Gardens in the Dunesby Leslie Marmon Silko
From the acclaimed author of Almanac of the Dead -- the smoldering, haunting, and incandescent story of an Indian girl orphaned by an act of white brutality and adopted by a proper Victorian family.
The New York Times Book Review
The Hungry Mind Review
The Boston Globe Confident and beautifully written.
Melissa Levine San Francisco Chronicle Like Gabriel García Márquez, but more accurately reminiscent of Joseph Conrad...a rich descendant well worth reading.
Irene Warner The Seattle Times Book Review Rich, generous, funny, and ambitious, thought provoking and rewarding.
Nadya Labi Time Silko has crafted a dreamlike tale out of one of the ugliest realities in American history.
Therese Stanton Ms. The historical, geographical, and emotional scope of this sprawling novel is breathtaking. Silko tells and retells the stories of multicultural America and weaves them into the "master" narrative of American history.
Philip Connors Newsday A tender, evocative tale.
Alexs Pate Minneapolis Star-Tribune You can depend on Leslie Marmon Silko to seduce and captivate you with her considerable literary powers. Her dreamlike narratives deliver amazing truths. With Gardens in the Dunes, Silko has crafted a book about faith in the old ways, in the natural ways of life, about the significance of a family and a girl's indomitable spirit.
Denise Low The Kansas City Star Silko writes descriptions as lush as rose petals. A cosmopolitan, spellbinding narrative.
David A. Walton San Jose Mercury News Silko's appeal is her ability to transcend with her story the obvious ethnic, feminist, and ecological messages so deeply embedded in her material....[Her] fiction is rooted in the real world and conveys the eternal messages of story land: love won and lost, separation and reunion, a child's growth and arrival into adulthood.
- Simon & Schuster
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.46(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.47(d)
Read an Excerpt
Sister Salt called her to come outside. The rain smelled heavenly. All over the sand dunes, datura blossoms round and white as moons breathed their fragrance of magic. Indigo came up from the pit house into the heat; the ground under her bare feet was still warm, but the rain in the breeze felt cool so cool and refreshing on her face. She took a deep breath and ran up the dune, where Sister Salt was naked in the rain. She pulled the ragged sack over her head and felt the rain and wind so cool, so fragrant all over her body. Off in the distance there was a faint rumble of thunder, and the wind stirred; the raindrops were larger now. She tilted back her head and opened her mouth wide the way Sister Salt did. The rain she swallowed tasted like the wind. She ran, leaped in the air, and rolled on the warm sand over and over, it was so wonderful. She took handfuls of sand and poured them over her legs and over her stomach and shoulders the raindrops were cold now and the warmth of the sand felt delicious. Sister Salt laughed wildly as she came rolling down from the highest point of the dune, so Indigo ran after her and leaped and rolled too, her eyes closed tight against the sand. Over and over down-down-down effortlessly, the ease of the motion and the sensation of the warm sand and the cool rain were intoxicating. Indigo squealed with laughter as she rolled into Sister Salt, who was helpless with laughter, and they laughed and laughed and rolled around, one girl on top of the other. They lay side by side with their mouths open and swallowed raindrops until the storm passed. All around them were old garden terraces in the dunes.
Sister Salt remembers everything. The morning the soldiers and the Indian police came to arrest the Messiah, Grandma Fleet told Sister Salt to run. Run! Run get your little sister! You girls go back to the old gardens! Sister Salt was big and strong. She carried Indigo piggyback whenever her little sister got tired. Indigo doesn't remember much about that morning except for the shouts and screams.
Indigo remembers they used to sell baskets at the depot in Needles while their mother washed linens in tubs of boiling water behind the hotel; Grandma Fleet searched the town dump for valuables and discarded seeds. They slept in a lean-to made of old crates and tin, near the river. They learned to talk English while selling baskets to tourists at the train station.
Now, at the old gardens, the girls live alone in Grandma Fleet's house. Grandma had returned a day after they did. Grandma saw Mama escape and run north with the other dancers ahead of the Indian police, who grabbed all the Indians they could, while the soldiers arrested the white people, mostly Mormons, who came to dance for the Messiah. The United States government was afraid of the Messiah's dance.
The deep sand held precious moisture from runoff that nurtured the plants; along the sandstone cliffs above the dunes, dampness seeped out of cracks in the cliff. Amaranth grew profusely at the foot of the dunes. When there was nothing else to eat, there was amaranth; every morning and every night Sister Salt boiled up amaranth greens just like Grandma Fleet taught her.
Later, as the amaranth went to seed, they took turns kneeling at the grinding stone, then Sister Salt made tortillas. They shared part of a honeycomb Indigo spotted in a crevice not far from the spring. Indigo cried when the bees stung her but Sister Salt only rubbed her swollen arms and legs vigorously and laughed, saying it was good medicine a good cure for anything that might ail you. Grandma Fleet taught Sister Salt and Indigo all about such things.
After the rains, they tended the plants that sprouted out of the deep sand; they each had plants they cared for as if the plants were babies. Grandma Fleet had taught them this too. The plants listen, she told them. Always greet each plant respectfully. Don't argue or fight around the plants hard feelings cause the plants to wither. The pumpkins and squash sent out bright green runners with huge round leaves to shade the ground, while their wiry green-yellow tendrils attached themselves to nearby weed stalks and tall dune grass. The big orange pumpkin blossoms were delicious right from the vine; bush beans sprang up in the shade of the big pumpkin leaves.
Grandma Fleet told them the old gardens had always been there. The old-time people found the gardens already growing, planted by the Sand Lizard, a relative of Grandfather Snake, who invited his niece to settle there and cultivate her seeds. Sand Lizard warned her children to share: Don't be greedy. The first ripe fruit of each harvest belongs to the spirits of our beloved ancestors, who come to us as rain; the second ripe fruit should go to the birds and wild animals, in gratitude for their restraint in sparing the seeds and sprouts earlier in the season. Give the third ripe fruit to the bees, ants, mantises, and others who cared for the plants. A few choice pumpkins, squash, and bean plants were simply left on the sand beneath the mother plants to shrivel dry and return to the earth. Next season, after the arrival of the rain, beans, squash, and pumpkins sprouted up between the dry stalks and leaves of the previous year. Old Sand Lizard insisted her gardens be reseeded in that way because human beings are undependable; they might forget to plant at the right time or they might not be alive next year.
For years of little rain, Sand Lizard gave them amaranth and sunflowers; for times of drought she gave them succulent little roots and stems growing deep beneath the sand. The people called themselves Sand Lizard's children; they lived there for a long time. As their numbers increased, some Sand Lizard people joined their relations who lived down along the big river, until gradually the old gardens were abandoned. From time to time, Grandma Fleet and others still visited their old houses to feed the ancestor spirits. In a time of emergency, the old gardens could be counted on for sanctuary.
The Sand Lizard people heard rumors about the aliens for years before they finally appeared. The reports were alarming, and the people had difficulty believing the bloodshed and cruelty attributed to the strangers. But the reports were true. At harvest, the aliens demanded and took everything. This happened long, long ago but the people never forgot the hunger and suffering of that first winter the invaders appeared. The invaders were dirty people who carried disease and fever. The Sand Lizard people knew it was time for them to head for the hills beyond the river, to return to the old gardens.
The Sand Lizard people fled just in time; later that year, a fever killed dozens of whites and almost all of the people who remained by the river. The people were starving as they approached the old gardens. From a distance they could see the slopes of the highest sand dunes, and they could hardly believe their eyes; the shoulders of the dunes were crisscrossed with bands of bright colors: bird green, moss green, grass green; blossom orange, blossom yellow, and blossom white. As they got closer, they walked through fields of sunflowers that surrounded the sandhills on all sides. Only a few Sand Lizard people were left, but they lived undisturbed at the old gardens for years, always ready to flee to the high mountains at the first sign of strangers.
In years when the rains were scarce, the people carried water to the wilted plants in gourd canteens, from the spring in the sandstone cliff. Each person had plants to care for, although the harvest was shared by everyone. Individual plants had pet names Bushy, Fatty, Skinny, Shorty, Mother, and Baby were common names.
The Sand Lizard people remained at the old gardens peacefully for hundreds of years because the invaders feared the desert beyond the river. Then a few years before Sister Salt was born, in the autumn, as the people returned from harvesting piñons in the high mountains, a gang of gold prospectors surprised them; all those who were not killed were taken prisoner. Grandma Fleet lost her young husband to a bullet; only the women and children remained, captives at Fort Yuma.
This happened before the girls were born; Grandma Fleet was not so old then. She escaped the first night by chewing the ropes off her wrists, untying her legs to crawl away through the burr sage. She headed for the high mountains, where she slept under pine needles and ate acorns, piñons, and pine nuts; the snow sent her back to the old gardens, where the red amaranth was tall and the heads of the sunflowers were heavy with seeds. She hoped to see their mother or others who might have escaped, but there was no one. On the flanks of the big sandhills squash and pumpkins, big and ripe, reflected the light of the sun. How lonely she had been, grieving for her husband, for the others, while all around her the plants they had tended, and their houses, seemed to call out their names. Grandma Fleet was confident their mother and a few of the others would show up in a week or two, but no one came.
Their mother did not escape. Because she was young, she was put to work for an army officer's wife, who taught her how to wash and iron clothes and how to scrub floors. Their mother learned English. She was a prisoner so she was not paid. After the officer's wife left, she remained, washing laundry and cleaning for the post, until a missionary arrived. The reverend took one look at the young Indian woman and requested the post commander allow him to save her soul from temptation. So Mama went to live at the Presbyterian mission, where she learned the preacher himself suffered from temptation. When her belly got big with Sister Salt, the preacher's wife sent her away. One day Grandma Fleet heard the cliff swallows' commotion and looked up to see her daughter. A few weeks later, Sister Salt was born.
The Sand Lizard people were never numerous, but now Grandma, Mama, and baby Sister were the only Sand Lizard people living at the old gardens. A few remaining Sand Lizard people married into other tribes on the reservation at Parker. Grandma Fleet said she would die before she would live on a reservation. There was nothing to eat on the reservation; the best farmland along the river was taken by the white people. Reservation Indians sat in one place and did not move; they ate white food white bread and white sugar and white lard. Reservation Indians had no mesquite flour for the winter because they could not leave the reservation to gather mesquite beans in August. They were not allowed to go to the sandhills in the spring to gather delicacies sprouts and roots. Poor people! If they couldn't travel around, here and there, they wouldn't be able to find enough to eat; if people stayed in one place too long, they soon ate up everything. The government bought sheep and cattle to feed the reservation Indians through the winter, but the Indian agent and his associates got more of the meat than the Indians did.
Sister Salt was learning to walk, and Grandma Fleet was holding her by the hand, leading her back and forth on the fine sand outside the dugout house. Mama took the big gourd canteen to fetch water from the spring above the dunes. Grandma played and played with Sister Salt, who was so pleased with herself to be walking; Grandma Fleet heard nothing unusual that morning, but Mama did not return from the spring. Later, when Grandma Fleet searched the area around the spring, she found the empty gourd canteen and the tracks of shod horses and boot prints in the sand churned up by the struggle. Four years passed, and Grandma Fleet believed her daughter must have died at the hands of her kidnappers or she would have escaped by then and found her way back to the old gardens.
One day, at about the same time of year she had disappeared, Mama returned to the old gardens. She had traveled with two women from downriver. The following day more people arrived, and the day after that, others came. The starving people began to harvest the amaranth greens and dig for roots. More people came in the weeks after Mama's return. It was as if a great storm had erupted far in the distance, unseen and unheard by them at the old gardens; then suddenly a trickle, then a stream, and finally a flood of people sought sanctuary at the old gardens. The people were fleeing the Indian police and soldiers sent by the government; the new orders stated all Indians must leave their home places to live on the reservation at Parker.
Mama returned with a sack of mesquite beans on her back and baby Indigo in her belly. Sister Salt was old enough to remember Indigo's birth. How odd it was to see the baby's head peek out from between her mother's legs.
The refugees kept arriving. Grandma Fleet watched their numbers grow each day, weary and frightened women and children. Their men were long gone to the high mountains or to prison. The spring provided water for everyone, but food became more and more scarce. Before the summer rains ever came, the people were starving. They ate the dried-up seed pumpkins and squash left in the garden the year before as first harvest offerings; they consumed seeds set aside for planting next season. They ate everything they could find. They cleared the wild gourd vines and boiled the roots of weeds and shrubs. They even dug deep into the sand in the old gardens to expose sprouted seeds. Grandma and Mama feared they all would starve to death before the sunflowers and red amaranth went to seed in October.
Grandma Fleet did not like the idea of town, but with a baby and a little girl to feed, they hadn't much choice: to stay at the old gardens meant starvation. The others had already gone. In the railroad town called Needles they managed to find a little to eat each day. Mama washed dirty linens for the hotel next door to the train station. Grandma Fleet carried Indigo on her back while she and Sister Salt scavenged scraps of lumber to build shelter for them on the floodplain of the river. Other women and children lived there, from places even Grandma Fleet had never heard of; they had been driven off their land by white settlers or pursued by the soldiers and Indian police. Their first years there were very difficult, but the Walapai women and the Paiute women shared the little food they had; a kind Mormon woman brought them old clothing. As long as there was no trouble, the authorities left them alone; but they knew they might be removed to the reservation at Parker at any time. Townspeople hired them to work their gardens and to clean house and wash for them.
The older women watched the children and listened for the trains; they took the children to the depot to meet the passengers, who sometimes gave them pennies after they took their pictures. The train passenger especially wanted pictures of the children they called "papooses." Sometimes train passengers, white women, made signs they wanted to hold Indigo; one woman had even shoved paper money into Grandma Fleet's hand, making signs that she wanted to take Indigo away with her. Before Grandma Fleet could throw the money to the ground, the woman snatched up Indigo into her arms. "No" was the only word of English Grandma Fleet bothered to learn, but she knew how to say it, knew how to summon the sounds from deep in her chest and sharpen the edges of the sound in her throat before she flung the word into the white woman's face. "No!" she screamed, and the white woman stumbled backward, still holding the toddler. "No! No!" Each time Grandma Fleet repeated the word, the white woman flinched, her face frozen with fear. Everyone stopped what they were doing on the depot platform and all eyes were on Grandma Fleet and the woman. The door of the depot office flew open and the stationmaster came running with a shotgun in his hand. The woman's husband and the other passengers rushed over to see, and the husband pried Indigo out of her arms and indignantly shoved the toddler back into Grandma Fleet's arms. The stationmaster waved a shotgun after Grandma Fleet and the other Indian women and children as they ran from the depot.
After that, Grandma Fleet did not go with the others to meet the trains. Some days she scavenged in the town dump; other days she sat in the lean-to and watched Indigo play while she soaked and peeled the fibrous strands from yucca leaves she and Sister Salt gathered from the dry hills above the river. She taught Sister Salt how to make little baskets in any shape she wanted simply by cutting the yucca strands in different lengths. Grandma showed Sister Salt how to gather devil's claws and soak them so the jet black fibers would peel away easily. She helped Sister Salt wrap the woven yucca with the fibrous black threads to make eyes for the dog and the frog figures. While Sister Salt made small frog-shaped and dog-shaped baskets to sell to the tourists, Grandma Fleet wove a large storage basket with a lid to keep her treasures from the dump, mostly bits of colored glass and all sorts of seeds, especially the pits of apricots and peaches.
Grandma refused to go to the train depot after the incident, but Sister Salt could not go alone; so as soon as their mother heard the train whistle off in the distance, she left her duties at the washtubs behind the hotel to fetch Sister Salt and the baskets. Sister Salt carried a dog basket in one hand and a frog basket in the other; their mother taught her to smile and say "Hello! Would you like to buy a basket?" Mama stood nearby and watched for trouble, while Sister Salt sold the baskets.
Later on, when Indigo asked Sister Salt to tell her about their mother, Sister Salt recalled how she wanted to go with the other children to get the candy and the pennies the train passengers sometimes tossed to the children from train windows, but Mama made her stay put by the baskets displayed on the depot platform. Mama was strict about that; she was angered by the grinning faces of passengers who delighted at the sight of the children begging, then scrambling for anything tossed out the train windows. Mama learned English from the soldiers' wives at Fort Yuma, but she preferred not to answer the tourists' questions about the baskets or herself. Sister Salt had to do all the talking, but Mama always took the money and quickly stuffed it down the front of her dress between her breasts. The dog and frog baskets nearly always sold; summer was always best; winters were the worst, because the passengers were reluctant to stop on the icy depot platform.
Before deep snow came, Grandma Fleet went with the others to the mountains to gather piñons, pine nuts, and acorns, but they often did not have enough to eat in the winter. The hotel did not have as many winter guests to dirty the linens, so there was not as much work for Mama. The white man who managed the hotel allowed her to take home vegetable crates and other wood scraps to burn on cold nights. As sheets or towels became badly frayed or stained, their mother showed the linens to the hotel manager; if he agreed, she was allowed to take the rags home. When someone smoking in bed burned a blanket, Mama brought home the half of the blanket that remained, and with a quilting needle made from a sharpened wire and string Grandma Fleet retrieved from the dump, Mama sewed them a family quilt with the singed blanket and the ragged towels.
On the coldest days, when the winds whipped the snow and sleet into a blizzard, the four of them huddled together under the family quilt in their lean-to. Grandma Fleet and Mama told the girls old stories about the land of perpetual summer, far to the south, where the ground actually smoldered on the hottest days. Mama recalled her captivity at Fort Yuma, where the army tents filled with white heat at midday and sometimes caught fire. Sister Salt and Indigo imagined the summer heat, and the cold winds were not so oppressive. How delicious the warmth of the fire felt, but fire was also dangerous near the dry willows and scrap lumber of the lean-to. At bedtime, the fire was damped with dry river sand, and Grandma Fleet scraped away the sand floor in the middle of their lean-to and buried hot coals under layers of sand to keep them warm as they slept together under the big quilt. The cold winters made Grandma Fleet homesick for the south, for her dugout house at the old gardens. The refugees might have eaten everything in sight at the old gardens, but her dugout house with its fine roof of layered palm fronds was much more weather-tight, much nicer than the empty packing crates they called home in Needles. The hard years passed slowly.
One day a white man and two Indian policemen walked through the lean-tos. The Indian policemen called out; if someone came to the door, the white man wrote in his black book and they moved to the next shack. Mama was still at work, but Grandma Fleet knew immediately why the men were there. She told Sister Salt and Indigo to hide, quickly, under the big quilt. Whatever happens, she told them, don't make a sound, don't move. Grandma Fleet watched the government men move from shack to shack; when only two other shacks but theirs remained, Grandma Fleet sat down on top of the quilt. She almost sat on Sister Salt's head, but she moved, and Indigo moved her foot that Grandma was sitting on. They got themselves arranged, then Grandma spread her basket-making materials and a half-woven basket around her. She pretended to be crippled when the Indian policemen called her outside. She invited them to step inside, knowing they would refuse; the white man was afraid of disease and the Indian policemen feared witchcraft. They asked to see the two children reported to live there. Grandma Fleet pretended to cry; oohhh, she moaned, she was all alone now, an old woman all alone. The Indian police were not satisfied with her answers; they whispered to each other. They wanted to know about the others. They knew the Paiute women lied, because there were complaints about Paiute children begging for money from passengers at the depot. The Paiute children belonged in school. All Indian children must go to school; that was the law. Grandma Fleet pretended she was afraid of the Paiutes and claimed to know nothing about them. The Indian policemen conferred with their boss.
"Old Sand Lizard woman, dirt digger! You're lying! We'll drag you off to prison with all the rest of them!" one of the Indian police muttered as they left.
Grandma Fleet did not move for a long time after the police left in case it was a trick and they returned. Indigo squirmed because the circulation to her left foot was cut off by Grandma's leg; Sister Salt pinched her to make her be still, so Indigo kicked her in the shin. Grandma Fleet finally stood up and walked to the doorway to look both ways before she pulled back the quilt.
"It's a good thing they were gone when you girls started your commotion!" she said, shaking her head sternly. That evening when their mother came home from work she had news: the government man and Indian police had taken away six Walapai children to school. Grandma Fleet said it was time to go back to the old gardens; Sister Salt was almost a young woman and Indigo was just the age to be sent away to school. Mama agreed but wanted to work at the hotel a little bit longer so they could buy supplies to take back with them; they would have enough money if she worked awhile longer.
Each day while Mama and Sister Salt were at their work in town, Grandma Fleet took Indigo with her. Some days they prowled the arroyos to gather willows for basket making; other days they walked in the sand and sagebrush hills outside town to gather grass seeds to grind into flour. Most days Grandma Fleet and Indigo ended with a walk through the town dump, where they surveyed the refuse and Indigo scrambled down the sides of the garbage pits to retrieve valuables the townspeople carelessly threw away. String, paper, scraps of cloth, glass jars and bottles, tin cans, and bits of wire they washed their discoveries in the shallows of the river and reused them. Grandma Fleet saved seeds discarded from vegetables and fruits to plant at the old gardens when they returned; she poked her stick through the debris in garbage piles behind the café and hotel. Grandma kept her seeds in the little glass jars with lids they found at the dump; she kept the jars of seeds in her bedding for safekeeping. The apricot pits were her special favorites because she remembered the apricot trees of her childhood at the old gardens. Grandma Fleet held the jar up close to her face and spoke to the seeds;
"Mmmm! You will be my little sweethearts, my little apricot trees!"
Grandma Fleet planned to take along Sister Salt and Indigo when she returned to the old gardens after the winter rains arrived; their mother would send food and make visits from time to time. That winter more people came from the north; remnants of many desert tribes, mostly children and women, came to Needles because the winter was so hard and they were so poor.
The Paiute visitors told a strange story; their people were starving but they were not worried because they were waiting for someone, someone named Messiah. A Paiute prophet named Wovoka died and visited Messiah, who gave him instructions to take back to the people. The Paiute women described encampments of hundreds of people all dancing in a circle as Wovoka instructed. The Paiutes were reluctant to talk about Wovoka because many white people feared and hated Wovoka. If white authorities heard the Indians even speak the name, there was trouble. Far to the north there were rumors the soldiers killed dozens of dancers.
On cold mornings, smoke from the campfires drifted across the sky above the river. Now the lean-tos and shacks extended up and down the sandy floodplain on the west side of the river. Their life was different now that there were more people living around them. The smell of roasting meat became more familiar, and so did the sound of voices and laughter at night. A few Paiute boys and old men appeared later on; they stayed in the camp or hunted the river dunes for rabbits. The men were careful not to show themselves in town.
Mama made friends with a Paiute woman who talked about Wovoka. Wovoka lived an ordinary life until one day he died and saw Jesus in heaven. Jesus was sad and angry at what had been done to the Earth and to all the animals and people. Jesus promised Wovoka that if the Paiutes and all the other Indians danced this dance, then the used-up land would be made whole again and the elk and the herds of buffalo killed off would return. The dance was a peaceful dance, and the Paiutes wished no harm to white people; but Jesus was very angry with white people. As the people danced, great storm clouds would gather over the entire world. Finally, when all the Indians were dancing, great winds would roar out of clear skies, winds the likes of which were never seen before; the winds, for weeks without end, would blow away all the topsoil and strip the trees of all leaves. The winds would dry up all the white people and all the Indians who followed the white man's ways, and they would blow away with the dust.
The Paiute woman had seen Jesus surrounded by hundreds of Paiutes and Shoshones and other Indians who heard Jesus was coming. Jesus wore a white coat with bright red stripes; he wore moccasins on his feet. His face was dark and handsome, his eyes black and shining. He had no beard or whiskers, but thick eyebrows. The people built a big fire to throw light on him. Then, as Jesus sang, hundreds and hundreds of people began to dance in a circle around him. They danced until late at night, when Jesus told them to stop. The next morning Jesus talked to them, and talked all day. He told them all Indians must dance, everywhere, and keep on dancing. If they danced the dance, then they would be able to visit their dear ones and beloved ancestors. The ancestor spirits were there to help them. They must keep dancing. They must not quarrel and must treat one another kindly. If they kept dancing, great storms would purify the Earth of her destroyers. The clear running water and the trees and the grassy plains filled with buffalo and elk would return.
The Paiute woman said when the dancers saw their dead friends and family members, they fell to the ground shaking and twitching, then lay silent. When they woke up, they all were happy and excited because they had seen the Earth reborn.
Grandma Fleet said all that was fine and good, but why had these Paiutes run away from the Christ and his dance? Mama shook her head. There were rumors the soldiers were on their way to kill the Messiah and all his dancers. Grandma Fleet shook her head. She wished the Paiutes could have stayed up north, but they had no choice. Now that there were so many Indians living along the river, the white people watched them more closely. Grandma Fleet had watched white people long enough to know they would tolerate a few Indian women and children so long as there was no trouble. But white people got uneasy when they saw numbers of Indians gathered in one place.
One cold morning Sister Salt awoke to the sounds of hundreds of crows. Mama and Indigo were still sleeping but Grandma was up. She had already made a little fire and was squatting next to it. The air smelled moist. The sky was overcast with thick gray snow clouds that dimmed the sun's light. Sister Salt peered in the direction of the cottonwood trees that towered above the riverbank; dozens of crows darkened the bare pale branches of the trees. The birds frolicked, swooping and circling above the trees, playing chase. Grandma gave her a tin can full of warm tea brewed from wildflowers she helped Grandma gather in early fall. Grandma Fleet studied the crows; ordinarily, there were only ten or twelve resident crows, who roosted in the cottonwood trees above the river and roamed the town dump, hopping along the ground with their wings spread as they searched for tidbits. Later that day Grandma Fleet talked with the Paiute woman and learned the flocks of crows were a sign that Wovoka and the Messiah were coming.
One evening after sundown, Sister Salt and Indigo came home from selling baskets at the depot to a strange spectacle: the river sand a short distance from the camp had been cleared of pebbles and debris. Indigo took one look and stopped short. A fire had been built in the midde of the smoothed area and dancers moved slowly in a circle around a fire. The earth under the dancers' feet was the color of old blood. She didn't want to go any closer. The hair and faces of the dancers were painted completely white, and they were all wrapped in white shawls. The girls did not recognize anyone. Sister Salt guided Indigo by the arm away from the dancers and toward home, but nothing looked the same. Someone had gone from shack to shack painting big streaks of ocher red around the entrances; it wasn't dried blood but finely ground red clay. Indigo cautiously touched a finger to the red clay and was about to taste it when Sister Salt batted her finger down; the red clay belonged to the spirits.
The girls hurried to their lean-to. So many people had come; their small bundles and ragged bedrolls were neatly stacked outside their lean-tos of willow branches. They passed a campfire where people were lined up waiting to be painted by a stranger and his two assistants. When they reached home they found red clay dust smeared over the scrap lumber of the doorway, and red dust was even sprinkled on the floor inside, but Mama and Grandma Fleet were not there. The ashes in the fire pit were cold. Sister Salt hid the baskets under the quilt and they went out again to find Mama and Grandma Fleet.
The winter sun was weak and low in the sky, and a cold wind prowled out of the mountains and swirled around the camp. Indigo gripped Sister Salt's hand; gusts of wind flung stinging sand into their faces. Grandma and Mama used to talk about the celebrations in the old days when everyone came to dance and to feast and to give thanks for a good year. The people had not celebrated for years, not since Sister Salt was a baby. They did not see any familiar faces; in one afternoon, hundreds of strangers had arrived. But where were Mama and Grandma?
They slowly approached the line of people waiting to be painted, looking for a familiar face the neighbor lady, anyone who could tell them the whereabouts of Mama and Grandma. Indigo's dress did not reach her ankles so she huddled down, trying to keep the cold wind off her legs. Sister Salt was wrapped in a piece of an old rug the hotel man gave to Mama. The people stepped back so the girls could warm themselves by the fire, and Sister Salt recognized the Paiute woman who lived next door.
"Have you seen our grandmother or mother?" she asked. The woman nodded and pointed in the direction of the dancers in the circle. The girls started to go, but the woman shook her head and motioned for them to come to her.
"You must not disturb your mother or your grandmother," the woman told them. "They are dancing. They won't recognize you." The woman looked at Indigo, who was shivering, and motioned for one of the men applying the white clay paint. The man reached down to a big bundle near his feet and pulled out a piece of white canvas. The woman helped Indigo adjust the shawl around her shoulders; the white cloth reached past her ankles; its warmth was delicious. The woman helped Indigo wrap it just as the people dancing had wrapped themselves.
"Now," the woman said, "now you won't freeze while we wait for the sacred paint."
The painting and the wrapping in white robes took a long time, but the people were happy and excited. Later, right before the sisters went to join the other dancers, an old Paiute woman gave them each a handful of piñons, the sacred food of the dancers, and she gave them a gourd dipper of warm water to share. The white clay on Indigo's hair and face felt odd when she moved her mouth or eyes; her hair felt stiff. The white canvas robe wrapped Sister Salt's arms close to her body so she reminded Indigo of a big white crow. The twilight was blue-gray giving way to darkness.
Now the dancers were resting on the sand around the fire, drinking water and eating piñons. Indigo looked for Mama and Grandma Fleet among the dancers sitting on the ground by the fire but she recognized no one. Sister Salt pointed across the circle in the shadows where a small group of dancers gathered around a figure moaning and writhing on the ground. Was that Mama? Was that Grandma Fleet? Just then voices began to sing softly and the dancers stood up. They moved together and began to join hands in a circle around the fire. The voices of the dancers rose softly at first from low undertones, but gradually the singing seemed to rise out of the earth to surround them. Indigo held Sister Salt's hand so tightly she expected her sister to pry it loose a little, but Sister Salt didn't seem to notice. Indigo felt shy holding the Paiute woman's hand, but she wasn't afraid. So far the Paiutes had given her a warm shawl and warm water and piñons to eat.
Indigo watched the Paiute woman's feet. She watched Sister Salt's feet. They were careful to drag their feet lightly along the ground to keep themselves in touch with Mother Earth. They were moving from right to left because that was the path followed by the sun. Wovoka wanted them to dance because dancing moves the dead. Only by dancing could they hope to bring the Messiah, the Christ, who would bring with him all their beloved family members and friends who had moved on to the spirit world after the hunger and the sadness got to be too much for them. The invaders made the Earth get old and want to die.
Indigo wondered what the ancestors looked like Mama's sisters and brothers, Grandma Fleet's teenage husband, and Mama's little baby that died. Around and around they went, singing about the snow: "The snow lies there," they sang, "the snow lies there. The Milky Way lies there, the Milky Way lies there." Indigo looked up at the stars that were the road of the dead to the spirit world. She thought she could detect faint movement on the path of stars.
The dancers stopped to rest after the first song. Indigo and Sister Salt sat down with their backs against the windbreak, where the fire kept off the night's chill. Warm water and handfuls of piñons were passed from dancer to dancer; Sister Salt looked at her but did not speak. When Indigo opened her mouth to ask about Mama and Grandma Fleet, Sister Salt shook her head.
More wood was fed to the fire as the dancers joined for the second song. The Paiute woman told Indigo the words to the second song, but Indigo was not sure if she heard the words correctly. Why sing, "The black rock, the black rock," when they were dancing on white river sand? Why sing, "The rock is broken, the rock is broken"? Indigo was tired now, and the singing voices were so loud she couldn't be sure what the Paiute woman said. Later on she would ask Sister Salt about everything that happened. Indigo kept singing with the others; she was cozy and warm with Sister Salt on one side and the Paiute woman on the other. "The black rock, the black rock, the black rock is broken"; she sang it and saw it with her eyes closed. "The black rock is broken and from it pours clear fresh water that runs in little streams everywhere."
When Indigo opened her eyes again, she was covered with the quilt, alone in the lean-to; dozens of dancers circled the fire; the flames leaped high, crackling and popping loudly. "The wind stirs the willows," they sang, "the wind stirs the grasses." She wanted to see the Christ and his family arrive; they were coming from far away and would arrive just before dawn. She was so comfortable she wanted to sleep a little more. When she woke again, Indigo heard Mama's voice and Grandma Fleet's voice; Sister Salt was talking too, but when she opened her eyes, she saw strange figures wrapped in white. Then she remembered the dancers and the white clay paint.
"Mama! We couldn't find you!" Indigo called out.
"She's awake." Indigo heard Sister Salt's voice. A dancer in a white robe approached. Mama didn't look like herself with the strange white paint on her face and her hands, but Indigo had never seen her look so happy. She knelt down and held Indigo's face between her hands.
"You should see yourself," she said. "Grandma Fleet and I thought we'd never find you girls." They had to get ready because the Christ would arrive soon. Grandma Fleet had to urinate so they all went to the tamarisks to relieve themselves. Indigo pulled the shawl close to herself against the cold. The wind was increasing; clouds moved rapidly across the sky, so the light of the moon was partially obscured. As they returned to the circle the dancers were taking their places; everyone was whispering in excited voices, "He's here! He's here!" Indigo stood on her tiptoes but could see nothing. Here and there, a dancer helped others who had fallen to the ground with joy after their loved ones came down the Milky Way to visit them.
The singers began and the others joined in. "The wind stirs the willows, the wind stirs the willows. How sweet the scent! The wind stirs the sand grass. The wind stirs the sand grass!" the dancers sang. They had to dance; they must dance or the Messiah and the spirits could not come down to them.
The white clay protected her face and hands from the cold wind; the sacred white clay made the wind feel like a warm breeze. Sister Salt did not feel tired or sleepy. She had never felt so happy. Even the sick woman from their camp and the old Havasupai woman who lived with her were dancing and lively tonight. They were about to see everyone who had passed on to the spirit world beloved family members and old friends. But that wasn't all: the gathering of all the spirits meant the arrival of the storm clouds as well.
The wind calmed and Sister Salt smelled moisture; a warm wet snow began to fall on the dancers. She kept her eyes on the big snowflakes falling into the flames. The voices of the others around her seemed to recede as she entered into the silence of the snow. Each snowflake was luminous and slowly turning as it fell. She saw every crystalline surface, every shimmering corner and bright edge of ice; she was enveloped in the light and then she herself was the light. She felt them all around her, cradling her, loving her; she didn't see them but she knew all of them the ancestors' spirits alway loved her; there was no end to their love.
Later, Sister Salt and Indigo used to talk about the four nights of the dance. So much happened, so many amazing sights. Sister Salt told Indigo about the snowflakes: "They let me know how beautiful we are, how beautiful we will become." Later she told Indigo she died that night so she wasn't afraid to die anymore. Indigo was disappointed to learn that no ancestors showed their faces to Sister Salt only the snowflakes. Grandma Fleet said the family spirits didn't bother to put themselves in human forms because Sister Salt would not recognize them anyway they were all gone or killed off before she was born. Indigo complained that she had seen nothing.
"You are too young to see such things," Grandma Fleet said. "When you get to be a young woman like your Sister Salt, you will understand." The dancers began to rise to their feet. Indigo started to get up to join them but Mama shook her head and smiled while she tucked the quilt around Indigo.
"It's getting too cold. Dawn will be freezing. You stay curled up here where it's warm," Mama said.
All the others were sleeping when Indigo awoke. The sun was already climbing high, and Indigo felt too warm under the quilt with Sister Salt and Mama on either side. The fire the dancers circled had burned down to whitish red coals in circles of ash and mud mixed with the sacred red ocher dust. Indigo checked the position of the sun in the sky once more. It was almost time to take the baskets to sell to passengers on the westbound train. She woke Mama, but Mama said the dance was far more important than selling baskets. Indigo needed her rest so she could dance all night again. They all must dance four nights to move the dead, to help them to return.
While the others slept, Indigo walked around the camp looking at the strangers who had come from all directions for the dance. She heard Grandma Fleet say most of the visitors were Walapai and Havasupai, and of course Paiute; but a few traveled great distances from the north and from the east, because they heard the Messiah was coming. Indigo reached the edge of the encampment and was about to turn back when she heard white people talking. She saw the horses first, hobbled and grazing in a clearing surounded by willow and tamarisk. Then she saw the wagon with bedding spread underneath, with people still asleep; but standing around a small campfire she saw a white woman and a white man. So the Paiute woman's story about the Mormons was true! Small groups of Mormons came because the Mormons had been waiting for the Messiah's return; they became very excited after they heard Wovoka preach. Mormons began to dance hand in hand with the other dancers; these Mormons who believed in Wovoka were generous and donated meat for the dancers. The white canvas for the dancers' shawls was donated by the Mormons.
The second night more dancers circled the fire. Indigo counted eight Mormons six men and two women; painted with white clay and wrapped in white robes, the Mormons looked like all the others. Indigo watched them that night and wondered if Mormons saw their ancestors when they danced. Watching the Mormons kept Indigo awake; she wanted to see one of them fall to the ground and moan from a visit by the old Mormon spirits. Try as she did, Indigo fell asleep after a few hours, and she had to rely on Sister Salt to tell her all that happened.
Early on the final night, Indigo got to see for herself what happened to a Mormon visited by his ancestors. The young man suddenly fell to his knees with his face in his hands, babbling and weeping before he slowly sank to the earth and lay quietly on his side, no different from any of the other dancers who visited with the spirits. Indigo was wide awake. This final night was the night the Messiah and his Holy Mother would come.
"The whirlwind! The whirlwind! The snowy earth floats before me! The snowy earth floats before me!" Grandma Fleet sang loudly even after dancing hard four nights straight. She squeezed their entwined fingers together firmly Sister Salt on one side, Indigo on the other. They must sing hard if they wanted the Christ and his eleven children to come down from the mountains at dawn.
Around and around they danced, lightly caressing the Mother Earth with their feet. "Dust of the whirlwind, dust of the mountains in the whirlwind, even the rocks are ringing! Whirlwind in the mountains, rock dust rings. Rock dust rings," they sang. The whirlwind would transform the Earth, the Paiute woman said. When the wind scoured away all impurities, then the Earth's rebirth would follow.
On this final night, more dancers were visited by spirits than on previous nights. Indigo watched Mama stiffen, lean her head back, and sink to the ground shivering, without a word. They carefully stepped around Mama and they kept dancing. "Cottonwood! Cottonwood, so tall! Lush green leaves! Lush green leaves! Cottonwood so tall!" The voices of the dancers rose above the river. Indigo closed her eyes: the sound of the hundreds of voices was not human but mountain, as if out of the depths of the mountains a great humming rose. The Earth announced her labor; the ground must shudder and heave before she could be reborn. Indigo felt the Earth's breathing through the soles of her feet; the sound gently carried her along, so she did not tire dancing. She was determined to stay awake; everyone seemed more alert. Sister Salt said the Messiah and his family were close by, waiting for the right moment to come to them.
As the dancers began the final song, the wind began to stir and the air smelled damp. The waning moon rose but soon disappeared behind the clouds. Big snowflakes began to hiss in the flames of the fire. The clouds and mist reflected the glow of the big campfire and illuminated the hills above the river and cast strange, giant shadows of the dancers. Later Grandma Fleet blamed those odd shadows for the townspeople's fears, which brought the soldiers and Indian police.
Although scattered snow flurries remained, the mass of storm clouds drifted east; the buffalo horn moon was still visible as the morning star appeared on the horizon. While the others danced with eyes focused on the fire, Indigo watched the weird shadows play on the hillsides, so she was one of the first to see the Messiah and his family as they stepped out of the darkness into the glow of the swirling snowflakes. How their white robes shined! Indigo glanced around quickly to see if the others had noticed. She watched the Messiah and the others, who seemed almost to float as they descended the high sandy hill to the riverbank. How beautiful he was, just as the Paiute woman said. No wonder he called himself the morning star!
The others saw him now, but they all kept dancing, as they knew they must, until the Christ reached the middle of their circle. Wovoka the Prophet came too. He walked beside the Messiah's mother; behind them came the Messiah's eleven children. They all wore white robes but their dark faces were not painted. Now the dancers gathered around the Messiah and his family. Indigo held Sister Salt's hand tightly and stood on her tiptoes so she could see between the dancers crowded around.
"You are hungry and tired because this dance has been going on for a long time," the Holy Mother said. Then she opened her shawl, and the Messiah's wife opened her shawl too, and Indigo was amazed to see plump orange squash blossoms tumble to the ground. The Holy Mother motioned for the dancers to step forward to help themselves to the squash flowers.
Now it was so quiet only the fire's crackle could be heard; no one spoke as they waited their turn to take a squash flower. Later, when Indigo and Sister Salt discussed that night, they remembered with amazement that whenever the Messiah or the Holy Mother spoke, all the dancers could understand them, no matter what tribe they were from. The Paiutes swore the Messiah was speaking Paiute, but a Walapai woman laughed and shook her head; how silly, the Messiah spoke her language. When Grandma Fleet and Mama knelt to pick up blossoms, the Holy Mother blessed them in their Sand Lizard language. When the Mormons approached the Messiah, Sister Salt stayed nearby to listen for herself; she was amazed. As the Messiah gave his blessing to the Mormons, Sister Salt distinctly heard the words he spoke as Sand Lizard, not English, yet the Mormons understood his words and murmured their thanks to him.
When Sister Salt excitedly told Mama and Grandma what she had heard, a Paiute man standing nearby smiled and nodded his head. In the presence of the Messiah and the Holy Mother, there was only one language spoken the language of love which all people understand, he said, because we are all the children of Mother Earth.
The sky went from dark to pale gray, then from milky to pale yellow as dawn approached. Indigo left the others and went to their lean-to as the dawn lit the sky in flaming reds, yellows, and golds. Away from the people and the campfires, the air was cold and damp though much of the snow had melted. Indigo pulled her white robe closer to her body. She was careful not to crush the squash flower; she wanted to keep it as long as she could.
At home, with the big quilt all around her to keep warm, she sat propped up, facing the east; orange-gold light from the rising sun shined between the lattices of willow and tamarisk branches. Inside the lean-to, everything the sun's light touched turned warm and golden. Indigo took the big orange flower in both hands and held it to her face, with her eyes closed. She inhaled the old gardens after a rain when the edges of the dunes were crisscrossed in all the brightest greens moss green and grass green and the green of the big pumpkin leaves.
As Indigo drifted off to sleep, she heard one voice and then another voice address the dancers. Wovoka led the dancers in the final rituals of the dance: they all must clap their hands and shake and wave their shawls vigorously to repel diseases and sickness, especially the influenza. They had just completed the final rituals when the alarm was shouted. The dancers remained calm because the Christ was with them and his Mother had already told them the soldiers would come.
The next thing Indigo knew, Sister Salt was shaking her, telling her to get up! Get up! She heard horses' hooves, the sound of wagons clattering, excited voices and shouts. Indigo felt so tired, just sitting up gave her a sick feeling in her stomach; but Sister Salt jerked her to her feet. She was breathing hard as if she had been running.
"Hurry! Hurry! No! You can't take those! We have to run!" Sister Salt pulled her along by the hand while Indigo tried to look back to see what was happening. She saw white men on horses and white men on foot seizing the Mormons, who put up no struggle; she saw dancers running in all directions with Indian policemen chasing them.
The girls ran south into the tamarisks and willows along the riverbank. The deep sand was tiring to run through, and when the sounds of the shouting grew faint, they stopped in the cover of the willows to catch their breath. Indigo knew the rules: when they were on the run, no one must speak even one word; but she wanted to know what had happened to Mama and Grandma Fleet. And the Messiah and his family were they able to escape?
When Indigo was rested, Sister Salt stood up and pulled her to her feet. Off they went again, not running now but still walking fast; they no longer heard any shouts behind them. Sister Salt followed a game trail down the bank to the river's edge, where the cattails hid them while they drank.
They no longer ran, but they walked steadily until the sun went down; then the cold air from the snow on the mountains drifted down to the river. In the side of a sandy bank above the river, they scooped away the sand with their hands to make a trench; then they wrapped themselves together with both shawls. They laughed at how they must look two-headed, with four legs; they laughed at how awkwardly they moved wrapped together. They got down into the trench and arranged themselves comfortably before they began pulling sand into the trench over their legs for warmth.
Before dawn, when the air was coldest, Indigo woke Sister Salt with her shivering attempts to snuggle closer. They took turns rubbing each other's hands and arms vigorously; Sister Salt pretended Indigo's hands were a fire drill and stick that would catch fire if only she could rub them fast enough. "Faster-faster-faster," they chanted in unison until they both started laughing out loud. They watched the light seep into the sky at first a nearly imperceptible glow out of the darkness. Yesterday they all had been together dancing for the dawn that brought the Messiah, then suddenly everything changed.
Grandma Fleet and Mama would meet them back at the old gardens. That was the last thing Grandma Fleet told Sister Salt that morning, moments after someone shouted a warning; the girls knew how to follow the river south to the big wash that led to the canyon of the dunes.
The Messiah and his family escaped; Sister Salt saw them. His wife and children stepped into the river first, then the Holy Mother and he followed them; the fierce river currents of muddy water closed around them but they were not swept away. Their shoulders and heads remained above the muddy water, and they moved across the river effortlessly, as if they were smoke. When they emerged on the far side of the river, the Messiah and his family hurried up the high sandy hill above the river. The sunlight shone on the white robes of the Messiah and his family as they paused at the summit in plain view of the soldiers and Indian police overrunning their camp. But the soldiers and police never saw them; the Messiah and his family escaped.
Sister Salt made a digging stick out of a piece of driftwood and dug up cattail roots to eat. Cattail roots didn't really taste like anything but water with a little salt, but Indigo forced herself to chew and swallow them to stop the pain of her empty stomach. For three days they followed the river south; late on the fourth day Indigo noticed the air suddenly felt much warmer. On the morning of the fifth day, they reached the intersection of the big wash and the river.
They dug cattail roots all morning to carry along to the old gardens. They filled their canvas shawls with the roots and wore them bundled on their backs. Before they left the river, they gathered wild gourds to make small canteens, which they filled with water and strung around their waists with cloth torn from their skirts.
All day they walked through the sand and sagebrush; the air was cool but the sun warmed them. Indigo began to notice green shoots and sprouts of new growth pushing through the sand. A few miles west of the river, the big wash meandered southwest, and when they rounded a turn, Indigo shouted, "Look!" Along the sides of the wash silvery green brittlebushes were covered with yellow blossoms.
That night when they huddled together to sleep, the air was cold but it was not freezing. They had crossed into the land of summer. The next day, about noontime, Sister Salt pointed to a big sandstone boulder at an intersection with a smaller wash. Here they left the big wash and walked the small wash for a few hours more before Sister Salt took a game trail that ascended the crumbling clay bank. The trail was steep. When Indigo reached the top, she was short of breath and she had to wipe away the sweat before she could see where they were.
Indigo had been so young the last time they lived at the old gardens she didn't remember how anything looked. She had listened to Mama's and Grandma's stories, and she knew they had been forced to abandon the old gardens after refugees came and ate everything. Despite the descriptions of the ravages of the starving people who left the dunes stripped bare, Indigo imagined the old gardens as they had been before the refugees came: tall corn plants swaying gracefully in the breeze, surrounded with bushes of bean pods and black-eyed peas, their golden-green tendrils tangled around the thick pumpkin vines.
Indigo shaded her eyes with one hand as she surveyed the sandstone canyon; she saw nothing green, nothing growing at all, only sandy ridges covered with dry weeds.
Sister Salt walked faster now, up the path to the head of the canyon. They still had a little river water in their gourd canteens, but for miles Sister Salt imagined how good the springwater would taste. She was grateful to have the river water for their journey, but it was muddy; the water that dripped down the cracks in the cliff was cool and clear.
Grandma Fleet had given Sister Salt instructions: first thing, go to the spring and look for footprints or other signs of people living in the area. Grandma Fleet said they should keep to themselves if they encountered strangers living at the old gardens. Grandma Fleet warned if too many people settled at one location they were bound to attract the attention of the authorities.
Blackened rocks and bits of charcoal from old campfires were partially buried by the sand, but Sister Salt could see that at one time as many as thirty campsites dotted the upper end of the canyon below the spring.
The cool springwater tasted even better than Sister Salt remembered; she and Indigo drank and then scooped water over themselves to wash off the dust. They sat by the spring and ate the last of the cattail roots; the sun felt warm, and the sound of the water trickling down the sandstone was soothing. They spread their canvas wraps on the fine sand next to the pool and stretched out side by side. Sister Salt was on her back looking up at the sandstone walls of the canyon and the sky but she was thinking about Mama and Grandma Fleet. Did the Indian police catch them? She couldn't stop thinking about the soldiers and Indian police galloping toward the dancers to encircle them. In their dark uniforms, on horseback, they did not appear to be humans but giant insects swarming down the hills to the riverbank.
Indigo lay on her stomach and up on her elbows, her chin resting in both hands as she stared into the water. She watched the water bugs scurry around their villages in the yellowish sand at the bottom of the pool. The big bugs moved with dignity, but the smaller bugs darted about as if they were playing chase with one another. Pebbles and stones in the pool were hills and mountains; the green shoots of water plants were the forests. How lovely their pool was! They had all the water and food they needed.
From the corner of her eye, Indigo caught the shiver of a blade of grass across the pool, though there was no breeze; she did not move. More blades of grass wiggled, then parted slowly as a big rattlesnake's head poked out cautiously, its tongue moving over the air slowly to read any warnings. The snake's tongue stopped when he caught their human scent. For an instant the snake looked at Sister Salt sleeping, then at Indigo, who held her breath. Grandma Fleet talked about the big snake many times because he was almost as old as she was, and the spring belonged to him. All desert springs have resident snakes. If people killed the snakes, the precious water disappeared. Grandma Fleet said whatever you do, don't offend the old snake who lives at the spring.
"Remember us? We won't harm you, Snake," Indigo whispered softly. "You know our grandmother and our mother." The snake seemed to consider her words before he glided to the edge of the pool. Indigo was amazed at how gracefully the snake dipped its mouth into the water, tilting back his head to swallow a dainty sip. The snake was thirsty and dipped his head to the water many times before he stopped, flicked his tongue at Indigo and then Sister Salt, then backed away and disappeared into the grass around the pool.
Later, when Sister Salt woke up and heard about the snake's visit, she said it was a good sign; if soldiers or others were lurking in the area, the big snake disappeared.
The first night they slept by the spring, but all night birds and small animals brushed past them to reach the water. The next day they went to work on Grandma Fleet's house. The old dugout house was not easy to spot because its roof was low to the ground and partially covered with sand. Sister Salt dropped to her knees, then crawled through the opening. Indigo followed, relieved that her sister was first to go inside Grandma Fleet's abandoned house; the old dugout room looked like a perfect home for centipedes and scorpions. Once they were inside, there was a narrow ledge and then three big stone steps down into the room. Indigo sat on the bottom step until her eyes became accustomed to the dim light. Inside the air was cool and smelled of clean sand; Sister Salt poked around the corners. The room was much bigger than it appeared from outside; there was plenty of space overhead, and the roofbeams were solid, although the wind had disturbed the top layer of desert palm branches on the roof.
They finished the roof repairs and were at the spring for a bath when they heard a strange sound off in the distance; someone was singing. At first the singing was too far away and they could not make out the song; sometimes the singing grew faint, then loud again, as if the singer had crossed a dry wash. They both listened intently; then Sister Salt recognized the song.
"Grandma!" Sister Salt yelled and took off running in the direction of the singing. Indigo star ted to follow her but Sister Salt was running much too fast. Indigo watched her sister run through the stands of dry sunflowers below the sandhills toward the mouth of the canyon until she was out of sight. Indigo listened. The singing continued, then stopped. Suddenly she felt a strange fear overtake her, a fearful feeling she was about to be abandoned by Grandma Fleet, and even Sister Salt.
Indigo ran as fast as she could through the deep sand, up and down the sandhills, until her sides ached and her throat burned. She stopped to listen for the singing but the sound of her own breathing was all she heard. She ran, and when she stumbled, she picked herself up and kept running, terrified she might lose them.
At the mouth of the canyon she found them; Sister Salt was kneeling next to Grandma Fleet, who was resting in the shade of a big yucca, leaning herself against a gunnysack full of bundles. Indigo ran to them, her heart pounding wildly. She looked all around, panting; tears filled her eyes as she realized Grandma returned alone.
"Where is she?" Indigo demanded. "Where's Mama? Why didn't she come?"
"Is this the greeting I get?" Grandma Fleet teased as she opened her arms to embrace Indigo, who pressed her face hard against Grandma's bony chest and started to cry.
While Grandma Fleet rested in the shade, Sister Salt and Indigo took turns dragging the gunnysack full of bundles up the sandy path from the mouth of the canyon to the house. Grandma Fleet and one old Mormon woman were released from government custody. Grandma and the Mormon woman became friends on their walk down the river. They did not talk so much as they pointed out things to each other, then smiled and nodded to each other while they walked along.
Later, as she unpacked the bundle, Grandma Fleet talked about Mrs. Van Wagnen's cellar under the floor of the little stone house at Mormon Crossing. So much food put up in glass jars neatly arranged on wooden shelves! From muslin bags kept in big crockery jars, Mrs. Van Wagnen brought out dried apples and dried apricots and even dried venison.
From time to time Grandma passed them a muslin sack to sniff so they could savor the sweet, dry fruit odor. Beans. So many Indian beans! Mrs. Van Wagnen had great success growing beans because her garden was near the river. Grandma Fleet did not want to take so much food, but Mrs. Van Wagnen had insisted. She could not eat all that food herself, she said, and then she started to cry because her husband and the other wives were arrested, and their children sent away to live with foster families in the new Mormon Church. Mrs. Van Wagnen stopped crying when she talked about the new Mormon Church; she became angry. The old church had been brushed aside by demons, she said. But Grandma Fleet thought maybe the other Mormons got tired of resisting the U.S. government. The government said only one wife, and now the new church said one wife, so the old Mormons moved to remote locations. For years and years, the U.S. soldiers chased Mormons when they weren't chasing Indians.
They thought of Mrs. Van Wagnen each time they ate the sweet dried apricots or boiled a pot of beans, and they hoped she was getting along all right. So many strangers forded the river at Mormon Crossing that a woman alone was not safe there. Poor Mrs. Van Wagnen! She was the first and now the only wife, but she didn't know if she would ever see her husband again.
All the talk about people lost made Indigo cry. Would she ever have her mama again? Grandma Fleet reassured her.
"I would know if something was wrong," Grandma said. "I would feel it in my bones." Even if their mother was arrested, the government usually kept Indian women in jail for only a month or two.
"Before hot weather comes, I'm going to visit my Mormon friend," Grandma Fleet said one day. They had just gathered a great many succulent little plants that grew under the sand at the foot of the cliffs. More than two months had passed and they had heard nothing. Mrs. Van Wagnen might have some news.
"I'll just be gone overnight. You girls won't even miss me," Grandma Fleet said.
"We could come with you," Indigo said hopefully.
"Oh no." Grandma Fleet shook her head vigorously. "It isn't safe for young girls to travel. If the Indian policemen find us, who knows what they might do with you?" Grandma Fleet eased two big gourd canteens of springwater over her shoulder and took up her walking stick. Sister Salt carried Grandma's gunnysack full of roots, seeds, and leaves spices and medicines Mrs. Van Wagnen might need. After all that wonderful food she gave them, it was the least they could do.
"No one notices an old woman, but everyone sees a young girl," Grandma Fleet said as she started off briskly; she allowed the girls to accompany her as far as the big boulder at the intersection of the little wash with the big wash. Indigo tried not to cry but the lump in her throat forced out the tears; she made no sound and kept walking at her sister's side. At the big wash Sister Salt slipped the gunnysack from her back to Grandma Fleet's back.
They watched Grandma Fleet until she disappeared around the first turn in the big wash. Indigo sank to the ground and began to sob loudly. Sister Salt did not like the sound; it echoed off the sandstone on both sides of the canyon. Anyone the Indian police or a miner or a cowboy might hear that sound.
"Crybaby!" Sister Salt hissed in her little sister's face as she jerked Indigo to her feet by her arm and pulled her along behind her.
"Shut up before someone hears you! Grandma went to find out about Mama," Sister Salt said, and she was crying now too.
By the time they reached the house the sun was past midpoint in the sky and it was hot. After a drink and a bath at the spring, they crawled into the coolness of the dugout house and covered themselves with their wet canvas shawls they soaked in the pool. Indigo lay on her bed and stared up at the latticework of willow branches over mesquite poles. Why hadn't Mama escaped by now?
Indigo dreamed she was in Mama's arms, hugged so close and so safe, her face pressed against Mama's chest, breathing in Mama's warm scent of sage and earth. Mama's love surrounded her and rocked her gently. When Indigo woke, she looked around for Mama before she remembered, and some part of her deep inside broke open, and she cried so loud she woke Sister Salt. Indigo expected Sister to scold her for crying, but she put her arms around Indigo and rocked her, saying, "Don't cry, sister, don't cry. Mama will come back, she will." Indigo felt something wet fall on her arm and realized Sister Salt was crying too. As Indigo began to feel more hopeful and stopped crying, Sister Salt cried harder. Indigo hugged her big sister as tightly as she could.
"Don't cry!" Indigo whispered, and patted her sister's back. Sister nodded and wiped the back of her hand across her eyes.
Indigo excused herself to go pee. She was surprised at how much daylight remained as she walked to the latrine below the dunes. The hot days would arrive in no time.
When Indigo returned, Sister Salt was far in the back corner where Grandma Fleet kept the big pottery storage jars. She heard the sounds of Sister Salt removing the stone lids, and the rustle of dried apples and strips of dried meat in muslin sacks.
At first they were only going to sample the apples and the venison jerky. Indigo rolled the dry apple slice around on her tongue until it was moistened; she sucked on it for a long time until it was too soft and sweet to resist and she swallowed it. They took only the smallest flakes and slivers of jerky to chew and chew, and they had contests to see who could make the jerky last the longer. Indigo looked Sister Salt in the eye and took another piece of dried apple and another piece of jerky; before Sister Salt could stop her, Indigo stuffed both the apple and the jerky in her mouth. Sister Salt grabbed the jerky from her mouth and popped it into her mouth. Indigo laughed and took another piece of jerky. They shared a gourd of springwater and ate as many dried apples as they wanted and more jerky until Indigo began to feel too full and a little queasy, so she gave the half-eaten jerky strip to Sister Salt. Grandma Fleet would be furious when she found out the two of them had eaten enough food in one evening to last three people for a week. Sister Salt finished Indigo's piece of jerky, then she reached into the muslin sack for another and yet another piece of jerky, until the muslin sack was empty. Indigo saw Sister Salt glance in the direction of the back room to the food storage jars; she had never seen Sister Salt eat that way before, not even those times they were without food for days. Sister Salt did not seem like herself; the difference in her behavior made Indigo uneasy. Grandma would be home by this time tomorrow. Maybe she wouldn't notice the lids on the storage jars had been moved, Indigo thought as she drifted off to sleep.
Sister Salt waited until Indigo's breathing was slow and deep before she crept back to the storage jars. Her stomach was so full it felt swollen, but still the hunger raged inside her, demanding that she eat. She reached for the lid on the jar, but stopped herself short; she did not move for a long time. She knew she was full, she knew she didn't need to eat any more. Where did this hunger come from? If Grandma Fleet or Mama had been there they might have explained what the trouble was. She crept back to her bed and reached for the gourd canteen. She drank water until the hunger could barely make itself felt.
The next day they did not talk about the food they took from the storage jars. They gathered succulent green "sand food" from the foot of the cliff all morning, and saved enough for Grandma when she got home that night. The weather was warm; as soon as the first good rain fell, Grandma said, they should start planting.
Around midday time they went to the spring to wash up and rest in the shade. The spring, at the head of the canyon, looked down on the ridges and hills of fine sand that descended gradually to the dry wash that lead to the big wash to the river. Sister Salt wanted to hunt for pack rats' nests, but Indigo wanted to stay by the spring to watch for Grandma. From the vantage point of the spring, Indigo would be able to see her the moment she came around the bend in the wash.
"She won't come until late afternoon. You'll have to wait a long time." Sister Salt wanted Indigo to go with her. "I'll show you the palm grove." Sister Salt knew Indigo wanted to go there.
Indigo followed her sister reluctantly. She wanted to see the wild palms in the box canyon, but she also wanted to be home when Grandma Fleet returned. Indigo kept looking back the direction they had come, and she checked the sun's position in the sky from time to time, determined to be home in time to greet Grandma and hear any news she had about Mama.
The trail followed the spine of the sandstone ridge for a distance before it turned sharply to descend into a narrow crevice. Sister Salt showed Indigo how to brace herself by wedging her legs and shoulders against the sides of the crevice so she could reach the footholds and handholds worn into the sandstone. In a few minutes they were down in the canyon. Indigo was amazed. Pale yellow sandstone cliffs rose all around them; the canyon had no outlet; the crevice they had climbed down was the only way in and the only way out unless you were a bird.
Indigo never imagined the palm trees would be so big. They were clustered together, some trees almost touching others; the larger, older trees were shaggy with dry fronds peeling away below the new green foliage. Dry fallen fronds covered the ground. Here was the place Grandma Fleet got her roof. Indigo rubbed her hands over the odd scales and nubby surfaces of the palms' trunks. She searched the trees' tops for the clusters of little fruit Sister described as sweeter than honey, but saw nothing.
Sister Salt paid little attention to the palm trees; instead she searched among the boulders and big rocks with a short stick in her hand. Indigo watched her; she used the stick to clear away thick barricades of cactus spines meant to protect the burrow. Sister exposed the squirrel's food cache; Indigo recognized the acorns and piñons piled on shredded leaves, but what were all those blackish lumps stuck together?
"Ummmm!" Sister said as she attempted to bite a blackish lump; the dried-up date was as hard as a rock. She took the date out of her mouth and reached for the gourd canteen around her waist. She dropped two dried dates into the canteen to soften. They gathered all the dried dates but left the ground squirrel its acorns and piñons. The afternoon was warm enough to slip off their dresses to use as makeshift sacks to carry home the dried dates.
The sun was setting as they approached the sandstone formations above the spring. Sister Salt stopped and motioned for Indigo to keep still and stay put. Sister Salt listened intently. Soldiers and Indian police were loudmouths who could be heard for miles away. Sister Salt heard the crickets in the damp sand near the spring; she heard the sundown call of a mourning dove, then the cry of a nighthawk; the darker it became, the more numerous the crickets were. She listened for Grandma Fleet's voice, talking loudly to herself or singing a little song she had just made up a moment before, like the song about the baby tarantula Grandma sang last summer. Sister Salt listened until she thought she could hear the sounds of everything slithering, rustling, rattling, stirring, chirping, whistling, barking, all the sounds descended around her and deafened her.
When Sister Salt stopped and stood motionless, Indigo did the same; she heard the nighthawks but nothing else. If strangers had been camped near the spring, the nighthawks would be gone. The twilight was bright from the sunset and from the half-moon shining off the pale sandstone and the sand dunes. The air was cooling off, and Indigo felt chilly in only her underslip. At first she thought Sister heard something she could not hear, but after a time, Indigo realized something was wrong with her sister. She touched Sister lightly on the back, and whispered.
"What is it? What do you hear?"
Sister Salt turned to her with the saddest expression Indigo had ever seen. She shook her head slowly, and set off walking again; they were only a short walk from the spring now, but Indigo wasn't fooled. Sister Salt knew something she didn't tell Indigo. Indigo ran ahead of her, past the spring and down the dunes. In the fading twilight, twigs and branches on the sandy trail resembled snakes of all sizes and kinds; Indigo leaped and swerved to avoid them.
Outside the dugout house, Indigo stopped. It was almost dark now; Grandma Fleet should already be home, but Indigo did not hear her stirring inside. Probably Grandma was tired from her journey and asleep already.
"Grandma, it's us, me and Sister. Grandma?" she said as she stepped down into the entryway, but no one was there.
Indigo wanted to search for Grandma Fleet at once, but Sister Salt reminded her the moon would set soon and they'd be left out on the trail in the dark.
"She just got a late start and decided to sleep under a bush." Sister Salt's voice sounded tired. She went to her bed. Indigo lay on her bed and listened to her sister's breathing. What would become of them without Grandma Fleet? Indigo started to cry softly for their mother.
The next morning, when the sky was light enough for them to see, they set out down the trail to find Grandma Fleet. They both wore big gourd canteens around their waists in case Grandma lost or spilled her canteen and needed water. Sister Salt dropped a handful of dried dates in both canteens so they'd have something to eat. They were not far past the first turn in the dry wash when they found her. She was sitting up with her back and head resting against the clay bank; her shawl was wrapped around her. At first Indigo thought she was dead, but then her eyelids fluttered open and she smiled, still reclining against the clay bank. Sister Salt ran over and flung herself down beside her.
"Oh Grandma, what's wrong?"
"Now, now, dear, don't be so upset. I'm just tired. I'm getting too old to walk all the way to the river and back in two days. Next time, I'll take a week." Grandma didn't stand up but she hugged both of them close to her. They shared the softened dates and water in silence though they both wanted so much to ask if she had learned the whereabouts of their mother. They could see Grandma wasn't quite her old self yet. Sister Salt expected Grandma to ask where they got the dried dates, but she sat silently stroking both girls on the head with her eyes closed. They sat side by side and watched the sun climb higher until the shade was gone.
The girls knelt down so Grandma could steady herself by leaning on their shoulders and backs as she stood up.
"Ohhhh! I'm so stiff I can hardly stand up!" she said as she steadied one hand on Sister Salt and one on Indigo. "I got a late start, but I didn't want to worry you girls. I must have hurried myself a bit too much."
Grandma Fleet managed to stand up but she was unsteady on her feet, so it took a long time for the three of them to make their way home. Indigo wanted to ask right away what she found out about Mama, but Grandma had to save her energy for the walk.
Grandma slept all afternoon. Sister Salt and Indigo sat on their blankets nearby and watched her sleep when they were not napping themselves. The weather was much warmer than it had been when Grandma set out. No wonder she had been so exhausted when they found her. She only needed a rest and she would be fine, Sister Salt said, but Indigo could tell she was worried by the way she watched intently, each time Grandma exhaled, for her next breath.
Grandma Fleet recovered slowly over the days that followed. She joked that she brought the hot weather with her from the river; she hoped the rain clouds followed her too. The first morning she felt well enough to walk without assistance, she told them to sit down; she had something to tell them.
"Girls, your mama was not among the prisoners taken to prison at Fort Yuma. That's all poor Mrs. Van Wagnen was able to find out." Grandma Fleet took a corner of her skirt to wipe the tears from her eyes.
"Why are you crying?" Indigo demanded. Sister Salt frowned and shook her head at Indigo to be quiet.
"I won't be quiet!" she said and burst into tears. Grandma Fleet held her close to her chest and patted her gently on the back.
"There, there," Grandma said, "don't cry. Our Paiute friends saw your mother slip away from the Indian police."
Indigo stopped crying, and Sister Salt watched Grandma's serious expression and knew there was something more.
"The last time they saw her, she was running up the big sandhill beyond the river. She was following the tracks in the sand made by the Messiah and his family."
The three of them sat quietly. "At least she's not dead and the Indian police don't have her," Sister Salt commented. Indigo imagined Mama running and half crawling up the towering dune beyond the river; just over the crest of the dune the Messiah and his family waited for her and the other dancers who managed to escape.
Indigo wanted to know when Jesus would let their mother come home. Grandma Fleet sighed and shook her head. Jesus and his holy family disappeared into the high mountains to avoid the soldiers and Indian police, who were everywhere. The Mormons were fighting one another too. Poor Mrs. Van Wagnen! She learned her husband was killed by other Mormons, who took him from the soldiers at Fort Yuma. The old Mormon Church and the new Mormon Church could not agree on the number of wives a man might have. The U.S. government had been after the old Mormons for a long time, killing their men and burning their farms wherever they went until they escaped to the west.
The old Mormons believed they were related to the Indians, and the U.S. government feared the old Mormons and Indians might band together against the government. The old Mormons who answered the call of Wovoka were hated most of all. How dare these Mormons take an Indian to be the Messiah? Federal officials feared the dancers were a secret army in disguise, ready to attack Needles.
From the looks of things, the Messiah and his family might have to stay in hiding a long time, so Mama might be gone a long while too. They would just have to learn to get along without her, Grandma Fleet told them as she began to show them the things they would need to know. They walked through the dry stalks and old debris of the dune gardens, and she told them where to plant the beans, corn, and squash seed and how deep. Plant in late July or early August after the rain came.
The days became longer and the desert heat gathered in the earth, day after day, swelling larger, filling her lungs with heat until there was no space for oxygen. Suddenly Sister Salt felt as if she could not breathe. She was alone at the spring when it happened. She took deep breaths over and over to reassure herself the sensation was only an illusion of the heated air.
Grandma Fleet instructed the girls to do as she did: They got up before dawn and worked until it got too hot; then they rested in the coolness of the dugout house until the sun was low in the sky. As the moon grew full, they worked all night; on the moonless nights they worked until it was too dark to see.
The delicate sand food plants disappeared as the days became warmer and longer. They ate the last of the dried dates. Now Grandma Fleet rationed the dry meat and the dry apples; she had not yet discovered the storage jar with the empty muslin sacks. They knew they had to tell Grandma what they'd done before she discovered the missing food. They waited for the right time to tell her maybe one hot, drowsy afternoon when Grandma was telling them stories she'd heard when she was a girl. Tonight she was going to show them an old trick: how to get fresh meat.
After dark they filled their gourd canteens at the spring and sat outside with Grandma; they watched the stars and the half-moon as they listened and waited for the coyotes. On three previous nights, the coyotes hunted in the dunes not far from the spring. They listened as the coyotes began their hunt, using yips and barks to signal one another and to drive any small game, rabbits or roosting birds, into their ambush. She taught the girls to distinguish the coyotes' language of barks and howls so they would know when the coyotes got lucky. That was the signal for the girls to take off running as fast as they could, Sister Salt with the old flint knife in one hand and a gunnysack in the other, and Indigo with a long stick. Grandma said to be careful to leave the coyotes plenty of bones; otherwise next time they might not call out an invitation to share their feast.
Sister Salt ran in the direction of the cries and barks; the cries were high pitched and the barks excited. They had to get there fast before the coyotes ate everything. The light of the moon reflected off the sand so it was easy to see. Indigo fell behind, but she did not dare call out; she ran as fast as she could, but the long stick was almost as tall as she was and it kept getting in the way of her feet. Grandma said the coyotes would drop everything and run at the sight of humans, but they mustn't risk a coyote bite.
As she neared Sister Salt, Indigo saw the last two coyotes disappear behind a sand dune; when Indigo reached Sister Salt she was kneeling on the ground gathering little wiggling pink creatures scattered over the sand by the plundered rabbits' nest. They brought home enough newborn rabbits for a fine stew with the dried roots Grandma tossed in and a little moss gathered from the spring. Grandma Fleet told the girls how proud she was they had come home with such good meat the very first time they ran to the coyotes' prey. They were lucky the baby rabbits were scattered all over; otherwise the coyotes might have eaten all of them before Sister Salt got there.
While they ate the stew, Grandma Fleet told them hunting stories from years ago about the whitetail deer the coyotes chased down and killed so all Grandma Fleet had to do was take her sharp knife and prepare the meat for the journey home. She told them about the golden eagle that circled high above and watched her hunt the washes and dunes. All day Grandma Fleet crept through the rice grass and weeds between the dunes without result while the eagle dived successfully four times; each time the eagle mother flew away with a rabbit to her nest. It was late and Grandma was ready to give up for the day; she thought the eagle had already gone home for the night. But as Grandma made her way down the canyon toward home, the eagle reappeared, circling high overhead. Grandma was so tired and discouraged she didn't pay much attention to the eagle. She kept walking and for a time she didn't see the eagle and thought it had gone. Then she saw the eagle overhead with a big cottontail rabbit in its claws; the rabbit was still kicking but it was no problem for an eagle. Grandma looked up at the eagle and complimented her on being such a great hunter when suddenly the eagle dropped the rabbit for Grandma Fleet!
As the driest, hottest months approached, Grandma Fleet seemed to slow her pace; she still rose before dawn but now her midday naps lasted longer, sometimes until sundown or the rise of the moon. They had plenty of food stored to take them to the summer rains, but Grandma insisted they go out and gather a few roots and seeds each day.
"You never know," she said; "some years the rains will come late but other years the summer rains will not come at all." The girls gathered moss and watercress from around the pool at the spring. Grandma Fleet showed them how to set bird snares woven from their own hair to trap birds as they landed by the pool. She instructed them to be careful whenever they broke into the pack rat's nest to raid the stores of seeds and mesquite beans.
"Old Ratty does all the work for you, so don't harm her!" Grandma Fleet showed them how to close up the rat's nest after they took what they wanted. Years before, when the refugees flocked to the old gardens, hunger drove the people to eat the pack rats; but the hunger was far worse afterward because there were no pack rats left to gather and store seeds.
Grandma Fleet sorted her collection of seeds while she talked. She wanted to have everything prepared by the time the rains came so they could get the seeds into the damp earth promptly. Every day they watched the sky for the clouds that might signal the arrival of the summer rains. Early one morning coveys of round puffy clouds drifted across the sky out of the southwest, and Grandma became her lively old self as she sang out a welcome to the clouds. Sister Salt was relieved to see she felt well enough to walk up to the old gardens.
Grandma Fleet explained the differences in the moisture of the sand between the dunes as they slowly made their way up the sandy path between the dunes. Grandma steadied herself with a hand on each girl's shoulder; they made their way slowly past the bare terraces where the sweet black corn, muskmelons, and speckled beans used to grow. Grandma explained each of the dunes and the little valleys between them had different flows of runoff; some of the smaller dunes were too dry along their edges and it was difficult to grow anything there; in marginal areas like these it was better to let the wild plants grow.
Grandma Fleet explained which floodplain terraces were well drained enough to grow sweet black corn and speckled beans. The squashes and melons were water lovers, so they had to be planted in the bowl-shaped area below the big dune where the runoff soaked deep into the sand. Wild gourds, sunflowers, and datura seeded themselves wherever they found moisture.
The following afternoon, big rain clouds gathered along the southwest horizon. Grandma Fleet greeted the clouds with tears in her eyes; their beloved ancestors returned to them as precious rain. The morning after the rain, Grandma was up before dawn to unpack her jars of seeds; Indigo and Sister Salt woke to her singing.
"The dampness is sweet on the earth, smell the rain!" Grandma Fleet sang in the old Sand Lizard language, but the girls understood some of the words and got the meaning of the song from Grandma's voice. She was so excited by the arrival of the rain, she told the girls they would eat later; she wanted to be planting the first seeds as the sun appeared. The coolness of the breeze across the damp earth surprised Indigo; she shivered, then broke into a run up the path past the first dune.
Grandma Fleet walked, with only the aid of her cane, at an energetic pace; she seemed to be her old self again. Sister smiled; she had been worried about Grandma's health, but all the old woman needed was a good rain. Grandma Fleet knelt in the damp sand with her digging stick and showed the girls how deep and how closely to plant the seeds. They planted all morning and part of the afternoon with only water from the spring and a few handfuls of dried pumpkin seeds to eat.
Again the swollen blue-violet clouds gathered in the afternoon, and as the rain fell, Grandma told the girls truly they were blessed.
"We are the last remnants of the Sand Lizard clan," Grandma Fleet explained. "So many of us have died it's no wonder clusters of rain clouds gather over the old gardens." The Sand Lizard people of the old gardens were never as numerous as their cousins who lived and farmed along the river before the reservations were made. When Indigo asked why the Sand Lizard people stayed there, if it was easier to grow plants close to the big river, Grandma Fleet laughed. Sand Lizards did things differently than other people. Sand Lizards didn't mind if others found them odd; that's how they distinguished themselves from others. Farming was easy along the river but getting along with the authorities was not.
The Sand Lizards preferred to rely on the rain clouds and avoid confinement on a reservation. Yes, the other people laughed at the Sand Lizards, and it was true their kind was disappearing, but they were proud to be known for their contrary ways. Yes, the Sand Lizards were different! Long ago, when the Apaches used to raid the Sand Lizards' villages, the Sand Lizards fought back fiercely until they were beating the Apache, but then, instead of fighting to the end to crush the Apaches and make them slaves the way the other tribes did, the Sand Lizard people used to stop fighting and let the Apaches get away. Other tribes called them crazy for this, but the Sand Lizards didn't have much use for slaves; they were just more hungry mouths to feed, and slaves had to be watched all the time.
Yes, the Sand Lizards were different. They were stubborn; they refused to allow the churchmen to touch their children. The churchmen were liars; they claimed Jesus Christ died in a faraway country, long ago. They claimed to speak for Jesus Christ; they said Jesus didn't want to see women's bare breasts no matter how hot the summer day was; if the others wanted to pay such a high price to farm along the river, that was their choice.
Grandma Fleet said they did have a few cousins who lived on the reservation at Parker. The girls never met them because the authorities punished the reservation Indians for any contact they had with the renegades.
"If anything happens to me, you girls stay here. You belong here. Your mama knows she will find you here. Otherwise, how will she ever find you? If you need something, go ask our friend Mrs. Van Wagnen. Watch out or the authorities will catch you two and ship you off to school."
The location of the old gardens and the spring was known to the authorities, but they still were safest there, because the journey from the river to the old gardens was difficult for the horses. Miles of deep sand that exhausted the horses were followed by fields of sharp black lava so hard that the horses' shoes wore thin and broke. After they left the river, the horses were without water for two days. Now, as far as anyone knew, the old gardens were abandoned; even if someone did come, the cliff swallows would signal their approach by circling nervously around their nests. All sounds in the canyons were amplified by the sandstone formations. The flash of the sun off metal, the clinking sounds of bits, spurs, carbines, lids of canteens, and the coughs and sneezes of the men and the horses gave plenty of warning.
The sun broke through the clouds in the west and warmed them even as the last raindrops fell. How sweet the air smelled after the rain! Indigo was hungry. She raced Sister Salt down the winding trail, down between the sand dunes to the dugout house. They were at the house only long enough to get dried fruit and a bit of jerky. Grandma Fleet said once farmers finished the planting they might eat a bit of meat. Sister Salt pointed at the empty muslin sack folded neatly at the bottom of the storage jar; Indigo nodded. Next time Grandma sent them for more dried meat they would have to confess the greedy feast they enjoyed while she was gone.
Now that the seeds were planted, they slept in the dunes above the gardens to protect the seeds from rodents. In the heat of the day, when the birds and rodents were less active, they returned to the cool dark dugout house to rest until sundown. Once the seedlings were up, they pulled weeds in the coolness of the moonlight.
On the highest dune, near the spring, Grandma Fleet dug herself a little pit house in the fine sand right below the mound where she planted the apricot seeds. At first Indigo and Sister Salt paid little attention because their grandmother liked to dig down into the sand to find the coolness; but then Grandma Fleet arranged willow branches in a latticework to hold more willow branches to form a roof over the dugout. Now Grandma Fleet no longer bothered to walk all the way back down the trail to sleep at the house; the girls passed the heat of the day alone in the old dugout house. Grandma insisted her burrow below the apricot seedlings was just as cool as the old house, and it saved her energy; the walk up the trail between the dunes was too difficult for her now.
"These baby apricot trees need me close by," Grandma Fleet teased. "Look at them! Aren't they lovely?" The dark green seedlings were knee high by the time the baby squash and baby beans were ready to eat.
Grandma stayed with the gardens, while they went to gather the prickly pear fruit, and later, the mesquite beans. Grandma showed them how to boil the prickly pear fruit into a thick, sweet paste which she dried in the sun. The mesquite beans had to be dried then roasted and stored carefully; otherwise, the little bugs would eat them. After the girls had finished their chores, they played games, made contests to see who could hit the target with a rock or stick from the greatest distance. They made targets out of precarious stacks of flat stones or with piles of kindling wood. They both squealed with delight at a direct hit as the stones or branches fell.
Sister Salt liked to slip away from Indigo when she wasn't watching; then Sister Salt hid and waited until Indigo realized she was gone. Indigo learned to track her in the sand so Sister Salt used sagebrush to wipe away her footprints. She loved to crouch down just around a turn in the trail and jump out at Indigo to hear her scream. When it was too hot to play chase, plunging and rolling down the steepest slopes of the high dunes, they played their favorite guessing game they called it Which Hand? with a smooth pebble.
After the first beans and squash were harvested, Grandma Fleet left her shelter by the peach seedlings less and less often. The girls helped her walk through the gardens, where she surveyed the sunflowers, some small and pale yellow, others orange-yellow and much taller than they were; then she examined the brilliant red amaranth. The sunflowers and the amaranth were so robust they would have food all winter. The gardens were green with corn and bush beans; a few pods had already ripened and split, scattering beans on the sand. Sister Salt bent down to pick up the beans but Grandma Fleet shook her head firmly.
"Let them be," she said. That way, the old gardens would reseed themselves and continue as they always had, regardless of what might happen.
"What could happen, Grandma?" Indigo's question brought a groan of impatience from Sister Salt, who made a face at her, but Grandma laughed, then stopped to catch her breath. They had completed their walk past the garden terraces near the spring.
"Anything could happen to us, dear," Grandma Fleet said as she hugged Indigo close to her side. "Don't worry. Some hungry animal will eat what's left of you and off you'll go again, alive as ever, now part of the creature who ate you.
"I've been close to death a few times," Grandma Fleet said as she slowly made her way up the path. "I was so surprised the first time I wasn't even scared; after my first baby, your mother, was born, the bleeding would not stop."
"Did it hurt?" Sister Salt asked.
"Oh no, I felt no pain, that's why I wasn't scared. I thought dying hurt a great deal."
"But you didn't die," Indigo said.
"No, the old medicine woman gave me juniper berry tea and told me, 'You are needed here. We need you. This baby needs you.'" Grandma Fleet paused to catch her breath.
"The old woman scolded me while I drank the tea. 'Don't be lazy, young woman!'"
"Why did she say that, Grandma?" Indigo tried to imagine how one person scolded another for bleeding to death.
"Because dying is easy it's living that is painful." Grandma Fleet started walking again, slowly, leaning on the girls to steady herself.
"To go on living when your body is pierced by pain, to go on breathing when every breath reminds you of your lost loved ones to go on living is far more painful than death."
Big tears began to roll down Indigo's cheeks, but she didn't make a sound. Their mother must be dead or she would have come back by now. What had eaten Mama? Was she crawling around as a worm or running as a coyote?
They walked the rest of the way in silence. Sister Salt held her left arm and Indigo the right as Grandma inched her way down, down into her little dugout shelter by the apricot seedlings. Grandma Fleet settled down on her blanket with a loud sigh of pleasure and stretched herself out for a nap. She joked about sleeping so much and becoming lazy in her old age. Relaxed, with her eyes closed, Grandma Fleet talked about their dear ancestors, the rain clouds, until her words came slower and slower and she was snoring softly. Sister Salt felt her heart suddenly so full of love for Grandma, who always loved them, who always was there to care for them no matter what happened. Sister looked at the tiny figure on the old blankets breathing peacefully, and she realized, when the time came, Grandma Fleet intended to be buried there under her little apricot trees.
Indigo was the first one up the path that morning on her way to wash at the spring. As she passed Grandma Fleet's shelter, she called out, "Good morning," but was not alarmed when Grandma did not answer; in recent weeks Grandma slept later and later. Indigo was washing her face at the pool when Sister Salt came running and cried out Grandma was dead.
Indigo refused to help, but Grandma Fleet weighed hardly more than a big jackrabbit as Sister Salt gently shifted her body to wrap the blanket more securely. Indigo refused to scoop sand over the body. She sat flat on the sand, a distance away, with her back to her sister, too angry to cry, too angry to bury Grandma Fleet. All day Indigo sat on the same spot, with her back to the mound of sand, while Sister Salt tended the gardens as Grandma would have, pulling weeds around the squash and beans.
Late in the afternoon Sister Salt came slowly up the trail with gourd bowls in both hands. She placed the bowl full of squash and bean stew on the grave, then filled the other gourd bowl at the spring and arranged it next to the bowl of stew. She did not disturb Indigo but went back to get the remaining stew for her and Indigo to share.
At first Indigo refused to join her sister, who ate stew next to the mound of sand that covered Grandma Fleet. But the delicious odor of the stew finally won her over and Indigo, her eyes swollen and red, sullenly joined her sister. They ate in silence. Sister Salt watched the sun drop behind the sandstone cliffs and felt the breeze become cooler; the days were shorter though they were still quite warm, but the nights were already uncomfortable without a blanket.
Sister Salt continued to follow all of Grandma Fleet's instructions: as the beans and corn ripened, she dried them in the sun, then stored them in the huge pottery storage jars buried in the sand floor of the dugout house.
Indigo refused to sleep anywhere but the shallow hole she scooped out beside Grandma Fleet's grave. All day while Sister Salt toiled in the gardens, Indigo ignored her sister; Indigo had a favorite sandstone boulder next to the pool at the spring; here she spent most days, looking off into the distance, watching the trail to the big wash and the river because this was the trail Grandma Fleet used for her visit with Mrs. Van Wagnen, and when Mama returned, she would probably follow the same trail home.
As the days became shorter and the nights cooler, Indigo spent all day on the boulder, where the sun's heat felt delicious. She carried on imaginary conversations with Mama and with Grandma Fleet to pass the time. She told them how she and Sister Salt worked to put away the harvest, and she imagined how this must please them and the words of praise they would give if they were there. Sometimes she made up stories to amuse herself; she imagined that a golden eagle mother flew down and lifted her by the back of her dress, off the boulder, high into the sky. From so high up Indigo saw the entire world. She saw the river but it looked like a child's belt, thin and green on the edges and muddy red down the middle; the giant dunes glittered like big glass beads. Indigo searched for signs of the Messiah and his followers, but the mother eagle flew too high for Indigo to see human beings.
At night Indigo rolled herself tightly in her blankets and slept next to Grandma Fleet's grave and the apricot seedlings. She was not afraid because Grandma Fleet was right there even if Indigo couldn't see her, and she would protect Indigo from harm. Some nights Indigo heard voices by the spring, people speaking in happy tones with laughter; she knew she must not listen too closely or she might want to join them.
Indigo arranged herself in her sand burrow so the leaves of the little apricot trees shaded her head from the early morning sun. She was amazed at how much the little trees grew each day as the weather became cooler and the saplings did not have to endure the heat to survive. Each day she saw the tender bright green of new growth on the ends of the little branches. Sometimes when she felt lazy, Indigo lay on her back in her burrow to stare up at the rich green apricot leaves against the bright blue sky. She loved the colors of sky blue and leaf green together; only a few desert flowers were as blue as the sky. Her thoughts wandered as she watched the sky; she wondered where Mama and the Messiah and his family were now. Mrs. Van Wagnen might have news of the Messiah's whereabouts. Indigo wanted Sister Salt to take her to find the dancers.
Indigo felt better after she had the idea to visit Grandma's Mormon friend; she immediately joined Sister Salt at the floodplain garden, where the pumpkins and winter squashes waited to be carried to the dugout house. Indigo made a game of the harvest: the pumpkins and their companions, the squashes, were fat babies that hadn't learned to walk yet. Indigo carried them one by one, cradled in her arms, so that she would not damage them. When Sister Salt was out of sight, Indigo dressed the fat babies in skirts and hats she made from the big pumpkin leaves.
Indigo had not been inside the dugout house since Grandma Fleet died and she found that Sister Salt had moved everything around to make room for the shallow yucca baskets in which strips of pumpkin and squash were dried before they were stored in the back of the dugout house, up in the rafters. Every morning they carried the drying baskets outside to the sun, and each evening they brought them inside to protect them from rodents.
The rain was abundant that year and no hungry strangers appeared at the old gardens, and no Indian police watered thirsty mules at the spring. Still, the girls were ready in the event anyone came. Their plan was to run for palm grove canyon, where they'd stay until the danger was gone.
Indigo carried pumpkins and squash all day without stopping to rest; she ate handfuls of baby bean pods, and pumpkin flowers so sweet and tender that they melted in her mouth. From time to time she went to the spring to drink and wash off the sweat. The days were still quite warm, especially if one worked hard in the sun. Sister Salt didn't say much, but Indigo heard her hum a happy tune as she finished. The big pottery storage jars were full, their sandstone lids secure as she covered them with sand for safekeeping in the back of the dugout room.
At sundown, when the air cooled off, Sister Salt built a fire on the hearth outside and boiled a delicious stew of corn, beans, chiles, and pumpkin to celebrate. The harvest was gathered and Sister Salt knew Grandma Fleet was proud of her and Indigo too. After dinner, while the twilight was still bright, they ran laughing up the trail to the highest dune; they raced each other to the dune's steepest side, where they plunged each after the other headfirst, rolling end over end, screaming joyously all the while. So much sand got in their hair that they had to take turns with the yucca brush. Later a big moon, not quite full, flooded the dunes with silver blue light that made the big datura blossoms glow as they perfumed the evening air.
They walked to the springs to fill the big water gourd, and on the way down Indigo rolled up her bedding from the sandy burrow next to Grandma's grave and carried it back to the dugout house. They lay in their beds with the bright moonlight in the doorway, and they talked for a long time before they fell asleep. Indigo wondered what was taking Mama so long to get back to the old gardens; she wondered where the Messiah and his dancers were tonight.
Sister Salt talked about the train depot and the pasengers who used to buy the baskets she sold; a year ago at this time they were all still together with Mama and Grandma Fleet in the lean-to by the river at Needles. Sister Salt wondered if the Paiute women still lived there; they might have heard some news of Mama or at least they might know where the Messiah and his dancers were. The Paiutes said Jesus traveled east across the ocean from time to time, but was careful not to show himself because of the danger from police and soldiers. If the Messiah and his followers crossed the ocean, it might be some time before they returned here. As Indigo drifted off to sleep, Sister Salt said, "We can travel as soon as cooler weather comes."
With the harvest completed the girls were free to do as they pleased. The first few weeks they amused themselves with games of hide and seek and raced each other to the tops of the dunes. With a wad of rags, they even made a ball to kick. When they felt lazy, they played games Which Hand Holds the Pebble? and Gamblers' Sticks; the loser had to carry water or gather kindling alone. Indigo was ready to try something new every day, but Sister Salt began to feel impatient with the games.
Sister Salt realized if they wanted to find Mama they would have to leave the old gardens; if they went to Needles they would have to find some way to live. Sister Salt began to practice weaving yucca strips until the baskets she wove looked almost as good as Grandma Fleet's baskets. Now when Indigo proposed a race to the springs, or a game of hide-and-seek, Sister Salt shook her head.
While Indigo roamed the dunes and climbed the precarious paths up sandstone formations in the canyon, Sister Salt stayed at the dugout house, peeling thin yucca fibers to weave into baskets the way Grandma Fleet showed her. It wasn't easy: the sharp stiff yucca leaves had to be soaked all night, and even then, while she was working with it, the yucca dried out and cut her fingers until she wet it again.
Indigo did not understand her sister's odd change in mood, but after a few weeks, Indigo no longer had as much fun playing alone. Sister Salt showed her how to take a dried gourd and make a canteen for their long journey. Sometimes they worked in silence, each girl with her own thoughts; other times they talked about what they would do when cooler weather came.
One morning as the weather was beginning to cool, Sister Salt felt a cramp in her abdomen, and later she noticed an odd wetness between her legs. Now she reached to touch the wetness with her fingers and saw her first menstrual blood. Both Grandma and Mama promised last year she didn't have much longer to wait. That day the girls celebrated Sister's womanhood with a picnic at the date palm grove. A light breeze kept them comfortable as they hiked the narrow trail along the precipitous sandstone formations; far below, the giant dunes appeared to be anthills. Ripe orange-yellow date fruit was scattered all around the ground where they sat; scores of big brown ants worked feverishly to carry away bits of the fruit dropped by the birds. The water from the canteen tasted especially good because the dates were so sweet.
When Sister Salt went to relieve herself, Indigo came along too. She wanted to see the menstrual blood on Sister's legs. Indigo tried to peek, but Sister Salt frowned and turned away abruptly. When Indigo tried to look again, Sister whirled around angrily to face Indigo.
"None of your business!" she shouted. Indigo was too shocked to cry until Sister Salt strode away. Indigo meant no offense; how many times had they talked about menstruation with Grandma Fleet and Mama? Today was a day to celebrate. Why had Sister Salt acted so mean toward her? Hot tears ran down Indigo's cheeks. She had been so excited for her sister. Now, if Sister Salt wanted a baby, she could get one; they could raise it together. If it was a boy, they'd call him Raindrop; if the baby was a girl, they'd call her Sweet Black Corn. They wouldn't be alone then. But Sister Salt didn't want her. She wanted a man who could give her a baby. Indigo cried for Mama and Grandma Fleet. Who loved Indigo? Who wanted her? Where was Mama? She must not want her two girls anymore.
Sister Salt walked to the end of the box canyon, where the sandstone formed a natural barrier; she sat on a flattop boulder and closed her eyes. The warmth of the sun felt good on her abdomen. She was tired of being the one who had to teach Indigo everything.
When she returned to the palm grove, Indigo had already left for home without her. Sister Salt felt regret over her short temper with her little sister. She had been fortunate to be brought up by both Mama and Grandma Fleet. Indigo had no one now but her. Sister Salt knew it wasn't good for them to live alone for so long, and as she walked home, she began to think about what to do next.
The wind rustled the dry cornstalks and leaves as the sun went down. At that moment the sound of the wind in the dry stalks seemed like the saddest sound Sister Salt had ever heard; it seemed to say, "All gone, all gone"; her throat constricted with sadness until tears filled her eyes. She watched the evening star rise above the west horizon; somewhere Mama was watching the same star and thinking of her and Indigo.
The terraces in the dunes were still full of melons and squash even after their harvest; what a year for the old gardens! They grew enough to feed a whole family, not just themselves. What they could not store, they left to hungry creatures; ears of sweet black corn dried on the stalks, and big white tepary beans scattered themselves across the sand. Any hungry people who came to the old gardens were welcome to all the food they needed. Sister Salt was so lonely for another human face besides Indigo's; she began to wish someone, anyone except white men or Indian police would come.
Later that night, the wind blew in snow and sleet; Indigo fell asleep listening to the hiss of snowflakes in the hot coals. She wrapped up in her canvas shawl and pulled her share of the big quilt right in the doorway, close to the warm coals in the hearth outside. But as the direction of the wind changed during the night, raindrops sprinkled her face and she had to move away from the doorway, closer to Sister Salt. Indigo dragged her bedding across the sand floor, careful not to awaken Sister Salt, who stirred and muttered words in her sleep something about a basket.
The air smelled wonderfully wet and cold, just as it had the night last year when the Messiah came to their camp at Needles. Indigo imagined Mama and the Messiah and his family and his dancers. The snow was their season; somewhere tonight Mama was dancing so beautifully in the big circle, wrapped warm in her white shawl like the other dancers. As Indigo drifted off to sleep, she imagined how she and Sister Salt would travel north until they located the Messiah and his dancers.
By morning the snow melted and the sky cleared to bright blue; the sun warmed the damp air. Indigo announced that she wanted to go to Mrs. Van Wagnen's house to ask if she knew the whereabouts of the Messiah and the dancers. Sister Salt admitted she wanted to visit Grandma's friend.
They would go to Mrs. Van Wagnen and if she had no news of Mama, they'd return to the old gardens and wait for her. They had plenty of food stored; no need to risk a trip south to the reservation at Parker. If Mrs. Van Wagnen was not at home, they planned to camp near her house, then head north to Needles to see if any of their Paiute or Walapai friends still lived there.
Before they left, Indigo helped Sister Salt heap up rocks and block the entrance to their dugout house to give the appearance of abandonment to anyone who might come poking around the old gardens while they were gone. They filled their gourd canteens at the spring the night before, and in the excitement the next morning Indigo forgot; it wasn't until they reached the big wash and stopped for lunch that Indigo remembered: she forgot to say good-bye to Grandma Fleet and the apricot seedlings, and to the old gardens. Her thoughtlessness brought tears to her eyes and she wanted to turn back; at the same time she wanted to go on to find news of their mother.
Sister Salt noticed the sudden change in Indigo's mood and guessed its source immediately; it was as if the old gardens and Grandma Fleet herself were telling them, "Come home. Don't go." Sister Salt gently patted Indigo's back until she wiped her eyes on the back of her hand and glanced over her shoulder in the direction they had just come. She felt the old gardens' call herself, but the old gardens and Grandma Fleet weren't searching for Mama like they were. Indigo had the saddest feeling they would not be able to return to the old gardens for a long time.
They slept until moonrise, then made their way across the sandy plain of greasewood and cholla cactus between the high sandstone plateau and the sandhills above the river valley. When they reached open terrain, they covered their heads with their bundles and slept until darkness came to protect their travel.
Late the following day they reached the sandhills that overlooked the muddy red water that was edged in lovely willow green and dark cattail green. How exciting to reach the river! They put down their bundles and held hands and danced around to celebrate. Now that they were at the river, they had to be alert and watchful. Indigo wanted Sister Salt to point out Mrs. Van Wagnen's house and gardens, but the groves of cottonwood trees and willows along the river concealed the place.
They followed game trails, sometimes on their hands and knees, through the willow and tamarisk thickets, to conceal themselves from anyone who might also be there to ford the river. Sister Salt moved carefully, and stopped every four steps to listen intently, then motioned for Indigo to come on. The muddy red water slowly threaded between sand bars as its flow waned. In flood season no one crossed the river unless they took the ferry at Yuma, but when the river was low, as it was now, it was possible to wade across here, where the river shallows were bedrock. Sister Salt broke off two stout willow branches and stripped off the leaves for walking sticks to help them keep their footing when they crossed.
They waited for the twilight to darken before they crossed. Indigo gasped at the cold water up to her knees; out in the middle it might be waist deep, so they removed their dresses and tied them to the bedrolls that they balanced on their heads like odd hats. Indigo felt the pull of the river's current, gentle at first but increasing in strength as they reached the middle of the river. The water was scarcely above Indigo's thighs but she had to hold tight to Sister Salt and to the stick to resist the current.
"Use your stick to hold you!" Sister Salt said after she turned and saw Indigo hesitate in midstream. Indigo pushed the willow stick hard into the river bottom ahead of her to keep from being carried along by the red water. Two more steps and the water wasn't as deep; two more steps and the water barely reached Indigo's thighs. It was easy then, and Indigo walked faster; she let go of the willow stick too soon, and as she went to step up on the riverbank she slipped and fell. Sister Salt was only inches away and grabbed hold of Indigo's bedroll to help her out; at the river's edge, the water was only ankle deep. Indigo scrambled up the sandy bank, breathless but smiling because her bedroll and dress were still dry.
There was no moon. At the old gardens the sand dunes reflected the light of the stars, but here the willows and big cottonwood trees seemed to absorb all light. Indigo wanted to go to Mrs. Van Wagnen's house immediately, but Sister Salt said they might frighten the poor woman if they showed up after dark. They would sleep there tonight and go to Mrs. Van Wagnen's early in the morning just before sunup so no one would see them. The coolness of the river bottom settled over them as they ate parched corn and dried pumpkin. They each shared part of the big quilt as they huddled together. Indigo wanted to build a little fire, but Sister Salt was wary. Any strangers nearby would find them, and Mrs. Van Wagnen might see the fire or smell the smoke and be frightened.
Sister Salt listened to Indigo's breathing; a great horned owl hoo-hooed to her mate from the cottonwood trees across the river. What a lovely evening for people and owls, she thought. Sand Lizard people weren't afraid of horned owls the way some people were.
Sister Salt listened intently for a long time for any sounds that might come from the direction of Mrs. Van Wagnen's house didn't Grandma Fleet mention that her Mormon friend had a dog? Mormons ate cooked food every night Sister Salt tried to catch a whiff of wood smoke from Mrs. Van Wagnen's stove, but the breeze smelled only of the river mud and the willow leaves.
The cold woke Indigo from her dream just as the sky to the east began to lighten; in the dream, she was at the train depot in Needles. She helped Sister Salt arrange the baskets for sale before the passengers got off the train that approached from the east.
Her breath made steam in the air in front of her so Indigo scooted down under the blanket and cuddled up to Sister Salt. It was too cold to get up without a campfire; she'd wait for the sun. The sky above the cottonwoods was pale yellow; the puffy clouds on the horizon were edged in red, pink, and gold. Although neither she nor Sister Salt had ever been to Mrs. Van Wagnen's house, still Indigo imagined how it looked when Grandma Fleet described her visits there: surrounded by towering cottonwood trees that shaded and protected it from view, Indigo imagined; a big house like the ones she'd seen in Needles with flower gardens and rosebushes in the front yard, and corn, tomatoes, and squash in the backyard.
As they moved through the willow and cottonwood forest, the light of the sunrise was filtered through the flickering cottonwood leaves. Sister Salt listened: long-tail grackles chattered at two crows who scolded them from the next tree, a mourning dove called her mate to the river, and a fly buzzed near her hand. But she didn't hear Mrs. Van Wagnen chop wood or the dog bark, and she signaled Indigo to continue but to move as quietly as possible. From time to time Sister Salt sniffed the air for the odor of wood smoke or the odor of cooked food, but she smelled only the willows' sweet scent and the mossy dampness of the river.
Sister Salt let out a gasp when she saw the burned ruins of the house and the barn; the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She felt a wave of icy sweat break out on her forehead. Purple daisylike flowers with bright yellow eyes had grown up through the charred debris. The fire must have come in the spring or even last winter. The door to the root cellar had been splintered with an axe, and shards of shattered canning jars littered the ground around the cellar entrance; someone had dumped all that good food in the sand. Who had hated Mrs. Van Wagnen so much? Even the fence wire was torn away from the fence posts around the chicken yard and the backyard garden; here and there among the wild amaranth, wild asters, and mustard weeds were also a few bean and pea plants and a squa sh vine.
The girls ate the beans and peas right from the pods. Sister Salt found a patch of coriander and they ate it by the handful, though Indigo preferred it with rock salt. Sister showed Indigo the front yard with Mrs. Van Wagnen's "garden ladies" dressed in pink, yellow, white, and red. The hollyhocks stood taller than the fence posts, and the blossoms resembled the sunbonnets Mormon women wore; the round corollas resembled tiny faces. Indigo pushed her way past the crowd of hollyhock ladies only to discover, wherever their wide skirts of leaves brushed her legs or arms, she itched.
The small garden gate was left untouched, and the climbing red roses grew around the gate so thickly that it no longer closed; long, leafy branches thick with roses reached out in all directions. Sister Salt picked a rose, sniffed it, and handed it to Indigo, who couldn't help herself: the rose smelled so delicious Indigo nibbled the petals and swallowed them.
Beyond the garden gate where the orchard had been, the grass and wild aster grew taller than the girls; but all of the wonderful peach and apricot trees had been chopped down, their dry remains overgrown with weeds. Sister Salt knelt down to examine a dry branch, and among the dead twigs and leaves she found a tiny shriveled apricot. She felt herself give way inside; something broke, and she was overwhelmed by the loss of something that fed so many hungry beings as the orchard had at the destruction of something as beautiful as the peach and apricot blossoms in the spring. If this was what the white people did to one another, then truly she and the Sand Lizard people and all other Indians were lucky to survive at all. These destroyers were out to kill every living being, even the Messiah and his dancers.
Indigo came running with a skirtful of marigolds and found Sister Salt crying. Indigo patted her on the back and tried to console her but Sister Salt angrily pulled away from her. If that was how her sister wanted to behave, then Indigo would go explore by herself. She avoided the ruins of the house and the barn because she detected a faint but terrible odor still there. She stayed on the ground in the garden, hidden among the hollyhock plants so dark red they were almost black as dried blood.
Later Sister Salt joined Indigo among the hollyhocks and the bees; they sat in silence on their bedrolls, shaded by long snaking branches of fragrant red roses Indigo liked to nibble. Sister still didn't speak; Indigo thought she must be sick because she did not eat when Indigo took out the parched corn and the dried dates. She even refused the gourd canteen when Indigo passed it. All afternoon Indigo watched anxiously as Sister alternately dozed or wept softly.
As the sun made its descent, the great canopy of cottonwood leaves left them in deep shade; the burnt ruins of the house and barn seemed to loom larger in the shadows. The horrible scorched odor from the debris seemed to increase until Indigo could not stop it even with a handful of roses pressed to her mouth and nose. Suddenly Indigo knew they had to get away from this place right away.
"Hurry!" she said, tugging Sister Salt's arm, "get up! I think someone is coming!" Sister Salt jumped up with a wild, confused expression on her face; Indigo grabbed her bedroll and canteen and ran for the river. Once they were deep in the willow thicket on the sandy bank just above the water's surface, Sister motioned for Indigo to stop; the moist air along the river carried sounds a great distance. Now they could hear voices and the creak and low rumble of wagon wheels; they flattened themselves on their bellies in the sand and pulled their blankets over their heads. They held their breaths and listened. The river bottom was slipping into darkness though the sky to the west was still bright gold with the sunset. The wagon sound stopped and more voices could be heard, then the sound of an axe; not long afterward, woodsmoke wafted in the air.
A dog barked. They lay motionless for so long Indigo's legs felt numb. She smelled meat cooking. The voices were no longer as loud and she imagined they were eating. She uncurled her legs from her belly and stretched; she slowly moved each limb one at a time, careful not to rustle even one dry willow leaf.
Sister Salt listened as closely as she could to the voices. They were white people, no question about that; no Indian, not even the Indian police, talked that loud unless they were drunk. If they were only white people, then she and Indigo had a good chance of escaping in the middle of the night; but if this was an army patrol, there would be Indian policemen. Maybe this was how it was meant to be, Sister thought; this is how we will find Mama.
Suddenly Indigo felt something heavy a pressure on her back that pinned her to the ground; for an instant she thought it might be Sister Salt playing a joke. When she raised up it was too dark to see clearly, but she felt someone grab her by the shoulders and lift her off the ground. She twisted away and fought with all her strength to break free of the hands, but it was no use.
The small white dog the Indian police brought along loved to play with children, so they used the dog to locate them. The dog barked and wagged its tail excitedly whenever children were nearby. Now the white dog anxiously licked the girls' legs and sniffed their hands, tied to the rope knotted above their ankles. The mules, staked out in tall grass near the wagon, were hobbled and tied in the same manner. The policemen knew from experience how fast these wild Indians could escape.
The big policeman lifted them one by one into the back of the wagon with a canvas cover; with their hands and feet tied they landed hard on the rough floorboards of the wagon. The girls wiggled close to each other and managed to sit up; they tried to brace their feet because the wagon was loaded with crates and heavy parcels that shifted dangerously as the wagon bumped along.
The big policeman who drove the wagon was kind enough to lift them out and loosen their ropes so they could step behind a sage bush to urinate. He had younger sisters himself, he said, at White River; he spoke a few words of their language but preferred to talk to them in English to show off. Neither sister would reply to him, but the big Apache did not seem offended or angered; he liked to talk. From time to time one of the other Indian policemen, on horseback, would ride alongside the wagon and converse in Apache; but the six white soldiers rode ahead separately. The soldiers were along only to protect the Indian policemen from angry parents who refused to surrender their children for school.
The first night he untied their hands and fed them the same army rations he and the others ate. He apologized for leaving their ankles tied together and told them about the Mojave and Chemehuevi children who ran away the instant he untied them. He warned them not to throw themselves from the wagon either, because last year a Walapai boy was killed that way.
"He was all tied up so I don't know why he rolled himself out the back," the policeman said, shaking his head slowly as he opened a little can of beans with his knife.
He knows the boy preferred death, but he won't say that to us. What a coward this big Apache is! Sister Salt thought as she moistened the edge of the hard biscuit between her lips. All the way to Parker, the big Apache talked; he talked about his family back at Turkey Creek. He talked about his years at the Indian School in Phoenix, where he played catcher on the school baseball team.
The only time the policeman was quiet was while he ate. He tossed the empty bean can on the ground and pointed off in the distance toward the south.
"Yuma is right over there," he said. "Don't look so worried, girls. You'll be surprised at how fast the train goes."
Tears began to roll down Indigo's cheeks the longer he talked. If Mama was in prison in Yuma, how could they ever find Mama before the train took them away? Sister Salt whispered her escape plan to Indigo: wait until the policeman lifted them out of the back of the wagon and untied their legs, then dash off as fast as they could for the hills.
"I can't run as fast as you!" Indigo sobbed. "Please don't go without me!" Sister Salt put her head close to Indigo's and whispered in a soothing tone: "Don't cry, little sister, don't cry. Grandma Fleet got away. We'll get away too.
"We won't get in a hurry. We'll save a little food from each meal, hide it so we can carry a little food with us. Cool weather is the best time to travel."
They whispered strategies and plans to each other all the way to Yuma. They tried to say everything they needed to tell each other because it might be a long time before they were together again.
Meet the Author
Leslie Marmon Silko, a former professor of English and fiction writing, is the author of novels, short stories, essays, poetry, articles, and screenplays. She has won numerous awards and fellowships for her work. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
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If someone had described this book to me, I would have probably never picked it up. I was enthralled with the way Silko wove so many pieces together! I felt like I got many different stories at once, yet all the same. I came away from it very satisfied.
The first chapter of this book was hard for me to get into, and I thought I would be disappointed in this book. But, I stuck with it, and soon I couldn't put it down! It turns out to be a wonderful read. There is so much going on with the characters, you can't wait to find out what will happen to them, and if the sisters will ever be reunited together in their 'Gardens in the Dunes.'