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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, fears we have hidden in as if caves. ~ Michael Ondaatje

I shivered when I walked among the graves across the road from the mission. We had to pass through that dry, rocky cemetery with its weathered wooden crosses and sun-bleached plastic flowers on our way to the top of the massive golden mesa beyond it. The graves were pocked with small holes dug by mice and gophers, maybe even snakes. I was afraid I would see part of a dead body, a bony hand reaching out of a hole, a grinning skull, if I looked into one. I felt a sick looseness in my throat when I thought of little animals living down there with decaying bodies.

In the small valley of Teec Nos Pos in Dinétah, my father was Éé'nishoodii Yázhí, Little Long Coat—the Protestant missionary, as differentiated from the Catholic fathers with their long robes. Whenever we came into Teec Nos Pos from the east, we drove down a sharp incline to enter the valley. At the bottom of the hill I couldn't help seeing the charred, broken timbers of a ch'íidii baghan that stood there. I asked my father once about its name, and he said, "It means ghost house. People call it that because someone died in there. Navajos are afraid to live in it after that because they're afraid of death. They break a hole in the north side of the hogan for the person's spirit to leave. Then they burn it. It's such a sad waste of a good home when people are so poor. We want them to know they don't need to fear death because Jesus gives us victory over death through his resurrection."

I nodded. I believed that everything he told me was true. And I shivered then too, even though I also believed I should have no reason to fear death. In my mind's eye I watched frightened people breaking a hole in the back wall of the hogan and then setting their shelter on fire. Chills moved up my spine. I wouldn't go near a ch'íidii baghan myself, if I could help it. I didn't want to see or touch people who were dead any more than I thought the Diné did.


Because he believed they were terrified of death, my father also believed the greatest service he could offer Diné people was helping them bury their dead. He and my mother washed and dressed bodies; Dad built pine boxes, dug graves, and spoke words. I don't know how much comfort he gave because he also believed that he must preach the gospel at every opportunity. Unsaved people might be standing around the grave, and it was his mission to bring them to Christ, even if that meant scaring them with stories of hell awaiting them after death.

One evening at dinner, my father said something to my mother that got my attention. "We were burying that Benally man this afternoon. I got him washed and dressed, and had the box made."

It was his tone that made me look up. I saw his half-smile, which meant he was trying to suppress some emotion. I could tell he didn't want to be smiling, but he couldn't help it. His voice cracked. "The body wouldn't fit in the coffin. It was too tall. I measured him, but I must've gotten something wrong. I took his shoes off, and that helped, but he was still too tall." Dad laughed, a helpless laugh. 
"After that I tried to bend his feet back."


By then I sensed that my father's laughter was about to cross over into something else.


"I was afraid I was going to break his legs," he said. "Finally I got the corpse stuffed into the box." At last he stopped laughing and seemed relieved.

My mother did not laugh. She looked sympathetic. I looked at my father in wonder, feeling that something in him had come close to breaking, if only for a moment.

All I could think about was his hands touching that dead body—corpse he called it. He had touched death that afternoon. My throat underwent that same loosening I felt when I walked through the graveyard. I wanted my father to wash his hands with the gritty gray Lava soap he used whenever he changed the oil in the pickup, the soap that made his hands feel smooth and smell clean. I wanted him to wash them a second time before I would let him touch me.

The night of the too-long body, my father had a dream. He told it to us at breakfast the next morning. "That Benally man sat up in his coffin just after I got him crammed in," he said. He licked his dry lips and started laughing all over again.

I could tell it was a scary dream. Maybe that was the first time I wondered if it was true that Christians didn't fear death.

Sometime later my dad said that he would become a mortician if he ever stopped being a missionary. That is how great a service he believed he was performing when he buried the Diné dead.

I shuddered. I knew that if he handled death every day, he would never be able to wash it off. "If you become a mortician," I said, "I won't ever let you touch me again."

He laughed. "You'd get used to it," he said.

I didn't believe it.




© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


To be continued on Monday, 2/12/24


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