Knowing what is on the menu makes you hungry earlier than usual. By five o’clock that afternoon, we were all hanging around Grandpa’s cabin, waiting for him to announce that dinner was ready so we could help carry it up to the house. He was cooking the tortillas outside over a propane stove and the aroma of toasting dough wafted down the valley and brought the cattle up from the lower pasture. They gathered around and seemed to be nonchalantly grazing but every now and then, one of them would put her nose up in the air and sniff, and then stare at us for a while.
Susanna was making the tortillas, pulling off one ball of dough at a time from a big lump of dough in a bucket. She stretched and pulled at each ball until it was about ten or twelve inches across and shaped like a disc. Grandpa flipped them each once, toasting both sides. Then he lifted each one out with the spatula and put them inside of a folded towel to stay warm and supple.
Susanna was getting behind so I joined her in shaping the tortillas. Daniel had a try at it too, joking that his was shaped like New Mexico. Jake told him it looked more like Florida and they started wrestling. Even though Jake was more muscular and square built, Daniel was surprisingly good at getting out of every hold and ended up pinning Jake to the ground. A crack of thunder startled us and the boys got up to look at the sky.
“Rain! Right after planting! That’s what I call special treatment!” Will exclaimed.
“We better finish up here!” Grandpa said, “The lightening is walking.” Susanna looked alarmed and hurriedly handed Grandpa a thick, misshapen disc of dough.
“Don’t worry,” he added, as he finished stretching the tortilla she had handed him. “It never walks this low. It walks a path up there.” He pointed with his chin and lips at an intermittent line of dead pines on the side of the ridge behind his house.
“Cool,” Daniel commented, “I didn’t know lightening has a path.”
“Everything has a path to walk,” Grandpa told Daniel, “The river, the wind, the birds in the air and people too. But we must choose to walk in beauty.”
“Is that your religion?”
Grandpa frowned and chuckled at the same time. He turned the last tortilla and turned off the gas heat under the skillet before answering.
“No,” he said at last. “It is what I see when I open my eyes.”
“We better run for it,” Will announced, looking up at the darkening sky. A blast of warm, wet wind whipped my hair around my face as I started folding the cloth around the pile of tortillas like a package.
“Get the stew, Will,” Grandpa instructed. “Let’s head for the house!”
We hurried up the path as the first few drops of rain struck us from the side. Everyone was louder than usual, feeling the emotion of the coming storm.
Dad was in the small pasture as we passed by, leading Josephine and Squirt into the barn. She still looked bleary-eyed to me but so much better than earlier. I knew she’d be okay. Dad was probably about to give her the second bucket of boiled wheat.
Mom had the table set with candles and wine glasses and I felt a funny shiver of gladness knowing that Mom had felt it too—the need to celebrate. The garden was planted and about to be blessed with rain. Josephine was getting well. Grandpa had made us a feast.
Thunder rolled again and lightening split the sky at the same moment. Then the sharp striking sound of hail on the tin roof crowded out every other sound.
I went out on the porch to look at the pea-sized hail mingled with rain, coming down all around. The boys followed me out. Dad and Mom came next with Anna on Dad’s shoulders. Then Grandpa and Susanna.
“Thank you, God, for the rain,” Dad said, with a grateful sigh.
“And thank you that the hail is small,” Mom added.
“And thank you that we got everything planted,” Will said, as he straightened the downspout next to the steps.
“And thanks for the stew and the tortillas!” Jake added, obviously hinting.
“And thank you that Josephine is better,” I said, ignoring Jake.
“Yes, thank you for that, and for family,” Grandpa said, holding his hat in his hands as he looked around at us all and smiled.
“And for . . . a fun day,” added Susanna, eagerly.
There was a short silence and I noticed Daniel awkwardly shifting from foot to foot while he studied, rather intensely, a leak in the roof and the dripping water.
“And thank you that we had an extra helping hand today—Daniel,” Dad added and then, “let’s eat!” he exclaimed, and turned back toward the door.
“Amen!” Jake practically shouted.
“Jake, would you get us a bottle of grape pyment and one of apple sack?”7 Mom asked.
“Sure! Come on, Daniel—check this out.” Jake headed for the far end of the porch, which had a door right in the wooden floor. Once you open it, you can see steps down to yet another door that is heavy and made of metal. After you open that one, you step into the wine and canned goods cellar.
Jake told me later that Daniel’s response to the wine cellar was to laugh.
“What’s funny?” Jake asked.
“My dad said you guys were poor and religious,” Daniel replied. “If he saw this—!”
Besides about a thousand jars of food, there are five hundred bottles of home brewed meads and pop down there, arranged by date so that we can drink them once they’ve aged a couple of years. Jake said Daniel wanted to know if any of us ever get drunk.
“No. Why would we do that?”
“Because you can.”
“Well, one time I drank too much root beer and threw up.”
They came up with the bottles, cool from the cellar, and Dad uncorked them and offered everybody a choice of either grape or apple mead, which is basically wine made with honey instead of sugar.
Mom ladled up the green chile stew and Grandpa handed around the tortillas. It was a meal to remember. But the rain was too loud for us to talk so we mostly ate in silence until the rain petered out into a quiet drip-dripping.
Usually, I’m a little uptight and tense about life in general but that night, I felt like the world was a perfect place and my life couldn’t get better. I looked around at the others and saw the same relaxed look on their faces.
I thought to myself, Accomplishing your work at the expense of all your energy earns welcomed rest.
Grandpa was nodding at me as though he could hear my thoughts. The rain slackened suddenly and the room seemed oddly quiet.
“One time I walked to Gallup from Iyanbito,” Grandpa said, and his Navajo accent was thicker than usual. Dad and Will leaned back in their chairs, and Jake winked at me. I love it when Grandpa tells stories. I leaned back in my chair too and pretended I’d never heard it before.
“That’s a long way, Grandpa. What happened?”
“Well, I was taking a shortcut down the arroyo,” he said, “but I got tired and I laid down under the shade of a piñon tree to rest for a while. When I woke up, I noticed the sky was getting dark, back the direction I had come from. It was not raining on me but it looked like it must be raining up there from me. Then I heard something coming. So I listened real hard and I said to myself, ‘What could that be?’
“Just about the time I figured out what it must be, around the corner of that arroyo, came a mountain of muddy water rushing right at me! So I turned around and started up the bank as fast as I could go. Just about the time I grabbed the lowest branch of the piñon tree, the water reached me and pulled on my legs like it was trying to take me to Gallup the fast way. For a minute there, I was somehow. Couldn’t tell if I was going or staying. My legs were downstream, and my head and chest was up in the piñon. When the water finally went down, I climbed up on the bank, and I told that piñon tree I would never take a nap in the arroyo again.
“Just about then, I realized I had lost something I needed real bad. It was my pants and my boots and even my underwear. They had left me and gone to Gallup.”
“What did you do?” Daniel laughed, hearing the story for the first time.
“Well, I scouted around until I seen something red hanging in a tree. When I come up to it I discovered it was an old cowboy shirt. But what I needed was pants. So I scouted ‘round some more, only I didn’t come up with a single thing. Only that shirt. So I tore it up and twisted it around until finally . . . ”
“Well, that was the only time I ever actually wore a loincloth like a real Indian.”
“Did you go on to Gallup?” I asked, knowing the answer but wanting to hear it again anyway.
“No. I couldn’t go on. I had to turn back.”
“‘Cause on the top I was wearing a suit coat and a cowboy hat and all my jewelry. It just didn’t look right with my red, flannel loincloth.”
We all laughed, even though we’d heard it before. Grandpa is the best storyteller I ever knew.
“Is that true?” Daniel asked suspiciously, looking around at all of us.
“Test me,” said Grandpa. “Next time it looks like it’s gonna rain, go take a nap in the arroyo. But make sure you leave a loincloth up high where the floods can’t take it.”
“Grandpa!” Mom protested, laughing.
“I’m game if you are,” Jake said to Daniel.
I saw Susanna yawning across the table from me and all of a sudden I had to yawn too. When a yawn starts going around, it just keeps going, until somebody gives in to either a nap or coffee. Dad looked around at our sleepy faces and said, “Let’s call it an early night.”
“What are we doing tomorrow?” Daniel asked after the yawn had caught him and passed on to Jake.
“Tomorrow, Mom and I are going to take Grandpa to an appointment in town. We’ll take Anna with us. We need to do some shopping as well, so it will take the better part of the day. You guys can take the day off after the chores are done.”
“Can I go with you, Dad?” Susanna asked.
“I guess—it’s fine with me. Anybody else?”
I shook my head. “If Josephine is okay . . . and I can leave, I want to go riding. Is that okay?”
“Good idea,” said Will. “Can we take Daniel riding with us?”
“Have you ever ridden a horse before, Daniel?” Dad asked.
“Uh . . . no.” Daniel looked pretty regretful over that admission.
“He can ride behind me! Ranger’s big enough for the two of us, no problem,” Jake interjected.
“Would you be all right with that, Daniel?” Dad questioned. “The horse is calm and steady, all you have to do is sit there and hold on to the back of the saddle seat.”
Daniel appeared excited and nodded his head eagerly. “Yeah! I’ll be fine. That sounds awesome. Maybe I can learn to ride on my own while I’m here. Do you think?”
“Sure,” Dad agreed. “But start with riding double tomorrow, okay?”
“One time I rode to Gallup from Crownpoint,” Grandpa said. “That was before I lost my pants and boots.”