It was a cloudless spring morning, and even though a cool breeze was still flowing down from the nearby mountains, a crowd of nearly three hundred had assembled in the remote canyon south of Shiprock. This was a historic milestone for the Dineh, the Navajo People. Today, some of the uranium mines that lay like open wounds in the side of Mother Earth would finally be filled in.
Ella Clah, special investigator for the Navajo Tribal Police, proudly watched her mother, Rose, who was standing among the dignitaries behind the speaker’s microphone. Rose had been integral to this effort, generating support for the work through her activism and leadership on tribal committees, and Ella had come to the ceremony today to support the tribe and honor what her mother had worked so hard to accomplish.
There was a saying among the Navajo that seemed to epitomize everything about Rose—“in-old-age-walking-the-trail-of-beauty.” Today her mother was looking her best in a long blue velvet skirt and deep purple velveteen blouse fastened at her waist with a big silver concha belt. Around her neck, Rose wore the handcrafted silver and turquoise squash blossom that had been in their family for generations. Her long silver hair was tied neatly into a traditional bun fastened at the base of her neck.
Ella listened as the Christian minister, an Anglo named Campbell, said a brief prayer. Next, her brother Clifford, a respected hataalii, or medicine man, began singing hatals. These songs of blessing compelled the Navajo gods to bring good luck to the land the yellow dust had corrupted and give it new life.
Navajo prayers were not petitions. If recited just right, it was believed that the gods couldn’t fail to comply. All Navajo knowledge was now being brought to bear on this problem that faced the Dineh. The People had even named the yellow dirt Leetso because using the name of their enemy would rob it of power and bring about its downfall.
Today was a special day for traditionalists and modernists alike. Everyone willing and hardy enough to make the long cross-country trip over the poorest of dirt roads was here to witness the historic occasion. The local television stations had sent crews to film the event, and some of the morning classes at the community college had been postponed so that the teaching staff could attend. She saw several of the Ship-rock college professors, including Wilson Joe and Preston Garnenez—who taught organic chemistry in the classroom that adjoined Wilson’s. Both men were standing at the end of the row, beside the preacher.
This place was personal to Ella for completely different reasons. Near this spot she’d cornered and captured a cop killer just last year. And she recalled, with a chill running down her spine, she’d also discovered that skinwalkers—Navajo witches known for their evil practices and rituals associated with the dead—were using these old mines for their own purposes. Fortunately, skinwalkers had apparently stopped using this site after authorities had destroyed a few of the larger shafts.
Clifford had cleansed the area last year, and had done so again today before the crowd had gathered, but Ella still couldn’t help but wonder where the skinwalkers had relocated to and when she’d cross paths with them again.
Hearing the enthusiastic countdown, she looked over to where the men in hard hats were standing. Then, as the first blast of explosives shook the earth, the crowd cheered.
So it began. As a demolition crew started the long process of sealing up the old, abandoned mines that had brought so much sickness and sorrow, Ella wondered if the new mining methods and safety procedures NEED was sanctioning would live up to expectations.
NEED, which stood for Navajo Electrical Energy Development, represented the Navajo Nation’s first step toward a more prosperous future. Casinos on the large, isolated Navajo Nation would never be able to attract large numbers of patrons like the ones run by other tribes closer to population centers. The Navajo tribe’s one small casino, being test-marketed at To’hajiilee, west of Albuquerque, had been doing well so far, but it hadn’t gone into the black yet. Even if it was a big success, the facility wouldn’t be able to make a substantial impact on the poverty that shadowed the Rez. Lack of funds still took a heavy toll on the tribe’s ability to provide and maintain emergency services. Police equipment was badly outdated and salaries hadn’t been improved in years. Even the hospital was understaffed these days and it was becoming nearly impossible to persuade many of the health professionals to remain there for long.
Ella was standing at the back of the gathering far from
the speaker, but she could hear her brother’s voice clearly as it rose in a Song of blessing. When his voice softened slightly toward the middle of the Song, she became aware of the faint sound of children’s laughter somewhere behind her. Recognizing the dangers inherent in that area because of all the uncovered and undocumented mine shafts, she wondered why anyone would bring kids here, even if it was Saturday.
Ella turned her head and caught a glimpse of one of the boys peeking around a washing machine-sized boulder. Julian, her brother’s eight-year-old son, had recently told his father that he wanted to become a hataalii when he grew up. Like any proud papa, Clifford now allowed his son to accompany him as often as possible. But Ella was sure he’d counted on Loretta, his wife, to keep a better eye on him, particularly since they’d allowed Julian to bring his friend, Tim Manuelito.
Ella glanced around, trying to locate her sister-in-law, and finally saw Loretta helping a late-arriving Navajo woman to one of the few folding chairs provided for senior citizens. Ella recognized Susana Deerman. Her husband and son had died of Red Lung many years ago and Susana’s granddaughter had not lived to see her first birthday. The child had been born with severe birth defects due to the contamination of the soil and drinking water around their home. The legacy of uranium mining had cast a long dark shadow over many families here in the Four Corners.
The words of her brother’s chant, particularly poignant under the circumstances, touched her. “Beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty above me, beauty below me. Beauty all around me,” he intoned.
Feeling the heavy weight of sadness, Ella looked down at the barren soil. She wondered what possible good he could do here after all that had happened to this land.
Once again, Ella was distracted by the scuffling noises created by the two boys who were playing somewhere behind a cluster of boulders several yards away. Annoyed, she decided to haul them back to Loretta. It was dangerous to allow them to run around unsupervised, and Ella was certain Clifford didn’t want his son to come across any skinwalker ritual items that might have remained in the area despite numerous searches.
Ella slipped quietly around the rock wall and managed to grab Tim Manuelito by the arm before he realized she was there. “This is an important ceremony, not recess,” she said to the startled boy. “Go back to my sister-in-law and stay put.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Without looking back Tim hurried toward the group gathered around Clifford.
Julian stood up from atop his hiding place on a nearby boulder, climbed down, then came over to her. “I’ll go back too, Aunt,” he said, looking crestfallen.
“If you really want to become a hataalii someday you’ll have to do a better job of listening and learning from your father.”
“But the ceremony is so long.”
“This is only a short blessing made up of prayers from the longer Sings. A full ceremony can take more than a week.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he muttered softly. “But my friend lives way over by Hogback. He and I never get a chance to play together.” He kept his gaze fastened on the ground, avoiding direct eye contact with her out of respect.
“I understand,” she said, remembering how hard it had been for her to stay still at his age. “You just have to learn to be patient. Now come on. Let’s go back. The land around here is sick, so you shouldn’t be running around. You could fall into a hole or something.”
As another underground blast shook the earth, Ella felt the earth shifting beneath her feet, like quicksand. She took a quick step to maintain her balance, but the ground between her and Julian suddenly collapsed. Julian yelled, then fell back, sinking into an ever-widening hole.
Ella dove forward onto the boards that had obviously been used to cover a mine shaft, grabbing the boy by the hand as he slid down. Sand was slipping out of sight like water down a drain. Ella held on to him, but she didn’t have enough leverage to pull him back up. The rotten planks she was lying on were creaking and sagging as the support beneath them fell away.
Julian dangled helplessly over the edge, staring at her with terrified eyes. “I’m going to fall!”
“No. I won’t let go.”
Ella yelled for help, but as the ground rocked from another blast of explosives, her words were lost in the cheerful shouts of the crowd. Afraid the ground would shift again, she tightened her hold to a death grip, then inched closer to the edge of the shaft. Using every bit of strength she possessed, she slowly raised Julian up. “Grab my other hand and hang on tightly as I pull.”
Seconds felt like eternities, but finally she managed to lift him to the edge of the boards and onto the surface where she was lying facedown. Julian was crying and Ella pulled him into her arms.
“I thought…I thought…” he managed, never quite finishing.
Ella hugged him tightly. “I know. But you’re safe now. Crawl off these boards and get back over to solid ground. Then call your father to come and get you.”
Ella watched Julian scramble clumsily out of the sandy depression they were in. Worried about the stability of the ground beneath her, she remained still until he’d cleared the area, then started to gently ease off the old wooden cover. The splintering boards were the only thing between her and an open pit that might continue down a hundred feet or more.
As she reached the edge and moved onto what she hoped was solid ground, the bottom suddenly fell out from beneath her. A wall of sand came sliding down and before she could cry out, Ella felt herself plummeting down a narrow tunnel.
Ella clawed wildly for a handhold, but nothing was there except cool sand and the darkness that engulfed her. Then she hit solid ground, the impact knocking the wind out of her. For several seconds she simply struggled to take a breath. She couldn’t even scream for help until her lungs recovered.
Although Ella had no way of gauging how far she’d fallen, she was alive and that was all that really mattered to her at the moment. The soft sand beneath her had cushioned her fall and kept her from breaking any bones, as far as she could tell. She blinked several times, trying to get her eyes to adjust to the darkness, but opened or closed, all she could see was an inky blackness.
Gathering her courage, Ella stood up slowly. She was either at the bottom of the shaft or on a wide ledge. It was cold here, wherever that was. Ella reached out gingerly and felt the sandstone sides of the shaft. The walls were vertical and cut too smoothly to offer any handholds, though she searched by touch as high as she could reach.
Then she reached down, feeling along the ground, hoping to find a boulder or piece of wood she could use to dig with. Her hand touched something soft, and she flinched, thinking it might be a spider. Reaching down again, she realized it was a big feather. Picking it up, she noticed how heavy it felt. Attached to the bottom of the feather were two pieces of string, and at the end of each string was a round, rough-feeling bead.
That’s when she remembered the skinwalker den she’d discovered last year. This belonged to one of them. Holding the feather away from her she tossed it aside, wanting to put as much distance as possible between her and the witch item.
Hoping that her nephew had seen her fall, Ella began to yell for help and continued for a long time, but no one came. Soon her throat stung and her voice began giving out. It was difficult to breathe down here and she couldn’t help but wonder if she was actually drawing toxic air into her lungs every time she took a breath.
Panic knifed at her gut. Even if Julian hadn’t seen her fall, she was certain that he’d soon notice her absence. Clinging to that, she took her pistol out of the holster, where it had somehow remained during all her tumbling and began to tap on the sides of the shaft, hoping the noise would carry to the surface. Then she tried to scrape out handholds. But every time she created a small shelf by digging out the sand, it would crumble away the minute she put any weight on it.
Ella yelled for help again, tapping the butt of her pistol against the sides of the tunnel at the same time. She’d always assumed she’d make it to old age, providing she managed to avoid getting killed on duty. Never once did she think she’d die alone, like this, with her death serving no purpose. It wouldn’t even merit a heroic tale her daughter could take comfort and pride in.
Anger filled her. She wasn’t ready to go. There was too much she’d left undone. She’d wanted to see her daughter grow up into adulthood. She’d wanted to be there for Dawn’s Kinaaldá, her womanhood ceremony, and take part as their family sang the first prayer.
She wouldn’t die here. Not like this, not now. Determination gave her strength. Ella began to yell again, tapping the sides of the shaft and ignoring the raw pain at the back of her throat. Long after her voice had faded from the exertion, she kept tapping on the wall with her pistol.
Then, surprisingly, she heard an answering sound. Someone was tapping above her. Just to make sure, she tapped twice, then waited. Two taps from up above sounded in reply. Ella cheered, though her voice was scarcely more than a whisper now. But her victory was short-lived. In the time it took to go from one breath to the next, there was a resounding crash and a wall of sand came tumbling down on her. Ella hugged the side of the shaft, covered her head, and tried to make an air pocket as tons of sand closed in around her.
It was a fight she couldn’t win. Sand reached her nose, then her mouth. She couldn’t scream, she couldn’t move. Then something hard slammed against her head and there was nothing.
Copyright © 2004 by Aimée and David Thurlo