Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
I am surprised one day to see my grandmother dressed up just as if she were going away. She usually looks quite shabby. Ordinarily she wears a shirt so much washed that it is difficult to realize it has ever been velvet. Her elbows may show through the fabric, or the sleeves may crawl halfway up her forearm from frequent cutting off of worn cuffs. Her twelve-yard skirt is faded too. Its width is efficient for driving sheep. When she lifts the side of her skirt, it undulates in a determined way, catches the attention of one sheep's eye, and the flock goes forward. The skirt's fullness also has advantages when its wearer sits on the ground. It not only furnishes protection from sand and prickers, but also caters to Navajo prudery. There are of course disadvantages, not the least of which is the tendency to catch on the prickly bushes of the little-watered plateau. Maria Antonia's skirts usually have at least one three-cornered gash, and often more than one.
She wears her shabby clothes not as one who has no better, but rather as a city person in the country who says, "I always look like this out here." Today she looks quite as well as Marie or Atlnaba on the way to a sing. They have been telling me that it is time for the sheep dipping; but this is the first time in two summers that my grandmother has gone away from home, and it comes upon me unexpectedly. They pack
up all their necessities, cookpots, food, hay, children, in the wagon, and Atlnaba takes the reins. Her husband is riding his horse to the dip; Ruby and the herdboy drive the sheep.
I ask her how long they will be gone. She is not sure if it will be two or three days. It will depend on how many flocks are ahead of theirs and how fast the sheep are dipped. I promise to come to see the dipping next day. As they drive off, I set about the activities for which I need concentration. In no time the sun is far past the "middle," and in a few minutes—so it seems to me—he is nearly down. I have decided to pass the night with the traders.
The rainy season is not quite over although it has nearly spent itself. I drive leisurely along five miles of roller-coaster highway, down and up, down and up again as I drink in the grandeur of the sunset. I come to the "big hill," around and over which the road twines narrowly. From its summit I see at my left a deep purple cañon, green at the bottom with irrigated fields. At my right the sun is setting across a wide valley, the shadows replaced by roseate gold interrupted by the white resplendence of chalk cliffs. As if all this were not sufficient, a light female rain like that which falls constantly over the home of the Corn gods, drops between me and the sun. I gasp in my inability to comprehend the sight fully as I turn my head forty-five degrees to behold a complete rainbow and behind it the thinnest slice of a new moon.
At the sheep dip all is action. A number of saddled horses tethered to a small piñon stand in a circle. At a short distance a shade has been erected. From one of its posts hangs a sheep, just slaughtered, which a woman vigorously skins. Not far from her feet another woman sitting on the ground is cleaning
the intestines. Farther away a woman and a young girl are tending a small cedar fire from which rise wisps of white smoke like the gentlest of the clouds thrown off the towcards of the Wind gods. Near the sharp edge of the wash a girl, shawl over head, stands before a resting flock, awaiting its turn at the chute.
A smell of live sheep mixes with the odor of cedar smoke as we advance into the thick of the activities. Several hundred bleating, baaing sheep and goats, wondering and frightened, mill about in the corral from which a narrow chute leads to the dipping trough. Men and boys stand thick on the sides of the chute with prods in their hands, urging the reluctant animals toward the jumping-off platform. A young man tries to keep his balance on this platform, slimy with the yellow sulphur solution splashed up from the trough, at the same time that he forces the animals into the uninviting mixture directly beneath. Only about one beast in a dozen goes into it voluntarily and he must grasp each by head or wool and push his own weight against its determined resistance. It is the hardest kind of work.
One after another the balking creatures slip, jump, or are pushed into the trough with a splash which speckles all within its radius. The liquid is so deep that even the largest animals must swim. They are dipped for prevention and curing of scabies. Since the head is one seat of infection, the tenders must see to it that even the heads are immersed at least once. Close along both sides of the long narrow trough stand Navajo women, young and old, and young men all with long forked sticks. They see to it that the animals are thoroughly doused, but with the sticks they hold up the heads of the lambs and flustered ewes as they frantically strike out and
make for the other end of the run. There one of the men in charge of the dip counts them as they emerge into a roomy corral. Bedraggled and injured-looking, each runs up the incline. They are discouraged and surprised as they shake themselves in a yellow huddle in a corner of the corral. For several weeks travellers on the Reservation will ask, "Why do all the sheep look so yellow?" instead of remarking as usual, "Why do Navajo sheep always look so white? All the sheep I've ever seen have looked brown and dirty."
Those who tend the trough have not worn their best clothes. They know only too well what a disagreeable task they confront.
The mothers-in-law, for once the better dressed, are somewhere in the background butchering and cooking. Dipping is a job heartily despised by all, but it is a necessity. If the dipping is done faithfully twice each year, at an interval of ten days there is a good chance it may soon be unnecessary. It requires skill as well as strength and endurance because if the sheep breathe or drink any of the fluid or get much in their eyes they may die. Nevertheless the liquid must saturate the wool of the head. To surprise the sheep by ducking it suddenly under with the prod, then to see that it instantly bobs up is the trick.
I drive home alone after watching the entire procedure. Another day without interruptions. As I come up to the main hogan, that of Red-Point, I see the lock fastened in the door. I walk a few paces to Maria Antonia's cooking shade. Not a pup or even a kitten is in sight. Two chickens cluck outside the barrier although they can easily squeeze in if they like.
The rest of the day is incredibly short, but quiet, too quiet.
[paragraph continues] The sun, by its death bringing the earth to life, lures me outside. I expect at any moment the bark of an oncoming dog, hence I have not gone to Ganado. But there is not a sound. The glow is with me, it brings the sage and sand into a gentle radiance, but there are no woolly pelts to reflect its splendor, no scarlet shirts to cast it back into itself. A bluebird chirps to his mate in the branches of my piñon, a turtledove cries mournfully near Maria Antonia's shade.
I still expect my family back, and after dark lay out my bed under the Great Dipper. Silence meets my expectation of munching, bleating, crying, companionable sounds. Not even the dull comforting sounds of noses pushing against close-lying woolly bodies as they crowd into the dust.
This is limbo. A perfect place where for me the gods are not. I am not lonesome, I am only alone. They must be here but I have not yet earned the right to say:
It is quiet, too quiet…