A Short Story
© 2019 by George Joe
He was crazy. How he managed to keep himself from being locked up, I don't know! What's crazier is that supposedly he's a medicine man. For us Natives this means he ranks up there with a priest.
The day I first saw him, he was walking down the road, hitchhiking. I didn't know him because my parents had moved off the reservation over thirty years before and never returned, not even to visit my grandparents or relatives during the summers. I always figured something happened – bad. "You have some relatives out there," they'd say and that was it.
I was returning something my father gave me just before a surgery. Doctors discovered he had a cancer growth. They wouldn't say, but my father’s chances were slim. "You have an uncle named Jose, out on the reservation," he said, at his hospital room. "If something happens to me during this operation, I need you to take this back to him." It was odd looking, tightly wrapped in deerskin, with some eagle feathers at each end. It must have been over one hundred years old. I'd never seen anything like it, not even in a photo or a museum. And it was in a shoe box. "Here take it." The moment I took it from his hand I felt a jolt of energy go through my body, but I didn't make anything of it. "Don't let anyone know but Jose."
I set out to return this to Jose months after the funeral. It would be good to get out of the big city, anyway. Once I got to the reservation I figured I'd ask around for the family.
My father's last name was Yazzie. When I was a kid, he mentioned a place called Fluted Rock. It was my destination. Driving on the washboard reservation roads, listening to an oldie by Merle Haggard, I realized how old the tire tracks ahead of me were. It was hot.
Then, out of nowhere, this short man appeared. I stopped because he looked like an elderly and he climbed in. "You going to town, young man?" he asked as soon as he settled in. He was hefty and in his overalls looked more like an ex-hippie or a Navajo version of Willie Nelson. His unkempt, shaggy, unwashed hair was shoulder length. When he looked at me, one of his eyes looked straight past me. I couldn't tell if he was looking at me, around me, or through me. It was kind of trippy – and spooky.
"Yeah," I said.
"I get off in town. That okay with you?" He turned his head and looked straight ahead, pulling at his uncombed grayish-white beard.
"Yeah, sure," I said, noticing some food still stuck there.
"Where you come from?" he said in broken English.
"From Los Angeles," I said.
"Far away. You far away from home, son," he said.
"What you doing out here? You visiting parents, grandparents? Back from college?"
"No. Uh yeah," I said, quickly changing my story to throw him off.
Then I asked, "Do you know where Fluted Rock is?"
"It's back that way," he said, pointing with his hand, and lips, and looking at me.
"By where you picked me up at."
"Oh," I said. "How far is it to town from here?"
"You from around here, boy?"
"No. I said Los Angeles, remember?" He looked at me as if he didn't believe me.
"What is your clan?"
"No. Your clan. Clan. Are you with the Deer clan, the Coyote clan?" I was still puzzled, having grown up in the city. Finally, I understood.
"Oh," I said. "I don't know. My parents never told me."
He put his head down, as if he were thinking about something, so I turned up the radio. I didn't want to talk to him anymore.
"Lost Angeles," he muttered, pulling on his beard.
I stepped on the pedal and we roared down the dirt road. I wanted to get rid of him, the sooner the better, to get an early start looking for Fluted Rock.
"Why you looking for Fluted Rock, son?" He was getting curious.
"I just want to know where it is." My father had told me not to tell anyone, except the person I was to give the strange object too. So I lied.
Then a blur came over my vision. I rubbed my eyes to clear the blur, but that white spot wouldn't go away. The attack usually went away after a while. Doctors could never figure it out.
He noticed. "Son, you okay?”
"Yes, I'm okay. It's just my vision."
"You don't look well," he said. He must have seen my face get red, as if I'd just taken a bite of a hot chili pepper.
"Yes, I'm sure." I'd been getting these allergy-like attacks ever since I was a child and took medication for them. I lost the bottle on the twelve to fourteen hour ride to northeastern Arizona.
He must have caught the slightly irritated tone in my voice. "You don't have to get mad at me," he said. "Just trying to help.”
"I helped a young man like you. Oh, let's see…When was it?" He looked up, like he was in deep thought. "Maybe last month," he said. "He doing good now. His mother bring him. His face got red like yours."
"I'm doing fine. I don't need any help."
"I also know a ceremony for angry people."
"Are you what they call a medicine man?" I asked.
"City people call me that."
"What do people here call you?"
"A singer. Or a prog-nos-ticator. Did I say it right?"
"Yeah. You can tell what is wrong with people? You can, like cure people?"
“Whoa. Stop. You just passed the town."
"Turn around. You passed it."
At first I was trying to get rid of the old man, who needed a shower really bad, but now, I wanted him to tell me more. I wanted to know more about my people. I never got a chance to learn because dad didn't teach us.
"Stop at the gas station." Town was just the gas station and a café. Before he got out, he turned his head and looked at me. His stare seemed to last for a lifetime. I felt as if I was sitting under a huge magnifying glass and he saw everything about me. If I looked up, I could probably see a huge eye at the other end of the magnifying glass.
"Son, did you dream about a snake last night?" He asked unexpectedly.
I looked at him, puzzled, somewhat freaked out, and asked, "How do you know that?"
"You need a ceremony. Then they stop coming after you."
In the dream, a snake was chasing me. There's several, sometimes. When I was a child, my mother use to comfort me after I'd wake up yelling in my sleep. But they continued to haunt me, even as an adult. In this dream, there were many, and other things were happening. I remember staring at something that looked part human and part animal. It had eyes like a cat and pointed, huge, bat-like, hairy ears. I tried to throw my shoe at it, but I couldn't move. I tried yelling "Aaaah," to scare it off, but nothing came out. I had no voice. I was paralyzed and I could smell a bad, dead animal odor. Something was in my house! It walked around like a dog, but it could stand on its hind legs. When I woke up I was still horrified by the dream because it seemed so real.
"You don't believe me, huh?" he said. I didn't know what to think. How could this man I just picked up know about my dream?
He got off and I turned back around to look for Fluted Rock and Jose Yazzie. I went to the first house I saw – near where I dropped him off – and started asking around. After several hours and knocking on several doors, I was getting close. And that's when it dawned on me what I was getting myself into.
"Oh you mean that strange, old man?" one lady said. Another lady slammed the door in my face after yelling something in Navajo -- maybe an expletive. But at the last house I stopped, a very nice lady said, "Go down about one mile on this road. Then take a left turn. And go about a quarter mile down. You will see his house. Jose Yazzie lives there – alone.”
"How will I know if I am at the right place?"
"Oh, you'll know," she said, and laughed. "There's only one Jose."
I followed her directions and drove up to a round, hut-looking, mud-covered, structure with a door facing the east. I got out of my vehicle and walked around the place. It was quiet.
"Hello," I said, somewhat softly at first. No one answered; there was just a hungry dog walking around, wagging its tail.
"Hello," a little louder.
"H e l l o o o o," someone answered back. I looked around. No one was in sight.
"Hello," I said again.
"Hello," a voice mimicked. Where was it coming from? I looked at the dog. I looked for a parrot. It was getting weird. Then something hit me in the back. A rock? I turned. Nothing! I didn't know what to do. Another rock hit me.
"Hey," someone said. I turned around, but this time, standing before me was a woman, a large woman, or was it a man? Was it even human? My heart jumped.
"What you want?" The person said, in an irritated tone, then stooped over, and threw up.
"Are you okay?" I asked, unsure what to do. The person was hurling like crazy. I thought their guts might come out. "Are you sick?" I asked. Seconds later, that thing stopped, then started chanted. The dog started howling, wolf-like.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Are you putting a hex on me?" I asked. They didn't stop. And I think the person is drunk. I've heard about hexes. They were bad things because I saw people being hexed on National Geographic shows.
"Stop that. I said stop!" I was getting angry and was going to hit him on the head with the object I was carrying, now out of the shoe box. Just then a crow flew over. It turned back and flew directly at me as if it was going to strike me. But I ducked. I looked down to see if snakes would be crawling out of the ground next, to strike me. Finally, the thing walked up to me and as it got closer, pulled something off its head.
The hitchhiker from this morning!
In his hand he held what looked like a woman's wig, braided horse hair? Or was it a scalp? It was freaky. I stepped back and wondered if I had just walked into a ceremony of some kind.
"Who you looking for?” He said, now standing in front of me. "You still looking for Fluted Rock? It's right over there. The pointed one." I couldn't smell any alcohol on his breath, just a bad odor.
"I'm looking for Jose Yazzie," I finally told him.
"You mean that no good, worthless skin walker? You're too late."
"He kicked the bucket last week." He said as he dropped the weird wig-like thing in a sack.
He looked up at Heaven, snapped his finger once, looked at me and said, "Gone!"
"What you need him for, son? You got something that belongs to him?" I looked at him unbelievingly.
"How do you know that? How do you always know what is going on in my head?"
"I just know."
"I never got your name?" I asked.
"Jose. Jose Yazzie." I almost fell on the ground. The earth moved.
"Why didn't you tell me you were Jose Yazzie, at first?"
"Why didn't you tell me you were looking for Jose Yazzie at first?”
“What's wrong with you?” I looked at him straight in the eye. "Are you really a medicine man?"
"Because you don't act like one."
"How are they suppose to act? Like this." And he folded his arms and put a stern, fierce look on his face.
"How you know what a medicine man does? You're a city Injun from Lost Angeles."
"It's Los. Los Angeles."
"All right then," I said, moving the conversation along. "Are you well enough for me to… Are you sane enough for me to give you something from my father?"
"What?" He was also kind of deaf.
"You know the late Gonnie Yazzie, right?"
"You say, the late?"
"He passed on?”
"I’m his only son. He told me to give this to you."
He took the object, held it, and was silent for a long time – very long. I thought he was going to cry. It seemed like his world briefly stopped.
"This has been gone a long time," he finally said.
"What is it?"
"It's sacred. Your father took this because people started fighting over it. They wanted to be the one carrying on the tradition and the name. Son, you mean he never told you about it?" He kept turning it, looking at it from every angle.
"Never said anything. I didn't even know about it until he gave it to me."
For the rest of the afternoon he told me about how the object was handed down from generation to generation over the past 150 years, and that it was the most sacred thing of the Navajo people. "Only a few people know about this and what to do with it," he said. "Just powerful medicine men."
And here, I had it all along – almost even clubbed him with it!
"Son, I dreamt about this last night. This morning I got up, prayed, and took a couple of buttons of peyote." He told me how they gave him a spiritual boost.
I felt my allergy-like attack coming on again.
"Son, if I do a ceremony for you it will go away," he said. I was very interested, but at the same time spooked by him.
"Oh. I will be okay," I said, just looking for a break so I could leave. After all, my mission was done. I delivered the sacred object to him.
But if I stayed I could at least tell my children that I had experienced a ceremony.
We stood there a little while before I said, “Let’s do it,” surprising myself.
"We'll get started at nightfall," Jose said. "I'll ask some helpers to come over."
After the helpers arrived, we walked into his Hogan, his home, to start the ceremony. He pulled out arrowheads and other ceremonial objects from a bag.
"Sit over here," he said, so I sat next to him. "Hold this." I held the sacred object I had returned. Everyone sat on sheepskin, in a circle, around the fire, the only light in the room. “Strange things may happen,” he told us, “so just sit tight – nothing will happen to us.” We were in his church, after all.
It must have been after midnight when we all started hearing noises from outside. The first one sounded like a scream, a human was screaming, or being choked. We all looked up, stared at one another in the dim light. But we sat still, couldn't interrupt Jose. Then there was a loud bang at the door; someone threw something or kicked it. I got up to open the door but Jose grabbed me and said “Sit down!"
“Make sure the door is locked," he told others.
Then there was a knock on the window. Jose kept chanting, rocking back and forth, eyes shut, completely lost in his singing. The sounds grew louder outside, then suddenly, it got quiet. Jose then took one arrowhead and walked around the room with it, maybe warding off something. Something ran across the roof, like a cat, or a dog. We looked up. The hairs on my arm stood up. My heart started beating wildly. Jose then blew through a whistle and started chanting again. It felt as if we were under assault by some supernatural beings, all gathered outside.
Jose told us to drink some medicine in a bowl. I hesitated. But wherever Jose was taking us, I didn't want to be left behind – with evil lurking outside the door. I took several gulps, which got me dizzy, maybe drunk. I started dreaming, or were they visions or real life? I couldn’t tell. I'd wake up every now and then, sweating, shaking.
"Billy, Billy, Billy,” I heard. Then someone grabbed and shook me awake. It was Jose. "Wake up!"
"Wake up. Are you okay?" I was dazed. I had no idea what was going on or where I was. Had I just gone into another world? Did Jose just bring me back?
"What did you see?" he asked.
"Son, what you see," he asked again.
"I was walking on a road and then it just ended," I said. "Then I was hanging onto a tree and something was trying to pull me down. Jose, what is going on? What was that dream about? Was it a vision? Did the medicine do that?" I was nearly crying and I was sweating. I had vomited, too.
"You're okay," he said, and grabbed my arm.
Then he yelled, "Someone go out and check."
Two guys got up with two arrowheads Jose had told them to carry at all times and they walked out. A few seconds later, we heard a loud thud and a dog cry out, like it was just hit by a rock. We could almost hear breathing outside.
"Get out of here!" one of the two who went outside said.
"I can't move. I can't…" the other said.
"I can't. I….I…" There were footsteps, then running. My heart was ready to explode! We couldn't make out each other's faces in the darkness, but I could tell people were scared. One lady cried, silently.
One of Jose’s helpers inside kept chanting – louder. More footsteps. Running. Louder chanting. Then the doors flung open. The two who went outside walked back in. Jose stopped after he finished a song.
"You guys okay?" he asked.
"Yes," one of them said. I found out later that Don was his name.
"Something was out there. It looked human. But it had big, pointy, hairy ears."
"It did something to me. I couldn't move for a second," the other guy said.
"It threw some witch dust on you," Jose said. "Come over here, let me cleanse you of that." They both made their way in the dark to where Jose sat. "Here, drink this. Now, put out both your arms." He patted them down with a huge eagle feather. The two sat back down.
"You guys hurt it though," said Jose, with absolute calmness. Fires could be raging around him, bombs and grenades could be going off around him, but he'd still sit there chanting – no matter what.
"Did you throw a rock at them?" he asked.
"Yes," said one of the guys. "It cried out, like a human."
Jose laughed. "Hopefully, it won't come back."
"That thing was jumping all over the place, like a kangaroo," Don spoke again.
It must have been three o'clock in the morning by then.
"Son," he turned to me.
"Yes," I said. By now, my eyes were probably as big as golf balls.
"Let me tell you what’s going on," he said. I could almost feel a spotlight shining on me. "Your father, who was my older brother, did a very brave thing when he took that object away with him,” pointing to what was in my hand. “It was the right thing to do, but when people found out, they didn't like it one bit. I'm sure your father knew what he was doing and that's why he never came back. It was good he cut all ties."
"But why?" I asked.
Suddenly, his English was good. "The people who didn't like what he did thirty years ago are outside now," he said. "They're hiding in the darkness. Throwing things at us from behind shrubs. Trying to scare you, me, all of us. They are the reason you've been having those bad dreams all those years and those attacks you get. They witched your father, his family. They were mad. Somehow, they've found out this is back. Evil has their ways, just as good has theirs. But now I have this object and it's safe. Safe for all the generations to come."
Suddenly, Don fell over! He had taken a drink of water from a bucket and was walking back to his seat when he collapsed. The other guy grabbed him in time so he didn't fall into the fire, now a hot bed of coals.
"Get me a wet rag," Jose said. "Hurry!" He put the rag on Don’s forehead, placed the sacred object I had been holding on the man's heart, and began chanting.
Then something happened to Jose, too. He started convulsing. He let out a loud shrill, "Yelp!" He grabbed his heart and his body appeared to twist and contort, like something was inside him, trying to get out. “Aaaah," he yelled out.
In pre-dawn light, it looked like he had the wig back on his head. Then his head fell forward. Nothing happened for a moment. Nobody moved. Silence.
"Throw water on him," someone said, and someone else got up to do that. Jose then let out a sigh. He was breathing. Like a runner trying to catch his breath, he said, "Aaaaah." The coals lit up and I remember seeing something there that looked like someone's head. No, it was a face, but I couldn't make it out clearly.
"Towel," Jose yelled. Someone got up and Jose started vomiting again. He kneeled over like a dog, almost growling, on all arms and legs. Then he wiped his mouth, took a sip of water, and cleared his throat. It was over.
"The bad thing they did to your family is now gone," he said. "You had a vision, earlier, son. It was telling you about the witching. You kicked away at that thing that was trying to drag you down. But it's gone now."
At that moment, I did feel something lift from my body. “Beauty before you, beauty around you," Jose said, and the ceremony started again. But it was different now, as if a page had been turned. The noise outside ended. Darkness outside was turning to light. The evil that lurked over us like a dark cloud all night, was now gone. The air was no longer heavy, but light. And the blur was gone. I felt warm and good.
When the ceremony finally ended, just before a ray of light appeared though a crack in the door, I heard the refreshing sound of birds chirping, and singing. Before I walked out the door to offer my prayers, I heard the crisp, clear sounds of a waterfall, or maybe it was a river. It was soothing. I went outside and felt the sun's rays go through my skin, warming my body. I could feel the warm morning light, just like the warm fire inside the Hogan. It felt good. The earth smelled fresh and I could smell the desert flowers. I felt renewed, born again. Somewhere nearby I heard an eagle take off, and fly over. I watched as it cried out, turned and circled me, in a clockwise direction. I felt it looking at me. A new sun. A new day.
I then walked a distance, raised my right arm to sprinkle the white corn dust into the wind and prayed, as Jose instructed. I said: "Beauty before me. Beauty beside me. Beauty behind me. Beauty in front of me."
At day break, I said good bye to Jose Yazzie, my uncle, and drove back to Los Angeles. I never had another allergy-like attack.
I often wonder about Jose. He was not crazy after all.
Maybe it’s time to take another trip back home….