A train rumbles down the track and passes beneath my feet. I’ve parked my bike under a streetlamp and am bent over the bridge’s handrail to watch it head west. Boxcars flit forward. It’s midnight, my first summer in Iowa City, and a bout of loneliness has punched me in the gut. I’ve just read an article on The Farmington Daily Times website, a publication out of my hometown in the Four Corners Region of New Mexico, and am debating whether or not to tell my children what I know.
The article reported that Paul Beebe and Jesse Sanford put in a plea of guilty this month, August, 2011, under the new Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. They face up to ten years in prison. Their crime: branding a swastika into the skin of a mentally-challenged Navajo man a few blocks from where I grew up. They lured him from the McDonald’s on 20th Street to their apartment. They put an old dishrag in his mouth to stop his screams and used a wire coat hanger, heated on the stove, to burn the mark into his skin. When they were finished, they shaved a swastika in his hair, drew penises and KKK symbols on his body, and threw him out on the street.
The grotesque nature of the crime took me by surprise, awakened old memories and fears, made me concerned about my much younger siblings who never got out of Farmington. It’s always seemed like common sense that one day the violence would stop—though I’m also aware that the Civil Rights Commission has had a close eye on Farmington since 1974, the same year my parents drove a U-Haul up from Arizona and the Fort Yuma Reservation where I was born, in order for my father to accept a job on the Navajo Reservation. I was five years old and no one explained to me and my sisters that the town was under siege because three teenagers from Farmington High School, my future alma mater, had bludgeoned, mutilated, and burned three Navajo men out in Chokecherry Canyon before bringing one of the men’s turquoise-ringed fingers to a football game in a small jewelry box to brag. (Cheer for the Scorpions, cheer for a win, come on crowd, yell Go Fight Win!) No one sat us down and told us that the town was dangerous. Why would parents tell children between the ages of four and eight? It’s hardly the type of news a parent wants to offer. I understand their desire to protect me but it was confusing to hear about events without being equipped to grasp, through an adult’s interpretation, why.
Before dying the three Navajo men were tortured. Firecrackers were placed in their noses and anuses. The boys tried to burn off their private parts. When they finally grew bored with their game, they searched the sage and sandstone canyons for boulders and pounded the mens’ heads. After the Scorpion boys were arrested, as they were held by the judicial system, the town launched into a state of alert. The American Indian Movement, a group of national activists, arrived and wanted to burn Main Street to the ground. Their desire for vengeance was strong but Navajo elders refused to condone any violence. They called meetings in tribal community centers and organized non-violent demonstrations.
My family and I pulled into town in the midst of the upheaval. Navajo people marched peacefully in downtown Farmington for seven consecutive Sundays. Tensions continued to escalate. No one went to Main Street or visited its shops. Uninvolved citizens, including my mother, stayed home. Dad went to work with his Navajo buddies. They didn’t speak about the strain. From what I’ve read as an adult, business slowed and shopkeepers became vocal. They urged the city council to stop issuing permits for the demonstrations. Many oilfield hands from East Texas who lived and worked in Farmington threatened to go home if the economy didn’t return to normal. They had families to feed.
A city hotline was set in place to calm citizens. According to interviews taken by the Southern Poverty Law Center, people would call up and say things like, “We hear the Indians are on the warpath.” I imagine American Indian Movement members loved the atmosphere of fear. Hell, yes, Dennis Banks and Russell Means would have said. They loved militancy. City council members began to carry pistols. Mario Webb, the mayor, fancied himself “Custer in a sea of brown faces.” He told the media, “I don’t think race had anything to do with [the murders]. Just high school students rolling drunks, and all the drunks were Navajos.”
Whatever delusions our mayor had, I can serve as a witness to how shockingly little teenage attitudes in Farmington changed, even into the late ‘80s when I attended school. By some estimates there are 700 transient Navajos living on the streets of Farmington even today, easy targets. I’ve heard many upstanding, athletic boys gathering their buddies to go downtown and roll “drunk Navajos.” They considered Navajo wallets, filled with veteran’s benefits or pawn shop loans, free for the taking. The drunks rarely put up a fight, a few punches thrown and the boys drove off to the Copper Penny Drive-Thru: a bar with a window that didn’t ask questions. Fake ID’s welcome. (My own culpability is mired in the fact that during winter my melanin faded and I could pass for Hispanic like my mother. By denying half of my heritage I didn’t have to go to the principal’s office to report them.)
The final breakdown in the Chokecherry Canyon murders came when the district attorney’s request was denied. The sixteen-year-old boys would not be prosecuted as adults, despite the intentional brutality of the murders. It occurs to me, at the mention of their age, that readers might wonder why my father didn’t attend the protests with his Navajo buddies. I suppose with four little girls and his first decent job he couldn’t afford to get in trouble. He had a record. He didn’t want to return to the court system where he was tried as an adult at sixteen when a family friend died in a car he wrecked while running from a ‘50s style gang fight. In other words, my father was angry and violent, he just knew better than to act up outside the safety of home. I recall his fists clenching when a tall man with ruddy skin called us “dirty little Indian kids” at Brookside Park. My rowdy sisters and I had stolen a turn on the swings from the man’s daughter.
The final court scenario: the Farmington judge slapped the boys on the wrist and sent them to reform school where they were let off in so little time it was more like a vacation than actual incarceration. A day after the sentencing, City council members refused to give Navajo activists a permit to march. They said it was due to a scheduling clash with the annual sheriff’s posse parade. The parade’s theme that year was “observing this ritual of reverence for the Old West.” The celebration included a mounted ceremonial troop dressed in authentic frontier uniforms, the same uniforms that would have been worn when the sheriff’s job was to hunt down renegade Indians. Navajo protesters, aware of this fact, were angered by the “coincidence” and interpreted it as an in-your-face. They tried to block the parade and a cavalry officer pulled his sword out of its sheath. A riot broke out. Police fired teargas into the crowd. Thirty people were arrested.
I never heard a single teacher in my hometown, even the ones who loved and educated me to the best of their ability, relay or talk about this history. Even when we covered the Civil Rights in American History the information was focused on the South and the entire elephant-in-the-room tension in Farmington was conveniently swept under the rug. My parents never spoke about the period, at least not past a few mumbling words and embarrassed silences. When I sought them out to question the incident as an adult, all they gave were a few brief responses.
The silence, embarrassments, and hush-hush atmosphere surrounding these topics are endemic in the Southwest. I do not wish to plead special circumstances, telling this story is frightening because I wish to be fair. My fear that my bias will enter has meant that I’m prone to stay quiet about racial issues. My parents taught me to be a hard-working, polite, somewhat apolitical individual who doesn’t stoke the fires of controversy. But the silence is sickening. It has followed me around the world to Iowa City where I have been doing my best to quietly persevere and imagine my childhood couldn’t possibly be as stressful as I remembered it.
After the Chokecherry Canyon murders, the marches, the riot, and the national media coverage the United States government sent a Federal Commission on Civil Rights to Farmington. They came in August. It was the same month I started first grade at Sacred Heart Elementary with tightly braided hair, Hush Puppy shoes, and a red-and-blue plaid uniform. I was the only kid in my Arizona kindergarten who could read chapter books and my mother says I shot to the head of my first grade class. Unfortunately, despite my excellent memory which stretches back easily to before I was four-years-old, a huge blank exists over the first grade. I’ve wondered why my earliest childhood is so clear and the second grade comes on in full Technicolor turquoise when a huge gap exists in that year. It never occurred to me until I started this essay that I might have picked up on the violence, that it scared me into forgetfulness.
But it’s more than that, of course. I come from a huge family. Mom is the eldest of fifteen kids. She raised a herd of little brothers who enjoyed decapitating her dolls. To this day she has a wonderful singing voice and, according to my uncles, crooned them to sleep at night while their mother tended to the latest baby. My father says when he first went to their house the living room was wall-to-wall bodies. “It was a snoring heap of blankets” he says.
Dad was the fifth of ten kids, the second brother. Until he was a teenager he mostly slept outside. His family didn’t have a house until he was twelve; he grew up in a surplus Army tent (from the old garrison) behind his grandparent’s house. They shared an outdoor kitchen and didn’t get a flush toilet until a few months before he turned eighteen. His favorite place to sleep was around back under a tamarack tree, where he kept an eye out for scorpions.
The size of my extended family offers a hint at how I grew, at least until the age of five. I was passed from Mom’s hip to Dad’s arms, to my uncles and aunts and older cousins. I balanced on top of shoulders where I gripped black hair like reins and I slept on soft bosoms where I could smell the patchouli and sandalwood my ‘70s aunts liked to wear. Leaving the safety of such a community, even though it was sometimes drunken, is another aspect of the shock I underwent when we moved to Farmington. To leave the companionship of relatives and earth to live in a track house in a foreign town with no relatives would be a shock for any young child, even if the political environment were peaceful.
The resolution hearings that were conducted by the Feds at the start of my first grade school year led to a redistricting of election zones in Farmington (and all of San Juan County) which made it possible for Navajos to be elected to the County Commission for the first time. Other major developments: the Justice Department sued the county hospital for refusing to treat Navajos in its emergency room, and the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission sued the city for employment discrimination.
I joke about Farmington occasionally with friends. I say Gary Snyder wrote about my hometown in his poem, I Went into the Maverick Bar. He describes taking off his earring and hiding it in the glove box of his truck before scooping his hair into a baseball hat to hide the fact that it is long. A consummate Western traveler, Snyder knew a town by its people and he correctly discerned the danger he would face if he didn’t wear a conservative disguise to drink his beer and eat his burrito. Farmington: the place where counterculture need not apply or visit.
But I’m sick of goofing around about a portion of my life that was very real and probably damaging to my psyche. What aspects of my personality were seeded in that town so many years ago? Have I made the right decisions about the stories I have decided to tell and not tell my children? Has it created too much of a desire in me to please? Nine years have passed since I last lived in Albuquerque. Nearly twenty since I last lived in Farmington, where I attended class until my high school graduation and literally left town the next day. Since leaving Albuquerque I’ve moved my kids from big city to liberal college town, made friends with people who know nothing about life on the reservation or in reservation border towns. Farmington sits at the northeast corner of the twenty-seven-thousand-square-mile Navajo Reservation. It is split, demographically, almost perfectly down the middle: fifty-percent Caucasians, forty-five percent Navajos/Other Native Americans/Chicanos, and five-percent African-Americans/Asians.
The demographics do not reflect the real size of Farmington, that is, the transient population and visitors who come for the weekend. The town, with its primary population of forty thousand, visibly swells on Saturday and Sunday. Hundreds of Navajos flood into town from their reservation homes—five, ten, twenty miles away—to visit with off-reservation family, take care of errands, and drop cash into the economy. In four-wheel drive trucks, sports cars, and old Monte Carlos, with tiny water drums like the kind you buy at Shush Yaz dangling from their rearview mirrors, they go grocery shopping, hang out at the Animas Mall, and pick up sundry items at Kmart. They litter parking lots with dirty baby diapers, thumbing their noses at the townspeople with whom they’ve had a long and uncomfortable history. Acrimony on both sides is common and it is not unusual to hear an exchange of words. Where cultures rub up against each other intensely, discord and crime still happens.
It’s a big deal for me to cop to this impression of my hometown because for a long time I didn’t want to admit it. I avoided thinking too much about the prejudices encountered during my youth, in part because I know there is nothing I can offer as a solution. I explore these memories now because it is becoming harder for me to keep them pushed down. As I head towards my life’s autumn, I want to up the ante on my courage, study my past carefully, and speak. I must not arrive at my life’s winter and regret what I was too afraid to say. Yet I also worry what will happen now that I’ve unplugged the stream of memories. Where will the current drag me?
Farmington was a second piling on in a series of one-two blows: first the earlier violent childhood on the Yuma reservation then Farmington. The article, the swastika, the man who looks like my younger brother, a life of inherited trauma and episodic beauty, contradictions about leaving New Mexico, a desire to go back, all convoluted memories difficult to explain. To say that my birthright as a Native American has been rewarding, precisely in its difficulties, is true. The accident of my birth makes me stretch to a longer perspective, to skip over recent history and understand that the world has always been at war, to take an interest in ancient civilizations because to focus solely on the recent past is to risk discouragement and shame.
After moving away from Farmington I claimed the situation there was no longer my battle. I didn’t want to give anyone fuel to accuse me of sounding bitter. I told myself if I dwelled on old difficulties I would be playing the victim. How could I earn people’s respect and get along in the world if I pointed my finger? The years passed and I raised my kids, studied, and traveled. We backpacked through the Yucatan where we visited all the major Mayan architectural sites. They had to know American history from the indigenous perspective. I wanted them to see. I chose the criteria to barter in: rather than staying on the reservation we moved away and I gave them an academic instead of a personal understanding of their heritage.
My reasoning was the kids had seen enough of the reservation’s poverty to last a lifetime. I was protective of them. I kept them busy and stayed busy myself, patting myself on the back and allowing my memories to fade. I reached a point of greatest distance, where my youth seemed quasi-fictional. I was a big city woman, a world traveler, when had anything bad ever happened to me? I talked to my parents briefly, skirted deep issues, and immersed myself in books.
I suppose it was a sign of my optimism, if not my full-blown immaturity, that I imagined the passing of time had healed all differences in Farmington. Even though my two much-younger siblings, who were raised a decade after me and who still lived with my parents, told me Farmington was indefatigably tough. I practiced my stubborn amnesia. I believed they could improve their situation with a simple shift in attitude. Turn that frown upside down motivational-speeches became my forte. Based on the outlook of progressive friends (years with folk who couldn’t tell the difference between a Navajo and an Apache if their life depended on it) I told myself hate crimes were no longer happening. Like a baby who believes her mother has truly disappeared in a game of peekaboo I thought if I closed my eyes it would all go away.
News of the swastika-branding would have upset me regardless, but an additional detail of the case makes my head throb. There is a third defendant, a man not easy to dismiss. I can label the other two kids hurt and ignorantly raised, but him? I spent the evening searching for information on William Hatch because he looks Native American in his AP photo. I can’t understand why he would turn on his own. It is one thing to run away and hide, another to aid and abet. The shame and self-hatred suggested in his actions are so familiar, they border on cliché.
Looking back I don’t know how it has never been obvious. Moments like today are a theme in my life. Standing at this railroad track watching the train head west, I do something similar once a season. Moments when bad news from Native America reaches in and squeezes my heart with such forcefulness that I can’t sleep. Because one rarely sees Native Americans on television, unless tragedy or protest is involved, it always takes me by surprise. Once I slowed down and looked at my circumstances today, without fear, I started recognizing these eternal returns.
A young Acoma woman, a desperate mother with no place to live, strangles her three-year-old boy at a playground in Albuquerque. After he stops breathing she remembers him alive, toddling across the parking lot to take a turn on the swings. She resuscitates him. He sputters, gasps, rolls over with a stunned look on his face. She hugs him, crying, wondering how she could have been so insane. He hugs her, terrified. Knowing no other love he doesn’t realize he should run or try to escape.
The train rattles under the bridge beneath my feet. Summer in Iowa is new: the foreign green humidity, the flash of fireflies, a chlorine pool with a high dive that springs me forward. I have an abundance of time to spend alone. I am falling. Time passes. The mother and son doze off on the slide; the boy rests his head on his mother’s chest. Morning draws near. The aluminum frame of the swing-set catches the light of the rising sun; it sparks a returning sadness in the mother’s eyes, a new set of tears. She strangles him again.
Hear the train’s whistle, one long blow. It pierces the night with its owl-shaped cry. Moths flutter around the lamppost where I’ve parked by bike. A single shriek of the whistle, one long blow, the same codes all over in the language of locomotives. It means blind curve ahead. She buries him in the dirt beneath the swings. A few hours later a young Ph.D. student with her kid spots a shoe in the sand. Her little boy goes to pick it up. It’s still attached to his small body. Confusion. I suddenly remember my own children when we lived in our HUD home on the reservation, my six-year-old girl caring for her four-year-old brother and their two-year-old sister while I sleep off a rowdy night with my cousins. Nobody loved him, the mother said, and nobody loves me. When the police find her she is walking from the bus stop to the police station to turn herself in. She has no place to live. My daughter comes knocking at the carport door. Let us in, she says. We have something to show you. My head hurts and I tell her to go away. The mother convinces herself it is an act of mercy. She deserves a break from the responsibility. My daughter bangs again. Mama, she says. Come out. I don’t go. I let her bang. When I do go, I’m mad. Why should he live? What kind of desperate life will he lead? At first she thinks she’ll kill him and then herself. After she kills him she forgets what she had planned to do next. What in the world do you want? I ask sharply. My head pounds as if a freight train has run through it. My three children stand by the tool chest under the carport. Why do we still feel sad? I don’t know why I did it, she tells the police. It just felt like no one cared. There’s a rattlesnake, they point. Stop making up stories, I say. They look at me with big eyes. Their little fingers poke behind the tool chest. The little boy with the Ph.D. mom walks forward in the sand. He pulls at the shoe. I rub my aching head and wander over to see the coiling danger as it wakes from its slumber.
A baby rattlesnake is known for its exceptional ability to kill due to immature glands and an inability to control the release of its venom. Her story isn’t mine, though for grace it could be.
* * *
Don’t tell me the voice of the narrator is missing, don’t ask me why I’m writing this down, don’t ponder what the “point” of the telling is, don’t ask me what has caused the narrator to speak now, don’t suggest that I define whose voice this is. This is what I’m saying; it is all a confused jumble. I am the invisible plurality. I am haunted by memories of bison. I cut myself and bleed into the water of every river I pass. I flow down streams and exist in the tiniest molecules. Whether you know it or not, if you live in this country, you drink me; we are the same. I have a story tell you.
It is about a string of parent-child relationships and the loss of family roots. It is about being created rather than being born. It is about dehumanizing philosophies and herding techniques. Babies taken from mothers, babies pushed away by mothers, mothers who don’t know how to explain familial inheritances to their children. Have you heard this story of branding?
The slave in Toni Morrison’s Beloved takes her small daughter, Sethe, behind the smokehouse one afternoon, even though they are supposed to be working in the fields. She shows her daughter her mark, “right on her rib was a circle and a cross.” It was the brand that proved she was chattel, but the mother’s purpose was not to explain the politics to her child. She tells her little girl, “I am the only one got this mark now. The rest dead. If something happens to me and you can’t tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark.”
I am the bison. The bison is me.
Slaves were treated as cattle. What happens next in this story is realistic. Realistic because what girl does not want to grow up and be like her parents? What parents do not want their child to have some of their traits? The little girl, reflecting on the event as a grown woman, says, “All I could think of was how important this was and how I needed to have something important to say back, but I couldn’t think of anything so I just said what I thought . . . ‘Mark me, too,’ I said.”
Her mother slaps her across the face. She punishes the child’s sentiment (to want to be like her mother) the worst thing imaginable. For her child to misinterpret the animal implications of branding is disgusting. The mother cannot bear to imagine the girl complicit with the history of slavery; her pain is so subjective she misses the chance to teach.
The brokenness between generations in a family like mine, the loss of understanding, takes years for a child to understand. The severing ties caused by Indian boarding schools, the silencing effect of languages destroyed and forgotten. Why do my parents push me away? I had no idea. They looked at me as if they were thinking do not be like us. My father worked long hours. My mother’s moods went up and down. No one explained. But how can I judge them?
I read piles of books to my children, take them on long hikes explaining aspects of the desert ecosystem, and make sure they travel on our tight budget. I imagine them smart. I imagine they will grow up, be emotionally stable, and go off to competitive universities. I leak information to them carefully. I watch to see if they have moments in history class, moments when their feelings are brittle. The fearful memories I know they must have buried, somewhere deep, make their transition to adulthood scary for me. In addition to the everyday difficulties all children must face, they have a historic inheritance to ponder.
I am talking about the question of a young child’s future. Did my parents send me to Catholic school, hoping that I would stay innocent due to their narrow curriculum? Did they pray to spare me the bitterness of our American history? Did they suffer as much as I did keeping secrets from my own children? How long did they think my ignorance could last?
I remember Robert, a Navajo boy in my third-grade class, cynical and bruised at a very young age. Defensive and defiant, his tough stance got in the way of his learning. Through the years I saw Native American kids of both stripes. Those who had parents that believed all children deserve the illusion of safety, the illusion of an archetypal universe where Americans are the good guys, same as cops, firemen, Presidents, and people who have vowed any kind of holy order. Parents who don’t want to confuse their children with ambiguities and brutal histories at a young age. Parents who wish to preserve a period of innocence. Parents who don’t realize that all children are uncannily observant and sense when something is being hidden, I believe all outsider children understand their status as interlopers at a very young age.
I don’t mean to come down with a harsh opinion. For me it was ugly to be in the dark, and there is no way I could do that to my kids. First, I am more educated than my own parents, who may have been genuinely ignorant about many of the facts. Second, I had the luxury of keeping my children close. We read all the Little House on the Prairie novels out loud and leaned heavily on Pa’s observations during the Trail of Tears. Every single one of my kids cried when I explained the event to them. My youngest daughter is now six, and we took the plunge a few months ago. To see her shuddering under the weight of this discovery, no words can express how painful it is to break such news to your own child.
Have I illustrated the parental dilemma? What age is the right time to reveal all the ills and evils of our communal inheritance? Do we leak it out little by little, realizing that somewhere someone might ruin our careful plan and take our children by surprise with some truth they haven’t been privy to before? Or do we give it to them straight from the very beginning? Do we pass our anger on to our children to make them better at protesting modern America? Do we mold them for resistance and feed them our bitterness? Do we toughen them up and make them ready for an indifferent world?
One more observation about my parents: like all historically damaged people who have lost loved ones to suicide and self-destruction, who have been to too many funerals, they kept a bit of emotional distance with me and my sisters. I assume it was protective, a knee-jerk practice engaged in so that they would not be hurt when we separated. I think it’s fair to say that I can be a slightly cold parent myself. My kids might disagree, argue that it is not true, but I notice I need a lot of space from people. This is why I can say, in all honesty, that I am blinded by the blessing of love and the outpouring they provide on a daily basis.
* * *
I lean over the railing as the train thunders through. In my mind the trailing boxcars slide through Midwestern cornfields and head towards the high desert plateau. Watching the train has begun to put my mind at ease. I imagine it passing ghost towns and farms, city intersections and rural forks. Wild horses race beside it on Bureau of Land Management property. It chugs into the mountains of New Mexico, passes small towns sprouted from the oilfield boom, community college populations, and cowboy outposts, before hanging a left at Phoenix and heading down into the Sonoran Desert.
I close my eyes and imagine four little Indian girls, brown-skin pudgy and firm, playing in an arroyo near the tracks. Long hair swept back in baggy ponytails, they catch cicadas near a sand wash. The train thunders by. The clacking metal drowns out their childish banter. They look up. One sister points at the words and graffiti on the train’s metal body. She strains to read the patterns but the locomotive crowds too close, moves too fast for perspective. This is how the girls are blinded; they stand adjacent to the thundering. They flinch at the loud images. They cup their hands over their ears.
The busted fists of their father, their uncle and aunt drowned and bloated in the canal, their mother’s depression over their dead baby brother, the limbs lost by cousins and two loved grandfathers. Prosthetics provided after car accidents. Amputations needed because of out-of-control diabetes. For many years the girls will be confused and heartbroken in their playtime and laughter. They cling to each other in their big bed at night, driving these childhood hauntings down deep.
Their father is sleeping it off. The night before at a party, with a mix of their mother and father’s families, he got bloodied in a fight. Their Uncle Andy was driving a new jalopy, purchased after months of saving up. He whipped around the corner on his new wheels, almost flattening the girls and their cousins on the street.
The girls were oblivious to the drama as it unfolded, focused intently on who would be IT in their game of hide-and-seek. They had their fists in the counting circle with their cousins. The oldest child touched each hang lightly as she called out the rhyme:
My mother and your mother were out hanging clothes. My mother gave your mother a punch in the nose! What- color- was- the- blood? Landing on a small, outstretched fist when she came to the word blood, she looked up and paused to listen for the chosen color. The little cousin whose hand was landed on yelled out PURPLE and the counting girl continued, spelling it out as she went around the circle of fists:
P- U- R- P- L- E and you- are- not- IT!
The kid whose hand was tapped on the word IT spun away, free from the responsibility of providing chase. They were down to seven kids in the circle when their Uncle Andy came screeching around the corner on two wheels. Mothers and Aunts grabbed them by elbows and wrists. They were dragged off the street as the car breached the curb and landed in the front yard. As he tumbled out of the driver’s seat the girls saw their father—angered by the vision of his girls dead—running towards their mother’s brother with a flower pot in his hand, their mother screaming for him to STOP.
Shoved into their family’s Chevy Nova, the girls hold each other in the back seat as their mother and aunt drive away. Their father and uncle are busting each other’s face in the dirt, dust rising and arms flying like an octopus spraying ink. The rev of the motor, the sight of their mother backing out of the drive, halts their fathers swinging arms. The girls see the uncle bite him on the hand. He rips his arm free and runs for the car. As their mother slows to turn the corner, he leaps onto the hood of the back trunk. The girls crouch on the floorboards to get away from his scary face in the back window, his arms outstretched like he is being crucified: his jet black eyes welling light, his hand bleeding red down his wrist.
The girls take solace in the world’s minutia. They like little things: the smallest grains of sand that make the finest mud patties, the small twig joints that reveal tiny stars when they are cracked open, the soft white and chewable portion of grass that emerges when one pulls the blade up from the earth gently without tearing the stem. They unsettle ants by rubbing out the scent of their line. They keep horny toads in shoe boxes deep in their closet. They like to disorder the world of small things.
Flanking the train and its thundering sound, one of the girls can’t stop looking, can’t stop trying to make sense out of the graffiti even as her sisters return to their play. She is third in order of birth, a girl obsessed with watching: the one who reads at a younger age than the others and stays awake on car trips to prove it. The family owns a brown club-wagon van with two captain seats. The mother wedges a red ice-chest between the seats when everyone else goes to sleep. She calls the little girl up front, lets her sit on it. Keep your father awake, the mother says before propping her head against the window to sleep.
The girl’s father clicks the lights back and forth from high to low-beam, grips the wheel and steers them through the desert. They peer out at the two-lane highway, seeing the occasional coyote cross in front of them, its red-eyes glaring. She sits on the ice chest and tries to discern his mood. Always attune to his ups and downs, she reads the highway signs to him. She even reads the ones with no words.
Winding road, she says when they pass the spaghetti-like image. All trucks and commercial vehicles next right, she stumbles on commercial. He points at a weigh station and explains what it is. It flies by their window. Small towns with names like Shiprock, Teec Nos Pos, Dennehotso, and Kayenta flit by. As they pass them she reads, Slow children at play. She reads it without pausing after the word slow so it sounds like the children can’t run fast. Her father likes that. He thinks it is funny.
This five-year-old girl who can’t stop looking—can’t imagine she will ever leave Yuma for Farmington. When her father has had too much to drink, when he has punched a fist in the wall and collapsed, when her mother has locked herself in their bedroom with disgust, the girl comes out and covers him with a blanket. She doesn’t realize that life is never long enough to understand why we love who we love. She imagines she will take care of him forever.
Watch as she tries to make sense of the graffiti. Watch as she reads The Farmington Daily Times online. See her eyebrows furrowed in concentration. See her Baby Drowsy doll, muddied up and dirty as it hangs at her side. See her grimacing at her desk because she read news that upsets her. See her hanging over the railing at her neighborhood bridge. Like everyone, her life will pass too fast, too quickly to understand. She suddenly realizes how irrevocably she is moving towards death. She begins to write with more energy so she can convey what she wishes her children might understand. She does not want to be silenced like the rest. It takes five hundred years for historians to have perspective on any event. We aren’t the only ones in the world who have experienced this loss. We are in camaraderie with more people than you realize.
This five-year-old girl who can’t stop looking, who loves her sisters and likes tiny things: at night she says her prayers, for her Mama to love her please, for her Dad to stop exhausting himself with too many shifts at his manual labor jobs. She still believes there is a way to be good, a way to earn love. She wants people to like her. Throw down and float on broken bits of glass, blood mixed with beer and desperation, desert children gone awry with deep ugly scabs the length of their souls that take many years to heal. They called me Baby Drowsy when I was little because my eyes were always halfway closed like the doll. I fool them all with my halfway gaze; I really don’t miss a thing.
He was much older than me. A poet with a strong jaw and long greasy hair, he looked me in the eye and asked, “Why do you write about trains?”
Many of my favorite family stories featured trains. My Uncle Bill bragged that he caught his first free ride at the age of seven. He said when he jumped out of the boxcar he lost his footing and rolled down the steep incline of desert, landing in a wall of prickly pear cactus. Uncle Gene raced the train while drunk in Grandpa’s old Plymouth. He closed his eyes and turned sharply in front of the no-barrier tracks. Bang bump into the advancing lights of the screaming freight, scaring the shit out of his little brothers. My father’s best friend died under a train. His hand slipped on the boxcar handle as he leapt and he was sucked under the metal wheels. Why do I love these stories of violence? Uncle Mick said Grandpa decided to stop drinking when he awoke on the Zipper to L.A. and found a man peeing on his face. I was an adult when I heard this story and ran home to flip through the Dharma Bums to see if my memory was correct: Jack Kerouac road the Zipper.
“Why do you write about trains?” The greasy poet shook his head at my answer. He went to college and mailed a letter with a photo of bison skulls. I sat on my bed and stared at the image.
His note said the herds were shot from the windows of trains, killed to starve the Plains Indians and clear the way for pioneer expansion. He urged me to do some research in a scolding tone: read up on your history. I was seventeen. I jumped on my bike and headed down to the library that same afternoon. Digging through public bookshelves with trembling hands, scanning histories and encyclopedias, I felt like Frankenstein’s monster: Who am I? By what circumstances have I been created? I stopped writing about trains immediately.
The silence and invisibility, the unknown nature of the shapes I was trying to define, how can I describe it? I stared at the bison skulls and thought not again. The moment was not my first prick of awareness, though my knowledge had largely been confined to the Southwest. This new Plains version hadn’t been imagined. You are me and I am you. I resented that there was no way to escape these impromptu lessons. They were coiled up like rattlesnakes behind a tool chest, infiltrating many aspects of everyday life, waiting in my blind spots to spring.
I’m sure the greasy-headed poet felt sorry about my ignorance and wanted to help. I wanted to pop him in the jaw. The irony, the reversal of the lesson, him teaching me about my own culture cut deep. Though I might understand now, I couldn’t be thankful then. It confirmed my worries that a college-education would most likely hurt me. Could I steel myself for the blow? I had always loved learning. But my birthright, my accident, my fate, would turn the institution into something bitter.
I was those bison and they were me.
If I could see that poet today I’d tell him I still like trains. The Choctaw Rocket, The Mohawk, The Chief, The Arrow, The Chippewa, The Hiawatha, The Sioux, The Tomahawk, The Buffalo Express and other passenger trains that once ran the length of this country in great number were named with an eye towards the culture they destroyed. I’d ask him if he knew that forgiveness was an option. I’d ask him if he realized the spirit of Native Americans in this country is present in every act of defiant environmental concern for the land. I’d ask him if he realized I am not as easy to shock or unsettle as I was when I was a girl.