The arroyo was the best place in all the world. It was a short trot from the Teec Nos Pos mission to the edge of the arroyo––across the dirt road and the field, which, except for four mulberry trees, a long asparagus bed, and the apple tree at the far end, was a barren patch of gray-brown earth. On the near side, where we slid down, the arroyo wall was sandy. On the far side, rose a round-edged sandstone ledge. Above that, we were always watched over by the great rock guardians atop the Three Monkeys. Willow stands lined the edges of the bed, and they turned a shiny scarlet in winter, offered green shade in spring and summer. The arroyo bed was cream-colored sand, damp beneath the surface; there must've been an underground stream, because much farther up there was a spring-fed pool where our father once took us on a Sunday afternoon walk, and I saw a magical clump of transparent frog eggs floating there, never to be forgotten.
Throughout the arroyo bed there were great gnarled cottonwoods that lifted their golden crowns above the arroyo rim in October. Some curved along the floor of the arroyo and were easy to climb and ride like wide-backed horses.
But it was the bed of the arroyo that gave us hours of play. With my brothers and sister, the daughters of the matron at the stone-and-pine government school, and sometimes the trader's children from downstream, we made Diné homesteads in the damp sand. We patted the earth into small hogans, poked twigs into the ground in circle formation and dropped tiny pebbles into the round corrals for sheep. We made summer shelters of more twigs laid across forked uprights, and that took patience, as they fell apart again and again under the weight of the roof twigs. We visited each other's homes and talked for the little people we imagined living in them.
Other times we dug shallow square rooms that were our size and lay down in the cool dampness, out of the brilliant sunlight. When we left the arroyo, we might climb up into that apple tree, stunted by scarce water. Each of us claimed a branch and named it, then negotiated property trades. "You can have Big Buttermilk if you give me, Little Texas."
We did not know we were weaving together different cultures. We were living our child-lives. The making of miniature homes may be a near universal children's game, or perhaps it once was––before screen time came into being. I heard my father once tell a Diné coworker that he and his siblings had made miniature communities on their farm in Michigan. It's just that our version was Diné. I didn't know that doing this thing that my adult Navajo friends also did when they were children was one of the things that made me like them, despite how different I also was. I didn't know it was one of the things that was making me who I am today. We don't know these things as children.
Did you have a favorite place, a favorite play, as a child? I'd love to read about it.
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