A Piece of Earth in a Vacuum of Time


This article is the third place student essay winner in a 1983 ASBYU/Ensign essay and poetry contest addressing “The Role of Learning and Becoming a Saint.”

A Piece of Earth in a Vacuum of Time

Blue-black dilutes to gray as light begins to fleck the early dawn. Later, the sun will saturate the desert with light, parching the earth beneath the sand; but now only the gray touches the yellow grass.

The grass moves playfully with the breeze, but I know by summer’s end the blades will be like the back of a porcupine, clumped in sand with brittle stubs. The sheep, cattle, and horses will come feeding to pull them out. As I walk, I notice crusted flakes of earth along the sides of the beaten road. It must have rained recently, but today the sun will welcome me home.

An old trailer house without tires squats some thirty yards away to my right. The windows, like eyelids in heavy slumber, are boarded shut. A gray outhouse lays on its side on pillows of sand. Near it, some broken glass bottles are piled in a heap. To my left, atop the shoulders of the hill, smoke curls from a square-framed house. A white Chevy truck stands nearby. Behind the house, a corral encircles a herd of sheep. A half-mile farther beyond the winding road are a few scattered houses, some abandoned.

In my mind, I trace the course of the road to my house. It is still farther ahead; I sigh and kick a pebble. The hills in the distance outline the horizon, separating the brightening sky from the darker earth. The land is quiet. Here among the canyons and across the desert where silence pervades the air, life sits in a corner untouched. Time slips by unnoticed. This whole place is a piece of earth and time tucked away in the folds of the Navajo reservation, away from what I call “modern society.”

“Modern society” is paved streets swarming with people, like ants crawling over scraps of watermelon. It is buildings choking and suffocating your life amidst fumes and gases from buses and cars. It is noise endlessly ringing in the ears. I see only fragments of civilization—the TV antennas atop the hogans, the four-wheel-drive trucks standing guard, the yellow school bus rumbling down the dirt road.

I scan the land before me. This is home. It is mine. It belonged to my people before the white man came. It belonged to me when I was young—when I was small and skinny, when my nickname was “Broomstick” because my stringy hair fell below my shoulders and my legs sank into sockets at the ankles with my bare feet flattened like sandpaper below. This is home. It was here that I wore simple dresses gathered at the waist with three or four buttons down the front, a quick zipper in the back, and the lifeless laces rounding the collars. It was here that I would sometimes steal a can of pop from Grandma’s white cotton bag while herding sheep and I would cough or yell at the sheep to disguise the popping sound of the can being opened. And it was here that the LDS missionaries came every week to our hogan to tell us about a place far away where we could live with white people and go to school. I would listen to them and wonder about the pictures in their black book.

I breathe deeply the brisk air and release it slowly to watch the white clouds form and disappear. Goose pimples pebble my arms and legs. I shiver. Somewhere a rooster crows and bells clang from the sheep corrals. Over the hill, dark curls coil lazily from the scattered hogans in the distance. The morning whispers peace to my homecoming.

I tighten the strap on my backpack thinking of fried potatoes and tortillas cooking on the old wood stove. My mouth waters in anticipation. I am almost home, where life is shelled inside a vacuum of time and never completely expands beyond the fringed borders of civilization.

I swallow hard thinking of Grandma and how she had lectured me the day I left for college. Education, she had said, was what one needed to leave this place and get ahead. I had agreed immediately and left without looking back. That was three-and-a-half years ago. But before that, I remember the time I clung to Grandma’s skirt as we stood before the bus that would take my brothers and me away to that place where we would live with the white people. I clutched a box wrapped in strings. Tears welled in my eyes as I hung to Grandma’s skirt. My brothers had already boarded the bus, but I stayed behind hoping the huge machine would close and I would be left behind. I watched the ground, tracing a line in the dirt with my new shoes. They were black and shiny with a small bow across the front. Grandma had told the lady at the store I was going to a school far away and I would wear them there. She had been so proud.

The machine roared, and Grandma pulled me toward the door. I turned and looked into her face. I pleaded with her to let me stay. She needed help with the sheep. Who would carry in the wood? Who would bring in water when she was cooking? Her face was set and almost rigid against any feeling. Then she pushed me, turned, and left. I groped to find the shoebox I had dropped. I was blinded by hair and tears. Sobbing, I found the box, gathered the wrapped tortillas with fried potatoes sandwiched between the folds, and climbed into the mouth of the bus. The mouth closed, the engine roared, and the machine crawled slowly away.

Grandma had started me on ten years of schooling in Cedar City, Utah. Every year the machine swallowed me, but nine months later it spilled me back home again. During the summers when I was home, I helped Grandma herd the sheep and plant the corn. Sometimes the summers were endless days under the peach tree in the shade as she thump-thumped on her loom with her baton. That sound had become the heartbeat of security for me. And every year before I left for school, Grandma repeated again her words that education was important and that I would someday become a blessing to my people, a light and a guide.

As the years passed, it was only Grandma and I who went to meet the bus when it was time to go back to school. And she would be there waiting in front of the trading post when I returned nine months later. Ten years on the Indian Placement Program, two years at Brigham Young University, and eighteen months in Germany as a missionary. Was this the education Grandma spoke of?

I shiver again in the breeze. The road seems somehow longer than I remember it. I should have reached the turnoff to the hogan by now. Maybe it is a bit farther down the road.

Time had passed quickly at BYU, and my eighteen months in Germany passed even quicker. I couldn’t come home to say good-bye before I had to leave for Germany. I had written almost every week, but I had received only three letters from home during the time I was in Germany. I don’t think Grandma even knew where that was. My aunt had said in the last letter that Mom and Dad were now separated, that my brothers had started to drink, that most everybody had moved to Gallup, a city near the reservation, to work. She said Grandma had been sick, but she should be better now. I hope Grandma isn’t taking too much on herself. She does that.

I must have missed the turnoff. I’ll just cut across this field. Below should be the hogan.

As I reach the bottom of the hill, I stop cold. Something begins to die slowly in my chest. The door hangs on the top hinge across the doorway of the hogan. The window is broken. The metal smoke pipe atop the mound of dirt on the roof rolls back and forth in the breeze. A single strand of wire is attached to the pipe. Clods of dirt from the roof have fallen around the hogan. Behind the hogan, sand is piled against the outhouse. The sheep corral is to the left. It stands empty. The logs are sprawled everywhere. The posts wade in the sand.

Grandma might be on the mesa at the other house, I tell myself. Maybe she is too sick to live here by herself anymore. But, no, she would never leave the hogan to go elsewhere to live … unless …

The letters said she was only sick! Nothing was ever said about her death.

I drop to my knees and circle my arms around the trunk of the peach tree and try to listen for the thump-thump of her loom. It never comes. I clench my eyes shut as tears stream down my face. I am lost for a moment in a vacuum of time where change isn’t supposed to be. This is home, a piece of earth tucked away where no one can find it but Grandma and I. I find my voice and speak:

“Grandma, you promised to be here when I came home. Where are you? Why did you leave me? You asked me to go away and learn from the white people and come and tell you what I had learned. I went, Grandma; I went because you asked me to go. I have much to tell you.”

The silence stiffens, then I hear a soft whisper in my heart.

“My child, you know where I am. And I am here when you need me. We both have work to do, I here and you there on earth. We both have people to teach and help. The white people have taught you well; you have learned what one needs to do to be happy in earth life. I tried to teach you what I knew, but I also realized there was much I did not know, much that our people had lost. That is why I sent you away long ago to learn what I could not teach you. Now go, my child, and teach others.”

“I will go, Grandma,” I whisper back.

I open my eyes to find the sunlight has come over the horizon, welcoming me home.

[illustration] Illustrated by Don Seegmiller

Cheryl Ann Tolino, a chemistry student at BYU, is Relief Society president in her BYU branch.