by Saraiya Ruano
In Navajoland, the junipers are stunted and the dirt is red. Everybody’s truck is covered
in fine red dust. From Chinle you can see the faint line of the Chuska Mountains and the deep
crevice of Canyon de Chelley, where Grandpa’s family had a grove of peach trees. Things are
quiet there. People don’t shout to be heard over traffic and construction. Sam should see all of
that someday, and live there and ride horses to the Anasazi ruins and pray to Father Sky and
Mother Earth, to Changing Woman and Spider Woman, and to The Twins.
Sam is twenty years old now, and I’m twenty-five. According to my mother, we brothers
should both be married now. We should both have red and black wedding baskets blessing our
house, alongside gifts from all our associated clans. But we’re not. Sam lives in the hospital.
Three people visit him: my mother, the minister, and myself. We talk sometimes without words.
His eyes are closed, I see them flicker behind the lids and know he is dreaming. I come into his
dreams and pray.
“Hey Sam”, I say. “Remember that day in the dust storm.”
He probably doesn’t remember, he was only two. We lived on the outskirts of Mesa,
where the Superstition Mountains are illumined pink by every setting sun. Our mother had taken
us to Canyon Lake for a picnic and swimming. It was 112 degrees Fahrenheit and in the
afternoon the sky turned a light yellow-brown, which meant a haboob was stirring. Branches
swayed in the breeze. A veil of thin dust moved across the lake. I picked up Sam and brought
him to the top of a pile of rocks so we could feel the storm coming. People say it’s bad to stand
in a dust storm, because they carry Valley Fever. We stood there nonetheless, and I flared my
nostrils to smell the creosote. The saguaros stood with their arms forever stretched upward,
sentinels against the storm.
“Boys, get down from there,” my mother called. Her voice was like a newly sharpened
kitchen knife: it cut through the air with severity, the way matriarchal Navajo grandmas say
things to all younger generations. Except she wasn’t a grandma yet, just a young mother.
I stayed and began to pray the way I remember my grandma praying. You face east,
because that’s where the Twins will return. They will come from the East to fight the monsters of
disease and time and old age, and free us all. I didn’t have corn pollen, but I brought my hand up
in front of me as if I did have corn pollen and sprinkled it to the wind. Then I touched Sam’s flat
lips and said what I remembered of the prayer in Navajo, and then I made up the rest in English.
“God doesn’t grade your prayer,” I heard Grandma say once, in another time. “He just
wants to hear that you are okay, that you remember him, that you are learning to be grateful and
wise and kind.” What was that word she used so often? Sacred. Life is sacred.
The wind picked up and we came down off the rocks. We packed up our blanket and food
and sat in the car to watch the dust storm. Leaves skipped across the windshield. Yellow dirt
I was seven years old then.
“Why do you talk to him? He can’t hear nobody,” Mother says in the hospital.
Grandma used to say our mother had lost the way. Before I lived with my mom, Grandma
taught me how to keep the universe in order. We had to bless ourselves with pollen early in the
morning, and keep our yard clean. If the yard wasn’t clean, the Creator might see that we were people who had more than we needed, more than we could keep up with, and so he wouldn’t
give us his blessing. Back then I lived in Chinle and Mom lived in Phoenix. She sent me pictures
of all the kinds of cactus.
“He isn’t dead yet,” I look up at Mother.
“He might as well be. The boy is a vegetable.”
The muscles of my face tighten. I could punch her. That boy is my brother.
“It’s not fair to keep him here,” she says, touching his arm.
“Who is keeping him?”
“The doctors, God, and you. You would keep him if you had that power wouldn’t you
“What would Grandma do?”
“Grandma never did anything but pray. Look where that got us.”
When I first came to live with Mom, Sam was a year old. Sometimes we slept in the
desert on Indian School Road, because we were allowed there. Mom told people she was half
Pima, and that Sam and I were a quarter Pima. So we belonged there, they weren’t allowed to get
rid of us. It reminded me of the Navajo Reservation: the stray dogs, the endless dirt. Everything,
except the houses weren’t trailers. They were really houses. You could look through a window at
night and see a seemingly happy family watching television together. We set up camp for a week
and Mom made fry bread for us to eat, except it was really flat and soft because we didn’t have
enough oil. That’s about all we ate. I don’t know how Sam survived those early years. I had to be
his father. He was so small.
“It’s not true,” I say to Mother in the hospital. “She sent us money. Grandma was always
sending us money.”
Grandma sent us money for my seventh birthday. It was for the zoo. We used it to buy
Crisco and a new pan so we could make fry bread in the desert.
Grandma sent us money to buy Sam new clothes. We used it to take a bus to downtown
Phoenix where Mom got drunk and left us on the street for a few hours so she could hang out
with some guy.
Grandma sent us money to get Sam a car. She sold fifty-four Navajo blankets and saved
all that money. Sam got the money directly from Grandma when she came down to visit. Sam
bought a car. We sometimes went together out in the desert in his car to watch the heat lightning
during monsoon season. Damn that car. We should have used the money to buy groceries, or pay
The problem wasn’t Grandma giving the money. It was us using it.
It happened in July when the roads radiated with heat and seatbelt buckles burned our
hands. Better to drive without a seatbelt. That’s what he did. He hadn’t been drinking. For once,
not a drunken Indian.
Some seventeen year old kid tried to merge on the 202. Maybe it was his first time.
Maybe he was thinking about something, like a girl or a school exam. They collided from the
side as the kid was merging and Sam went spinning into traffic and another car hit Sam in the
driver’s side. He broke everything. A few ribs, a leg. His head hit the steering wheel and the car
seat and the window, which shattered. It was remarkable he lived at all. I almost wished he had
died. But he didn’t, and there is a reason. The Creator keeps people at the threshold for a reason.
That was almost ten months ago. Mother wants the doctors to stop taking care of him. Stop
feeding him through tubes, stop cleaning his poop every day, stop sticking their heads in to check
on him. She thinks it’s over. The doctors want to keep him alive. I keep him here with my
prayers. Every day I talk to Sam, and remind him of things of this world.
Every two hours the nurses want to turn him to his other side. They say it prevents him
from getting sores. Sometimes he fusses in his sleep. Once he tore at his tubes and I thought he
was going to arise zombie-like out of the bed and walk right out of ICU. The nurses came to hold
him and he calmed back down, all the while his eyes closed, trapped in sleep. Sam walks in the
dream world. I wonder who he sees up in the dream world. Maybe Grandpa. Maybe Manuelito
and Barboncito and all of those men who never stood a chance but stood up for their people
anyway. They wouldn’t be able to help Sam. This wasn’t the white man oppressing the red man,
this was a different demon altogether. It was the city. We are all jumbled in the city. Yaqui and
Pima, white and black and red and yellow and baked-by-the-sun people. All of us trying to find
our way through a maze of cars and buildings, trying not to burn our hands on the steering wheel.
People forget things in the city. They drive without thinking.
I help the nurse turn Sam on his left side. Then I lean over and whisper in Sam’s ear.
Sam, it’s time to wake up. We have to go on a road trip. We have to go see Grandma and
the canyon. Sam, we have to beat the dust storm that’s coming tonight. Wake up Sam.
Then I imagine his eyelids fluttering open and, like Chief from One Flew Over the
Cuckoo’s Nest, I imagine lifting Sam out of bed and running through the ICU doors. We would
drive my Ford like bats out of hell until we reached Holbrook, Sanders, Ganado, and finally
I am staring at the wall playing this movie in my mind when Minister Robert walks in to
the room. He visits regularly. There were times when I walked in just as he walked out. We
never gave each other much more than a nod. I wasn’t sure he remembered my name even. He
dresses like a minister always. I bet he is never just a man in a t-shirt. He needs the white collar
and black suit in order to be himself. It calls the word of God to him. He doesn’t really know
Sam, but man how he knows my mother. I remembered walking into the church at eight years
old, when Mom thought she should confess to somebody, even if this wasn’t a church that took
confessions. She didn’t even ask the minister’s name, she just spilled her life on him.
“I’ve sinned, I’ve sinned so bad. It’s bringing me the worst luck,” she said to him.
He held one of her hands between his two hands, like some sort of loving father.
“God loves all his children, and he forgives. He is a merciful God.”
“Yes I believe that,” she said.
“Tell me and I will pray for you.”
The way he touched her cheek made me sick inside. As if, knowing only her sins, he
could love her. I wondered how he stayed in her life for so long. What could he give her?
Forgiveness, promises that if she wanted she could start over, and over, and over again. Every sin
was okay, because at any moment she could come back and ask to start over, and he would
always say yes.
He walks in as I am staring at the wall with my mouth open. I might as well be the one in
coma. He nods and says my name: Jayce. Maybe in his notebooks my name is written down, so
he can pray for the salvation of my soul. Perhaps he has known my name all along. Perhaps I am
part of my mother’s confessional. Then he opens his Bible, whispers verses, and closes his eyes
to pray to the heavenly father, the generous father, the merciful father, our Lord. Sam never liked
church much because of all the father business.
“I’ve already got a father and he sucks,” Sam said once when he was eleven. We were
sitting in for the church service and every time we whispered Mom shot us with her stern Navajo
matriarchal grandma eyes, slanted and venomous.
Sam’s father was from Phoenix. We didn’t know much about him except sometimes he
sent money. It wasn’t like Grandma’s money, hard-earned through hours of hand-spinning yarn
and dyeing with natural plant colors and weaving. Sam’s father sent money because the court
told him he had to.
I would have been five when Sam was conceived. I don’t know much about it, except at
that time my mom was lost in Phoenix. She drank a lot, ended up sleeping in the desert a lot, and
gave herself away frequently to men with money. This man was different, she said. He had the
yellowest hair and freckled skin, but he could speak Spanish. His eyes were blue. He said he was
a lawyer and he liked Indian women.
“What was different about him mom?” I asked her one day.
This was back when I was in college, and I came back mostly to visit Sam. These were
the things we talked about: her past, our story, and all the parts of the story she had failed to tell
us. In college I re-made myself into a good boy with savings. There was no more fry bread and
Goodwill blankets after a job and scholarships. People cared about me more in college because
of my culture. I carried diversity points in my pocket: Pendleton blankets and two-step dancing
and yei-bi-chei ceremonies. All those things I left with Grandma, I got credit for in college.
“He smelled clean,” Mom said.
“He didn’t smell like sheep or dirt or hot sun, or stray dogs. He smelled like soap and Old
Spice. He smelled important.”
Grandma smelled like sheep, the reservation smelled like stray dogs, and we were all
smelling like dirt and hot sun in July.
The minister touches Sam on the forehead and my hand starts to tremble. I push his hand
“What’s wrong, son?”
“I’m not your son.”
He looks into my eyes. My dark Indian eyes. I wonder if that’s what he sees: Manuelito
and Barboncito, and I know that’s ridiculous. It’s not like I look into his eyes and see Kit Carson.
This is the twenty-first century.
“Look, you aren’t family. I’d prefer it if you didn’t come back.”
“Jayce, your brother is dying. I’d like to send him with prayers.”
As if only the minister has prayers.
Something boils up inside. Volcanic lava in my belly and through my lungs, covering my
heart all thick and slow. I slap the minister’s hand away from my brother. When he looks up,
astonished, I give him a hard shove into the wall. He hits it with a thud and a nurse who is
walking down the hall steps in to see what’s going on. I’m holding the ministers face with my
right hand, my veins are bulging. I’m wondering what to do with Minister Robert. I’m
wondering what to do with Mother. I’m wondering what to do with Sam. Mostly, I’m wondering
what to do with myself. The nurse screams and pulls my arm except she isn’t quite assertive
enough. Her hands feel like two frail spiders. She probably never had to deal with something like
“Get the hell out of here,” I hiss at the minister.
His white collar is a little crooked as he slaps his Bible close and walks out of the room,
rubbing his left cheek where my thumb had been pressed. Sam is unfazed.
“Sir, I think you should leave,” the nurse says.
“He’s my brother.”
“Sir, I will call the doctor if you don’t leave.”
“No, no, I’m fine.” I put up my hand and walk out the door.
I call Grandma on her cell phone. She doesn’t use it much and always seems to be out of
minutes or out of service range. This time she answers. She isn’t totally isolated. If she wants to
talk to people she makes it happen, makes herself available. Maybe she has known for some time
that I would be calling about this soon. I imagine her today at the Chinle Chapter House talking about
her sheep with Gilbert Begay. Talking about how a coyote had eaten three of them and that
dam Chihuahua wasn’t much of a sheep dog. She needed a pit bull.
“Ya’at-eeh Shi-cheii,” she answers, her voice like brittle bones.
“Grandma, Sam is in ICU.” I know this isn’t a good way to start conversation. I should
ask her about everything, about how the hogan is holding up after our cousins re-built the roof or
about how her new running water is working in the bathroom. We haven’t talked since Sam
bought his car. She knows nothing.
“He’s in what? Is that a university? I didn’t know he was applying.”
“Grandma, he’s in the hospital. He won’t wake up.”
There is a period of silence.
“Get him out of there Jayce, bring that boy here. I know a medicine man, I know a hand
trembler. Whatever they tell you is wrong with Sam, don’t believe it. They don’t really know
anything. Remember you’re in the city.”
“No, it’s not like that. He got in a car accident. They know exactly what’s wrong, severe
trauma to his brain.”
“The medicine man will wake him up.”
“I can’t just take him away from the hospital like that.”
“I’ll come to you. I’ll come see you and your mom and I’ll bring corn pollen for Sam.”
“Don’t come Grandma, that would be hard.”
“Hard? For who? What do you mean hard? My grandson is in the hospital and you tell
me don’t come? Wake up Jayce. This is your Grandma. I’m coming today.”
“Hard for mom. Hard for you. Also it costs money. You’d have to take a bus.”
I can hear her hard breathing on the other end. I can almost hear all the wrinkles on her
face, like many folds of a blanket. She is probably wearing her ankle-length skirt and tennis
shoes and velveteen top. She’d be a fish out of water in this city. It would eat her alive. I’ll never
forget how she almost got hit by a car when she came down to give Sam his car money. She
might go into a coma herself. I couldn’t remember why I called her, except that I thought she
should know. And maybe also all along I imagined that she would come down, like some sort of
ancient hero, whisking Sam and I away from this hell hole.
“I’ll be down there today. Pick me up at six at the Greyhound station, the one by the
airport,” she says.
She says it like a Navajo grandma. She is a Navajo grandma. She says it like if I don’t do
it she will disown me.
At six I go to the Greyhound station. I get out and open the door, let her use my hand to
push herself into the passenger seat of the Ford truck, her back hunched. She pats me on the
“What have you been eating?”
“What do you mean?”
“You look like a bean pole. Don’t you have a job? Don’t you feed yourself?”
“Where’s your mother?”
I hadn’t seen mother since the day she suggested we let Sam die.
“I told you, ICU. He won’t wake up.”
“How long has this been going on? Why didn’t you tell me as soon as it happened?”
She looked at me long and hard from the passenger side. Her jaw protruded slightly. It
was a look of disbelief she was giving me. That I hadn’t called upon her sooner. She thought she
could fix everything. She thought she was magic. Maybe she was magic.
“You couldn’t change anything Grandma.”
“I could’ve prayed.”
“The minister came to pray.”
“Did he pray?”
“He prayed to our Lord in heaven.”
“Father Sky and Mother Earth?”
“Maybe not Mother Earth.”
We are driving west down the Piestewa Freeway to the hospital.
“We are going to take him home,” she says.
“He is home. He grew up here too Grandma.”
“This place isn’t anyone’s home. Except the people who lived here long time ago, and
made the canals. And they’re long gone.”
“We can’t take him out of the hospital. They won’t let us.”
“Since when do we own humans? Since when do we keep them in beds in buildings?
We’ll take him home and he will wake up.”
She talks like the world is at her fingertips and she can make whatever she wants happen.
It’s almost convincing. I start to believe her, believe that we can steal my brother and take him to
the canyon. It could be very cinematic, his eyelids opening to a majestic overlook, to see a place
trapped in time. Ancient beauty and ancient medicine.
At the hospital the nurses watch us with slanted eyes. They recognize me as the man who
pushed the minister into the wall. But they also see Grandma in her hunched dignity with her
commanding thin lips. She nods at them and we sign in.
“I’m here to see my grandson.”
“Yes ma’am, room 21.”
We take the elevator. We enter the room and Grandma takes a good look around. She
doesn’t see Sam yet. She sees the white walls, the simple light stand, the swivel chair that Mom
sat in when she came to visit. Then she sees Sam with his head to the side, underneath the
oxygen mask, tubes attached to his arms.
Underneath his eyelids there was still that back and forth movement, as if he was reading
the back of his lids. Grandma sits in the swivel chair and puts her hands in her lap. They are
swollen with arthritis. She closes her eyes and starts to sing a song. She rocks to the rhythm of
her chant. I don’t recognize any of the words except hózhóogo naasháa doo. It’s a Blessing Way
prayer. In beauty I walk, she is saying. Then she says it has become beauty again, four times. For
the four directions and the four mountains, it has become beauty again. I am standing, my back
against the wall, my head pushed back. The room is pulsating and I feel like I need to run. Just pick a direction out in the desert and start running. Grandma stands up and walks to Sam’s
Without hesitation she pulls out the tubes and lifts the mask.
“He might die,” I say.
“Then he dies. There’s nowhere better to go then away from here.”
She peels back his blankets. The nurses might come in soon.
“Pick him up Jayce.”
I lift him. Through his hospital gown I feel his thin frame.
We walk out the door and down the hall. The nurses are gossiping about one of the
doctors. Grandma’s prayer cloaks us, but I move fast, afraid the magic won’t last long, that they
will look soon and call security. At the sliding doors one of them shouts.
“Get back here, you can’t do that! Sir, get back here!”
A security guard walks towards the doors. They are all walking towards us. I run.
Grandma can’t keep up. She just stops and stands in the shade of a Palo Verde and I keep
running. I get in the car and put Sam in the back. The car is so hot, an oven. He is going to die. I
turn on the engine and look back. The security guards aren’t touching Grandma, but they are
coming towards me. They are almost at the car when I start the engine. One of them bangs on the
windows. I zoom out of the parking space and across the lot and then, without looking for
oncoming traffic, out into the street. My heart pounds in my ears.
It will take four hours to get to Sanders, maybe five to Chinle.
I can’t look in the back seat. He might be dead already.
In Sanders I pull over at the Mustang gas station. It’s pretty clear that Sam is gone. He
didn’t have the oxygen mask. He didn’t have fluids. He was dying from Phoenix to Flagstaff. In
Flagstaff I touched his hand and it felt cold. But his fingers still bent with mine as I put my palm
against his. Now, at the gas station, his hands are completely stiff. The car smells. I can’t look at
“Hey buddy, who’s that in your car?” a man at the pump asks.
“He’s my brother.”
“He looks dead.”
“He is dead.”
“You kill him?”
“I didn’t kill him.”
The man looks Apache, a little chubby in his cheeks.
“Bury him,” the Apache man says.
“Bury him where?”
“I don’t know, where’s your family from? Bury him where he belongs.”
“I’m burying him in the canyon.”
“In a peach grove?”
Grandma took the Greyhound home. She came home six hours after I arrived. Her friend
Gilbert picked her up from the station and dropped her off at the hogan. He didn’t get out of the
car with her, but waved at me then pulled out of the dusty driveway. Knowing Grandma, she
probably told him to go straight home, and not tell anyone he had picked her up.
“He didn’t make it,” I say as she helps me find something in her yard to cover the body
“I know”, Grandma says. “But where he is now, that is the better place to be.”
She knew. She had taken things into her own hands because she knew. She knew it from
her prayers that made the room pulsate.
We ask her friend Silas Tsosie to take us into the canyon in his truck. He has a shovel.
He doesn’t say anything about Sam’s body which is rolled up in a blue tarp in the back of the
truck, though the smell is obvious. He might know the story already. People here seem to know
things without words.
We find the peach trees, their leaves narrow and curved. Long green fingers. We look up
and see the top lip of the canyon, where a few people are walking. Streaks of dark desert varnish
run down the vertical precipice. People say this is the hair of the canyon. A light breeze tickles
the leaves and the green fingers wave. It sounds like rushing water. Grandma is humming a
prayer and her body rocks with the rhythm of hey-ahey-ahey-hey-heya.
Silas breaks the ground with the shovel. The hole widens. The earth is opening up for
Sam. I close my eyes.
Sam, I whisper. It’s time to wake up. You have to hear the canyon.
I feel that he is still with us; I cannot quite believe he is dead.
We lower Sam into the hole, into the womb of Mother Earth. Sam awakens in another
world, the eternal world, as Grandma’s prayer reminds us of the beauty all around. We have been
asleep for so long in the city. The heat has made us blind. But we are home now, in the canyon,
with our prayers. I open my eyes. It has become beauty again.