sat forward.
We looked at each other. “We were sleeping out together when we found out … ,” I said.
“You know it’s wrong to bear false witness, don’t you, Ora?”
I nodded. “The Ninth Commandment.”
“Well, then, I think it’s time we stopped this silly game, and got back to normal in this town. You girls have got everybody in an uproar. It’s time you stopped.”
“It happened, Sheriff Bell,” I said.
He looked right past me at Sarah. He held up her drawing. “You draw this, Sarah?” She nodded. “You know, it seems to me you people got enough trouble. You’ve been given some breaks, and you’d think you would make the most of them. You’re supposed to be learning to become a white and delightsome people. Instead, you’re spreading lies that hurt good, decent folk.”
He sighed, a deep, troubled sigh. “I know your dad is still locked up in that place over in Vegas. You forget all about this, Sarah, and maybe we can bring your dad home. You can move back to the hogan. Is that what you want?”
Sarah’s sad eyes lit up with hope.
“Now. I’m gonna give your drawing back to you, Sarah. You decide what to do with it.”
Sarah took the drawing. She looked at it silently.
Sheriff Bell spoke up. “It’s your decision, Sarah. Your dad—or the drawing.”
Sarah pressed her lips together. Then she folded the drawing in half, then in quarters and ripped it through, folding and shredding until her lap looked like it had been snowed on.
Sheriff Bell stood up, smiling. “Good girl, Sarah. I hear Albert’s gonna be out in a day or two. I’ll bring him around. You’ll be home in no time.”
He turned to Elaine and me. “And you two—you stop letting your imaginations run away with you. You hear? You’re good girls—now stay out of trouble. You hear? Elaine? Ora?”
[p.217]He waited until we each looked him in the eye and nodded. Then he tousled our heads like we were eight years old and he ushered us out the door.
I was so mad I couldn’t speak. Of course Elaine started to cry. “How could you?” she wailed at Sarah. “Now no one will believe us. No one! And we’ll have to go back to that pervert!”
Just then the Pritchards pulled up in their new Cadillac. They got out and strode past, LuPriel Pritchard’s white hospital shoes squeaking like she crushed mice with every step. Don Pritchard gave us a pious smile. LuPriel didn’t even look at us.
“She’s not really a nurse,” I said loudly.
“Creeps,” Elaine muttered.
Sarah just walked, her head down.
“We almost had him. We could have had him.” Elaine turned to Sarah, who raised her head, her lips pressed together, and fixed her eyes on a faraway place in the red hills. The White Bluff stretched up and out, curving like something anemic and deformed, blotting out the mesa and the sky. Suddenly all the anger drained out of me. In its place was a deep, empty well that made me want to cry.
“Let’s go home,” I said.
After we got over Miss Avalon’s tantrum about nobody doing their English assignment, Albert Red Moon came for Sarah and our lives went back to normal for a month or two. My mother took me up to Salt Lake for my braces, so I didn’t have to visit Dr. Pritchard. Elaine wouldn’t set foot inside his office without her mother, which suited Mrs. Jorgensen just fine. She loved to go see Don Pritchard. Sarah Red Moon didn’t come to church or school. After a while I stopped missing her so much. I won the spelling bee in March, and was getting ready for the state championship about the time my mother was called to be Relief Society president. We really had our shoulders to the wheel, just like it says in the hymn.
One Sunday in April, Albert Red Moon showed up at church for the third time in his whole life, the first being when Sarah was confirmed and the second being when Wanda died. I know, because he announced this fact to my mother when she shook his hand. Sarah hovered behind her father, thin and pale as a cloud. She wiggled her fingers at me, but that was all. Albert stood in the foyer like he owned the White Bluff First Ward, his dark hair pulled back in a sleek ponytail, his big body stuffed into Levis and a white shirt with a shoestring tie [p.218]pulled tight at the collar and held in place by a huge turquoise stone. He stood right smack dab in Bishop Hastings’s place beside the double doors of the chapel, grasping an oversized plastic bag of marshmallows, carefully doling them out to the bewildered members that filed past him.
“Here,” said Albert Red Moon, thrusting a marshmallow into Sister Pritchard’s hand. She recoiled. After all, it was Fast Sunday and any Mormon knows it’s cheating to even suck on a breath mint before taking the bread and water at sacrament meeting.
But Albert Red Moon insisted, closing her hand over the white tuft. “You must have one, Mrs. Pritchard,” His eyes glowed hypnotically as he gave her a rare gap-toothed grin.
LuPriel Pritchard opened her pink mouth and put the marshmallow in. Then she moved like a sleepwalker to her seat in the choir.
Just then Bishop Hastings came up with a handshake and a big smile. You’d never have guessed, from the way he treated Albert, that he objected to anybody taking his place at the chapel door. He went forward to the podium and watched the congregation file to their seats. After a while he motioned Albert Red Moon inside. “Sit down, Brother Red Moon, and welcome,” he said.
The children were gleeful over Albert’s visit, stuffing their marshmallows into their mouths and then coaxing away those of their parents. The deacons—the boys a year or two younger than me—erupted in a skirmish toward the front of the chapel, with forays of marshmallows surreptitiously launched across the pews. The boys who were to serve the sacrament took refuge behind the front row, using the pew as a fort.
Once the fun was doused by the second counselor and the Young Men’s president, and Albert and Sarah Red Moon had taken seats on the back row, Elaine’s mother went up to say the prayer. Her skirts were shorter than mine, I noticed, and I wondered how she kept her garments from showing. After the prayer, the bishop came forward and stood like a general reviewing his troops. He was waiting for the buzzing to stop.
“All that sugar,” my mother whispered. “The last thing you kids need is more sugar.”
I don’t know when I’ve been in such an electric sacrament meeting—before or since. When we settled down, Bishop Hastings made the announcements and then we sang “The Spirit of God Like [p.219]a Fire s Burning.” I wondered why it was burning inside of me, and I half-turned to look at Sarah Red Moon.
I don’t know if Navajo Indians go pale, but something had happened to make Sarah’s face look ashen again. She had lost the glow, the shine. She saw me watching her and I smiled again and wiggled my fingers. And then I saw something amazing, something that frightened and enraged me, something that made my wardhouse a different place than the comforting, familiar sanctuary it had been throughout my fourteen years. I saw Sarah’s big black eyes fill and I saw her stoic face crumple. Sarah Red Moon was crying. I didn’t know exactly why, and I’m not sure, even now, why it made me so angry, but I felt rage rising from where my heart battered against my ribs. My anger bore like a laser into LuPriel Pritchard’s perfectly made-up face. All the time the sacrament was being passed, when I should have been thinking of the price Christ paid for our sins, I was thinking of the price Sarah had paid, and feeling her tears like drops of fire on my heart.
I didn’t even notice when the bishop bore his testimony and invited others to do the same until Albert Red Moon stood up. He held up the bag of marshmallows.
“You people … ,” he began. “You each are like the marshmallow. So sweet, so airy. All puffy. Eat just one, no problem. But—eat a whole bag … ” He held up the bag. “… and you will choke. You will be poisoned with sweetness.”
He paused and looked around the meeting hall. He pointed a fat finger toward the front, toward the choir and Mrs. Pritchard. “That’s what you did to my wife. You filled her up with your sweet words and your fake animals. You filled her up with puffs of nothing till she could not spot the bluebird or smell the juniper or remember the name of the sacred river. She was eaten alive by your empty sweetness. It ate a hole right through her heart.” His voice began to rise.
“You took my babies and put them in the homes of strangers in places with names that mean nothing. You put me in a jail. And now—now you want to stuff your marshmallows into my Sarah, my moonbird. You want to fill her up with your sweetness so that she can no longer speak the truth.”
Suddenly he stuffed his giant fist into the bag and began tossing marshmallows at the congregation.
“No!” yelled Albert Red Moon. “I will not let you!”
When the bag was empty, he pulled Sarah to her feet.
[p.220]He stood there until every head had turned, until every person looked at him.
“I am Touched By Clouds, Keeper of the Earth. I was born for my mother’s people, the Red Cliffs Clan. I come from the Brown River Clan, my father’s people. My wife is born for the Sage Hill people and of the Grey Caves Clan. This is my daughter. She is Rain in the Sunlight, Woman of Truth.” He stood there for a full minute, then cupped Sarah’s elbow in his big hand and marched her out of the chapel.
The whole ward was silent except for the children who foraged for marshmallows in the shag of the orange carpet.
For the next week or so, the whole town looked over its shoulder, waiting for Albert Red Moon to appear with a rifle or a spear or even another bag of marshmallows. Then the story came out in the Sentinel over in Colorado. One of the big papers up north picked it up, and showed photographs of Sarah and Albert standing outside the white brick of Dr. Pritchard’s clinic. Before long our little town was crawling with reporters and photographers from big magazines. They waited outside our house and beyond the chain-link around the school. People fought in the grocery store and over the supper table about who was telling the truth—Sarah Red Moon or Don Pritchard. My mother and I listened to the debates and sometimes our eyes met, and a flicker of what we knew passed between us. I wondered if we should go see them, try to help Sarah while all the world focused on her. But like everybody else in town, we were on edge and snapping at each other when finally Don Pritchard lost his license.
I can’t say I was sorry when he and LuPriel moved away. But when their white Lincoln rolled down the street behind a VanLines moving truck, a little crack of loss opened in my heart when I realized that you can know somebody all your life and yet not know them at all. And when Sheriff Bell lost the next election, I didn’t care; I no longer thought of him as someone who would protect us. But White Bluff hasn’t changed much. The Navajo boys still lounge at the back of the classroom and sharpen their pocket knives during English class. The deacons still throw stuff at each other when they’re waiting to pass the sacrament. Sarah Red Moon still draws during English and she still won’t come back to church. I’ve invited her to the Young Men’s and Women’s dances and to the water-skiing outing we planned at Lake Powell to kick off the summer. But she hasn’t said yes, only, “We’ll [p.221]see.” She is taller now and more beautiful than ever. The dustiness that kept her invisible is gone. In that dark booth you can see her gleam like a river catches the light and sends it out like a promise. She is waiting for Albert to come home from hunting or drinking. She is waiting for her mother’s spirit to speak. She is waiting for the young brave that fills her dreams to appear on his chestnut horse. I feel shy about talking to her, and I hope she knows why. Because unlike Sarah, I still can’t remember my dreams, and I’ll always be afraid to go to the dentist.
DOROTHY SOLOMON, twenty-eighth of forty-eight children, learned the fictional skill of “lying while telling the truth” growing up with her fundamentalist, polygamous Mormon family, which was plagued with roundups that threatened prison for her parents and foster homes for her siblings. Her published writing includes: In My Father’s House (winner of the Utah State Publishing Prize), Of Predators, Prey, and Other Kin (a first-place winner of the 1996 Utah Original Writing Awards), and stories, essays, and poems in [p.290]a variety of periodicals and anthologies. She has served as fiction editor for Quarterly West and poetry and fiction editor of Utah Holiday. She also compiled and edited Inside Out: A Guide to Creative Writing in the Classroom. She lives with her husband of thirty years and their children in Park City, Utah.