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Reservation, Education

Chi’Chiłtah, New Mexico.

1928


The dryness of the air mingled with the smell of livestock in the gentle summer’s breeze. Leroy Begay sat in the saddle, feeling the rising and falling motion of the horse as it trotted across the barren sand. His father rode on a large chestnut mare to his right, softly whistling a tune which vaguely resembled the sound the wind made as it whistled through the various cracks of the summer home. Eight year old Leroy was going back to school. Leaving behind the wood-and-earth home he’d been born in was always difficult, but he’d done it twice before and now he knew the drill. When he and his father reached the trading post, Leroy would go inside and change into his school clothes. Leroy would then give his father his hat and boots and the two would say a quick prayer before he boarded the truck that would take him back the boarding school at Fort Defiance. Summer was going long this year, and it comforted Leroy a bit to know that his father and brothers would not freeze while herding the sheep. The trading post came into view, partially hidden by a few juniper trees and a large clump of sagebrush. Leroy’s father pulled the horses up alongside one of the larger trees, in a small patch of shade, before he dismounted and helped Leroy off of his horse. The two went inside.


The inside of the trading post smelled of the local industries, the clay which sealed the walls blending with the sharpness of freshly tanned leathers, the mild musk of woven blankets, and the distinctive aromas of sage and cedar. No matter how hard Old Hop Johnson tried, he couldn’t seem to keep the never ending supply of dust and sand from invading his shop. Though uninvited, the visiting sands gave back to their host by catching the light from the one eletric bulb at the center of the room and the few ancient oil-burning lamps at the edges, casting an angelic halo around the room.


Father approached the proprietor and spoke to the man in broken English, indicating the back room with a twitch of his chin. Old Hop smiled and agreed to let Leroy change clothes in the back. Father motioned to Leroy, who went into the back to change. Father sat at one of the two tables next to the window. Through the dusty glass, he could see that no one else was coming. That made sense. Few of the other families for about twenty miles had school aged children, and the ones that did usually met the truck at the watering hole about ten miles to the east. Father sighed, and then pulled out his wallet. Inside he counted out forty-seven cents in assorted coins; enough to buy a couple of Coca-Colas and a pound of flour. Turning back to the counter, father requested the items in Navajo. Old Hop nodded, responded in broken Navajo, then went back to the shelf behind the counter to get the sodas. The door to the back room creaked open to let little Leroy come out. Leroy shut the door and gave his father his finer things. There wasn’t much, just Leroy’s hat, boots and old turquoise Concho belt. His father took the items and handed his son one of the sodas as the boy wiggled in the fading blue jeans and plain white button down shirt. The outfit hugged a tad tighter on Leroy’s slight frame than they had a year before. Leroy looked at his father and asked “Ma’ii’yah ba’hane’?” Father smiled. Stories about Ma’ii’, the coyote were usually only told when it was cold enough for there to be frost on the ground, but since Leroy would be at school most of the winter, Father let the taboo slip a bit. “Oa’” he said, nodding. “Taa’alt’lha’i.” He held up his index finger. One for the road.


Father and son opened their sodas and Father began to speak, telling how the trickster coyote, Ma’ii, once lured his hardworking cousin horned toad into getting in his mouth so the coyote could eat him. Leroy sipped in between the fluid words of father’s story, punctuating the rhythm of the slow woven guttural sounds of their native language. As the story continued, Father told how after Ma’ii had swallowed Horned Toad whole he took his cousin’s cornfields and laid waste to them by eating all of the corn without tending to the rest. Leroy knew the tale by heart and blinked, letting his mind drift to the thought of how much he would miss this. When Leroy opened his eyes he saw Father, usually so reserved and still, gesturing with his hands and miming Ma’ii’s reaction to being haunted by the voice of Horned Toad.

Old Hop stopped sweeping the floor to listen to the story, leaning up against the counter to pick out as much of the tale could translate and, though he knew it was considered rude, broke custom by making eye contact. It was hard not to; Father’s eyes always lit up and twinkled with delight as he revealed to the audience that Horned Toad was alive and well accommodated in the Coyote’s belly, feasting on the corn so greedily and hastily consumed by his host. Leroy laughed at his Father’s exaggerated facial expressions, Ma’ii’s pain coming alive as Father’s words wove a picture of the beast stretched out over a fire, vainly trying to cook his unwanted guest through his own body. Old Hop jumped as Father continued, yelps and howls filling the small shop as the Horned Toad began to explore his new surroundings, his sharp body reminding Ma’ii of nature’s intolerance for evil.


The story stretched a moment into eternity, but as the coyote reaped his just punishment and Horned Toad reclaimed his freedom, the grinding noise of an engine drew near to signal the arrival of the school truck and the departure of Leroy’s remaining time. His story finished, Father’s eyes hardened as he steeled himself before he took the empty soda bottles and flour out to the horses and put them in the saddlebag beside his son’s good clothes. Leroy fought to carry the iron ball of dread in his stomach and watched Father retrieve a paper sack, which he tucked under his arm as they approached the truck.


The truck driver, a small man with white hair and eyes peeking from behind thick glasses, greeted Father. “Yah’tah’ey” the driver said with a pleasant smile tucked behind thick glasses, pulling a pen and notebook set from his vest pocket and opening it to a list of students’ names. Hanging out of the truck’s open window, the man asked “Begay, off to Fort Defiance?” Leroy’s Father nodded. The man ticked the name off of the list and turned his eyes to Leroy. “Ready to go, sonny?” Leroy began to nod before being interrupted by his Father’s hand settling on his shoulder. Father switched to English. “Just a moment, please.” The truck driver held up his hand in response, “Sure, sure. Just please be quick.” Father turned to Leroy and wrapped him in a hug. The boy’s eyes grew wet as his father’s voice once more took to Navajo. “Hozhoō Ni’hasłtiin,” he said, Leroy joining into the prayer and letting the words mingle in his mind with the Lord’s prayer he’d learned in school. “Beauty is above me, O Lord, Beauty is behind me, thou who art in heaven. Beauty in thy name. Let me walk in harmony, thy kingdom come. I walk in peace, thy will be done. Beauty surrounds me on earth as it is in heaven.”

The prayer concluded. Father patted Leroy’s back. Leroy gave him a big hug and tried to hold back his desire to cry. Then he let go and Father handed Leroy the sack. He wiped his son’s eyes and smiled at Leroy encouragingly. “Hagoo’oone, Shi-yahzh’,” he said. Leroy smiled weakly and responded “Oa, Hagoo’oone, Shizh’ee’e.” Leroy stepped up and settled into the bed of the old truck, where a few other children were already sitting on benches bolted down to the flat bed. Fencelike wooden walls, about shoulder height and padded with lightly wrapped blankets kept the kids from falling out of the truck bed, a small corral.


Father took a step back and waved as the truck driver slapped the side of the truck, belted “We’ll see you at Christmas!” and pulled away from the trading post. Leroy waved back from his seat until his father became a small dot in the distance. The other children smiled sympathetically. Leroy blinked away a silent tear before turning back to look at the other children. There were two girls, one who looked about eleven and one who was much younger, maybe six or seven. They sat on the driver’s side of the truck, next to the back of the cab. One boy about ten sat next to the smaller girl, who Leroy guessed to be his sister. He remembered them from last year. Dora? Leroy wondered. The girl’s names were harder. The boy though… Leroy’d been whispering his name for a while after they’d first met last year. Chess-tar? Chess-ter… Chester.


Three other boys sat on the passenger side of the bed, ages ranging from Leroy’s age to about twelve. He knew the faces of his classmates from the sheep waterings, but aside from Ashley, the girl sitting next to the cab, and the Nez siblings, the names escaped him. Everyone smiled and tried to look happy to be there, despite the multitude of wide, wet and fearful eyes. The final occupant of the truck bed was a boy who Leroy didn’t recognize. The boy was older than everyone else, maybe fifteen or sixteen. He was a big guy, practically a man with strong arms and a face dark brown from working outside all summer. He was quiet, too, giving no name and no greeting. He just settled back and carefully watched everyone else exchange pleasantries, arms folded high on his chest.


Perhaps an hour later, the silent giant spoke up. “Anybody got food?” Leroy’s insides groaned. Other boys had done this too. They’d take all of the food from the little ones and eat it themselves. If somebody refused to comply, they’d typically make that person’s life miserable for the rest of the year. The other kids also groaned, some audibly and loudly. Leroy’s hand went up. So did the hands of Chester and his little sister Dora. The big boy motioned that it should be given to him. Sadly Leroy dug out the paper sack his father had given to him at the trading post. Inside were four pieces of fried bread, some mutton and a couple of tortillas. Chester also pulled out a sack of food. Reluctantly, the two boys offered the sacks to the big boy, who took them and poked through them, counting and measuring the contents. Their hearts sank. No matter how many of the other children did not have food, this boy was certainly not going to share. Without dinner, all of the children would have to wait the four hour drive to Fort Defiance before they got a tiny snack and were sent to bed.


Ashley turned away, averting her eyes and staring out through the slats in the wooden wall while shifting slightly to brush the few hairs loose from her bun behind an ear. The boy sitting across from her fidgeted slightly. The teenager took note and began to glare at the side of Ashley’s head. Again his slightly rough, out of practice english growled out like the engine. “See something interesting out there?” Ashley’s jaw visibly set before she reached behind her to throw her own sack blindly across the truck. The projectile provisions smacked the nervous boy in front of Ashley in the face. He squawked loudly in surprise, the air of terror momentarily held aloft before being shattered by a giggle from little Dora at the far end of the truck. The boy set the sack in his neighbor’s lap with the rest of the food.


The teenager resumed his count as smiles and chuckles spread through the children. Satisfied he had an accurate account, the teen looked up. “Anyone else think they can hide food?” Everyone’s heads shook in unison, once more raising diciplined facades of stoicism as the teenager’s eyes roved over them. The teen nodded. “Good. Now, show of hands if you have no food. Two if you didn’t have lunch.” Everyone’s hand went up. Chester, the squawking boy, and both of the girls raised their other hands.


The teenager nodded again. Where could he be going with this? The other bullies had been mean, taunting and making lots of noise while they ate the food, but they never asked questions about it. Was this guy just trying to be extra mean? Leroy started to wonder. What kind of sick person was he, anyway? Stealing other people’s food and rubbing it in their faces just because he was bigger? It was a wonder this boy’s parents put up with him! Leroy’s fists clenched. The teenager noticed, roaring “Hey! Got a problem, kid?” Leroy’s desire to retaliate burned in his cheeks. He wanted so badly to quip back. Everyone did, and it showed on their faces. The teenager stared intently at Leroy, who relaxed his hands and shook his head in resignation. The teen nodded. “Good.”


Setting the sacks of food on the bench beside him, the teenager pulled out a sack of his own and removed its contents. Folding the sack flat, he fashioned a makeshift plate in his lap and set his own cornbread and a few strips of jerky on it. Opening the sacks from the other children, the teen emptied Ashley’s into Leroy’s. Reaching back into Leroy’s sack, the teen pulled out a tortilla and set it in his lap. All eyes followed the teenager’s hands as his fingers deftly tore a length of jerky and set it atop the tortilla along with a chunk of mutton and a half cob of corn from another sack. Once everything was set in the round flatbread, the teenager rolled it up and slipped the roll into Ashley’s empty sack. He repeated the process again, procuring a tortilla then setting jerky, mutton and corn in the center and rolling the meal up before slipping it into Ashley’s sack. Leroy swallowed quietly, the smell of the food wafting to him intoxicating when compared to the thought of the few dry crackers and canned meat which awaited them in the school dining hall.

Crumpling the top of the sack down, the teenager set it on the bed of the truck and continued to make more rolls of the food until it had all been bagged and tucked away on the truck bed. Throughout the process, each of the truck’s other occupants would watch intently, but if the teen’s eyes wandered from his task, so too would the other children’s, off into the distance to gaze out at the sagebrush and the rock formations on the horizon. The Frybread pilfered from Leroy was tucked into the teen’s own sack. At last satisfied with his peculiar organization, the Teenager grinned and handed the dinner sacks back to their rightful owners. First to Ashley, then to Chester, then to Leroy. Hesitantly, the children accepted the sacks. Chester immediately slid the sack between his leg and Dora’s. Leroy followed suit, wordlessly taking the food and suspiciously eyeing the teenager. Ashley likewise received her sack, and began to open it. The teenager interrupted her with his hand. “Ah, hold on. Save that.” He said, the gruffness in his voice melting away. Ashley sat back and nodded slowly, face set in silent determination. Her stomach voiced its own determination. The teenager looked about the truck. A bump in the road unceremoniously sent everyone a couple of inches skyward, a quick jolt up followed by a painful return to the unyielding hardwood benches.

Amidst the grinding of the truck and the groans and grumbles of its inhabitants, most eyes were closed. Leroy’s eyes remained locked open as he rubbed the sore spot in his back where he’d hit the fencing and grimaced. Chester, Dora, Ashley and the boy beside the teenager noticed a slight weight as Leroy watched the teenager slip a torn piece of cornbread into each of their laps.

The recipients of the cornbread slowly opened their eyes as the pain in their bottoms receded. Those whom had received the gift looked over at the teenager with curiosity. The teenager settled back into his seat and folded his arms once more. Chester fidgeted slightly and took a hesitant nibble from the edge of the bread. Dora followed suit, chewing momentarily before tugging on her brother’s sleeve and whispering into his ear. “Dibàà Nisin, Shínaa’í” Chester looked to her and shrugged. He had nothing with which to slake thirst, but once more the teenager’s sly smile returned. Leaning forward, he rustled with something under the bench. A soft clinking could be heard as he fished two jugs of water from unseen netting beneath him. For the first time all day, Leroy smiled as he took the jug from the teenager and passed it on to Chester. Turning back to the older boy, Leroy was met with the sight of the teen tearing each piece of the frybread in half and handing each child a piece. As Leroy took his piece, the teenager patted his hand, said “Ah’ee’he. Thanks for sharing with the class,” and promplty took a bite of his own piece of bread.

The passengers of the truck began to eat, passing around a jug of water. The teenager slipped the other back beneath the seat and secured it there. “Make that last” he ordered, pursing his lips toward the jug and patting the dinner sack beside him. “We’ll save the rest for the restroom break at Hunter’s Point.”

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