Bright Angels and Familiars
by Eugene England, Editor

Chapter 14
Lost and Found
Michael Fillerup

[185] Over the years he had tried all kinds of tricks to outfox it. He had eaten humble pie by candlelight in the dark privacy of his hovel while reading the nativity story from Luke. He had tried to lose himself in anonymous acts of service in the village. Once, in a fit of self-spite, he had driven two hundred miles into Gallup and gotten roaring drunk. Another time he had gone all the way to Flagstaff to sit through midnight Mass at St. Mary’s Church—as a novelty and a diversion more so than religious devotion: he had his own church. Sort of.

Tonight he was going to drive to the top of the mesa in a snowstorm to rescue a beautiful young woman in distress.

Actually he did not know if she was beautiful. Nor did he know if she was truly in distress. Her foster mother in Phoenix seemed to think so. Her voice, scratched to obscurity by the crackling static, was controlled hysteria on the phone. “Well, we’d do just about anything to get her back.” A telling pause. “Well, just about. I mean, we really want her back. Especially under the circumstances.”

Her name was Loretta Yellowhair, and she had been missing from the Indian Placement Program since August. It was a mystery.

[186] No one knew where she had gone, not even her natural parents, or if they did they weren’t talking. But a week ago the caseworker had heard a rumor…

“I guess what happened is that last winter was really hard on the family. A lot of sheep didn’t make it. Loretta’s mother got real desperate and borrowed a thousand dollars from some old fellow with the promise he could marry Loretta in exchange.”

Another voice, Brother Myers’s, interrupted on another line: “Yeah, if you could, we’d like you to intercept the old coot’s pass, so to speak!”

Tom winced at the reference to old coot.

“The caseworker says Loretta can go back on Placement and finish up her senior year,” Sister Myers explained, “but she’s got to be in Phoenix by Tuesday morning for an interview, absolutely positively.”

”Tuesday?” Tom said. “What’s so sacred about Tuesday?”

Sister Myers chuckled, almost intimately. “Monday’s Christmas, silly! ”

“What’s so sacred about Christmas?” Tom quipped. And he laughed. Once.

Sister Myers was silent.

“Sorry,” Tom said, wondering who had given her his name and number. The missionaries maybe. Or the idiot caseworker. At moments like this he almost wished the Tribe hadn’t put in phone lines a year ago. Electricity, yes. Running water, great. Telephones? They reduced his insularity. He could feel the outside world creeping in, tightening its noose.

Tom clasped his hand over the receiver and looked at his cat, an ornery old Siamese-and-something curled up on the rumpled bedspread that drooped to the warped floorboards beneath his metal frame bed. “What do you say, Nashdoi? You up for a little adventure tonight?” The animal didn’t stir. Beside the bed was an old chest of drawers. A single light bulb burned in the cramped kitchen where a pine sprig in a glass jar served as Tom’s token tribute to the holidays. Normally his quarters seemed warm and cozy, but tonight they felt dark and claustrophobic. Grim.

[187] “I just hate to see it happen,” Sister Myers said. “She’s just such a wonderful girl—bright, gifted, a valiant testimony. I know it’s Christmas Eve, but …”

Tom unclasped the receiver and whispered into it, tentatively, so as not to arouse false hope, “Sister Myers, I’ll do my best!”

“Oh, thank you, Bishop! We really do appreciate this!”

Tom winced again. He wasn’t really a bishop but a branch president by default: he was the only ordained elder in the area. But he had retired from truly active duty years ago—he thought he’d made that clear.

He fed a couple sticks of juniper into the wood stove, turned the vents down low, and put on his Marlboro Country coat—suede with a sheepskin collar. He was tempted to bring Nashdoi along for company, but he didn’t have the heart to awaken him from such a deep, exclusive sleep. He was a little jealous really.

Snow was falling lightly but steadily as his battered blue pickup rumbled past the trading post, a big stone box locked up for the night. The village was abandoned, a ghost town. Winter had pronounced it dead and tossed a white sheet over it. A pregnant mutt, her swollen teats dragging along the snow, plodded towards the rock schoolhouse where Tom earned his daily bread. About the only joyful thing in sight was the play of the snow in the lone security light. The dainty flakes were twisting and tumbling like gleeful little gymnasts. But even here he saw a tragic element in that they could just as easily be butterflies trapped inside a jar of light, trying desperately to break out. He could almost hear their wings beating frantically against the glass. Or was that his heart rap-tap-tapping, or his truck thumping across the cattle guard?

Or his heater? He flicked the switch and the little fan rattled like dice in a cup, spewing out lukewarm air. Up ahead he could see Hosteen’s old hogan, a black face with a white helmet. Two years ago he would have asked Hosteen to join him. The old man had just the right touch of craziness for a wild goose chase like this—and it would be a wild goose chase, Mission Double-Impossible, Tom knew that. So why was he going? Well, boredom was a factor. (What else was on his agenda tonight besides huddling by his wood stove [188] feeling sorry for himself?) And duty. (She was a lost sheep. It was his job to find her.) And, yes, there was curiosity too: who was this young beauty who commanded a bride price of a thousand dollars, a phenomenal fifty sheep in Navajo currency? He wanted to know.

Tom smiled recalling the way the old man’s eyes used to peer out from under the flat brim of his black felt hat, the dark little orbs floating behind his Coke bottle lenses like jellyfish in formaldehyde. A fringe of silvery whiskers dripped from his gaunt jaw like pieces of clipped fishing line, and calluses doubled the size of his gnarled little hands. Tom had first met him twenty years ago while making home visits with the missionaries. Hosteen was limping out of his outhouse on skinny bow legs, zipping up his fly. One look at the missionaries in their dark suits and white shirts and he had grinned: “What are you folks doing, selling life insurance?” Tom had liked him instantly. Later when the missionaries asked the magic question—”Is there anything we can do for you?”—the wrinkled corners of the old man’s mouth had twisted sardonically. He led the threesome back behind his hogan and pointed to a huge mound of pinon and juniper. “You folks can cut all that up for me. About this size,” he said, spreading his hands shoulder width. “Better hurry, though. Sun’s going fast.” Hosteen used to say he didn’t exactly believe in the old ways or in the new ways either. “I’m just a horse-teen of a different color,” he would chuckle, punning on his Navajo name.

Tom tried not to think about Hosteen; it still saddened him. Somehow that, too, had been his fault. He turned his thoughts elsewhere. Sister Myers. He could still hear her voice crackling in his ear. “Well, they think she might be up to the mesa.”

The mesa! Swell! Talk about a needle in a haystack!

“Or they say she might be staying with Louise Yazzie’s brother-in-law. Do you know Louise?”

A needle in three haystacks.

Driving the desolate reservation roads on a winter night, Tom could go for miles, light years, without seeing anything but the infinite swirl of snowflakes. He was an astronaut hurtling solo through outer space, and the feeling could be terrifying or exhilarating, depending [189] upon his particular state of mind. At that moment he felt neither terrified nor exhilarated, only a general desolation that always seemed to intensify about this time of year. The simple truth was, he really didn’t much care what transpired tonight. He just wanted to get it over with, “it” being this night.

His front tire plunged into a pothole, rattling the truck and sending a shaft of pain into his lower back. Several years ago he had injured it falling off a horse, and now every little bounce or vibration was a voodoo pin in his fifth lumbar. Great, he thought. Swell. I’ll be a pin cushion before the night’s through.

The pickup crawled past the little trailer where for one hour every Sunday morning Tom went through the holy motions on behalf of old Sister Watchman and a few other faithfuls of the Bitterwater Branch of the Mormon church. Sister Watchman, who had no eyes to see but could weave an intricate rug of many colors, could also read the desperate scribble on his heart: “I feel sad for you, Hastiin T’aa geed ‘Asdzani. You feed all these others, who will feed you?”

“My Heavenly Father,” he used to say, but each time with a little less conviction.

Straight ahead a giant boulder was sitting comically atop a skinny spire like a giant head with a pencil-thin neck. Striped with snow, it looked like a weird giraffe-zebra hybrid straight out of Dr. Seuss. In the background, the mesa rose up like a great white wall. In the fuzzy snowfall it appeared to be wavering ethereally, as if any moment it might swell up and crumble down upon him like a tidal wave, or simply vanish altogether, like a mirage.

Tom wondered about Loretta Yellowhair. Who was this young Navajo woman in distress? “Yellowhair” would be a misnomer. Black hair, dark eyes. He tried to visualize her in his mind, but she remained as fuzzy and obscure as the falling snow.

“Distress” might be a misnomer as well. His personal feelings about the Indian Placement Program had always been ambivalent. The dark view held that Navajo children were being taken from their natural families so they could be transformed into white and delightsome little Mormons. The “inspired” view said it gave them [190] a shot at a “real” education. Tom had seen both sides of the coin. Placement was a ticket out, but to where? Anything to spare them the boarding schools. Every year when his handful of little sixth graders graduated he felt an overwhelming sadness, as if he were sending them off to war. The girls would end up pregnant, the boys would come back little drunkards and dopers. Placement? Stealing their culture? There were six sides to that story. Ask Celeste Bighorse.

Tom had always been lenient on Placement interviews. If a kid had a shot, he wasn’t going to nix it on a minor technicality.

“What church is this?”

A look of stupor. “Uh … Catholic?”

“Close enough.”

The snow was falling so thickly now he seemed to be submerged in it. The pickup struggled along like a submarine in rough waters. His thoughts drifted back to the little church trailer he had passed a few miles back. A week ago Sunday, opening his official church mail, he was shocked to see his mug shot, albeit a very outdated one, on the MISSING PERSONS BULLETIN. By some computer glitch, perhaps the simple inversion of two digits in his social security number, church headquarters had failed to link one of their anointed local leaders with the black-and-white countenance on the bulletin. It had been sobering to see his face amidst the other Lost Sheep: teenage runaways with pimpled cheeks and hair in their eyes, a watermelon-shaped man who could have been his father, a jolly white-haired woman who reminded him of Mrs. Claus. Tom had always felt depressed when perusing these monthly alerts. Each face was a tragedy in miniature, a despairing tale of loss. He pictured heartbroken parents grieving for their prodigal sons, grown-up children searching desperately for crippled mothers and fathers on the run. Sometimes, studying the photographs, he would invent stories of his own, whole sagas and family histories. And sometimes, in the process, he would mentally rewrite his own. He occasionally wondered who, if anyone, might be grieving for him?

He had noticed a crucial difference between his mug shot and the others. They were accompanied by a brief physical description [191] (height, weight, color eyes, color hair, distinguishing features), the location where the individual had last been seen, their hometown, and a contact person to call. His read, simply: THOMAS DAVID BARLOW 6/24/51. That was all. No contact person, no phone number.

Tom had recognized his high school graduation picture. The blond ponytail was gone now, and the cocky grin. His chiseled cheeks were padded, tanned and leathery, and his jaws were beginning to sag in the sad sack manner of Dick Nixon. Mentally he had updated his description: 5’I0″, 205 pounds, built like an over-the-hill linebacker. Hair (the surviving patches on top) like sun-singed grass. Hazel eyes—vacant. Twin flashlights with dead batteries.

His hands had trembled while handling the sheet of paper, as if ghosts or spirits had been captured on the page. On the one hand, it had been like reading his own obituary. On the other, it meant that someone, somewhere, was still looking for him. But who? His mother and father had gone AWOL before he could even walk. He had no brothers or sisters, no real family to speak of … His father-in-law, maybe? Tom sneered. “You’re a very intelligent young man, Tom. You’re very smart. But you’ve got no heart. You’re a taker, not a giver.” That was the last thing Bishop Tyler (the real bishop) had said to him two days before Tom had eloped with his only daughter. She had liked him because he was a California oddball who was going to set the world on fire, although he wasn’t quite sure how. She had liked him because her father hadn’t. The bishop had mapped out his daughter’s life a little too perfectly: temple marriage, kids, grandkids, death. Sorry, that wasn’t Kathy. Of course Tom had had to be baptized and join the fold. Kathy was saucy and spicy and radical for her little Utah town, but she was still Mormon. “I want you forever,” she had whispered during an erotic moment, “not just the here and now. Don’t you want me forever too?” Sweet persuasion. Failing that: “Look, I’m not a one-life stand!” So he had played the game until it had become almost real to him.

He had promised her the sky but instead had given her Bitterwater, Arizona.

[192] He switched on the radio. It spit and crackled. He should have had it fixed back in October. He fiddled with the knob, searching for a voice, any voice, but found nothing but fuzz and static, an audio version of the falling snow. He noted the permanent film of dust on the dash and the ever-widening cracks across the faded blue vinyl: they were tragic mouths, gaping wounds, sarcastic smiles aimed at him.

He tried to keep his eyes and thoughts on the road, but they kept drifting to Christmases past. One year—he was six or seven, he forgot exactly—but he was living with Aunt Margie in Del Mar and decided to play a joke on his cousins. He made them all joke gifts. They were poems: “Roses are red/ Violets are blue/ Christmas is dumb/ And so are you!” Stupid little ditties. Christmas Eve he placed them under the tree. But when he got in bed, something funny happened. Maybe it was the carolers outside. Or maybe Uncle Max had spiked the eggnog again. Tom wasn’t sure. He just felt weird about it. So he sneaked out and took back all the joke gifts, and he trashed them.

Except he didn’t get them all. He thought he had, but he missed Sherry’s. She wasn’t retarded, exactly, but she was … well, she was slow. Her present was buried at the bottom of the pile, and before Tom could stop her, she’d unwrapped it. She started jumping up and down, shouting, “A present from Tommy! A present from Tommy!” She gave it to her mother to read because she couldn’t. Aunt Margie smiled at first, and then her face turned to mush. She gave Tom a dirty look but smiled at Sherry. And then she read: “Roses are red/ Violets are merry/ Christmas is here/ And I love Sherry!” Tom had never seen his cousin so happy. She threw her arms around him and danced and danced. He couldn’t look at his aunt. He couldn’t look at anyone after that. He just stood there feeling like absolute dirt.

It was the story of his life: big plans, big screw-ups.

Tom put his hand over the heater vent: still lukewarm. He should have had that fixed too. He could feel the cold creeping into his toes, slowly taking over. The steering wheel was turning to ice; his hands were stiffening. Why hadn’t he brought his gloves? He [193] always brought gloves—always! He gripped the steering wheel in anger and stamped the accelerator to the floor. The truck lurched forward and hit a slushy spot, shimmying several yards before the tires regripped the road. More Christmases came to mind. This time he was eight, living with his Aunt Winnie (they were never blood relations, but he liked to call them “aunt,” “uncle,” “cousin,” if they allowed it). For Christmas she had given him a little pet hamster. He loved it because it was small and soft and furry and warm and absolutely his. Two days later he woke up and it was dead. He hadn’t even named it yet. Charlie. Furry. Toby. He was still trying to decide. It was his fault. He wasn’t sure why, but it was. It was the first thing he had ever really truly loved, and he’d killed it.

That night he had a dream. There was a noise, a rattling in the plastic bucket under the bathroom sink. He reached in, thinking it was Hamster. He grabbed—and screamed! Not Hamster, but a giant rat leaped onto his collarbone and bit into his neck. Like a vampire.

Tom clenched his eyes shut a painful moment, trying to clear the white fog in front of him. He tried to think of other things: the Missing Persons Bulletin. He had been tempted to call church headquarters to see if he could find out who had placed him on the bulletin, but why borrow trouble? No news was good news.

A third of the way up the mesa, in the proverbial middle-of-nowhere, he saw off to his right a tiny nest of colored lights like a multicolored constellation. You just can’t escape it, he thought, not even out here. Then he felt ashamed of his feelings as he turned down a side road and made a silent confession: he didn’t like Christmas. Every year, privately, he wished he could drop a black cloth over it. In his head he knew better: Christmas. The birth of Christ, Lord, Savior and Redeemer of the World. The Prince of Peace. But he couldn’t feel the occasion, couldn’t feel the music or the cheer. He wasn’t a Scrooge about it; he always put on a good face and taught his students some carols and encouraged them to decorate their little classroom tree. But he was always glad when it was finally over, yet saddened too.

The pickup squirmed and squiggled down the mushy side road leading to Louise Yazzie’s shack. The snow had graciously covered [194] the splintered dwelling with a fresh white coat. Chicken wire covered the lone window. A slender little woman with beautiful almond eyes answered the door. A few threads of gray lined her shiny black hair, which was tied in a traditional Navajo bun.

“Ya’at’eeh, shimayazhi,” Tom said, offering his hand. They touched palms, Navajo-style. “I’m looking for Loretta Yellowhair. Do you know where I can find her?”

Louise’s lithe frame blocked the narrow doorway. Two little girls poked their black-braided heads around either side of her pleated skirt and giggled.

“No,” she said. Short and bittersweet. Although Tom had visited Louise on several occasions, she always treated him like a total stranger. Why did he always have to play these stupid games? He wearied of them. He wearied of frantic foster parents. He wearied of everything. But he knew the rules. Fight fire with fire, ice with ice. He waited, stubbornly.

“She’s up on the mesa, I think,” Louise said. “I don’t think you can get up there tonight.”

“I need to talk to her about Placement,” Tom said coolly.

Placement! It was like saying abracadabra! Suddenly Louise became cooperative. She knew the score.

“Yes, I think she wants to go on the Placement. I think she’s at my brother’s house. I’ll tell him you came by.”

“I need to talk to Loretta tonight,” Tom said. “I need to interview her. She has to be in Phoenix by tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yes, tomorrow.”

“I can go up there and tell her, I guess.”

“Maybe I could follow you over … since I need to interview her.”

Louise didn’t like that idea. Tom posed what he knew would be a more agreeable option. “Or I could just drive there myself—if you can tell me where to go.”

“Okay,” she said, “why don’t you just drive over there yourself. It’s Sam Bizaholoni. Just follow the road. You’ll see a trailer. There’s a camper shell out front.”

[195] “Okay, I’ll try there. I’ll drive to the top of the mesa if I have to. ”

“Well, she might be on the mesa. Or she might be in Sheep Springs, at her mother’s. Last weekend she went to Sheep Springs. Her mother lives there.”

A needle in six haystacks.

“Thank you,” Tom said. “Ahehee.”

“Aoo’.” she said. And then she reminded him of what night it was. “Ya ‘at’eeh Keshmish!” Tom flushed, embarrassed. Of course. “Merry Christmas to you too.”

He continued up the mesa, the pickup crawling stubbornly through the mud and snow mix. The sky continued falling, swiftly and steadily. The road before him was paved perfectly white; behind, it was a black and white smear, like a child’s chocolate finger painting or the tracks of a drunken skier. Scrub pines hunkered on the rock ledges like Cro-Magnon hunters in polar bear skins. Lying in wait, it seemed.

Again he tried to visualize Loretta Yellowhair. Instead he saw the ghost of Celeste Bighorse: small, slender, doe-eyed. A heartbreaking dimpled little smile. Glossy cheeks, glossy black hair in a ponytail that dropped past her waist like a long velvet cord. She must have had a crush on him from the very beginning because she would always stay after class, just sit there with her brown hands clasped on her wooden desk until he would finally ask, “Celeste, would you like to erase the blackboard?” And she would dip her chin shyly and smile—those sweet little dimples! Kathy’s smile in miniature. And she had a gift—she could draw horses that leaped right off the paper. Every day after school he would help her with her sketches. She liked it; she liked him. Then one day he told her she had a great future if … No. Not that. Something terrible had been misconstrued, hopelessly lost in translation. He had never ever, ever … except for maybe an encouraging hand on her shoulder. No! No! Her shoulder, just her shoulder. Like this—see? Just like this.

But she was an early bloomer, a sixth grader with incipient little [196] breasts, and he was—well, he was white, and he was alone. And no white man chose to live alone out there. No normal white man. There was talk. Celeste was having bad dreams, her mother said. And she was a big intimidating woman who wore sunglasses and stretch pants and had her hair permed in Albuquerque. “You bilagaanas think you can come out here and get away with anything!” She went to a crystal gazer who implicated Tom, then took Celeste out of school for two weeks to have a yeibichei ceremony performed over her. Hosteen said Gladys Bighorse had a bug up her rear end, but it was only the protests of Sister Watchman that had saved Tom his job. After that he had always walked on eggshells, careful to avoid even the appearance of idiosyncrasy. He had kept a safe, professional distance from everyone—students, teachers, men, women, missionaries. It was a lonely life. Safe, but lonely.

Celeste graduated from the elementary school that June. She was supposed to go on Placement, but after the incident her mother had withdrawn her application. So little Celeste had left for the boarding school in August, young, pretty, talented. A year later she had returned a mini mom.

Tom found the trailer with the camper shell in front. He left the truck running. No colored lights here: the power lines stopped at Louise Yazzie’s place. A paunchy man with oily black hair met him at the door.

“Are you Sam Bizaholoni?”

He eyed Tom tentatively. “Why?”

”I’m looking for Loretta Yellowhair. She wants to go on Placement. Louise said you might know where she is.”

His face scrunched up like a sponge. “Louise?”

“Your sister. Do you have a sister named Louise?”

He smiled. Tom counted three teeth in his impoverished mouth. “She’s not here,” he said shaking his head. He was barefoot in baggy pajama-like pants. Tom relished the heat wafting out from the wood stove. He could hear little children laughing and a woman’s voice. She was singing “Jingle Bells” in Navajo. Tom thought it should make him feel happy, but instead it was a rusty [197] nail scratching more sad graffiti on his heart. He heard phantom voices, phantom laughter.

“She’s not here,” Sam said. “I think she’s up on the mesa.”

“Or in Sheep Springs maybe?” Tom muttered under his breath.

“What?” He was clever, playing the dumb Indian. “Did you say Sheep Springs? No, I don’t think she’s in Sheep Springs.” He chuckled indulgently. “No, she’s up on the mesa.” Sam poked his head outside. “Brrrr! Wouldn’t go up there tonight. Nas-teee!”

“Can you tell me where to go? It’s very important. I need to interview her for Placement.”

The magic word again! Tonight it seemed to hold more hope, more promise even than the word “Christmas.” “Sure!” he said, flashing his three-fanged smile. “Just follow the road. You go past the cattle guard, the third cattle guard I think. There’s a great big rock, it looks like a whale kinda.” Then he laughed in that inimitable way of the Navajo. “You can’t miss it!”

“Thanks. Ahehee.”

“Aoo’,” he said. “Ya’at’eeh Keshmish!”

Tom had to smile. Sam reminded him a little of Hosteen, that same wry humor. But then he was overcome by an old despair. It was not Christmas this time but close enough. Winter. White. Cold. Snow. Icicles hanging like six-foot fangs. He had made a rare trip into Farmington to buy supplies. He still wondered what spirit had prompted him to check into a Motel 6, and for not just one night but two? When he returned late Saturday evening, they said the old man was adin—it didn’t mean “dead” exactly but gone, not existing. He had died in his sleep, and chindi, his ghost spirit, had claimed the hogan, forcing his brittle old wife and two daughters to vacate. The only white man in the village, Tom routinely prepared and buried their dead: the Navajo wanted no contact with chindi. In his absence though, they might have simply burned the hogan down—they had done that before. Instead they had wisely waited three days for his return so he could remove his friend’s body and prepare it for proper burial, meaning a “proper Christian burial.” They had known that he, too, had lines that couldn’t be crossed, although Tom had always tried to respect their beliefs and traditions. “We [198] know you don’t believe,” Hosteen had once said, “but at least you try and understand. You don’t laugh behind your sleeve like the others. ” He had wondered what Hosteen had really meant by that, “the others?”

Although in his head Tom knew better, something still whispered that it had been partly his fault, that if he had not gone to town that day and stayed so long, Hosteen would still be alive. He also knew his logic made as little sense as their childlike fear of Hosteen’s ghost, but … one man’s superstitions were another man’s religion. He had learned that much.

Tom was glad to get out of the blowing cold and back into the lukewarm cab. His feet were numb from just that short stint outside. Ice had crusted on the windshield, infringing on the easy sweep of the wiper blades and cataracting all but two hemispheres of glass. He glared at the eternal snow. This is crazy, this is stupid. Why am I doing it?

For Loretta, he thought, or tried to convince himself. For God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these … Okay, for me then. Me. And how so me?

The tires spun and the rear-end wriggled as the truck struggled up the slick road. Although he couldn’t see beyond the hood, he could feel the road growing steeper and narrower. The snowfall thickened; it was pouring down like sugar through a giant sifter. Far to the right he saw a tiny light shining in the white commotion. It was a dark horse chance, but he decided to take it; anything beat driving to the top tonight. He left his truck parked in the road, the emergency flashers spitting blood onto the snow, and plodded several hundred yards until arriving at a homestead: a couple of shacks, a hogan, a corral, an outhouse. Padded with snow, they looked artificial, like stage props or pieces in a diorama. He wondered what he must look like laden with snow—a ghost maybe or the Abominable Snowman.

As he headed for the lighted hogan, three mutts sprang out from under a plywood lean-to, snarling and barking. He cooled them off with a couple of snowballs. A big, stocky woman answered the door, remarkably indifferent, Tom thought, as if this [199] were nothing out of the ordinary, a bilagaana appearing at her door in a blizzard on Christmas Eve. She looked about forty-five. A green velveteen blouse covered her broad shoulders and torso, and a pleated skirt dropped to the middle of her pillar-like calves. She had big, bulgy cheeks, as if she were hoarding walnuts in them, and the part down the middle of her gray-streaked hair appeared to be widening as if from some peculiar erosion. She appeared understandably suspicious.

“Woshdee,” she said at length, and he stepped inside, ducking his head a bit.

It was a large hogan with a dirt floor. The smell of fried potatoes and mutton tortured Tom’s empty belly. Instinctively he gravitated towards the makeshift woodstove, an old oil drum whose sweet heat seemed to reach out and grip his frostbitten parts, pinching them painfully, wonderfully. The stovepipe soared through the square smokehole top-center like a fat periscope. He noted the coats and cowboy hats hanging on nails along the north wall, most noticeably a red Pendleton jacket that appeared brand-new. A Mexican felt painting, wild stallions on the run, and family photographs and certificates of school achievement covered the rest of the wallspace. Three youngsters were cuddled together like bear cubs on sheepskins beside a small pinon tree, laced with strings of popcorn and dripping with tinsel. Little wrapped gifts were loosely stacked around the wooden stand, and the ochre hand of one sleeping boy rested upon a cube-shaped gift as if he were prematurely claiming it. The tin foil star on top of the tree reflected the stingy light from the kerosene lamp on a wooden table where a skinny old woman with arms as dark and tough as greasewood was kneading a mound of dough. An old fellow with a gray mustache that drooped below his chin and a face as deeply seamed as a casava melon was sitting cross-legged nearby the children, keeping vigil. He wore a black felt hat with a flat brim and a silver band reminiscent of Hosteen’s. There were two other women, young mothers growing fat in t-shirts and blue jeans. One was casually feeding her brown breast to her baby. Nearby a young man with a thick mop of black hair eyed Tom like a deer smelling trouble. On the other side of the hogan were two middle-aged men, one innocuously [200] big and round, the other austerely cut with the high, chiseled cheekbones of a warrior. He was wearing a red headband around his silver hair, and his dark eyes were fixed on Tom like bullets waiting to be fired. Tom wondered if this were not the old coot to whom Loretta had been promised. If so he looked quite formidable: a Navajo Clint Eastwood.

The heat was suffocating. Tom quickly regained the feeling in his hands and feet, and his armpits grew soggy with sweat. He wanted to doff his suede coat but chose not to: he didn’t want to send the wrong signal. This would be a short visit.

The matron spoke first, surprising him. “She’s out there,” she said, motioning towards the door. Tom was confused. She? Loretta? “Last night,” she explained, “in my sleep, a man in white came and took her away. He said, ‘Don’t worry. She’ll be all right.’ He said, ‘She’s coming with me.’ That’s how come I knew you were coming.”

Tom felt a tingling warmth. He looked at his sleeve: most of the snow coating him had either melted or dropped to the floor, but it had made the point. This was going to be easier than he had thought.

“I need to see Loretta,” he said. “Loretta Yellowhair.”

“Loretta?” Now the matron looked confused. Tom wasn’t sure how to interpret her colossal disappointment.

“Are you her aunt?”

She shook her head. “No,” she nodded solemnly. “Loretta’s not here. She’s on the mesa.”

“On the mesa?”

“Aoo’.”

Tom gazed up through the smokehole at the wild flurry of snowflakes. They were insects flying too close to a fire, or falling stars melting by myriads. They wanted in, it seemed, but the instant they came too close to the invisible heat—poof! Oblivion. They were the opposite of those white butterflies caught inside the cone of light. Or were they brothers? Cousins maybe? Tom looked at the sleeping children by the tree and thought that maybe he wanted to sit down. Maybe he wanted to stay awhile. He did not want to leave, he knew that.

[201] “Ahehee,” he said, and he could feel their eyes upon him as he trudged back into the snow.

An hour later he curved around the great whale-shaped rock only to find himself facing a meadow of knee-deep snow. He pushed in the clutch and jerked the stick into reverse. The gears whined as the truck struggled backwards fifty feet. He shoved the stick forward and bore down on the accelerator, gathering speed down the plowed stretch until the headlights slammed into the snowbank. It was like ramming into a tackling dummy: the snow gave a bit but then held firm. Steam rose from the extinguished headlights. He backed up and took another running start. Again the snowbank relented a few feet and then held fast. He tried again, gunning the engine full-throttle. The snow gave a little more, but not much. This time he did not back up. He pressed the accelerator to the floor. Huge pinwheels of mud and ice flew past the side windows, black and white blurs, as the headlights burrowed deeper and deeper into the snow. He could smell the transmission cooking.

“Damn!” He slammed the cab door and checked in back: no shovel. He must have forgotten to put it back after clearing his walkway. “Dammit to hell!” He knew he shouldn’t swear, but right now he didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything except getting his damn truck out of the damn muck. He glared at the falling snow as if some invisible nemesis were hiding behind it, or within it. He felt like yelling at it, challenging: Come out and show yourself! Come out and fight me face to face! He threw himself on his knees, by the front tires, and began scooping out the snow with his bare hands, madly, angrily. The cold nibbled piranha-like through his fingers and his legs from the knees down. At first he was too angry to feel any pain, but after awhile each time he plunged his hands into the mud it was like sticking them in a fire, or into the jaws of a wolf to be briefly masticated. He buried them over and over, until they were gone, and it was just his arms, sticks with floppy pads on the ends, which he kept stabbing into the muck, muttering and cursing until tears leaked from his eyes—tears of anger and frustration and a pain that cut much deeper than this simple calculable cold. An anger and frustration that had nothing to do with his [202] impossible quest to find Loretta Yellowhair.

He dug, he scooped, he swore, angrily, fanatically. Insanely.

The snow kept falling, relentlessly, invidiously, like a great white plague; like locusts attacking his precious crops. He stood up and waved his arms wildly to chase them away. He felt utterly helpless, like a blindfolded kid trying to break the piñata but his older brother keeps yanking it impossibly out of reach. He turned a circle and saw nothing but white madness. Distress? Who was in distress? That seventeen-year-old kid? Distress! He could tell you all about it! He wondered, bitterly, if anyone was braving the storm to visit him tonight? He whirled around and roared at the omnipresent snow: “Where the hell’s my shepherd? Who the hell’s going to rescue me?” So this was his reward! This was his fate, his destiny! His stinking rotten lousy miserable thanks! “Your vessel, your lonely solitary vessel, and what do I get? Shat on, spat on! Well, to hell with them! To hell with You!”

Then he repented. Sort of. He thought the real Jesus would understand his momentary craziness under duress. The real Jesus would accept his intentional lack of Christmas fanfare. The real Jesus wouldn’t be dumb enough to be born in the dead of winter either. In a stable, yes. In rags, sure. Winter? Never. The real Jesus would know better. He’d understand about Hosteen and Kathy and Celeste Bighorse and the Missing Persons Bulletin and Loretta Yellowhair and all the rest. Didn’t care about colored lights and tinsel. Wasn’t sitting by a fireplace opening gifts and getting fat on rice pudding. The real Jesus was probably walking some dirty ghetto street waiting (wondering? hoping?) for some true blue disciple to invite him in out of the cold. To heat him up a can of soup and make him a ham on rye. Wherein saw ye me a stranger? Naked and clothed me? Hungry and fed me? Wherein? Whereout? Where?

He tried to reassure himself. The time his appendix ruptured and Hosteen drove him to the hospital in Farmington and sat by his bed all night in ICU singing ceremonial healing chants. (The nurse had told him this after he came out of anesthesia.) Later Hosteen had brought him a Louis L’Amour paperback—Tom hated Louis L’Amour, but the thought—the thought! When he asked about the [203] healing chants, the corners of the old man’s mouth curled in his familiar way: “Hell, I was just singing a bunch of old squaw dance songs—just a lot of Indian mumbo jumbo. It was the only way they’d let me stay in that crazy place with you all night.” Hosteen! Five years later he was dead. Adin. Removing his body from the hogan, Tom had been startled by its lightness. Hosteen was tiny anyway, but minus his spirit it was like lifting a large piece of balsa wood. Carefully, lovingly, Tom had prepared the corpse for burial, wrestling the purple tunic of velveteen over his stiff little doll-like body, the silver concho belt around his narrow waist. At one point Tom’s fingers had searched the old man’s face, reading the deep corrugations there. Each wrinkle was a lifeline, an arroyo, a timeless impression in the land Hosteen and his forefathers had claimed by blood and birthright. At that moment Tom had never felt so lonely and displaced, so totally outside the pale. He had wept, and through his tears he had watched the old man’s face grow smooth and soft, youthful, but thin as air, like a full-color shadow or a reflection on water. Tom thought if he had pressed down, his hand would have punched right through it. Instead, he held up his own palm like a handmirror only to see his face in similar form: soft, smooth, youthful, a shadow. He made a fist and it had all disappeared. Later, as he was delivering the eulogy, a small miracle had happened. Halfway through, several hands went up. Heads were nodding, shaking. He looked at his interpreter, Sister Watchman’s son. What? What? Had he said something, done something bahadzid? No, Herbert’s expression said. And his gritty little smile formed beneath his black mustache. Just keep talking. You don’t need me.

Tom had gazed down at the crowd of wrinkled faces, headbanded and cowboy-hatted men, silver-haired women, packed in rows of folding chairs beneath the red and white-striped revival tent, all nodding, nodding, nodding. And later he would not recall a word of what he had said, only that it was like a beautiful gold scroll rolling out of his head, and all he had to do was read it. He couldn’t recall any of the symbols—they were runes, Chinese cuneiform, hapless kid scribble—yet at the time they had made perfect sense to him, to them.

[204] Tom glared at the falling sky as if it were attacking him personally. His teeth were chattering and his shoulders shaking. What was he trying to prove? What was he doing here? Boredom, duty, curiosity. No, no, no! He clenched his teeth and plunged his frozen paws deeper into the muck.

Then a thought: Sticks! Branches! He got up and staggered through the knee-deep snow, flailing his arms like a drunkard or a blind man on the run, until he smacked into a dead pinon tree whose brittle branches he began attacking with Kung Fu kicks and karate chops. Using his numb arms like giant tweezers, he carried the broken branches to his truck and laid them in two narrow trails behind his rear tires. But when he looked back he saw the snow was smothering the sticks faster than he could spread them.

He crawled back into the cab. Most of the interior heat had dissipated, but it was a relief just to get out of the blowing cold. He could feel the voodoo pins everywhere: back, chest, neck, legs. He closed his eyes and groaned mournfully: Dear God, please get me unstuck. But then he felt guilty. It had been so long since he had prayed sincerely, beyond the banal Sunday rote to appease his little congregation. He felt ashamed for waiting until his moment of despair to finally cry out. Or was he admitting something else? Confessing even more: I don’t just don’t like; I hate. Who? What? Wherein? Whereout?

He tried to turn on the ignition, but his hands were gone. It was like trying to thread a needle wearing boxing gloves. He swore, he laughed, and then he stuffed his hands down his pants, between his legs, and waited as his body warmth slowly carved out of the two cold clods fingers, knuckles, creases, hair.

He tried again. The starter whirred, the engine grabbed, the wheels churned, and he went nowhere.

“Dammit all!” He slammed the door again. His whole frame was shaking now, and for the first time he thought he might be in authentic danger. He thought he ought to start a fire, but he had no matches, no lighter. And even if he did—how with these worthless hands? Idiot! Stooge! Moron! Had he set himself up for this or what? He knew better—he knew! Suppose he couldn’t get [205] out now and the snow kept falling? He looked around to get his bearings and saw nothing but a white blur. His truck was gone, its tracks were covered. He was next. He imagined the snow building, rising like flood waters: it was at his knees, his waist, his chest, his neck. He was under. Buried. Gone. Adin. He imagined his body stiff at attention, like an arctic sentry, frozen on duty. Who would know, until the spring thaw? And who would care? Nashdoi maybe? Would his cat notice the difference, as long as someone—anyone—filled his plastic bowl with table scraps? And who would feed old Nashdoi? Who would come looking? Sister Watchman perhaps?

He wondered about his spirit passing through the veil. His mother and father had disclaimed him in life. Would they do likewise in death? How would Kathy receive him? With open, loving arms? Had he fought the good fight? Or would she turn her head in shame, embarrassed by the way he had squandered his life, his whole damn life, among this people? Oh, he had married them and buried them, had taught their children to read and write, had wiped their runny little noses on cold winter mornings. But would she embrace him for that, or merely out of marital duty? Or deny him altogether? Would she, too, condemn him for Celeste Bighorse? Or had she died for his sins? Then where was the real man in white? Where was the real Jesus? Or was he the white veil with a zillion fluttering parts, waiting to smack or lovingly smother you?

Then another possibility came to mind: suppose the Mormons were wrong, the Navajos right? Suppose the hereafter was a nebulous netherworld, an eternity of falling snow?

Tom calmly sat down and waited as the cold consumed him cell by cell. It had taken his legs and belly and was moving into his chest now. Soon it was a blanket covering him with motherly warmth. He lay back, closed his eyes, and succumbed at last to the Christmas memory he had been trying to evade all night: their first Christmas Eve together as man and wife, their first on the rez. They were still strangers in the village. She was eight months pregnant, very vulnerable, atypically weepy. Sitting in their dark little kitchen staring glumly at the little scrub pine he had cut down and which she had dressed with her construction paper decorations, he did [206] something very stupid. He made a little joke: “How about some eggnog?” And right there her spirit snapped. He thought he could actually hear it. “Eggnog? Eggnog? Very funny! What eggnog? What anything in this lousy rotten hell-hole? Drunks and dead dogs, that’s all you ever see. Eggnog? All anyone ever wants around here is a big fat handout! They come to church for handouts, they come to the school for handouts! If they’re so broke, how come everyone’s driving a new pickup? We can’t even afford a tuneup for our lousy rotten VW Rabbit! And these people act like you owe it to them. They look at you with their hatchet faces: gimme gimme gimme gimme. I’m sick of it, Tom! I’m fed up! Every time it rains or snows this place turns into a chocolate swamp. And if it’s not the rain, it’s the damn wind blowing so thick you can’t see your nose in front of your face. I hate it, Tom! The water’s orange. God knows what creepy critters inhabit that stuff. And this lousy rotten trailer. This stupid tin can. We freeze all winter, fry all summer. I’m sick of it. There’s no one, absolutely no one, here for me to talk to. You go to work, sure, to your little rock schoolhouse where you’re treated like the Great White God, but I’m stuck here in this tin can. Stuck! No telephone, no TV. I carry water in a bucket. I practically cook over an open fire. I hate it! I’m not a damned pioneer. I said whither thou goest, but this is the end of the road for me! I mean it, Tom. This is it! My father was right: you’re a loser and you’ll always be a loser! Misery’s your middle name!”

Later she apologized: “This volleyball in my belly. It does weird things to you. It really messes up your mind. ” But when he told her to forget it, he understood, she unleashed again: “How could you understand? You had nothing to lose. I had everything!” And then she fled into the bedroom and slammed the door: “Merry Christmas!”

It was close to midnight when he was awakened by a knock. He had fallen asleep on their ragged little sofa. It was Rose Tsinijinnie, the secretary at the elementary school. A tall, slender cowgirl, she was out of breath. “Come to the school, ” she panted. “Hurry!” And ran off.

Tom put on his snow boots and coat and trudged over to the rock schoolhouse. Rose met him at the door. “Where’s your wife?”

[206] “My wife? You didn’t say anything about—”

“Go get your wife!” she ordered. Then laughed in that delightfully free manner of Navajo women. “Go get your wife or we’ll have to find one for you!”

He trudged back to the trailer and asked—begged, really—her to come.

“I was almost asleep.”

“We can’t say no. You know how they are.”

Grumbling, she threw on a maternity smock, boots, and a coat. “I feel like an Eskimo,” she muttered.

“A very beautiful one,” he said.

“Don’t placate me.”

“Okay, ugly as an Eskimo. Fat as an Eskimo. Ornery as an Eskimo. Snotty as an—”

“All right, all right. I get the picture.”

When they arrived at the schoolhouse, the lights were out and Rose was gone.

“Swell,” Kathy muttered.

They were wet, cold, and the snow was falling. As they turned back towards the trailer, Rose appeared around the corner, waving them to the side door. “Hey! Psst! Come on!” As they stepped inside, the lights came on. And the most incredible thing: the whole community was there—parents, students, babies in cradleboards, grandpas in cowboy hats, grandmas in pleated skirts. Two hundred plus crammed into that little room, and they were all smiling while the children sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which Tom had taught them the week before in school. There was a pine tree in the corner with presents piled up underneath—baby clothes, boxes of disposable diapers, Navajo rugs, turquoise jewelry, a cradleboard of varnished cedarwood. He and Kathy stood there, stunned, silent, and wept.

Afterwards they trudged through the mud and snow back to their dingy little trailer with the wood stove and the foot-long cockroaches and the scrawny little Christmas tree, and they made the wildest wickedest love they ever had. Tom remembered lying in bed afterwards, listening to the snow like gentle fingers tapping on [208] the glass. Her head was on his shoulder and she was curling his chest hairs around her finger as she whispered, “I’m so happy!” And at that moment so was he. It was the first time she had ever really said that. She had said “I Love You” often enough, but never that. And for the first time he really honestly truly thought they were going to make it.

A week later as they were driving home from a New Year’s Day shopping spree in Farmington, he fell asleep at the wheel. When the VW Rabbit veered onto the shoulder, jerking him awake, he overcompensated and the little car hit the gravelly shoulder and became a flying missile. And that was it: two in one blow. Why he had survived and not her still angered and puzzled him. Maybe God leaves behind the one with the most rough edges. (But he could hear her counter from the other side: “Don’t placate me!”) Besides, he knew better: he was doing penance.

Hosteen used to tell him it was bad luck to speak about dying or the dead: to even think the act would increase its likelihood of happening. Tom always wondered if there wasn’t some truth to that, or if Kathy had just had a premonition. A month or so before, she had instructed him—no, ordered him was more accurate: “If anything ever happens to me, I want you to remarry!”

“But who would ever be stupid enough to marry the likes of me?” he protested.

“I don’t know. But look hard. You’ll find some sweet little sucker. But just make sure you do! I don’t want a horny husband meeting me on the other side of the veil! Understand, rubber band?”

He had had no intention of staying. In fact, his plan was to leave immediately. Just go. But where? To whom? One year ran into two, two to three, and before he knew it he was stuck there, stuck up to his axles. He was like the snowflakes swirling around in the cone of light: white butterflies trapped in glass.

 

He jackknifed to attention, brushing the snow from his body as if it were some kind of white vermin. The snow had stopped and the skies had cleared except for a small patch where the moon was peering through a crack like an eavesdropping eye. Stars appeared [209] like tiny ornaments. Moonlit, the snow-covered expanse looked like a weird florescent icing: cold, clean, beautifully barren. A glittering wasteland. Radioactive. Out of this world. Tom closed his eyes and took a deep, cleansing breath. He saw a light shining at the foot of a white cliff far ahead. As he trudged towards it, the snow started up again. The sky was perfectly clear but flakes were falling, as if the whole Milky Way were fluttering down. Soon he was the man in white again. Hands, feet, legs, head. His body was numb but his heart was on fire. He trudged: left foot, right foot, left foot.

It was a homestead almost identical to the one he had stopped at down the road—the corral, the outhouse, the shacks, the hogan. Three pair of eyes glowed orange underneath a plywood lean-to. The same matron answered the door. Clint Eastwood was there too, glaring at him but sadly this time, as if his bullet eyes had prematurely misfired. The old woman with the greasewood arms was kneading her dough, and her black-hatted old mate was keeping vigil over the sleeping children by the tree. The young mothers and the young man with the black bangs watched.

This time the matron spoke sternly to him. “She’s in there!” she said, and her finger steered his eye across the corral towards a little hogan on a hill. “This morning, we dug a hole for you. There’s a pick and a shovel too. Last night in my sleep, a man in white came …”

And then he understood.

She belonged to the Salt Clan and was born in the year the cottonwoods greened early, which made her a little over ninety but under one hundred, and that was all he would know, all they would tell him. But as he trekked across the white field towards the hogan on the hill, all the rest would become quite clear. He would wonder, since the year the cottonwoods greened early, how many hundreds of sheep had she shorn, how many thousands of pieces of fry bread had she made, how many rugs had she woven, how many winters, snows, how many Christmases had passed? He tried to picture her in his mind. Instead he saw the dimpled smile of Celeste Bighorse. He looked back only once, and saw the others watching on the far side of the corral: the bell-shaped matron, a young woman in a [210] screaming yellow windbreaker, and the sketchy silhouette of the old man as he touched his forefinger to the brim of his black felt hat, and with that simple gesture thanked him across the white eternities of the omnipresent snow.