On a sunny spring morning when I was seven or eight, my mother called me away from the game I was playing with my brothers and sister by the side of the house. "I want to show you something," she said.
She led me into my father's study in the small building between our house and the chapel. It was always cool in there, unless the tall blue kerosene heater was lit. The room smelled of Bible leather and the musty yellow paper of commentaries and concordances, of mahogany and cracked linoleum.
On that day I noticed another faint, slightly sweet smell mingling with and rising above the old familiar smells. On the desk where my father prepared his sermons, a Diné baby girl lay on her wooden cradleboard. She wore a traditional, dark green velveteen skirt and blouse with a turquoise and silver pin at her throat, delicate bracelets on her wrists and tiny black patent leather shoes on her feet. Her eyes were closed, and her face was pale, a kind of milky beige, surrounded by fine dark brown hair. Her cheeks were round and fat.
"Isn't she beautiful? We wanted you to see her because she's so beautiful," my mother said. "So peaceful."
"Are you going to show her to the other kids?"
"They're too young to understand."
I was torn between pride that I was old enough and not wanting to be that old. I thought the little girl looked stiff and too pale for a Navajo baby. Not beautiful. I felt unaccountably sad.
My mother closed the door to the study and headed for the house. I stood a moment longer in the shadow of the study, then took off running up the hill behind the mission, leaping over stones like the curly-haired goats I sometimes herded with my friends. I could hear the voices of my brothers and sister from among the juniper bushes, and I wanted to find them, to return to the game that had moved on a ways while I witnessed death.
I didn't expect death to taste like anything, but it did. When I was twelve, my only sister, Trudy, was diagnosed with leukemia. While she was sick I spent hours on the terminal pediatrics ward, massaging her feet and legs because they were wracked with pain caused by the changes in her bone marrow. One by one other children disappeared from the ward. Trudy died two weeks before my thirteenth birthday. We drove to Michigan to bury her next to my grandmother, and at the funeral home I stood with my parents by her coffin. All the time we stood there, an acrid smell floated above the over-sweetness of the formal bouquets.
After the visitation, we went to my uncle and aunt's house for supper. My aunt had made a fruit salad, and the mayonnaise on the silver-plate serving spoon recreated that smell, a deathly sharpness mixed with sweetness.
"It smells like the funeral home," I said.
The adults said, "It does not. It's all in your head. Don't be silly."
I knew my parents were embarrassed by my impoliteness. But I couldn't eat the salad.
I didn't want to go to the funeral. I'd had enough of death after the visitation. But my mother said I had to. "You'll be sorry later if you don't."
So I went, and I cried the whole time, which was probably good for me. I wore my royal blue pleated wool skirt and vest and a long-sleeved white cotton blouse. Those clothes should have been too hot in May, but I shivered.
Trudy wore the prettiest dress I'd ever owned. It didn't come from a mission barrel or a catalog. My mother had sewn it for my piano recital a year and a half earlier—pink and white organdy with little rosebuds. I felt scared when I imagined what would be happening to my dress and Trudy's body inside the coffin. In the ground.
Beside the grave relatives and friends hugged my parents. I stood there, not knowing what to do. Because we were in Michigan, John Tsosie, one of my father's former interpreters, was the only Diné present. He was also the only person who noticed that, although I was a child, I was grieving, too. He was the only one who came over to me and hugged me long and hard and cried with me. He looked into my eyes, and our eyes were like round baskets, pouring our grief back and forth.
Afterwards there was food again—ham on rolls, milk with cream on top from my grown-up cousin's farm, salads. I didn't eat any of it. The funeral smell hung in my nostrils, and I couldn't get rid of it. I couldn't eat mayonnaise after that for a long time because it tasted like death. When it sits on a silver-plate spoon, mayonnaise turns green.
In the months after Trudy's death, dreams kept waking me. My armpits prickled with ice, and fear lay in my stomach. I'd get up and sit on the porch in my pajamas and wait for the sun to come up. In my dreams my dead grandmother sat up in her coffin. Or Trudy came back for a visit. We'd be talking or playing, and I'd be so glad to see her. Then all of a sudden I'd realize, "She's not supposed to be here. She's supposed to be dead." Only I couldn't tell her because while she was sick, I wasn't supposed to tell her she was dying. My gladness chilled to fear. I didn't want to be around this dead person, my little sister, and I needed to figure out how I could get away without her suspecting anything. I needed to tell my parents she was back, so they could tell her she was dead, so she would go back to where she belonged.
I told my mother and father about my dreams. They said, "You don't need to be afraid. Trudy's safe with Jesus now."
I was the one who felt unsafe.
© Anna Redsand, 2024. All rights reserved.
To be continued on Friday, 2/16/24