After lunch, Grandpa came up from the valley and wanted to borrow Susanna for the afternoon to help him make green chile stew and tortillas for our dinner.6 Mom said she could go and Susanna was flattered to be the one Grandpa had asked for.
As Grandpa and Sue disappeared through the garden gate, I saw Grandpa turn his head and blow smoke on Susanna’s head, just like he does to me sometimes. I knew by the smile in his eyes that it wasn’t a bad thing, but rather some kind of loving gesture.
“Mom,” I asked, “why does Grandpa blow smoke on us sometimes?”
“I remember the first time he did that to me,” Mom chuckled. “I was so surprised I jumped away out of the cloud of smoke. Your father pushed me back into it whispering, ‘It’s a blessing.’”
“What kind of blessing?” I asked.
“Oh, like a prayer of protection, I guess,” Mom answered, tucking some hair behind her ear with the back of her wrist.
“From what?” I saw Dad moving in our direction and noticed the boys were listening. I glanced at Daniel, wanting him to hear this conversation so he’d know I had not been joking when I said he should try Grandpa’s pipe sometime. He was looking at me and I knew he was interested in the conversation.
“Trouble. Evil Spirits. Sickness . . . anything bad, I guess. Is that right, Jon?” Mom asked, moving over to make room for Dad to work next to her. He nodded and dug several holes in the garden bed in rapid succession.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he said.
“Does it work?” Daniel asked, two beds across from us. His face was expressionless.
I bet he’s wondering if he could have saved his mom, I thought.
“Well . . . that’s a good question,” Dad said, “and there’s more to it than you might think. There is a story in the Bible about a plague in the camp of the Israelites. They had complained against God repeatedly and he had warned them to stop but they kept complaining. Then a plague started and people were dying. Moses told his brother Aaron to put incense in the censer and go down into the camp to stand between the living and the dead. When he did that, the plague stopped at the smoke. That happened more than once.”
Dad sat down on the edge of the straw bale and the rest of us did the same, taking his cue that it was a good time for a break.
“When I was taking that herb class, I learned that airborne bacteria are bound by smoke particles,” Mom said. “Certain kinds of herbal smoke can kill the virus in the air and even in the lungs. It also moderates your body’s immune response, keeping you from producing too much mucus, which is the common cause of death in a flu-type of plague.”
“What do you mean?” Daniel asked. “How does it cause death?”
“If you can’t breathe, you die,” Will interjected. “Too much congestion clogs the air passages.”
“Oh,” Daniel said, and then persisted, “So, do the Navajos believe that sickness is caused by evil spirits?”
“I guess,” Dad replied. “No two people are the same. I think to Grandpa it’s more like neglecting to pray that invites harm. And smoke is a part of prayer to him.”
“How would smoke stop an evil spirit?” Jake asked. “Or is that just a dumb idea?”
“What if evil spirits are another way to describe disease?” Mom answered. “Years ago, people burned herbs in their fire places to ward off spirits that cause disease. Some people hung garlic cloves around their necks. All they knew was that it worked—sometimes at least.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, “they were binding the bacteria and viruses in the air, and didn’t even know it.”
“But what if smoke really does hinder spirits?” Will added, thoughtfully. “It certainly confuses the bees.” He turned toward Daniel and explained, “When we take the honey from the beehives, we blow smoke on the bees first. It makes them confused and sort of sleepy.”
“What are you thinking?” Dad asked Will, pulling a stout blade of grass out of a garden bed and putting it in his mouth to chew.
“Well,” continued Will, “if you think about it, smoke is used in a lot of spiritual ceremonies. In the Bible, all the burnt sacrifices and incense . . . didn’t God even say that the smoke was for him?”
Dad nodded. “Yeah. Good point. He even said in one place that the prayers of his people are a sweet smoke to him. The altar of incense was the altar of prayers. And that’s what Grandpa says about smoke; that it’s prayer. I never thought about that before.”
We were all quiet for a moment and then Mom said, “You know, in that same herbal course, we learned that certain drugs and herbs people take to get high can cause terrifying visions and dreams if they are near or on the water. Also, that a lot of people prefer to get high in the desert because of that.”
“So . . . what are you getting at?” Dad asked, looking at her. Daniel was laughing incredulously over what Mom had just said. She darted a glance at him.
“I’m not recommending a destructive lifestyle,” she said shaking her head at Daniel, “I’m just recounting an observation in order to explain what I’m thinking.”
“Which is . . . ?” Dad prompted.
“Remember that story in the Bible,” Mom continued unhurriedly, “When Jesus cast out a legion of evil spirits and they all went into the pigs and then drove the pigs into the water where they drowned?”
“You think maybe spirits like wet places?” Will asked, nodding his head in agreement. He seemed to know where Mom was going with her train of thought.
“The human body is about sixty-five percent water,” Mom went on, staring into space as she continued to think aloud. “Which means, the human spirit resides in sixty-five percent water. Why wouldn’t other spirits prefer the same climate? Smoke dries the air. It absorbs the moisture in the air. That’s why it’s good for drying up congestion in the lungs.”
“Wow,” Daniel commented quietly, looking around at us all.
“Interesting,” Dad said, and got up to keep working. I reached for another tray of seedlings and moved to the next bed over.
“So what’s the conclusion?” Daniel asked impatiently, as Will also went back to work. Dad smiled at Daniel.
“A hasty conclusion is the cloak of vast ignorance,” he intoned, seriously.
“Ooooh, good one,” Mom chuckled, and then added in the same serious voice Dad had used, “The truth offends many and defends few.”
This was a game we often played. Usually it was one silly pun built on another. This time, it was cheesy wise-sayings. My mind began to race, looking for a quote of my own. Will beat me to it.
“Truth be my goal. To question, my aim.” His tone was less impressive but Mom silently applauded Will’s saying with soil-covered hands.
“If thine aim be true, thou hast no need of fickle luck,” I added triumphantly, knowing my addition was a good one. Dad whistled and winked at me. Jake yawned dramatically and I threw a clump of dirt at him.
“Thou art all most impressive,” Daniel intoned, stroking an invisible beard.
“Seriously,” he added, arresting Jake’s arm before he launched a dirt clod back at me. “What do you really think? Does smoke stop evil spirits? Or just disease? I want to know.”
“Good,” Dad said, “I want to know too.”
“What do you mean?” Daniel asked, appearing frustrated.
“I mean, I want to know. But I don’t,” Dad replied, patiently. “Some things need further observation. Some things we may not ever know for sure. If you make up your mind about something you don’t really know, then you stop learning. All you end up with is a new religion.” Dad reached over and caught, in mid-air, a dirt clod that Jake had thrown at me when I wasn’t looking.
“Uh!” Jake protested. “It would have hit her!”
“No more throwing dirt,” Dad ordered and Jake sighed disappointedly.
Daniel didn’t saying anything else. But I could tell from his expression that he was satisfied with Dad’s response. He went back to planting tomatoes without even noticing Jake’s comical grumbling next to him.