A Short Story
By Suzanne Jubenville
The Navajo shopkeeper does not smile when my husband asks him to prounounce the text for us. He just looks at my husband and shakes his head, not unfriendly, just, no. As he pushes the slip of paper back across the counter, I feel a sudden alertness in the room like a silent electric buzz. It comes from the snack and beer aisles, where there are a few Indian shoppers. Most of the store is given over to traveler’s trinkets: cheap plastic beaded headbands, painted ashtrays, feathered fly swatters. A young blonde couple wearing backpacks, hiking boots, and knee-shorts browses CDs in a corner.
“It’s a Navajo blessing,” my husband says, and I blush. The Indian shopkeeper’s eyes slide down and to the right. He shakes his head, not frowning, not smiling.
The door opens, bell tinkling, and a young Navajo ranger steps inside. He nods at us, and I recognize him as one of the guides at Canyon de Chelly.
“I’m a musician,” my husband is saying to the shopkeeper, “and I wanted to set this to music, but I don’t know how to pronounce the words.”
An old Indian in the snack aisle shuffles his feet and clears his throat. I look at him, and his gaze slides away from mine, down and to the left. I’m starting to get used to the fact that people don’t look you in the eyes here. The couple at the CD rack presses the play button on a New Age demo of Plains Indian chants and Irish harp. The old Navajo mumbles something.
“Excuse me?” My husband turns around, smiling. “Did you say something?”
The old man’s mouth twitches, and for a moment I think he is going to laugh out loud, but that’s another thing they don’t do here. “Why do you want to sing words you don’t understand?” he says. He addresses this remark not to my husband, but to a display of Hostess cupcakes.
“I think the words are beautiful,” my husband says.
“How do you know?” the old man says. “How do you know if you don’t know what they mean?” “I think they sound beautiful, no matter what they mean.”
“But you say you don’t know how they sound.” “Leonard,” says the ranger.
The old man—Leonard, I note to myself—looks at the floor. I sense rather than hear that he is laughing —he and the three or four other silent Indians standing near him.
“Can I help you?” the ranger asks. He is making eye contact with my husband, and he is smiling.
“Yes, thanks.” My husband smiles and sticks out his hand. “My name’s Walter; this is my wife, Amy. We’re musicians on vacation, just traveling around and camping out. I found this Navajo blessing in a park brochure, and I wondered how it’s pronounced. So I can set it to music.”
The young ranger shakes my husband’s hand. “Charles White Buffalo,” he says. “Let’s see that blessing. I think I can help you.”
My husband hands him the brochure and Charles White Buffalo studies it as my husband gets his pocket recorder out and fumbles with the buttons.
“Ready?” my husband asks, and the young ranger looks up, smiles, and nods.
“Rolling,” says my husband, and the young ranger begins to read against a backdrop of New Age harp and tom-tom drums. The language is sybillant and liquid, like the sound of sand on slickrock; its utterance is wide and flat, like the long, curved nose of a mesa rising from the face of the desert. It is dry and sparing of spittle, secretive and austere. The blessing is a poem; some sounds repeat, like small pebbles bouncing, and then, silence.
“Thanks,” says my husband, and turns off the recorder. “That sounded so beautiful.” The door tinkles as the young couple leaves. We turn to follow them out.
As I near the snack aisle, the old man, Leonard, catches my eye. Although his mouth is a straight line, his eyes are dark with mischief. He speaks softly as I pass.
“A beautiful word,” he says.
When I follow Walter through the shop door, I turn to look behind me. No one is watching us leave. They are all looking at Leonard, who is facing them with his hands out, palms upraised in a gesture of supplication. His voice rises clearly above the tinkling bell as the door sweeps shut.
“Charles White Buffalo?” he says, and the room erupts with laughter.