Old Oraibi

by Vincent Czyz (an excerpt from Sun Eye, Moon Eye) Issue: Fall 2015

He heard mostly the faint chorus of birds and insects hidden in the brush—singing, buzzing, chirping. As constant, as lasting as the shivering of starlight. Dimly he remembered his grandfather squatting in the dark, humming. He’d lain awake, listening.

Fall. Just beginning. But in the desert who could tell? Someone who lived here maybe, who could dig his fingers into the sandy soil and come up with a fair idea of when it had rained last. All he saw was a broad stretch, a hide staked horizon to horizon, gone brittle in the heat and tireless light.

Wind whirled dust in his face. He didn’t bother to brush at the bridge of his nose or the swells of his cheekbones. A little powdered-down desert might keep the sun off some while he walked.

Arizona was flat on both sides of the road. But only when taken in against the horizon. Up close it was rough, unfinished, as though the Earth had once been pliable, had been beaten with a fairytale-sized hammer. Each place mallet and earth had collided, color was a shade off—tawny, yellow, ocher, sienna, rust, oxblood. There was nowhere the hammer hadn’t fallen, nowhere that hadn’t been dented, shallowed, gouged. A god working out a lumpy tortilla. The whole strewn with stones, bits that flew off during the pounding.

He palmed one now and then, balanced its weight in his hand before throwing it. Sometimes to scare off a bird, sometimes to see it arc against sky. Or just to disturb what had lain for who knows how long. Leave nothing as you found it was his motto, let them know you were here. His grandfather would have shaken his head at that. Gwa’a had sided with the way things had settled, had considered the moment he was passing through the culmination of a process too hard to fathom to be tampered with—the same one that had brought him to the mellowness of his last years. Sorry Gwa'a, you shouldn't have told all those tall tales with me on your knee, the endless on-and-on of history no one could have been around to remember.

His hand went to what had been a dampness on his head, over that little dip that’s still soft when you're a baby. A bird had managed to shit right on it—payback for the stones he'd thrown since he was a child. Maybe a Navajo in its last life, here to remind him of the animosity between their tribes. A good shot both times around. The Sun had turned the warm dollop to a greasy paste that he’d rubbed out as best he could, leaving his hair with the dried-out feel of the things that grew here.

He kept an even pace, his boots crunching gravel along the side of the road. The sky was a sheet of cool blue metal except in the west, where a hot glow was fading and a few clouds lay in photographic stillness.

He turned at the sound of a car. Walking backwards, thumb out, his arm went up like the gate at a railroad crossing.

The driver, hunched over the steering wheel, didn’t slow, didn’t even crane for a better look.

He dropped his arm before the car swept past.

Pirouetting on a boot-heel, he tried to remember how long it had been since he’d slept in a bed—two days? Three? He had hardly any idea what day of the week it was either. Without a calendar to grid the year, he couldn’t keep track. Not all that surprising if you took into account that he was descended from the Hopi, a tribe that had no word for time. Up on their mesas, they’d found a way to get by without self-winding watches, without bells or buzzers. Their faith in a bygone way of doing things was as ever-present, as evenly distributed as the sky.

He stopped, shifted the position of the leather bag that bounced against his hip. A bedroll in his left hand, tied with canvas strips, counterweighted the bag.

His boots resumed their metronomic tap against asphalt. Two-toners he’d gotten in Phoenix. Their stitching reassuring signatures trying to tell him something. Closer, lean a little closer. About which way to point the scuffed toes.

A snake, holding its head aloft as if to keep it out of water, disappeared in the brush. Reminded him of the vague need to keep moving. He was tempted to ignore the warning: when was the last time he’d made a good decision? Why not let the desert finish the job? Why not let it leave him a strip of desiccated meat that would keep for years? He'd already been cleaned out for embalming.

The same wind that had scoured the red rock in flat, layered pancakes, had eroded it into towering fingers pointing at the empty blue, whistled through his hollowed-out chest cavity. With no liver to send bile to the top of his throat, there was no bitter taste in his mouth. His liver had been sun-dried, ground to brownish dust, mixed into the soil where that color had been necessary. No desire or ache either; what had been his heart was a bright streak through rust-red rock. No hunger, no pit of stomach left to hold fear or anxiety, stomach and intestine had been spread for yellow. The rest had been cauterized by that burning wind, had hardened into sandstone.

He abandoned the road and slid the strap of his leather bag down his arm, dropped it on the ground. Dust came up in tiny puffs. Then he dumped his ass like a load of rocks. Jeans worn through to white threads in places, face and hair and shoulders veiled with road dust, he must’ve looked like a photograph paling with age.

He pulled his collar out with a forefinger. Maybe if enough of a wind kicked up it’d play him like a flute, hum music across the gap between skin and cotton.

Straightening a leg, he slid his hand into a pocket and pulled out a butterfly knife. A few flicks and twists of his wrist, and the blade flipped elegantly out from between the steel handles. The guy who’d given it to him had been good at it.

He dug his boot heels into the ground, felt the little horse-shoe indentations he would leave when he got up.

He zeroed in on a callus with the knife, sank the point. Pressing on bone, he felt his pulse throbbing in the twin handles. The dull pain that spread up his arm was oddly gratifying, something meaty and raw for his brain to chew. He thought about sinking the blade deeper, drawing blood, but he was afraid that even if he used it to pry between bones, he’d feel only a fierce numbness.

He jumped up almost too late to get his thumb out. A few desperate strides and he was on sun-softened asphalt.

The dusty gold pick-up hardly slowed.

He realized he still had the knife in his hand. Goddamn. But the driver couldn’t have … it wasn’t likely he’d seen it. Tucking the knife away, he looked at his palm. A red pearl gleamed at the top of it.

When he went back for his things, he saw a four-leafed plant that had been trapped under the bedroll slowly try to right itself. Somehow familiar, it might have been an herb his grandfather had once pointed out to him. With a shrug for the plant’s bad luck, he headed east again, watching evening drift down like a chafing of bruise-colored sky, smoothing out gullies and gouges.

Another car passed, disappearing behind him. Bird twitters and the soft whirring of insects filled in its wake.

Something that was neither bird nor insect lifted itself up like a spate of palm-sized whirlwinds under the chalky sickle of a moon. He looked, but there was nothing to see. Restless, tribeless, they wanted to return. To the time before the land was fenced in, before billboards went up to advertise as souvenirs objects no less commonplace than spoons, pots and pans, hair combs, toothbrushes, a time before there were super-highways and the future held nothing but one evil wonder after another, before cities— inevitable and crystalline, without plazas for the dances—had invented a new horizon.

He’d been to Chaco Canyon … three days ago. Or was it four? A city of way-back-when now mostly collapsed walls and empty doorways. He’d stood in the droning wind, overlooking the sandstone boxes and the round kivas sunk into the earth. Roof timbers rotted away, the kivas lay like dusty cavities where teeth had fallen out.

These kivas, a park pamphlet mentioned, presented a mystery—there were far too many in Chaco Canyon, at least by mesa standards. Perhaps, the pamphlet conjectured, Chaco Canyon had been a ceremonial center. Whatever the case, Chaco Canyon was neither city nor shrine anymore; it was a national park where for a few dollars you could park your trailer or stake down your tent.

It was odd to see a window in a surviving wall. Framing blue and a scrap of cloud. The other three walls had reverted to rubble. Exposed now, at one time the wall had had a cool sheltered side and one baked by sun; both gradually sanded into shape by each grainy dawn. That window in the intact wall, mostly useless now, still managed to have something to say, lined up—so the pamphlet said—with the winter solstice.  

Climbing a ridge to get a little closer to a bird’s perspective, he saw Chaco Canyon as an interrupted rhythm, realized the permanence of stone was an illusion you leaned against to get you through a hard week. The dead builders were another mystery. Rumored to be ancestors of the Hopi, they were called Anasazi by the Navajo—Ancient Strangers—their cities already abandoned when the Navajos had come across them.

He poked around in the ruins hoping for a sense of familiarity, but when he stood at the bottom of a kiva, cutting a rough-edged circle out of the sky, he was conscious mainly of his machine-woven jeans, his factory-made boots, his store-bought T-shirt. Though his father had been a mason, a layer of foundations, Logan had no inkling of the cadence that would solve the maze of ruins. Though his grandfather might have had a soul corresponding exactly to the layout of that once-upon-a-time city.

Now he was stuck in an everlasting present marked only by ritual shifts in the light, morning to evening. The vital part of him gone, there was a place for him among Chaco Canyon's crumbling walls, where no fires were lit in the kivas. In place of the Moon, the gap-toothed grin of a scooped-out pumpkin would sputter through the cool desert nights.

A car? He turned with his thumb out, tried to fix the driver with his eyes. All he wanted was a hot shower, a room where he could cocoon himself away, lie on the darkness till the maid's vacuum hummed outside his door, knocked into the woodwork, reminding him check-out time had come, his ten-fifty plus tax had run out.

The Mustang pulled over kicking up gravel. A convertible with the top down. The yellow paint had faded almost to white in places, and rust had eaten through the fenders.

He trotted over, pulled the door open, and slid onto the leather seat.  

The driver, a young woman with hair as dark as loam, wanted to know how far he was going.

When he tried to answer, all that came out besides a sandpaper-on-wood noise was "—running water." As if that were his name, one of those Hollywood Indians. He cleared his throat. "Anyplace with running water."

"You look like … I mean, you must have been walking all day.”

She was wearing a tie-dyed shirt cut off to show her stomach. There were maybe half a dozen braided bracelets around one wrist, a gold one on the other. She couldn’t have been much older than her car, but she had that hippie look.

She reached out with a hand. “Debbie.”

His instinct was to pull back, but he took her hand. "Logan." His voice seemed to carry over a distance.

Debbie looked nervous, as if she’d only contemplated picking up hitchhikers before stopping for him. Below her peeling nose, splotched with pink, there was a wisp of a mustache she hadn't bothered to bleach. But her face, wide and angular, brought it off well enough. Just as he began to get her smell, she pulled out, and suddenly there was wind.

What had it been? Ginger root? Sage? He didn't know herb names, but the smell was green. No make-up, maybe she put bags of herbal tea under her arms instead of deodorant—almond sunset for road trips, mint magic for a night out on the town. Probably didn't shave her armpits either. A rain-forest climate with a fecund smell in full bloom.

He had no room to talk, washing up in rest-stop sinks. His crotch should be pretty ripe about now. Catch wind of it across a room if he dropped his jeans.

She lowered the radio and Jim Morrison's voice, singing about a killer waking before dawn, fell.

"You mind if I ask your last name?”

Her voice was whittled to a pitch a little higher than it should have been.

“Blackfeather.”

"I guess you're Native American.” Strands of hair blew across her face, waved past her mouth.

"On my father’s side."  

"Navajo?"

His eyes were fixed on a long, jagged crack in her dashboard where the vinyl had peeled back exposing yellowish foam. "Hopi." He stuck the tip of a finger in the crack and followed it.

"You're pretty tall."

For an Indian? For a Hopi? "My old man was taller."

"You … do you live on the reservation?"

No, he wanted to say, I'm not that kind of Indian. I'm the kind you find in front of a general store, holding cigars. "No. Never did." Splaying his hand on the dashboard, he pictured the blade of the butterfly knife pinning it there. “But my grandfather had a house on Third Mesa.” Well, a shanty.

Up on Third Mesa Gwa’a had told him about the first world—Endless Space. In the little kitchen with its potbelly stove. He’d told Logan about the Jimson Weed Girls. The War Twins and Spiderwoman. The Corn Maiden. None of which had yet helped him get work or a warm bag from a drive-thru window or even a ride.

"I'm from Phoenix." She glanced over him, probably still trying to figure out what was sitting in her front seat.

"I was born there."

"I'm still there—Tempe. I should be a senior at ASU, but I’m still trying to figure out a major."

Grateful Dead looked like her major to him. He pictured her 12-by-12 dorm room with a bunk bed in it, a clump of crystals like a tiny glass forest on her desk, Jimi Hendrix and Dead posters on the walls, a lava lamp, wine bottles covered with wax drippings like rich sea encrustings, a bong on the coffee table. Remembering her smell he added dark jars filled with dried-out things—ground-up roots and leaves, cigar boxes crammed with junk jewelry, buttons, charms, wing of bat, maybe a few locks of hair. (Hers was thick, firmly rooted. So that if you wanted to put her skull on your bookshelf, the hair would come with it, convenient for carrying.)

“Do you visit though? The mesas, I mean.”

“Once in a while.” He turned to the landscape blurring by.  

He’d only been to the Rez once since he was a kid. He’d walked the road winding up Third Mesa, up to Old Oraibi, rumored to be the oldest continuously inhabited place on the continent. Couldn't really call it inhabited though, the name itself bigger than the little cluster of flat-roofed shanties. The old man with a square face and horn-rimmed glasses who looked as if he didn't know quite where he was at any given moment was the village chief.

He and Logan looked at each other across a distance that had widened each year Logan had stayed away from the mesa—a stretch of desert separating stars maybe, a vacuum-bitten expanse that a katsina found breathable, a man in a katsina mask found crossable, but this old man sitting out on his stoop, squinting in the midday sun, didn’t get up to bridge. He made no gesture of welcome, no offer of taking a stray back into the fold. Logan was half-glad. He didn't want him poking around his past with his old man's walking stick, asking why he’d missed so many ceremonies, why he’d never bothered to learn a language formed by whatever had heaved these mesas out of the earth. Too late, too much of the cities in him. He saw it in the impenetrable face, through the glass rectangles—eyes that saw farther and deeper than his. Logan saw himself as a blot on light reflected by the lenses, like those ulcerous spots on the Sun’s skin. Under the lenses, a down-turned mouth that had named things he’d never known existed.

Logan turned and walked back down winding mesa road, the old man’s eyes still on him.

His thick lenses had congealed out of technology—they weren’t Hopi—but they’d taken on the impenetrability of a mask. Not that you couldn’t see his eyes under them, just that the glasses were as forever as a mask and would always find another pair of eyes to sharpen, another nose to sit on. The mesa, though, would never find another people. That’s what the old man had told him without saying a word. The mesa would never find another people whose prayers would spill down its sides like runoff, shape it like wind, raise it up to scrape against the swirly edge of a nebula.

And Logan hadn’t been around to do the hard work. What business did he have being there now?

Coincidentally—or maybe not—Debbie asked him the kind of work he did.  

“Framing,” he said. At least as useful as sitting around whittling katsina dolls or throwing pottery for Anglos.

“You mean … paintings?”

“No. Construction.”

Oh-oh. You frame houses.”

“Yeah.” Though he hadn’t swung a hammer in months. A moth with a wrecked sense of direction spiraling around New Mexico and Arizona was more like it. Digging around in eviscerated ruins—everything from cliff dwellings to abandoned gas stations—he didn’t even know what he was looking for. For all he knew he’d already found it, it was sitting in his pocket along with some desert grit. He might have held it in his hand, looked right at it and been unable to decipher it, and so he had to wait, carry it with him until he either met someone who could tell him what he had (the way you’d set an ancient coin before a dealer and his cyclopean loupe) or he learned a new language. Then, maybe, he’d stop hitching or driving or walking and stay a while.

By the time town was in sight, a cluster of luminous specks on a flat void, the yellowy-white Moon was a pair of horns joined at the middle, tilted at an odd angle.

A sign for a motel advertising the cheapest single whizzed by. He tried to fix the name.

"What about stopping for a beer or something? There’s a bar I went to once … somewhere around here."

A beer sounded almost as good as a shower. “Why not?”

She was a shadowy profile. Her nose, a gentle slope roughened by peeling skin, was turned up slightly, giving it the prettiness of a comic book heroine. He marveled at how much she trusted him already.

Gas station signs rose up 60 feet or more on poles, holding aloft reassuring ovals, rectangles, shells of light; everything lined up along the road as if it were a dark river cutting through the desert, supporting a glowing oasis.

She turned off the main drag of what was more an oversized truck-stop than a town. Rows of gas stations; cheap all-night restaurants; corner bars; motels with cracking, whitewashed walls and faded names.

The bar that made Debbie slow down was called the Smiling Aztec. Timbers poked through the top of an adobe wall. Next to the name, there was an Aztec calendar in black paint, a half-assed rendition of those imitations every tourist brings back from Tijuana or Nogales. At the center was a demonic face with its mouth open and a pointed tongue like the triangular blade of a flint knife. All around it were rows of glyphs that had grown mysterious over time but for all he knew advertised Montezuma's favorite brand of coffee beans.

“I think this is it …”

Looking at the gravel lot taken up mostly by pick-ups with crooked bumpers, cracked tail-lights, and spider-webbed windshields, he didn’t think it was.

Stepping out of the car, he saw that Debbie was a head shorter, maybe five-four. She pulled on the plank door and held it for him. "After you."

He’d never set foot in the Smiling Aztec, but he knew the place.

A guy rubbed his unshaven chin with his knuckles. One of his oversized hands cradling a beer bottle, he looked as if he worked in a tar pit. His arm bore dark tattoos that could have been dried muck. The woman across from him was a short-haired blonde with a little knob of a nose that made her look belligerent. Her face puffy and rounded, her breasts sagging in a yellow tube top, she dragged on a cigarette, then rested her chin in a hand.

The drinkers were mostly men, anchoring themselves to a stool instead of a couch, a beer in front of them instead of a tv. They didn’t want to go home because home brought them that much closer to bed, and they didn’t want to go to bed because when they woke up they’d have to go back to work. If they had any.

"I think it has character." Debbie looked up at a ceiling supported by beams as thick as railroad ties. A thin haze hung there—cigarette smoke robbed of the long ascent to heaven.

He sat at the bar while Debbie went to the ladies' room. He watched her go. She was a little heavy in the hips, too wide by magazine standards, maybe, but pretty much in keeping with his. He didn’t feel anything, though—at all. Probably had something to do with having no heart, no liver, no innards. Nothing left but old habits, he glanced at a man growing agitated a few stools away.  

“I got my own tools.” His hair curly and his beard ragged, he jerked a crooked thumb at himself. “I ain’t lookin’ for no handout.”

"What can I getch you?" The bartender’s hands planted on the counter, he was like a bird flaunting its plumage, only what he had were tattoos that started at his wrist and crept nearly unbroken up to his elbows.

“Beer. A long-neck.”  

"Taste better, don’t they?” His smile was missing an eyetooth; his other teeth were large and grayish. “Somethin’ different about the way they bottle ’em.”

“I s’pose.”

“Be right back.”

Logan’s eyes swept around the room, made passing acquaintance with a pair of dark irises. A Navajo with a bandanna across his forehead. Closer to the reservation, they'd square off likely as not—Hopi and Navajo. Here, surrounded by rednecks, there was an unspoken understanding between them, a truce.

Dull light polished bottles wrapped in hands with gritty nails and permanently swollen knuckles. Outside, a flaking, open-mouthed Indian demon was rubber-stamped on the wall.

A roadside dead-end where you couldn’t go forward but you could still back out, the Smiling Aztec exchanged bill and coin for drink, played music on its jukebox, echoed with sporadic laughter from the short-haired blonde. Farther west, Chaco Canyon—laid out according the secrets of the still-obscure Anasazi soul—eroded in wind and dry starlight.

The heel of a beer bottle clunked loudly on the bar counter. “I don’t give a shit what Lamont says, I ain’t lookin for no handout.”

On a small stage at the back of the bar (narrow and long, the Aztec reminded him of an Army barrack), players in the band were testing their instruments, sending out isolated notes, truncated riffs.

Logan took a long appreciative swallow, then put the sweating bottle to his forehead.

He glanced again at the Navajo, who stood at the end of the bar and held himself with the ease of a regular. He probably spoke Dineh—every Navajo Logan had ever met spoke Dineh. He knew how to get along with Anglos. He went up to Shiprock, probably, and wherever else on the Rez for the dances.

Logan took a long pull from the bottle in his hand and glanced down the length of the bar. Debbie was still in the can.

He scrounged in a pocket and came up with a few dollars. He put them on the bar, shouldered his bag, and walked out with his beer.  

The night air was cool, lighter than the smokiness inside the Aztec.

He started walking the way he’d just come, west, bag bouncing off his hip. The road was a dry, straight river lit by electric fires along its banks. He might not get anywhere tonight, but that didn’t bother him. He knew where he was going.



Vincent Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short stories. He is the recipient of the 1994 Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two fellowships from the NJ Council on the Arts. The 2011 Truman Capote Fellow at Rutgers University, his fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Tampa Review, The Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Skidrow Penthouse, Tin House (online), and many other publications. His essays have appeared in New England Review, Boston Review, AGNI, and Logos Journal.