Pa was a poor corn farmer. Mama sewed together skins so that we didn’t go around bare-cheeked, only barefoot. My feet were tough as a washboard by the time I started walking. Dirt had long worked its way under my bitten nails.
We lived on a modest seventeen acres in the southeast of nowhere. The ground was barely fertile for the few crops Pa tried to grow. I assume my mother took pity on him. Her given Apache name was Ch’igoná’áí meaning sun. The indaa called her Helen when they took her from her westerly homeland. The white man took her far east from her home as a young girl. Pa’s given name was Asher Vaughn Emerson but most everyone knew him by “Emerson”. He was “Tsu’kanonaí” to mama. Tried as he did, he never could get a seed to sow, until he met mama and then I came along. They didn’t have two pennies to rub together and were it not for mama’s sewing and weaving skills, we would have spent many more nights with empty stomachs. Pa traded what he could. Sometimes he would be gone for a week at a time. Mama and I would make the most of the rationed food while he was away. She would slaughter the occasional chicken if we worked our way through the remaining rations. Pa had grown up poor, orphaned before he had turned three, he was raised by his Uncle Silas. He learned to ride fast and hard. He had a sharp eye and a certain fearlessness that tended to bleed ignorance. He sat me in the saddle the minute I could hold myself upright and he was lucky to get me off before dusk from that day forward. My brother was born three weeks after I turned five. I remember the stillness that took to everything before he came into the world. By then Pa had configured to have me haul the plow on the horse. Several failed attempts later marked the fourth time Pa had to use his full body weight to unearth the damned thing. Two rough lines in and I continued plowing rock. Pa followed along, kicking up dust, tossing rocks and muttering curse words under his breath. Long days were spent carving deep lines into the Earth under the basking sun. It took us a week to plow what would only tide us over for the winter. Mama and I went out with week-old Dusty to plant the corn seeds after all was said and done. He was small enough to be wrapped in rabbit fur, snuggly nestled into the cradleboard upon her back, he barely roused when she bent over to set the seeds in the earth. Pa was gone again already by the week’s end. Mama bowed and spoke carefully, “Ga lu lo hi gi ni du da (sky our grandfather), nu da wa gi ni li si (moon our grandmother), e lo hi gi ne tse (earth our Mother), ga li e li ga (I am thankful), si gi ni gé yu (we love each other), o sa li he li ga (we are grateful).”
I dipped my head, praying for rain.
That winter, three-quarters of the crop died. We ate what little Pa managed to hunt. Mama made stews and bread that kept us only mostly full. She always prayed over the animals he hunted, thanking the Great Spirit for its charity. I couldn’t help but only hear the ravenous growling of my stomach.
Corn was convenient. Everyone else seemed to grow it in the south where confederate flags flew overhead. Pa tried tobacco out of desperation one season, but the seeds never took. When I turned eleven, he took me and Dusty hunting with him. Dusty was six but he could hit a moving target at 30 miles per hour riding bareback. We were gone for three days, following the singular creek flowing near the edge of our land. The dry, cracked earth on the south side was adorned only in chaparral–tall grasses and the occasional languid “itlugv”. Northeast of the creek, the plain sloped until it was hidden by a canopy of white ash, birch, and oak that carried off in all visible directions. Pa led us northeast until we reached a river. The water flowed swiftly southwest, twisting, and turning back on itself like a snake, following the range in a feverish fervor. An old wagon road followed the river, though seemed to abruptly end as it trailed off into the distance. Water poured out torrentially over the mountainside, cascading over rock towards us. It was late April.
“Tanasee,” I muttered.
Pa dipped his head in agreement.
Mother called the mountains “shaconage.” The clouds rolled lowly over the mountains and a light misting danced on my amber skin. Pa glanced up from the wood he was carefully whittling with his hunting knife. An array of wooden creatures and totems decorated the hearth back home.
“Naada’di’ush,” he said roughly in his rugged southern accent. Even the two decades
with mama hadn’t taken the cowboy out of him.
Dusty elbowed me in the side, “Nadia.”
I furrowed my brows and glared at him. Hot air bellowed through my nostrils and I
seethed. Pa drew his palm flatly across the back of his head and Dusty yelped before I could do anything else.
“Jistu,” Pa growled.
Dusty rubbed the back of his head and groaned. I couldn’t stifle a proud smirk.
Pa went on, “The native people call the mountain, “Tsitsuyi,” he offered, pointing to the great giant east of us with his knife, “Jistu, trickster rabbit wanted Otter’s fur so he could have the best coat out of all the animals. He invited the otter along and kindly suggested he keep watch. Once Otter fell asleep, he shouted, “It’s raining fire!” while throwing hot coals. Afraid, Otter leapt into the water, swimming away while Jistu took his beautiful coat. Jistu tries to hide his face but the bear could see through his trickery. The quick Jistu was lucky to escape with only a missing tail,” he finished, clawing at the air in Dusty’s direction.
“What happened to Otter?” I beg, knowing well from the many times Mama had told this story.
“He remains in the river to this day.”
Dusty snorts. Pa gives him a quick glance and he bows his head.
The crickets begin chirping before the sun sets, brilliant pink and blue twisting in ribbons across the sky behind Tsitsuyi. Pa sifts through the pack to find a small woven bag with mixed udatanvhi mama and I had forged. He reaches his other hand in, pulling out a small loaf covered by a cloth. Mama had sent me out to find uganástí útana. The hanging white fruit reminded me of the stars, held on string, descending from the fabric of the sky. We had crushed the root and baked it into our bread. Pa tore it into three pieces and handed one to each of us. Atsadò was cooked over fire. I closed my eyes, “Thank Unetlanvhi.” By the time I opened them, Dusty had already finished, crumbs plastered across his lap. Pa slapped him upside the head again. I lay still, gazing at the stars, counting, waiting. “Hisgi, nvgi, tsoi, tali, sowo.” The moon
peeked out over the horizon. I watched a few minutes longer and then closed my eyes, allowing myself to slip away from my body, the tall grass gently grazing my skin as the earth breathed. I dreamt of fire, of red-hot flames racing across our land, laying waste to everything in its path. I reached for the door handle and cried out, blisters breaking out across my palm as skin peeled back in haste. I heard my mother call out, her voice cracking, “Naada’di’ush, go!”
I ran to Apekatos, crying out for Pa as I ran, my skinny legs skipping through the dry brush as I hurried towards the old soquili. I nearly tripped over Dusty who sat crying, holding himself, his head buried between his knees in a bunch of Golden Sunset. I reached out to him; he clung to my arm before hoisting himself into the saddle. I clambered up after him and turned Apekatos towards the burning building, screaming for Pa over Dusty’s crying. Atsila roared and flew out the window in a mighty fury. Apekatos reared in terror, throwing us at the angry God’s
feet. He seethed, spitting embers. My eyes watered, smoke stinging and filling my lungs. I choked, heaving deep breaths of air while the fire grew hotter, closing in around us. I woke in a pool of sweat, blinking hard, wiping beads of sweat from my forehead. It was completely silent, only the burbling of the river made a noise. The moon was woven into the sky, each star a stitched pinprick of light. Fireflies floated above the grass, gliding up and down. I closed my eyes again.
Pa shook me vigorously until I woke. The sun hovered over the horizon indicating it was early morning. I rubbed my crusted eyes, my gaze landing upon billows of smoke rising in the air before I had the opportunity to respond. Pa picked me up and threw me on the back of Apekatos where Dusty already sat, wide-eyed. Not a single word was uttered while Pa rode the old horse as hard as he could toward the burning brush. Flames frantically engulfed the dry chaparral, bounding across the plain in a mad dash. Pa was at the back door just as the inferno had set upon the front. I could hear Pa calling Mama’s name. I leapt down from Apekatos’s back and ran to the door in a frenzy. I cried out for both of them. Between smoke-filled breaths, I heard her call out, “Naada’di’ush, go!”
I reflexively grabbed the door handle, recoiling as I felt the searing burn of the metal against my skin. I smelt the charred skin as the fire seethed, bursting out the windows, raining glass shards as it swallowed our little home. I tore two long strands of cloth from my shirt and wrapped each tightly around my hands. I feverishly searched the blackened plain with my eyes for Apekatos, plumes of smoke casting a
dim shadow over our land. I caught sight of his white chest and long, sturdy legs and raced towards him. Dusty sat with his head buried between his legs, choking in between breathless sobs. I lifted him into the saddle, turning Apekatos northwest and riding for the river.
I screamed as tears welled, cascading in steady streams down my face. Grief had woven itself into my bones like the moon against the indigo curtain, drawn across the sky as the tsisqua sang farewell to the sun. Dusty and I set stones for Pa at the foot of a white ash that sat next to the river. Apekatos stood grazing nearby, his tail flicking to and fro, brushing gently against the grass. Clouds had nestled along the mountainside, undisturbed. Dusty gripped my hand tightly, “Where will we go?”
I paused, thinking, adjusting Pa’s oversized gloves on my eleven-year-old mangled
hands. I felt the leather adhere to my broken, blistered skin and stifled a grimace. “West, we’ll look for Silas.”
He nodded. I took Apekatos’s reins in hand, pressing my foot down into the stirrup
before swinging the alternate leg up and over the saddle. Heels down, I pressed Apekatos towards Dusty. I reached down and Dusty clasped my arm as I heaved all thirty-two pounds of him into the front of the saddle. I gripped the reins, leading Apekatos west along the river. A light mist fell on our skin as we continued along, glistening opaline against the dark of our skin.
“Naada’di’ush,” Dusty offered.
Apekatos turned on to the fading wagon road, paving the path west until it turned into a series of lines and curves winding dimly through the land. I felt my cheeks flush and a red-hot fury rose from deep within me.
The sun beat down on the endless plains. I felt the warmth in my cheeks, my neck
burned. We followed the river as it wound its way along, shrinking into burbling creeks as we followed it away from Tsitsuyi, away from Pa resting at its base.
Dusty nudged me and pointed towards the river. The water edged gently over a small
descent, swelling in a small pool. Two beady eyes appeared, a pair of rounded ears.
“Cheoah,” Dusty muttered, “The otter.”