In the Carrizo Mountains, we spent the summer preparing for the wedding and I pretended interest to avoid punishment while looking for an opportunity to leave. I received training in cooking mostly, overseen by my mother, though Etta Brown visited at times to complain about my lack of skill and to note any trace of progress.
I learned the songs of the loom, as I’ve taught you, in praise of Spider Woman. I culled burrs from the wool Masani brought to me and Ruby showed me how to straighten the curls between the metal teeth of the carding combs. Whenever I lost my grip, I frowned in the direction of my grandmother, who sat in the shade of the cottonwood tree like Spider Woman, performing the same rituals day in and day out—corn pollen and prayers, wool between warp strings, the pressing of new weft firmly in place, tying off one color, beginning another, the task ceaseless as perhaps it seems to you the many days we’ve worked this piece.
At the loom, the wool was rough between my fingers, burning if the tension was tight, but too slack and I had to pull the yarn and start again. I lost my place often, at first unable to tell which of the closely spaced warp strings I was to weave. I pulled out more than I wove, and any patterns I was able to create were like a child’s first attempts at drawing, where he must explain what the smudges of color are meant to be. Laughter spilled from Ruby’s mouth when she saw the great looping lines that were the result of my work, but Masani said it was fine and that in time I would learn.
She put her hands on mine, guiding them through the strings in the same manner as I have for you, and after a while, a pattern and rhythm emerged. New memory was created in my muscles the same as when, as children, we learned the string games and the jingle dance steps after hours of practice. Masani said that weaving was natural to every woman and based upon your work at this loom, I can say the same for you. At the time however, I was thinking that a woman receives instructions while making plans of her own.
When she was satisfied with my progress, Masani taught me about the plants and dyes she preferred for her rugs. Come spring, I’ll teach you the same—we’ll travel mountain trails through stands of Douglas fir and quaking aspen, past open fields of columbine and black-eyed Susans, walking the same slow pace I once walked with Masani.
One day, after we found purple larkspur, she taught me how to alternate plain stripes with horizontal bands and diamonds for a Chinle pattern. I frowned and wove carefully, knowing hasty decisions can lead to long setbacks.
She smiled at me when I finished the rug. “This is good work, Granddaughter.”
It was mid-July when Hiram Brown sent five sheep, marking his commitment to the contract. Under the watchful eyes of Etta, I could grind corn with the metate stone firm in my hands, moving efficiently and stretching far enough forward to use the strength of my arms but not so far as to lose my balance. I cooked fry bread without burning the edges and made tortillas slightly brown in the center the way Hiram preferred. Because of my progress, he had promised to hold a powwow honoring Ruby and me.
“He wants you to dance,” Masani told me that night.
She was unwinding my hair from two thick braids.
“For his pleasure, not mine,” I said.
I knew I should hold my tongue but I couldn’t help it. Not after what my mother had told me the night before, what I was expected to do at the time of my marriage, let him heave himself all over me. I’d just as soon burn the jingle dress myself than entertain Hiram Brown.
“It wouldn’t do a bit of good,” my mother said. “We’ve signed the contract. Why waste a beautiful dress?”
“I danced after marrying your grandfather,” Masani added. “Maybe Hiram is the same sort of man.”
“Have you forgotten my eye?”
She took the ends of my hair in hand, brushing lightly from the bottom then working up to a new section.
“I remember you threw a stick.”
My mother tasted a broth that was simmering over the fire. She stirred in black pepper, replaced the lid then turned to the coffee pot.
“We have only two weeks to get ready.”
She tossed the old coffee grounds into the flames and started a fresh pot.
“Plenty of time,” Masani said.
“For what?” I asked.
“To make a gift for Etta. A Chinle rug. You know that pattern, and it is the region her people are from.”
All of it would have to be done on the mountain, on my own, the dyeing and the weaving. Past the switchbacks I’d find purple larkspur and I was to pick enough of it to make a gray dye.
“Fill the extra gunnysack and remember to boil the water with the flowers first so the color will set. You’ll have to remember the rest on your own.”
The next day, Masani purified me with sage and my father handed me a small loom he’d constructed that still smelled of the juniper wood he’d carved it from. After a breakfast of corn cakes, I gathered sheepskin onto my back, then strapped the loom over that, collecting a hatchet, rope, knife, Pendleton blanket, and skeins enough to make Etta’s rug even if the dye set incorrectly or the wool became hopelessly knotted, which still happened at times. In the same sack were tools Masani said she used only for the most sacred weaving. The same tools we use today, Shi’yazhi.
“This comb is from Spider Woman herself,” she said, then paused to search my face.
“Look how my granddaughter doubts my word.”
“Aó,” my mother said, “she is stubborn. She believes she is too old for stories and magic.”
Masani clicked her tongue. “No one is ever too old.”
She said nothing more on that account except to use the comb to tamp down the weft after each row was complete. I could see that the teeth were spaced close together to that purpose, the cedar wood smooth both from years of use and the oils from Masani’s hands. I thanked her for it, though I still doubted it was Spider Woman’s comb. She took it from me, wrapped it in the deerskin once more, and placed it in the sack with the batten and spindle.
“Each day, notch a line on a tree with your knife. On the fourth, if you are finished with the rug, you may return,” she said.
I nodded and strapped two canteens of water to my back. It was all that I could carry and I would have to work hard to conserve it. My mother finished packing tamales, dried strips of mutton, and sugar to sweeten wild tea. Pink light was just beginning to warm the land when I slipped through the break in the junipers.
I have to admit I was looking forward to a time free from the watchful eyes of my elders. Until that day, I had no reason to explore where Masani had directed me to go. I’d spent each year at sheep camp, keeping Ruby away from the stream when she was a baby and tending the watermelons and corn planted in nearby vales. I was glad to walk away from the sounds of the sheep that Hiram sent, to be spared their cries when their noses were branded with the mark of my family—free, too, from the sound of Etta’s cane sliding and scratching along the road to our camp every few days.
The farther I went the more I considered that I could just leave the mountain, travel down to MacDougal’s trading post, and hitch a ride into Courtland with the coal or oil men who passed through. But leaving then, before weaving the rug for Etta, would only prove what I knew the old woman thought—that I was afraid or too stupid to make a proper wife. No, I would show her that I could do all of those things but still chose to follow my own desires.
After an hour of walking and two small sips of water, a series of switchbacks slanted above me and I began a new ascent. My leggings circled my calves and knees and I rubbed along the outside, tracking an itch where sweat trickled down between the material and my skin. At the end of the switchbacks, I saw purple larkspur rising just as Masani had mentioned, so pulled an empty gunnysack from the top of my supplies and cut at the rough stems. I stuffed the flowers as far down in the sack as they would go and, when I was finished, drew a mouthful of water from a canteen.
I continued on until I came to an outcropping of two large rocks, boulders really, left behind by the monster slayers when the world was home to a thousand demons. They were cragged and pocked with minerals cool beneath my fingertips, and squeezing through them I thought how they had been there much longer than me, that for generations girls had stood beneath the pines in their leggings and braids with sacks tucked under their arms and the job of weaving, of living alone in the woods for a time facing them.
I stood rooted in place for a moment thinking of the hundreds, maybe thousands of girls winding their way along the same path I had walked to please a mother-in-law who would seek to grind her spirit down as effortlessly as she ground the corn along the grooved metate. Girl after girl folded into herself, incubating, the woman’s ceremony an honor but a curse too, announcing her to a man and his mother who would tether her to the weight of a woman’s work—train her in gravity when she ought to dance, should learn to fly.
After a time, I stepped into the forest, where thin light filtered through. I ate the saved corncakes from breakfast followed by handfuls of blackberries found in a thicket growing to my shoulders. Afterward, I dug a trench, gathered sticks and deadwood for a fire, lit a match and watched flames smolder. After they caught, I poured water from the canteen and, when it was boiling, wrapped my hand in the gunnysack and took it from the fire. Next, I tore the heads from the flowers I’d gathered, tossing them into the pot, and stirring the mixture with a stick. The wool I set there would absorb dye for the rest of the day.
At first I placed my loom beneath a tree, then decided against working it that way—the frame was small, did not even reach my hips, so instead I gripped it between my thighs and strung the warp. Masani’s directions, encouragements, and complaints gathered in my ears as I finished it, then began the weft. A thin border of black first, then a background of tan was how I planned it. The tightness of the weft, the absence of gaps, was most important after the stories and songs to Spider Woman and I used Masani’s cedar comb to push my work in place while the purple larkspur turned the yarn a shade of gray the color of a moth’s wings.
The crows called out to one another now and again, but for the most part, it was quiet in those woods beyond the rocks. Before daylight dipped down behind the trees, I rose and lifted the yarn from the pot with two twigs, careful not to kink it or chance an uneven swatch. I set the dripping mess on the section of thicket I’d cleared of fruit, placing another skein in the dye, and lightly pressing it in the liquid.
After sipping a mouthful of water I poured more into a cup for tea, watching it simmer and pulling it from the fire before it boiled off. I gathered more firewood for the night of cold that would surely follow, bunching the blanket around my shoulders. Before closing my eyes, I cut a notch in the tree and watched it fill with sap. The first day had come and gone quickly; I would have my work cut out for me to complete Etta’s rug in the next three days.
The next morning I rolled from my blanket, as unsure of my surroundings as you are some mornings. The fire was dead and the thought of Etta’s rug came slowly to me. I looked to where I’d left the loom beneath the tree, set apart from the bark that had bled sap but could not see it standing upright the way I’d left it. Lifting my head for a better view I saw that it had toppled over, perhaps from a strong breeze during the night. I sat up, aware that my mouth was dry and I should leave off drinking tea, which left me thirstier than ever.
The canteen was next to my hand and I brought it to my lips, held the water in my mouth, allowing it to soak the walls of my cheeks before swallowing. I set it down and reached for the gunnysack of food, but it was no longer near the fire, where I’d left it the night before. My eyes shifted over the uneven ground until I spotted it several yards away. The gunnysack was shredded, the fry bread, strips of mutton, and tamales gone.
Near the blackberry bush the last batch of wool and dye puddling in the mud and I shook my head to clear it then closed my eyes, hoping when I opened them again, it would all be a miserable dream. But there it remained—the gunny of food gone, a pile of shit stinking and crusting on the far side of the bush where the air had dried the wool stiff. In that moment I imagined Etta Brown’s narrow chin dipping into a grin because the stupid girl she believed I was hadn’t sense enough to draw a sack of food into a tree and keep it from a thieving bear.
Bear—cousin to all the People because of its five fingers and toes and habit of standing upright. Maybe sent by Etta to spy on me, a spirit bear—for how was it that I’d heard nothing, smelled nothing? I knew bear to announce itself with its dank musk, the scent of shit clinging to its fur. And the bush was still full of berries sleek on the vine. These black thoughts winged and dipped through my mind like bats, Shi’yazhi. Only when my stomach tightened with hunger did I stand, swipe hair from my eyes, and begin pinching berries from the bush.
The juice was sharp and sweet on my tongue, but I would have eaten dirt and rocks before leaving there empty-handed. I wiped my fingers on my skirt and lifted the wool from the mud, where I could see the faint drag of the bear’s claws. I built a fire for the company of crackling twigs and snatched the yarn from the bush then wound the untouched yarn into a ball. With that finished, I sat with the loom between my thighs, and built up the weft I’d started the day before.
When I grew hungry, I scooped my hands to the bottom of the gunny, molding crumbs from the corn cakes into a ball the size of a marble. After eating, I swallowed a mouthful of water, grateful I still had that. Afterward, I lifted the remaining yarn from the bush, and beat it against my thigh so mud crumbled away, but I could see that the color had seeped in and overtaken the dye. I strung it back on the bush, not sure what to do. Two bands of different colors for Etta’s rug would not work and both wool and larkspur were gone.
I stretched before the fire, exhaustion sweeping over me, and in sleep bear came, its breath swampy, the pink tongue black-edged and ruffling from its mouth. Its yellow teeth gleamed out of the darkness and the tongue became more firm, insistent, licking the berry juice from my chin. When it swallowed me whole, I bled but did not scream. Bride to the bear, I was wild, hungry, and free.
Waking for the second time that day, I rose to take the dirty wool from the bush and settle my back against the tree. Sap oozed from beneath the bark and stuck to my blouse but I did not care. I pulled the gray wool out that I’d weaved for a section of Chinle bands, unwilling to give Etta the satisfaction of a job poorly done. I poked the yarn through the way it came, backing out of the old pattern, contemplating the new as we do together with this weaving before us.
I started again, weaving accents of gray and adding circles the size of dried peas with the muddy wool. These became the base of each toe for the wandering gait of bear. Its in-step slender, four footprints in all, four sets of claws elongated, curving like a fishing knife across Etta Brown’s rug.