Navajo Woman short fiction by Dawn Bear

Fiction Short written by Dawn Bear Published in The Yellow Medicine Review

1st Place Creative Writing Contest at Mesa Community College

Navajo Woman

Dust bunnies scurry through the illuminations of morning sunshine peeking through the gaps in the blinds.  The newspaper smells dusty and comforting.  My feet burrow beneath the pillows at the head of the bed to keep them warm. I can hear the distant clanking of dishes through the crack in the bedroom door.  My cheeks burn with anger at the content. I run my fingers through my uncombed hair, catching them on tangled knots.  I shake the loose strands from the webs connecting my fingers, unraveling the dark brown threads as my mind drifts back to a memory of sixth grade, the year my mother disappeared from my life, because if she were there I’m not sure she would’ve signed the permission slip…

***

I see her laying stiff and awkward, a showpiece, magically lit from within, as if Snow White lay there slumbering. Ignoring the framed shapes and colors that cover elevated walls, I feel myself drawn to the figure embodied by glass so clear and shiny that it reflects the light like a kaleidoscope, while managing to mirror a swampy image that resembles me. My sneakers quack across the marble floors as I timidly reach out toward her hand, my fingers forced to bow at the knuckle when I contact the cold, hard glass. Circling the glass enclosure, like crows circling the dead, fingerprints smudge the perfection of the surface until I come to rest hands and chin on the plane above her feet. Clumps of green-gray skin, leathered from time, cling to fossilized bone like moss to stone.  Hair wispily strings from her skull, knotted and dulled like shredded yarn.  Eye sockets empty, her mouth gawks open like she might be laughing.  The fingers curl, as if they were left in the act of doing some every day thing, maybe running through the tangles of hair to weave a braid or left clinging to the hand of a loved one.

“Miss Weaver!” I know who it is by the tone of voice, the sharp mousiness that isn’t accustomed to yelling, but does so anyway.

“Yes, Mrs. Johnson?” I respond, still mesmerized by what I see before me and the little black plaque with golden letters laying at her feet simply stating: Navajo Woman.

“Ashlee Weaver!” this time she nudges me slightly, forcing my attention on her. “These items are meant to be viewed, not to be handled!” Her lipstick has worn and an earring has strayed into the fray of a scarf she wears.

I wrench my body away from the display, struggling to focus my attention on the sixth grade teacher.

“What do you find so fascinating about this thing when there are so many beautiful relics on display today?” her eyes wander exaggeratedly around the room. I wonder if she knows I’m Navajo, well half. Can a person be two things at one time? White and Navajo? 

“I got a dress just like that,” I say, chewing on my lower lip, hands and feet fidgeting.

“Like this?” she points to her oversized brown sheet decorated here and there with buttons that hang at odd angles, cinched somewhere between folds of skin by an invisible string.

“No, like that,” I correct her, pointing to the woman encased like the class turtle, enveloped in wool dyed black with a mirrored pattern of red to reveal the diamond shaped four sacred mountains.

Her face melts, eyeballs slightly pop and jaw dropped to reveal lines of teeth capped in silver. I see her picking me apart. The stringy brown hair, roughly thrown back in a sloppy ponytail, the light brown skin and high cheek bones hidden beneath cushions of rounded baby fat. She shakes her head.

“Oh, you mean you have a costume like that at home, like one for Halloween?”

I can feel my face distort, eyebrows meeting in unison, nostrils flaring, lips pursed tightly together.

“It’s NOT a costume!” I complain, liquid anger burning in my eyes.

“But I’ve met your dad, sweetie. Are you saying that he collects Indian relics?”

“Mrs. Johnson, don’t you know I’m Navajo!?” I shout, not able to control the acid bubbling inside my belly, erupting into high pitched vapors of rage.  Eyes whisper gooseflesh over my skin, raising the hairs like a five o‘clock shadow, I know I‘ve broken a rule.  I‘ve spoken out loud in a place where even a sigh can echo, making me visible, shedding my white cloak of camouflage.

“Well, I’ve only met your father, hon,” she scowls silently and shoos me away.

***

“What are you reading?” Sam interrupts my thoughts, leaning down to kiss my forehead, a gesture I find annoying, and a bit too fatherly for a guy I’m supposed to be dating.

“Just an article,” I sit up, grabbing one of the pillows that warmed my feet and lay it across my lap as a shield against his advances and continue reading.

“About?” he prods, taking up the space beside me. If he were a cat, he’d be laying on top of the newspaper.

I set the article to the side, rolling my eyes, as I gently massage my neck, hoping to rub out some of the irritation from the memory. “It’s about museums having to return human remains to Native American Tribes.”

“What’s that all about?” his voice is unemotional, robotic, ice.

I look at him, craning my neck slightly to do so. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve seen those signs that say this exhibit may contain human remains. I don’t get the purpose of it,” he says, leaning back on the bed, relaxing his posture, like he was posing for a magazine, my friends would call it the Charlton Heston pose.  I stifle a laugh trying to imagine him snuggling with a pair of guns, lying on a bear rug.

“Is it for religious purposes or something?” he continues, staring at his fingernails.

I inhale, fidget with the newspaper, shredding pieces, finding the sound relaxing. “For religious purposes, but also for other reasons,” my head tilts slightly to the side.  “Think about it. Are there any human remains of European ancestry in museums?” My eyes flutter around the room, sometimes pausing on the newspaper, but can’t meet his gaze.

“Cro-Magnon man,” he answers decisively.

The heat rises to my cheeks, my eyes engorge his person like a flame to a straw house, my words feel like they are stuck dangling from my uvula forcing me to clear my throat several times before I can speak again.

“Are you serious!?” It feels like a humming bird is battering against my chest. Looking at him doesn’t make me want to laugh anymore.  Maybe I’m being a hypocrite?

“Explain it to me then, cuz I don’t understand the big deal,” he sits up and mirrors me, sitting cross-legged, which for him seems uncomfortable.

I don’t know if I should tell him about my experience as a girl, sometimes I don’t even know if he thinks of me as being Navajo.  I remember sitting in a room full of his friends one night at a music festival in Jerome enjoying a beer and one of his friends saying, to no one in general, “I really like Jerome, it’s like being in Flagstaff, only without all the drunk Navajos.” It was enjoyable to offer her a cigarette and tell her I’m Navajo.

“There is a big difference between Cro-Magnon man and the remains in those museums,” I toss the pillow aside, pausing for a moment to collect the best approach. “Can you honestly say that you or anyone else you know would claim Cro-Magnon man as their grandfather, brother, or uncle?” He looks at me like I’ve told him a corny joke, the kind you find on popsicle sticks. “The indigenous remains in those museums are sometimes less than a hundred years old, and yes most are older, but think about it, that person could be MY great grandmother, aunt or ancestor.”

“But don’t you think it’s important to know about your ancestors? I mean think about all the things that science can do with those remains!” I don’t know if it’s the activity in his brain or if the light shining through the window has brightened, but his eyes radiate a brilliant blue, and his hands dance in excitement, like he is parading a pair of puppets.

“Science?” I laugh, shoulders falling. “What about how most of those remains were stolen from sacred burial sites? Does it matter to science that those are people too?”

My brain feels scattered, I can feel myself starting to wander into too many directions at once. I’m tired.  He looks at me, a hand reaches out to touch mine, like I’m in need of consoling. My body tenses as I force myself not to withdraw from him.

I exhale heavily, chest falling, not realizing I’d been holding my breath. I look at Sam, at the intent eyes that always meet mine, waiting even when mine are fleeting, and decide.

“When I was in middle school we went on a field trip and I saw the remains of a Navajo Woman,” I begin, head lowered, not meeting his gaze. “All my classmates ignored her, but I couldn’t stop looking at her because what I saw was that she was Navajo and so was I and I didn’t understand why she was on display like that.  And she had these hands…” I stop myself. I look at him and I’m not sure if he understands, but his eyes are there unwavering. I shake the image of the hands away physically. “What I saw…what I felt was this feeling of being different, but also like being invisible, or more like not existing any more because only things like dinosaurs and dead artists paintings belong in museums. Do you get what I’m trying to say, Sam?”

I withhold from him that for years after the field trip that I had nightmares of her haunting me, that my aunts had to take me to a medicine man, because if I told him those things he would only call me superstitious.

“I’m sorry I don’t know much about these things, hon,” he says patting my hand, like I’m sitting on a bed in a cancer ward instead of at his home. The rough mounds of dead skin, where calluses have built up, benevolently caress the flat, velvety back of my hand. His fingertips trace the outlines of mine, and I think about the “Navajo Woman,” of her hands, of how I used to dream about her fingers curling into my ribcage in an attempt to tickle me, but it‘d always hurt.