It was before time began, or so we thought. I was five and Les was eight. Then I was eight and Les was 10. It was when the sun shone day and night and we could huddle under the butterfly chairs for protection or in the teepee sheet hanging to dry.
The red clay was our hearth, as we pressed our fingers into cool mud, to make little red clay dishes to eat from. Hollyhocks leaned their smiling faces toward us and hummingbirds fluttered like fairies. Neighbor cats wandered by, tails erect, ears alert, eyes straight on us, as we sat in the tire swing, kicking up red dust balls under our feet, hoping one fire ball of red dust would shoot us into space.
Grammy worked at Miss Wanda’s Nursery School, where she’d take me to help, too, if I was good enough. That was not very often, but I tried not to scuff my dresses or rip the knees of my jeans.
But summer hail storms tore the white sheet teepees and we knew that time would grow up. Sneaking down the dark cellar stairs to bring up hardened honey to melt on the stove would soon end. Canning with Grammy or curling her red hair would soon end.
Monday was wash day as Grammy, Les and I scrubbed collars with the washboard then pushed them through the wringer. We only did this so we could play in the white sheet teepees.
Atomic testing blew dark clouds and we stayed inside.
We sucked the juice out of wax bottle candy as the desert sucked the irrigated lanes we loved to play in. Cracks in the red clay became caverns that opened and closed at will. Whose will, we never knew. We thought we’d get sucked in, if rains didn’t come.
The hollyhocks leaned closer, as if to hear our fears, our dreams. The hummingbirds stopped coming. Grammy and I went down to the Navajo mission to preach the Gospel. The little church some thought was like a toy, women sitting at a loom, making Navajo rugs.
Cars sped down the Interstate as kids yelled for Navajo dolls from roadside vendors, the kind that were quaint teepees and a Squaw outside. Kids wanting a toy doll and a Navajo Rug. These were nothing but toys for outsiders who thought all this merely quaint.
It was not a toy, this life.
Grammy went to a meeting with the Big Church. You’re spending too much time at the Navajo Mission they said. We want you only in the Big Church they said. Never, Grammy said. And she stormed out, her long red hair, flowing like a poem, as the dry heat and blue sky over red earth sang.
The hummingbirds stopped coming. The Hollyhocks stopped listening. The tire swing wore out. The butterfly chairs broke. The beekeeper died and Grammy stopped canning. She bought an automatic washer and dryer and an electric stand mixer.
Les had to go to high school. I never saw him after that. The days were never so blue, the sunsets never so orange and the red clay never so pure. He went to High School, then to Vietnam. And then he came back.
Heard snippets that he drank. People hushed and didn’t talk much. I could never picture him as a grown man. Could never picture him as a drinking man.
Then he became famous. He kicked the booze and was all over local TV, talking about how he returned to his roots to kick the booze.
When I my own kids, I returned to Cedar City to look him up. Walked into the local Navajo station in Utah, near where my grandmother lived. “Go away. We don’t want you here,” someone behind a desk said. “I know. I’d feel the same way. It’s okay. I’m here about Les. You know him?”
“Yes. He was my Navajo brother. Lived with my grandmother.”
They nodded and smiled. Gave me a card. I left my phone number and said when he stops by again to call me – collect.
A few years went by. Les called. Said he was getting a master’s in social work in California and that he still hung around Arizona a lot. And that he stopped by to see “Mom”, my grandmother.
The day she died I was far away but Les was not that far. He’d gone to see her.
Like when she was a girl in Mexico in long, red braids and a gunny sack, she lay in her green-brown grave, with flowers all around. She lay there like a poem.
When Les called, the Hollyhocks stooped to listen, to bend and smile with care in their eyes.
More years went by and I lost track of Les. A year ago, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Navajo Times, saying I was looking for the Les J who lived with my grandmother in Cedar City. Left my name and email. Weeks went by. Months. A few people sent emails of a Les J they knew. There are a lot. But none of these were Les.
One day, a woman emailed me. Said she was one of Les’ sisters. Said that she had very sad news to report. That Les had died a couple of years ago. She confirmed everything she knew but that I did not put into the Letter to the Editor. She sent me a photo of him.
I will always remember summers with Les. The summers when Hollyhocks stooped to listen.
Navajo Hogan, 2007. Creative Commons, GNU License. User: PRA.