The Home in Emily's Heart
by Linda Thomas
In late November in Chinle, Arizona, the afternoon sun shines brightly, though the air is brisk with a raw chill and the promise of rain. On the long wood porch of the general store, five Navajo men sit in straight-backed chairs and watch as we angle the van into the dirt lot and unload ourselves. My mother and father are with us, my daughters--hardly two and three years old--and my husband. My husband is the reason we are here. Youthful, idealistic, a teacher of American history, he has gotten it into his head that teaching at one of the schools in Chinle or nearby Many Farms might fulfill his deep need to have and to carry out a mission. We have driven all night and half the day to arrive here in the center of the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona. Today is Thanksgiving. The year is 1970, a time when many young men felt the need to be of service swell inside their chests like great moons.
Chinle is a stop along Highway 191 that runs due north across the plateau from Chambers through little towns like Wide Ruin and Klagetoh on the Navajo Reservation, past the occasional pick-up truck or a lone man riding bareback on a brown shaggy horse. Over 5,000 feet in elevation, the landscape is flat, the horizon squared off by mesas that form the shapes of tables and stair-stepped pyramids, and beneath the pinyon pines are dark cloud patterns of fallen nuts, hard as little rocks. The Navajo people here are poor, and their talents for weaving rugs in geometric patterns characteristic of the horizon are still only on the verge of being noticed by the white Americans who will in the decades to come pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for what they will call Native American art.
This afternoon, Navajo children play along the dirt edges of Main Street. I see my father look at them, then at my younger daughter, Emily, and measure out the similarities in their round faces and hers, their eyes like dark, tipped almonds, her eyes like dark, tipped almonds. Emily is only two, and her portion of my father's Cherokee blood is generous, recognizable in her dense, warmly golden flesh. She wears denim coveralls that fasten with silver clips across her small chest, a warm red shirt, and she is bundled nearly stiff into a thick blue car coat, its hood pulled over her head so that she has to twist to look out from around the edges of the hood. She is watching the children dart and call to one another in the street, their play mysterious and based on a call, a dash, a laugh, another call, and explosions of laughter. She watches closely, mesmerized by the play, and when she takes one teetering step toward the children, my father lifts her into his arms, distracts her with his big hands and the dizzying sweep of his strength, and he carries her inside the general store. As they turn away, I see Emily's face peer from across her grandpa's shoulder backwards at the children who look like her.
I am wearing large sunglasses with lens the color of sky, and I suspect this is the reason the Navajo men rowed up like parade watchers have begun to look into their laps and smile. I nod to them in a clumsy effort to be friendly--it is Thanksgiving, after all--and they look away.
Inside the store, flat-roofed and long like a cast-off barracks building, the shelves are lined with dry goods-- jugs of vinegar and molasses; sacks of meal and sugar; boxes of cornstarch, cocoa, and cakes of yeast. At the counter, my mother has gathered Emily and her taller blonde sister beside a tin can full of candy sticks--red, green, bright yellow--and they are occupied with selecting a color that might match a pleasing flavor. My older daughter, Elsie, keeps saying, "Not cinnamon, Grandma." Emily clutches a green candy stick in her small fist and waits patiently for her sister to finalize a decision.
My husband is speaking with the store keeper, a Navajo man whose Levi workshirt lies against his dark neck like blue sky can burn against a red mountain. My husband is asking questions. "How many Dineh live here?" he says. "How many on the whole reservation?" The storekeeper says he doesn't know the answer to these questions, so my husband asks, "Where is the school in Many Farms?" The storekeeper says that Many Farms is a small place; the school is not hard to see. He says, "Nah har see." When my husband reaches with his arm to offer his palm in a handshake, the storekeeper subtly turns aside and studies the keys of the cash register.
My father has moved far back in the small, congested store--past the racks of potato chips, sunflower seeds, and a small portable freezer full of popsicles and sidewalk sundaes--and he has found himself a bin of loose bolts and nuts. He leans down to rummage, now and then holding one up to the dim light to examine the size and perhaps measure it against something he might make back at home in his garage. My father is one-half Cherokee from Oklahoma, and he and his mother's family pride themselves on having lived off reservations in wood and stucco houses they bought themselves with money earned from long days of toil outdoors--driving trucks or driving nails, welding, plumbing, sealing their fates in the white world. When we leave the store, he walks out, past the storekeeper, without a word. He does not buy even one of the good strong bolts.
That was twenty-seven years ago. We stayed that night at the Thunderbird Lodge on Main Street, a small motel then. In the evening, we had Thanksgiving dinner in the motel cafeteria--a soupy concoction of beef and onions spooned over rice by a Navajo girl who was generous in her portions but would not look at our faces. The next morning, my husband contracted with a Navajo man to take us in his truck into Canyon de Chelly (de SHAY), a wonderous place of red rock buttes and needle pillars where we followed a river bed to an ancient cliff dwelling called White House Ruin. By Sunday, we were home again in California.
We did not move our family to Chinle, though I no longer remember why. Perhaps the awkardness I recall now held us back even then. Perhaps we were cautioned by my father's quiet sense that even he had no connection to the Navajo people there. And as it turned out, my husband did not find the place where he could fill that vacuum in his chest. Within two springs, he was sick with leukemia; then, he died.
Today, my mother still brings candy to the two women who were those little girls in the general store. My father still fingers iron bolts, and he tracks the Indian in his white man self on the horse he keeps at a local stable, a horse he calls Cherokee. And Emily seems at home nowhere and everywhere, an eyewitness, silent and absorbent, red cotton or blue denim against her skin, the color of new walnuts.
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Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature.