Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

To the Whirlwinds

Tacey M. Atsitty
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Winter 2012)

It was on their second lap around Tsézhinii’áhí when the skies rapidly
darkened. Late May and Red Valley hadn’t yet had much rain. But it was
always this way. Always dry, even up to the tips of the mountains. Rain,
when it does storm, falls so briefly in the valley that within the length of a
day the fresh pools are taken up in lone clouds. Clouds so small a person
could pluck them and stuff them in a pocket.

The man looked to the sky as he led the cross-country team around the
neck of the large black rock that protruded from the earth. He often
imagined the rock as a monster’s thumb from the earlier days. That perhaps
the monster was hitchhiking somewhere and then along came Naayéé
Neeszghání, who sliced his thumb as he ran by. He smiled as he
thought of his oldest daughter, Pepper, and how she became fascinated
with sticking out her thumb on the roadside, moving it back and forth,
yelling at trucks as they zoomed by, Goin’ my way? It became the only way
she wanted to travel.

He usually made the team run around the rock only twice before coming
back, as the loop was a total of six miles. But today was a peculiar one,
and although he was grateful for the cloud cover, he quickened his pace.
He was afraid of the abrupt darkness thickening above him, afraid not of
the rain but of other ailing forces that fall and twist from the sky.

He remembered chasing a Little Whirlwind as a young boy in Utah.
She was a classmate of his in grade school, from Wind River up north.
Though it was young love and many years ago, he was still swept up in
those first small exchanges of love. But now when he thought of love and
wind, he thought of his Nálí.

His grandfather had taught him to bury his face in his hands in the big
winds, so that he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t see, because bad spirits
traveled in them. That’s how they enter, through the mouth and eyes. His
Nálí also taught him not to chase dust devils because they are actually
people, people who are not supposed to come and visit. And so he was
taught to stay at a distance and out of their paths.

Already this spring he and his runners had laid out a good path. He
didn’t have to look, but he knew they were a ways behind him. He shortened
his stride and took notice of each puff of breath that came from the
ground where he stomped his feet. He had already run ten miles this
morning, so he practiced his eagle breathing: two quick breaths in and
one long breath out. This breathing could carry him long distances, could
carry him through any kind of terrain or weather. He felt good running;
he had been taught since he was young to run, to rise in the early mornings
before the skyline went orange, to run in the direction the sun would
rise, to gather blessings from the Holy People. He had likewise taught his
children to run. Most mornings he’d head out when the sky was still a
dark blue and then come back as the sun began to rise. His shirt and
sweatshirt, his breathing and his eyes full of blessings. Then he’d go to the
beds of his older children, his son and two daughters, uncover their feet,
and slowly run his forefinger along their soles from the bottom to top. It’s
time
, he’d say. And they knew; they knew not only that it was time to get
up, but they knew the route he’d set out for them to run. Sometimes when
one or all of them protested, he’d promise them ice cream later in the day.

Today was Pepper’s birthday, and he still hadn’t bought her a gift. For a
while he had wanted to get her a bb gun, now that she was five. But then
he thought maybe he should encourage her to act more like a girl rather
than the tomboy she was. So often he treated her like a son. He’d take her
out on hunts and teach her how to step the mountain, teach her where to
take the sheep for baby oak and springs, teach her how to keep silent
while fishing. When she was an infant, he took her and her mother camping
in the Rocky Mountains in January.

He was going to miss her birthday today, he knew. His wife and the
kids had gone out to Toadlena to visit their maternal grandparents, and
he knew they were planning on driving down to Gallup for a pizza party.
He was thinking of My Little Pony, the same gift he was planning on
getting his other daughter for her birthday that was coming up in July,
when he saw a vehicle blazing through the red dirt and weeds. Something’s
happened
, he thought, and he picked up his pace again.

He couldn’t remember how he came to be short of breath, standing in
front of his son and baby daughter, Billie. They were caged up, lying in
small beds with high railings. His baby daughter, the doctor said, had
broken her hips but remained quiet when they found her beneath sagebrush
at the side of the road after the accident. His son had tubes running
up his nose into his eyes. His wife, they had said, was already gone. And
her sister, and her sister’s daughter: gone. And his oldest daughter—he
turned away from the two in front of him and made his way to her.

He stood at the edge of the door for a second or two before entering her
room. She was breathing. She was broken all over, but he didn’t want to
weep. When he stepped as though he were trying not to spook a deer, she
slowly opened her eyes to look at him. And he thought he saw her eyes
smile at him. He moved to her. You’re going—, he said. But couldn’t finish
what he wanted to say, and she closed her eyes.

He swept back the hair from her forehead over and over again, but it
just kept falling back in place.

They were prepping the helicopter to take her to the Albuquerque
children’s hospital. He could hear the propellers begin to cut the air. He
held her and softly pressed his chin on her head, into the origins of her
hair swirl. His breath was circular, as if it weren’t oxygen he was breathing
in, as if it were old air. And he felt as if he could no longer breathe. As if all
breath were leaving him through his head and fingertips and toes.

He closed his eyes and remembered his Nálí saying: These are the
points where we became alive, where breath was breathed into us, where
wind was good.