John M. Gist‘s creative nonfiction and short stories have appeared in publications such as the Dr. T.J Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, Gravel, Pithead Chapel, Prick of the Spindle, Left Curve, Academic Questions, New Mexico Magazine and others. He was recently awarded runner-up in South Loop Review’s 2014 National Essay Contest judged by David Shields and had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He recently was named finalist in the 2015 Tucson Book Festival Literary Awards. With an M.F.A from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he teaches creative writing at sunny Western New Mexico University.
Hawk and Diver
By John M. Gist
“Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten”
A woman, blind and mute, let’s say a former competitive cliff diver, on her fiftieth birthday, is offered the opportunity to dive once more from the heights of a rocky crag into the promise of a cool ocean below, a gift from her only child. She, despite the blistering heat of a never-ending summer (let’s call her Louise), might refuse the offer unless she is first allowed to test the waters with a big toe. Maybe the water is frothing with rabid sea otters or studded with sharp boulders hidden just beneath the glassy surface. She has no idea where the leap might lead. Touching the water, then, may be enough to lend her the courage to take the plunge. Or, after calculating the probabilities in her mind, without need of physical reassurance (no matter how slight), she might march up the concrete path and launch herself from the cliff without further ado. Or maybe the concrete path leads to the edge of a cliff that plummets into a dry canyon, the sound of moving waters an illusion brought on by a damp breeze rippling through the gorge (i.e. Louise duped by her beloved son who stands to inherit her beachfront home). Or, maybe, all is well and good and the risk will be worth it and relieve the middle-aged woman of the ungodly heat which has been plaguing the area like a fever. What should she do?
The juniper puffed a yellow mist of pollen powder from a single limb. It was a tranquil day of spring. The tree stood near the edge of a cliff on the north rim of the Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Nation. In the pall of pollen, which I understood as a conscious act on the part of a living organism, nature attempting to communicate, a new space was opened, a possibility uncovered that had hitherto been covered up. I didn’t know what to make of it.
A half hour earlier, my wife Wendy and I had been at the Mummy Cave parking lot overlooking the canyon. There, at the edge of the asphalt, a Navajo woman in a red scarf had attempted to tempt us into buying a hand-carved kachina that appeared to be in the shape of a man wearing an oversized bird of prey mask. The woman held a Chihuahua in one hand and the two foot tall kachina carved from a cottonwood root in the other. She turned round and round with the kachina above her head, the little dog’s big eyes dark as mystery as the legendary bird-man flew above it. The woman was chuckling all the while, or, more accurately, chirping. The scarf mimicked her movements like the tail of a red fox.
Somehow embarrassed, I took in the surroundings so as not to watch the woman. Our Pontiac Vibe was the only car on the lot, aside from the Navajo’s faded blue 1990’s Ford LTD, the Ford’s once vinyl roof stripped clean to the metal. I couldn’t help but look when the Navajo stopped turning and looked to the sky. She pointed upwards with the kachina.
“See,” she whispered.
I looked up, but the sun was too much and I immediately looked away.
“What?” asked Wendy. The big tortoiseshell sunglasses hid her hazel eyes that changed colors day-to-day, depending on what she wore.
The Navajo lowered the kachina and turned to look at us. She was short and squat, her weather-checked face the color of the canyon walls. “Red tail hawk.” Her eyes, circles of enchanted black onyx, the same color as her short cropped hair, shone with inner luminosity. She turned away and looked into the sky above the canyon.
“There,” whispered Wendy. “There it is.”
Peering upwards, I was blinded by the light.
The Navajo, her back to me, raised the kachina so that the oversized head, painted the color of clay, the curved beak a dark shade of gold, interrupted the sun. “Red tail hawk,” repeated the woman.
And I saw it. A shadow at first, a dark speck high above. The shade grew larger and I could make out the wings. And then the tail. The tail was the same clay color as the kachina’s head. The bird flew toward us, over us. A red-tailed hawk.
Louise, never too interested in abstract notions of afterlives and worlds other than the one in which she lives and breathes, finds herself at the edge of the cliff in a new one-piece silver swimsuit. Her strong toes curl over sharp contours of granulated stone. She doesn’t remember how she got there, or having accepted the strange birthday gift from her son. The sun heat on her freckled shoulders is unbearable. She tunes into the buzz of a fly near her ear, a big one judging from the drone, and then it is gone, fading into the distance like the whisper of a sweet nothing from a lover long past. She does not sense the presence of her son. Maybe he waits for her on the beach, looking up, waiting for the dark splotch that is her to fall from the sky. Heat from the granite penetrates the calluses on the balls of her feet. She is alone.
“One hundred dollars,” said the Navajo woman.
I looked for the hawk, but it was gone. Pulling the wallet from the back pocket of my jeans, I looked inside, though I knew I only had twenty dollars, a ten and two fives. “Sorry,” I said. I turned the wallet toward her so she could see I was not lying. “I don’t have that much.”
She looked at Wendy.
Wendy said, “I don’t have any cash.” The oversized sunglasses concealed her expression.
It was hard to say how old the Navajo woman was, maybe thirty, maybe fifty.
“You got plastic?” asked the woman.
We stood at the edge of the sandstone canyon, the vault of sky flowing like a bottomless blue ocean above.
The Navajo smiled and her teeth were flawless. Without a word, she turned away and scuttled to the Ford.
“It’s too much of a coincidence,” I whispered to Wendy.
“What?” Wendy whispered back.
“Come on,” I said, my voice low but incredulous. “A red-tailed hawk appearing out of the blue and the kachina she’s trying to sell us happens to be a red-tailed hawk kachina?”
“It’s possible,” said Wendy.
“I’m not that gullible. How do we know if it really is a red-tailed hawk kachina?”
“We don’t. Not for sure, but I don’t think she’s lying.”
“So you think I should buy it?”
Wendy said, “Here she comes.”
The buzz of the fly comes and goes. The sun beats down. Why won’t Louise’s son call out to her? A bead of sweat drips from her armpit to slide over her ribs. Doubt swells inside Louise and it is a strange sensation, a growing lighter, a fading away. She fears she is disintegrating into the white-hot brightness that she need not see to know. No longer able to feel the heat mushrooming from the crystalized stone into the soles of her feet, she realizes that a decision must be made before the creeping numbness reaches into her heart.
After the diving accident had left her blind and mute (the doctors couldn’t explain the latter, the sudden inability to speak), she had devoted her life to her son. He was still young, prepubescent. The settlement from the city (the pool where the accident occurred was public) afforded her the ability to hire a full-time driver to prevent her from becoming a shut-in mom. The mobility (the driver also served as a type of seeing-eye dog to lead her through school gymnasiums and stadiums) allowed her the opportunity to sit in the bleachers at her son’s basketball games where she listened attentively to the squeak of rubber-soled gym shoes on the hardwood court, the hollow bouncing of the ball, the trembling of the metal rim when the ball ricocheted into the air. She learned to tune out the sound of the crowd early on, the cheers and taunting, thrills and agonies, the human drama. Instead she concentrated on the sounds of the game, thrilling at the swish of the ball traveling uncontested through the net. And this, somehow, was enough. She did not pine for her old life, that of sight and spoken word. She was content with her lot: a sightless spectator.
She thanked the powers that be that her son was a natural athlete, as she did not believe in God, not really, treading the waters between faith and the lack thereof. Whatever will be, will be. During spring and summer, Louise learned to read foul balls, pop flies and home runs by the twang of the aluminum baseball bat striking the ball. In winter, the swish of downhill skis sliding over the track revealed the condition of the snow. The thump of the bowling ball hitting the lane delivered sufficient information for her to visualize whether a bowler was right or left handed, the amount of spin and the speed of the ball. She knew the sound of a strike and would clap as her son stood at the edge of the foul line waiting for the last pin to fall.
Que sera, sera.
But she wouldn’t allow him to join the swim team. Forbade that he get anywhere near a standing body of water.
Standing at the cliff’s edge, Louise feels a shadow pass over her. And again. She understands. Her son forsook the opportunity to bowl professionally. Too much travel. He had refused to leave her alone for extended periods. He did it for her. She is ashamed.
The promise of cool waters beckons to her from below. She bends her knees to jump. The heat is too much to bear.
The Navajo woman returned carrying a smart phone with a credit card reader attached. The red-tailed hawk kachina was nowhere to be seen.
“I give it to you for sixty,” she said. “You supposed to have it. The hawk come for you.”
I looked to Wendy but could not read her expression behind the sunglasses. She stood near the edge of the canyon, thin and wavering against the backdrop of blue trailing off into the unknown.
“Fifty,” said the Navajo. Her eyes were no longer kind. “Low as I go. A gift.”
My thoughts swirled. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being set up. It occurred to me that the hawk had been trained to appear when the women signaled with the kachina. Staged.
“Sorry,” I said. “Can’t afford it. Not on what they pay me at the college.”
I noticed Wendy had walked over to a maroon and black wool blanket spread over an outcropping of sandstone the color of oatmeal. She perused the jewelry set out on the blanket. An upstart breeze ruffled the branches of a juniper rooted into a crack in the stone several yards away.
The Navajo stood staring at me. Her face was serious. Her eyes expressed an emotion I had no name for. The air fell still.
“How much for these beautiful earrings?” asked Wendy. She walked to the Navajo and held out her hand. Two triangles of turquoise winked from the pale nest of her palm.
“Real silver,” smiled the Navajo. “For you, since your man too dumb to listen, I take twenty-five.”
What if the red-tailed hawk really had been a sign from the beyond, a revelation from an unknown country rarely afforded to college professors of twenty-first America? I blurted, in a kind of defense against self-folly, “So you’re charging her more because I wouldn’t buy the kachina? Is that what you mean?”
Wendy dangled the earrings from silver wires shaped like tiny shepherd’s hooks.
I said, “I only have twenty.”
“I have a five in my purse,” said Wendy. She started toward the car, the hem of her knee-length skirt bouncing to the rhythm of her gait.
Setting the Chihuahua on the asphalt, the Navajo woman detached the credit card gadget from her phone and walked over to the blanket exhibiting her wares. The little dog, tan and white with pointed ears, trotted to a chunk of sandstone at the edge of the parking lot to lift a hind leg. When Wendy returned with her purse, I took out my wallet and handed her the ten and two fives. I couldn’t bring myself to give the money directly to the Navajo. The odor of having insulted her lingered in the air like the mouse that had decomposed inside our brick Hogan two months earlier: the stench of the rodent’s decay haunted us for a week before I located the corpse under the refrigerator.
I walked to the car while Wendy chatted with the Navajo woman, both of them smiling and nodding their heads. Their laughter was unnerving. Had the hawk been an attempt at revelation? But a revelation from where? For what purpose?
Louise’s thigh muscles quiver with fatigue as she crouches at the edge of the cliff. Knees bent, angular face angled downward at forty-five degrees, her palms meet just above her head. A passerby might take her for a statue at first, a rendering in stone of an Olympic diver forever poised for a leap that will never occur. On second glance, the passerby might see the thighs, loose with age and disuse, tremble, the flap of skin under the chin shudder, and so mistake the woman as a supplicant immersed in an exotic display of faith. But she is neither, not stone inanimate, not faith absurd. She is a woman, blind and mute. She is uncertain.
Memories rush in, collide with one another, merge. All of her former dives intermingle until they are one. She experiences the thrill of the heights, the peculiar tickle of vertigo experienced moments before the jump. On the verge of the freedom found only in free-fall, her lungs expand as she takes in breath, the hiss of air traveling between her lips a musical prelude to an ecstasy she has denied herself for too long. Her knees bend slightly further.
And then she remembers her last dive. The Icarus punishment that stole her sight and buried her voice. The muscles in her thighs give out and her rump slaps the rock with a thud. A fly buzzes near her ear, there and gone and there again. She waves her hands, her arms fatigued from holding them too long above her head. But what’s the use? The fly can see and she cannot.
The heat penetrates her skull. She is sleepy. Stretching out on the granite, she fancies the grains in the stone as acupuncture needles circulating warm energy throughout her body. She runs a hand over the polyester swim suit, the bagginess of her breasts, the cellulite mottled skin of her thighs. It doesn’t feel so bad, dying. Nothing hurts as bad as you think it will. She is sleepy. She is warm. Languid.
But wait. She sits up. It is not over. Not yet. She cries, her voice as hungry as a babe’s bawl, “My son, why have you abandoned me?”
The fly buzzes near her ear. There and gone and there again. A shadow crosses the sun. Vultures no doubt. Though she cannot see them, she can feel their appetite grow.
We traveled northeast on Indian Route 164, a two lane highway spanning the twenty-five miles between the town of Chinle and Diné College. Sun and sky. An absence of clouds. I drove without speaking. Wendy turned on the radio. A woman’s voice spoke in Navajo and, because the failure to understand what was being said irritated me, I turned the radio off. Wendy didn’t seem to mind, though the sunglasses camouflaged her expression. We rode in silence, the subdued hum of the engine trailing behind the car in a mechanical wake.
I turned off the highway onto the Massacre Cave turnout of the Canyon de Chelly. The parking lot lay empty. I parked and shut off the engine. Wendy opened her door and stepped out of the car before I was able to unlatch my seatbelt and pull the keys from the ignition. She walked to a sign near the rim of the canyon. I followed and read the words over her shoulder:
The Navajo call the alcove Adah Aho’doo’nili—Two Fell Off—referring to a brave Navajo woman who grappled with a soldier and tumbled to her death, dragging the enemy with her.
I looked down into the canyon, located the alcove the sign referred to, to the left and just below where we stood. I envisioned the scene back in 1805. The Spanish account held that a day-long battle had claimed the lives of over one hundred Navajos. The Navajo version maintained that majority of the men were away hunting and that the dead were mostly women and children. I imagined the Navajo woman in a death clench with the soldier, the two of them falling from the cliff to their deaths. I turned away.
Walking westward along the rim of the canyon, I witnessed the ruins of human dwellings in caves situated in the steep walls of the gorge. Ravens glided through the still air, cruised close to the walls of brassy dull sandstone, past the dwellings where human beings once lived. Defensive positions. Certainly the cave dwellings predated the intrusion of the Spanish. What, then, did they fear? The coming of history?
I felt Wendy’s presence at my left side. I didn’t look at her. I didn’t like her big sunglasses as they concealed too much, lent a false air of stoicism not natural to her character. Instead, I looked to a juniper tree growing near. I hadn’t noticed the tree before, though it stood only a few feet away. The air was still. The juniper puffed a yellow mist of pollen powder from a single limb. The spirit of the canyon seemed to be attempting to communicate, to reach across some primordial abyss in order to impart an ancient way of knowing. I stood in awe, bathed in a haze of uncertainty emerging from the convergence of the day’s events. Holy Uncertainty. And then time and space rejoined and the rhythm of being was restored. As if on cue, Wendy and I turned and walked to the car.
I considered driving back for the red-tailed hawk kachina. Too late. I needed to get back to the brick Hogan to feed our dogs.
Louise stands and, her legs shaky, starts down the concrete path leading out of the heights. That her skin has been burned by the sun increases the frequency of her awareness. She tunes out the fly and hones in on what she believes to be the sound of sunlight, a steady hum scarcely audible. Stretching her arms out in front of her, palms facing the earth, she looks like a zombie victimized by Medusa. But this statue moves. She takes a step. To her right side, at the boundary of the concrete path, is the brink of the cliff. She has no idea if there is water at the bottom of the canyon, and, if there is, if it is studded with sharp boulders hidden just beneath the surface. The incertitude caused her to forego the dive. Still, she is at the canyon’s edge and must navigate the down going alone. Her son will be disappointed. Will he never realize that she has sacrificed everything for the sake of him?
I drove to the Mummy Cave parking lot several times in the following months. Alone. The Navajo woman with the red-tailed hawk kachina was nowhere to be seen. I sat on a boulder overlooking the Canyon de Chelly and watched for birds of prey floating in the cloud pocked sky. I remember warm breeze spilling over my face like cleansing waters. It was there I dreamt up Louise and assigned her the freedom she needed to jump. But, no matter how many times I replay the scenario in my mind, she refuses the opportunity. I still don’t know what lies at the bottom of that cliff.