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Niłtóli in the Field


Loley Line Drawing_edited.jpg

35.6781° N, 108.1512° W

NIŁTÓLI WAS IN THE FIELD. A dry wind rustled the grasses around her, circling her outstretched arms and resting in her palms before whipping toward the south. The extending wind blew dust into the air, whirling and gliding up the dirt road into the fields and up the mesa further west. Niłtóli watched the wind’s ascension, and she was reminded of her cheii sání’s horses galloping up a ravine many years ago, their movements swift and smooth despite the rough terrain. What happened to those horses? What color were they? Did they make a thunderous sound? She thought hard, trying to will her mind into remembering. It was no use. An old woman now, her memories appeared in bursts, like lightning flashing across the firmament of her mind. What came back to her was the grace of a horse—with arrowheads embedded in its hooves and surrounded by mirage stone; sturdy legs wrapped in varied lightning that carried it rapidly across the earth; its long tail, straight like sheet rain, swaying between powerful haunches; the eyes, shiny like stars on the horizon and filled with a deep understanding; and its breath like early morning mist clouding into the air. How her cheii sání loved his horses; he would sing to them while brushing their mane, calling on the original horses—horses imbued with essences of white shell, turquoise, abalone shell, and jet—to lend their vitality to their descendants and to bless him and his family many times over. She could hear the melody in her cheii sání’s deep and textured voice, like the rumbling of a mountain. He always said his songs came from deep within, drawn from the source, from the initial moments where these songs were created and passed through each person that learned the song until it reached them in their present moment. How these songs connected with something inside her, vibrating into her soul, and sometimes even bringing her to tears. She hummed along with the song sounding from her memory, sweeping and swelling, but incomplete; she could not remember it all. She hummed in loops, the tune turning, turning, turning into itself, and the wind kept rushing, intertwining with Niłtóli’s humming and the grasses swaying into each other and murmuring hwoosh hwoosh. A white horse emerged from over a hill in the east, walking carefully between dull bushes and greyed cacti, until it reached a makeshift crossroad across the field from where Niłtóli stood. It was midday but the sky was dark. Grey bellied clouds churned overhead. What season was it? Winter? Summer? Niłtóli couldn’t remember. But the clouds were round and heavy with the promise of moisture. Against the muted sky and the wilted earth, the white horse stood luminous and pristine like snow way up on the mesa, in the rocky place where waters collected; and it was then, watching the white horse make its way slow and calm that Niłtóli felt like she was present but not present; that something was amiss. She could feel the forgotten thing moving in the obscured parts of her mind, and she continued to hum. The white horse lifted its head and looked in Niłtóli’s direction. Its ears were pointed, and they twitched with each new sound. Her cheii sání had told her that the Small Wind, the same wind that guided the Warrior Twins in battle, resided in a horse’s ears so they could hear much more than a human could, even things that couldn’t be seen, only felt. Can this horse hear a heart beating? Or an incomplete song from a memory? Niłtóli felt like the horse could even sense her thoughts, and so she asked for help remembering. The white horse shook its mane and galloped southward, disappearing over a distant hill. Niłtóli listened for the white horse until it sounded like soft thunder far off. She stood still in the unfolding quiet, watching the bulbous clouds begin to burst in the south, shadowing the sky in a dense blue that made her shiver. She pulled her flowered scarf over her head and tied the loose ends into a knot under her chin. The scarf was a gift from her late husband. He had been gone for a week with no word but she had begun to accept his drunken habits. In their old house, the one he worked on for many months, taking longer breaks so he could drink with his cousins for days at a time, she mixed dough in a large ceramic bowl her mother sent with her. She was young and had enough energy to make tortillas and stir potatoes frying on the stove top while watching their five children. He drove up with his cousin, Paul, and when he stepped into their house, she could smell the alcohol on his breath. He pulled her close, trying to kiss her, and he apologized for being away so long but that it was okay because he only thought about her. She focused her attention on preparing the meal and pushed him away. In the background, on the radio that was always on and tuned to the Diné station, Loretta Lynn sang about her own man coming home drunk with lovin’ on his mind. She had laughed, then, at the timing of the song and how stupid she had been for believing him. Still, their life together calmed, like a storm breaking over the mesa, and they grew old together, their children grew up and had children of their own and they became grandparents, grandparents that loved their grandchildren more than anything in this world. All her prayers had been answered, and they grew into the people they had always wanted to be. When he passed away, she didn’t cry in front of anyone, not at the funeral or the family gathering afterward, and not when her adult children hugged her and broke down. Instead, she pulled them close, running her fingers through their hair like when they were small, whispering “áshinee’ shiyázhí” and reminding them that they weren’t supposed to cry too hard because that would just keep their father’s spirit around longer than it needed to be. They marveled at her demeanor and labeled it strength, not realizing how much their mother thought about him, dreamt about their life together, and eventually cried so hard she lost her breath. She was a strong woman, she knew that, but it was the small moments that undid her—the smell of fried chili and onions with warm tortillas, his favorite; any time Elvis played on the Diné radio station and his velvety voice filled the kitchen her husband built just for her; when her sons and grandsons chopped wood and she could still imagine him seated at the wood pile instructing them and telling jokes; each time she fed his dirty old dog, Tsį́į́ł, who wasn’t speedy anymore and looked at her with his wide brown eyes asking where did he go?; and now, the warmth of the scarf he had given her keeping her ears warm. The cold wind brushed her face and dried the tears beading down her cheeks. She wiped her eyes and continued walking. Still a couple of miles away, the storm dragged its greyed skirt over the earth, obscuring the mountain that loomed in the south, the one her másání called Dził Nizhóni. She imagined its jagged outline piercing low hanging clouds, the already streaming moisture becoming a torrent, and the land shrouded and indistinguishable from the sky. Would anyone come for her then? Or would the cold shock of clouds rupturing onto the land and onto her bring the forgotten thing back? Like plunging into an icy river, each nerve sparked back to life. Could anything bring it back? Trying to remember, to corral the unbroken horses that were her thoughts, made her heart beat quicker, and her head ache. On regular days, when her memory was mist, she would busy herself sewing a skirt for her granddaughters or cleaning around the house. There was always something to be done. But here, in the field, she felt uprooted, like she wasn’t a mother nor a grandmother. Only a woman. Only a woman in a field lost in her thoughts. She neared the crossroad. It was a rocky place with geometric cuts in smooth sandstone and sharper, jagged rocks sticking out of the sand. In the summer, when monsoon rains galloped through their valley, flood waters streamed down from the mesa, flowing through the fields and onto the crossroad before spilling into the ravine carved from years of erosion. How she loved the sound of rushing water and the quiet cool that settled over the land. She used to walk down to the crossroad, making her way carefully through slow moving murky water, with her smallest child tied to her back and her other children holding hands in a row, following closely behind. Near the crossroad, she would sit on a boulder beneath a twisted juniper tree, her brown feet submerged in the brown water. She watched her children splash around. Their laughter mixed with the sound of water gurgling past them and the throaty song of frogs awakening from their long-time hibernation deep in the desert. The world came alive with the monsoon rains. Soon, the land would blossom, and sunflowers would grow in brilliant yellow patches in their valley and on the mesas. After the flood waters subsided, and the mud dried, Niłtóli and her children prepared for long walks up the mesa to collect wildflowers and all kinds of plants to dye sheep wool for weaving. She packed spam sandwiches, Shasta sodas, halved jalapenos, and water for their journey. In the early morning, before the day was hot, they walked east, toward a tall mesa. They walked for a long time, through the fields until they ascended the mesa, and reached a place her mother had called Gáagii Bighan. For an hour or two, she picked plants and wildflowers for the colors they would offer her weavings; nidíyílii, sunflowers with their golden petals, ts’ah, wild sage that grew only in higher places with its greyed green petals, and the rest she could not remember. In her memories, there were only sunflowers and wild sage and bags stuffed with the most beautiful plants, their aroma following her as she walked. But here, seated atop a large boulder under the contorted juniper tree near the crossroad, there were no wildflowers. No colorful plants. Niłtóli looked out over the field and she saw only scraggly grey bushes and dulled yucca with drooping blossoms. Where were the wildflowers? Perhaps they followed the moisture and grew elsewhere. Her cheii sání used to say the Plant People followed the moisture and if they didn’t feel respected by the people, then they would go away. Once, a long time ago, they even returned to the worlds below their current Glittering World and for many years, there was only drought and dry winds. Did that awful time come again? Did the Plant People get tired of being mistreated? Niłtóli heard about the craziness of bilagáanas and their mining of Earth Woman’s innards. She remembered driving into town and when they passed through the canyon that led them out to the overlook, and she could see far off in the distance toward Kin Dootł’izhii, how smoke curled into the sky from the mine and she imagined the Earth wheezing. Late into the night, the mine’s orange lights would cast a sickly glow onto the darkness spread out overhead and the stars in the northeast would be obscured. Who would make the journey this time? Who would travel several worlds below to ask for forgiveness? Niłtóli shook her head. Some of the mist inside her cleared. She watched crows take flight from the mesa, their black bodies tiny specks in the gray sky. Her thoughts felt like that sometimes—jet black crows coasting on unruly winds. She watched the crows disappear. Nearby, mą’ii’s intermittent howl rose from the fields, its staccato rhythm drawn out and spreading into the darkening land around her. Who was it that told her stories about mą’ii? Who was it that told her about the time mą’ii was swindled by the deer and how he burned his children? Who was it that told her about mą’ii calling the rain on a hot summer day? What about mą’ii overstaying his welcome and eventually eating the kind and hospitable horned toad? Or the time mą’ii watched the other deities carefully placing the stars in the sky but became impatient so he haphazardly flung them into the darkness above himself? Who had told her those stories? Absent was the storyteller. Only the stories glimmered in her memory. Mą’ii continued to shout into the sky, perhaps calling the approaching storm to reach him quicker. The storm was nearly overhead now. Niłtóli could see flurries of snow like a curtain drawn from the depths of robust clouds. The land beyond the curtain was indistinguishable from the sky. An icy stillness blurred the boundaries and quieted everything it touched. It spread gradually, the snowy curtain dusting the land in white, a bright white like the stars Niłtóli could see breathing on the horizon. Snowflakes were carried in a breath of wind, drifting in a particular rhythm that reminded her of deities in winter ceremonies dancing. Snow glistened on their painted bodies, in their evergreen collars, in their swaying tails, and filled their footsteps. Niłtóli could see them clearly now. She smiled, feeling safe and grounded. Behind the deities dancing in the snow, a brilliant white horse galloped into view, kicking up whirls of snow, and soft thunder resounded in its wake.

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MANNY LOLEY is a Diné storyteller from Tsetah Tó Ák'olí on the Navajo Nation. His stories, poems, and other writings have been published widely, including in Poetry Magazine, the Massachusetts Review, Pleiades Magazine, the Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature, among others. He holds a Ph.D. in English and Literary Arts from the University of Denver. 


My homeland is my heart. Any time I travel, my homeland travels with me in mind, in my heart, and in my work. For Diné folks, our connection to our homeland is a central component of our humanity. We must always remember this.

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