Eli awoke from his dream and was lying on the pallet situated against the rear wall of the hogan. The fire had gone out, Walter was gone and he was alone. What had happened?
It had to be late, well after midnight and now Eli was wide awake with only the dim moonlight casting shadows through the open doorway. He got up and stepped outside. Walter’s stool was still there and Eli sat down.
He was facing east into darkness since all that was lit up in Tuba City was behind him. He had never been out in the desert like this, it was unfamiliar territory. Like most boys he had camped in the backyard behind the houses in both Yuma and Flagstaff, but there the lights of the city intruded and disrupted the solitude.
There were animals in the scrub around him, scavengers and predators alike, but Eli was not afraid of them, they would be more fearful of him. Walter had mentioned the coyote and so perhaps the creature would come for a visit, but there were other things to occupy his mind.
It was just like Walter to offer the Blessingway in support of Eli’s journey. Although he had read and seen the ceremonies performed before they didn’t have a great deal of relevance to his modern ways of thought. It was too easy to dismiss the rites of the Holy Ones as so much ancient nonsense, but that wasn’t the point of performing them.
Clan gatherings were the most likely places to see the songs and dances performed. Years ago Eli had seen a group of men construct one of the biggest sand paintings ever made and it was quite impressive. It had taken them three days to complete, the exact time most Blessingway ceremonies took to perform.
Walter had placed Eli on his shoulders for a better look as the clans gathered around the massive circle of the painting. The brilliant colors attracted him and Walter explained they were made from coloring the sand with minerals, using flower petals, pollen and corn meal where necessary.
As he thought back on that day Eli realized the painting was a focus for all those assembled, and each face was Diné. No outsiders were welcome and so this became a family event, a clan gathering, and it gave them a common identity. That was the purpose of the ceremony, to bind the people in a covenant with the Holy Ones. Walter made sure Eli learned that important lesson.
Telling one of the most important people in his life that he was gay felt like a milestone. Discovering he had a nadleehi great-uncle was interesting, but was the man really just gay? Trying to identify a gay man with the old legends seemed absurd to Eli, and perhaps that had a bad effect on Milton. His life certainly ended in disgrace.
Eli figured that his father would not raise the specter of Milton when he told his parents he was gay. Nadleehi was a familiar concept in the Navajo world but unlike Walter, Eli’s father would not bring it up. Eli sighed and shook his head. Being gay in the Begay family almost sounded like a cliché. He wished Tony was here so they could talk.
So far gay was a feeling not an experience. For Tony being gay was intellectual since he was remaining abstinent. Eli respected that commitment although he didn’t think it would be realistic once he developed a gay relationship. But how could he meet someone?
Cibola High was a relatively conservative school but it had the best academic track record in the city. Yuma High on the other side of town had a GSA student club so maybe he should consider a transfer, but then that sounded absurd. He would lose a lot of friends and his ability to travel around the school with a camera.
Photography had been like a gift from Michael. Documenting student life meant Eli had the freedom to roam the school and take his pictures, all with administrative support. It made him popular when the photos appeared in the school paper and next year his images would fill the yearbook. He might lose all that popularity if everyone knew he was gay.
Eli hadn’t thought past telling his grandfather and his parents he was gay…should he tell everyone else? Coming out at school didn’t seem to serve any purpose except perhaps to attract some negative reactions. Finding another gay boy to date in a herd of twenty-five hundred students might prove difficult.
He probably knew some gay boys or at least he had seen some. As a member of the Yearbook Club Eli had taken his camera into the Thespian Troop rehearsals, the performances of the Concert Choir and the Dance Club. There were a lot of guys involved in those activities but Michael had said nothing about any of them being gay.
As Eli sat pondering all of this he became aware that there were eyes in the darkness watching him. It must be the coyote, he thought. A slight movement in the brush and the coyote appeared at the edge of the clearing. The animal would know he was not Walter since they smelled differently.
The coyote took several steps across the clearing and then abruptly turned back into the brush. Walter did not really talk to the coyote but they must recognize one another on some other level. It was a wonder that the animal had revealed itself since it could have just remained hidden and observed Eli from the cover of the brush. The coyote is a lot like me, Eli thought. If I want to find another gay boy at school I am going to have to stand out in the open where I can see and be seen.
The vision of Turquoise Boy was supposed to mean something…perhaps Walter would have a greater insight. The chattering of a bird in the trees snapped Eli out of his reverie, it was chilly out here. He went back inside and retrieved a blanket before returning to the stool.
He was still there when the eastern sky began to brighten. Another day had come and he still had no answers. But the morning light revealed something…there was dust on the front of Eli’s shirt. No, it couldn’t be, that was just a dream.
“Good Morning,” Walter said. “Did you have a pleasant night?”
Eli had not heard his grandfather approach, but now he looked up with a smile.
“I saw…” No, the image had just been in his dream. “I saw the coyote but he didn’t talk to me.”
“Probably didn’t have anything to say. Even I get like that sometimes. Let’s go get you some breakfast and then we’re going to take a short trip. I have something I want to show you.”
Eli had a bowl of cereal and some juice before Walter handed him a bottle of water.
“You’ll need that later on,” He said, and then they walked out to the driveway just as the sun broke the horizon. They took Walter’s Jeep and Eli looked over at the old Chrysler wagon. He had better get that washed before he went home.
They drove out to the highway and turned north towards Kayenta. “Where are we going?” Eli asked.
“I thought I would take you up to the National Monument to look at the Betatakin dwellings,” Walter replied.
“Is it open this early?”
“For me it is.”
Eli had never seen the cliff dwellings, but he knew about the early natives who had built those structures. Walter spent the hour of travel talking about the politics of the Nation and pointed out the Black Mountain in the distance before they turned onto the highway towards the monument park.
They pulled into the parking lot in front of the visitor’s center and Walter parked. It was only a little past seven but there were already a dozen people gathered on the walkway waiting for a guided tour.
“The cliff dwellings face east and so they come early to see them all lit up by the morning sun,” Walter explained as he led the way inside the building. There behind a counter was a Navajo woman in a ranger uniform and she smiled when they approached.
“Walter, how good to see you,” She said.
“Hello, Sally, you look busy.”
“Warm weather brings them out,” She replied. “And who is this?”
“This is my grandson, Eli…Pete’s boy.”
Eli shook her hand. “I know your father quite well,” She said. “We went to school together. So what brings you here today…business?”
“No, the council is quite happy with the way things are. I just wanted to show Eli a little of the Diné history.”
“Betatakin looks especially nice this time of day.”
“That’s what I thought,” Walter said.
“Well enjoy your visit…I have to lead a tour in about twenty minutes,” Sally said.
Walter led them out the rear door of the visitor’s center and down a marked path towards the rim of the canyon. It took them all of twenty minutes to reach the overlook, and there across the canyon were the ruins of the Betatakin dwellings. Eli knew about them but this was his first visit.
“It seems the Pueblo people came here about eight hundred years ago,” Walter said. “We called them the Anaasázi. Not a nice name as it means ancient enemy, but it seems we got along. You can see that plant life thrives in the canyon so they must have thought this was a good place to cultivate corn. The Diné had a long relationship with these Pueblo people and our ancestors learned to plant corn from them.”
“But we were hunter gatherers,” Eli said.
“Yes, we were. The Diné had always been a nomadic people. Some say we came down from the north and our contact with these Pueblo cultures changed us. Somewhere along the line we became farmers and herders. Then the people we called Anaasázi moved on.”
“Why did they leave?”
“There could have been a drought or their enemies overran the canyon…we’ll never really know. The Pueblo people had settlements all over this area. Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, you’ve seen those cliff dwellings. But this is where our ancestors put down roots.”
Walter looked out over the canyon. “Native people have lived here for over ten thousand years and we still don’t know where we all came from. The Creation Myth would like us to think we just appeared courtesy of the Holy Ones but modern thinking finds that hard to believe. The Pueblo people came and went before we had barely settled in…so where do you think we all came from?”
Eli had known Walter brought him here for a reason. Was this a test of faith? Eli might be only half-Diné and didn’t know as much about beliefs of the Holy Ones, but he didn’t embrace the Christian views on life either.
“I don’t believe we just appeared from the Third World,” Eli said. “I would favor the great migration of people from up north since that seems more reasonable. Science says that all life began somewhere in Africa and spread across the planet in migrating waves. So to answer your question, we came from Asia a long, long time ago.”
Walter smiled and clapped a hand on Eli’s shoulder. “A modern answer to an ancient riddle, but I agree with you. The Creation Myth is like any other belief system, it is there to explain the unexplainable, at least during the time it was developed.
“Knowledge and understanding is what separates us from the animals. But cultural beliefs die hard in the face of knowledge. The basis of all religion is that big question: where do we come from. The old ways of the Diné may not survive another hundred years except as a cultural icon that attracts tourists.”
“But you still perform the ceremonies, you said the Blessingway,” Eli said.
“I do because it reminds me of where I come from and in that there is comfort in my old age. I cannot absorb all this new information thrown at us from the modern world. That is for your generation to embrace, but I hope you manage to keep a small corner of your mind on the old ways because they help define you as a person.”
“Why do you suppose it was important for the Diné to envision nadleehi as part of the Creation Myth? Couldn’t there just have been men and women as separate beings?” Eli asked.
Walter laughed. “You ask such a hard question. Some of the Hatalii believe it made the propagation of the people much easier to explain although I don’t agree. Among the gods there is no need to define the sex since gods can be whatever they want. But in our culture defining a person as nadleehi makes them special, a direct link to the Holy Ones.
“If a man is gay it must a great relief to be so accepted, at least in a spiritual sense. I think Milton lost his spiritual faith and that made being gay among the people very difficult for him. His criminal actions put him at odds with the clan and he rejected the nadleehi image.”
“I told you I don’t accept it either.”
“And I agree, you don’t have to” Walter said. “But then you are young and have never put those feelings to the test. This is the modern world and you have to write the rules by which you will live your life. Those dwellings across the canyon are just symbols of the ancient ways and have become artifacts with little meaning in this world except as a curiosity.”
A small group of tourists moved into the lookout area and Sally began her speech. Walter led Eli back onto the path and they followed it back to the visitor’s center.
“Shall we stop in Kayenta for some lunch?” Walter asked.
“You eat fast food?”
“I prefer my food to be slow, but every now and then I like a hamburger.”
They drove south and up into Kayenta to the Sonic’s drive in. Sitting in the shade of the overhead canopy they ordered and waited for their food.
“Your parents are probably home by now…are you planning to join them?”
Eli nodded. “I probably should. I guess I have to tell them about my little trip but I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Your father took a horse and rode from Yuma to Mexicali when he was fifteen.”
“Really? That’s a hundred miles, and there’s desert…how did he know where to go?” Eli asked.
“He crossed the river and followed the old farm roads, no one stopped him. But he got there and called home so I hooked up a trailer and fetched him back. The horse didn’t look worn out and neither did he. But when I asked him why he just said so he could tell his friends that he’d done it.
“I made him clean out the horse barns for a week as punishment, but I understood his need just like I understand yours. Your father won’t be the problem, but your mother isn’t going to be happy no matter what you say.”
“But I have to tell them because that’s the right thing to do.”
“It is, and it just proves how smart you are,” Walter said. “Now let’s go wash that filthy station wagon. What did you smear all over that back window?”
“A bear slobbered on it.” And they both laughed.
They washed the wagon until Walter was satisfied and then Eli said good-bye to his grandparents. An hour and a half later he was back in Flagstaff and pulling the wagon up behind the house to the garage where it was kept. But first he had to stop since his father and Miguel were standing outside.
“Doesn’t look like you hit anything…how far did you go?” Miguel asked.
Eli looked at his father and smiled. “Canada,” He said.
“I was afraid of that,” Pete replied.
His mother was not happy, but Eli wouldn’t describe her reaction as upset. The surprising thing was that there was no punishment, just a short lecture about responsibility. As Walter had suggested, Pete seemed to understand.
Eli resigned himself to another summer of sheep and that wasn’t so bad. Pete gave him days off in July to attend the Hopi festival in Flagstaff and then again in August for the Navajo festival. He wandered the crowds with his camera and took hundreds of photographs.
It was an immersion in native culture and through the lens he captured the best images of families and participants. Eli had managed to get in touch with Tony up in Calgary and shared his photos only to receive a batch of images in return from north of the border, but there was so much more.
They swapped information about the events that had occurred since they first met. Tony was surprised that Eli had not been punished, but he said that suggested strong family ties. And finally Tony admitted there was a love interest in his life which gave Eli pangs of envy.
“His name is Trevor. He’s nineteen and attends the University as a music major. And no, there has been nothing physical between us…yet. I got a job in a coffee house for the rest of the summer and he plays there on weekends. I know it’s love.”
Eli gazed out his bedroom window as the sun began to set over the mountains. There was no one in Flagstaff he could talk to about being gay, and there wasn’t anyone for a relationship. But Tony lived in a large city while Eli felt trapped in his small town existence, and then he thought of Mathias.
Even straight boys in small towns had a hard time developing relationships. Mathias had never mentioned a girl in his life, but perhaps there were a few at the college he liked. Eli felt like the only place he might have a chance of meeting a boy was at school, and that felt so dangerous.
But the summer waned and Eli rode with his mother back down to Yuma three days before school started in August. It would be another two months before the sheep would be returned to their southern pastures by truck. Eli would return to school and then in the afternoons and weekends he would work with the crew to fix fences and corrals, overhaul equipment and make ready to receive the flocks.
It was hot in Yuma, the last thing students needed to settle down in their classrooms beneath the gently blowing conditioned air from the overhead vents. The temperature hovered above one hundred as Eli made ready for the first day of classes. He was not looking forward to riding the school bus.
Sunday arrived and Eli sensed something was different by the way his mother acted at the breakfast table. She looked up at the clock on the wall and smiled.
“Miguel will be here this morning,” She said. “He has to take the utility truck back up to the ranch.”
“He’s doing that himself? Why didn’t he send one of the hands?”
“He’s driving down in the wagon. Your father and I though you could use it to drive back and forth to school.”
Eli was stunned, but that quickly wore off. He leapt to his feet and hugged his mother.
“Thank you…you know how much I hate that bus.”
“I know you will get involved in all those after school activities and we can’t be driving over there to pick you up every other day. Besides, you’re quite familiar with that old car…it’s just transportation.”
They sat back down at the table and she gave Eli a nod. “I know you took that trip to find yourself…Walter and I had a long talk about it. I know it’s hard being the only boy in the family and I think you’ve handled that very well. Perhaps having a car to drive will help you get involved with other friends and make your life a little easier.”
Her smile returned. “Just no more long trips without discussing it with us…okay?”
Eli nodded. “I agree. Besides, school will keep me busy. I can run errands for you now.”
“Oh yes, you will do that.”
Eli drove to school early the following morning and registered the car at the school office for a parking permit. He reported to the gym to get his classroom assignments and then went looking for Mr. Briggs, the yearbook coordinator, to check out a camera and grab some film.
“Eli, glad to see you back,” Briggs said, and there on the corner of his desk sat the Minolta and six rolls of film. “I was expecting you…go get ‘em.”
Eli loaded the camera and set off for the courtyard by the main entrance. He would have an hour to photograph the students arriving for classes. Documenting the first day of school was important. He had Mrs. Connors for homeroom so he could skip that, she would understand.
The flow of buses filled the wide circular drive and Eli captured his fellow students as they arrived. He noted the freshmen gathered in groups and smiling nervously, Michael would understand what he was seeing through the lens.
“Excuse me…you’re Eli Begay, aren’t you?”
The voice was unfamiliar but the face looked like one he ought to know.
“Yes, my name is Eli.”
“John Murray, you took my picture last year and put it in the yearbook.”
The boy smiled and hauled a copy of the book out of his backpack. “Here I am on page thirty-seven as a freshman.”
Eli looked at the photo and immediately remembered taking it. The boy in the picture was gathering his papers off the ground and looking at the camera with a smile, and a mouthful of braces.
“I got the braces off this summer,” John said. “Sorta changed my look.”
And how, Eli thought, John was a handsome boy. “I remember you,” He said.
John gave him that winning smile and nodded. “I hope we have some classes together this year.”
“I do too,” Eli said.
“Guess I better go get my class schedule. Take some good pictures.”
“How about I take one of you right now?” Eli asked.
Click…and the moment became a memory.
* * * * * *
It would take them all day to get there, almost four hundred miles. But they had a whole week planned and Eli was looking forward to the trip. Mathias was looking forward to seeing him and Eli had to tell his friend the truth.
How many of the people he met last summer had wished that Eli might find what he was looking for? Mathias was the first and Eli could almost hear him smile over the phone.
“I did find what I was looking for, I have a boyfriend and his name is John,” Eli said.
“Come see me and bring him along,” Mathias said in reply.
“Maybe when summer starts. I want to go see the buffalo.”
“We can do that. It’s a long drive, but then it will be like old times for you. And come hungry, I have some new recipes I want to try out.”
They were both seventeen now and John was going to enjoy the trip. The wagon was in great shape and Eli wouldn’t drive anything else although his mother had offered the Jeep. They were only concerned about his safety, and John’s, he was part of their family now.
John had come into his life and within weeks Eli had come out to his parents. It was easier than maintaining the lie while a handsome boy stood beside him. They accepted it for what it was and were only slightly upset that Walter had known about it first.
But John was like the Porter family, European stock with little knowledge of the Diné way of life. Their first trip together was to Tuba City during the Christmas break. Walter embraced them both and then led them through the chill desert air to the hogan. John’s education on native culture was just beginning.
Now John would meet Mathias and time away would mean they could grow closer. Tony asked after he saw John’s photo. “Have you…?”
“No,” Eli was proud to reply. “We’re waiting until we know each other better.”
The wagon was packed, it was time to go. “So are we ready?” John asked as he slid into the passenger’s seat. “We have a long trip ahead.”
“It’s not that far,” Eli replied. “I’ve been this way before.”