New Fire


The sun was just appearing above the edge of the mesa as Grandmother arose and began stirring up the banked coals in her cookstove. Hannah reluctantly rolled out of her warm quilts and hurriedly dressed. She knew that Grandmother expected her help. Grandmother was anxious to finish breakfast early this morning so the old fire could be put out before the day’s activities began, for today was the final day of the Wuwuchim ceremony—the Hopi New Year. Grandmother put a shawl over her shoulders, picked up her coal bucket, and stepped out into the cold winter morning. When Hannah ran out to help, the only signs of life she could see in the entire village were an old woman carrying two pails of water up the steep trail from the spring below the mesa and a young boy listlessly chopping wood. In the background she could hear the chanting from the kiva (round ceremonial structure).

For the past several days the mornings had been alive with the sounds of corn being ground, wood being chopped, and women busy with their children. Hannah had spent a full day with Grandmother preparing the blue cornmeal on the grinding stones, gradually making it finer and finer. Another full day had been spent on their knees in the peekee house bending over the hot peekee stone to make the blue cornmeal paper-bread. Then just yesterday Grandfather had brought fresh mutton. Hannah and Grandmother had prepared a stew with it. Water had been carried and wood had been chopped so that everything would be in readiness. Soon now everyone would put out their old fires.

When Hannah and her grandmother stepped back inside the house with the coal, Grandfather was sitting by the dwindling fire weaving a ceremonial sash. Although he had once been a kiva priest, he had not been inside a kiva for two years. Hannah knew he was not making the sash for himself. He would sell it to the trading post at Oraibi. Grandfather never seemed to miss the old ways. He kept asking Grandmother why she bothered to make all the preparations for Wuwuchim. Her reply was always, “Perhaps this year it will be different.”

As soon as breakfast was cleared up and the old fire put out, the family settled back to wait, listening to the chanting from the kivas. The priests had been inside them for days, chanting prayers that the Six-point-cloud People would look with favor on the village during the coming year.

About noontime two lady missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints walked over from their house in the center of the mesa. Hannah knew they had been unable to hold meetings with anyone for two or three days, for everyone had been too busy with their celebration preparations. The sisters had visited them the day they made peekee, and Grandmother had tried to teach them how, but their hands were not toughened and they soon had blisters from the hot stone.

Suddenly the chanting stopped! Runners began emerging from the kiva of the Masuaa (Fire) Clan, bearing torches lighted from the New Fire in the kiva. The new year began with the lighting of the New Fire in all the homes.

Hannah stood expectantly in the doorway with Grandmother, watching the progression of the runners from house to house. The two lady missionaries stood curiously beside them, but Grandfather did not lift his head from his weaving. The runners passed in front of their door. One hesitated a moment as though he wanted to go in, but went on instead to the next house. Tears welled up in Hannah’s eyes. “It isn’t different,” she said bitterly.

It had been this way ever since they had become Momonas (Mormons). When the missionaries first came to the mesas, nobody listened to them except Grandfather, Grandmother, and Hannah. They looked forward to the visits of the missionaries and their stories from the Book of Mormon. From the beginning the family had believed that the Book of Mormon was their book, but the decision to be baptized was not an easy one.

All of the neighbors had criticized them for entertaining the bahawnas (white people). But when they began seriously to think of baptism, the villagers accused them of deserting the Hopi way—a way of life that had served the Peaceful People well for centuries. Men from Grandfather’s kiva came to warn against displeasing the Six-point-cloud People and disrupting the harmony of nature, but he would not give in. He was truly converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without his strength Hannah knew that she and Grandmother might have weakened, but after Grandfather made his decision he never looked back.

Hannah couldn’t help feeling that it had been easier for him than for her and Grandmother. Every morning from planting time on, he rode his burro down off the mesa to his dry farm. He also took his turn herding the village sheep. Always the men of the village treated him with respect. She and Grandmother usually received no such treatment. Each day when they went to the waffle gardens perched on the side of the mesa to water their little plot of chili peppers and beans, they met the women and girls of the village carrying water to their vegetables. The girls giggled and called out, “Momona!” and the women made derisive remarks.

That summer Hannah had not been asked to participate in the butterfly dance with the other girls of her clan. And at the first Wuwuchim after their baptism, the fire runners ignored them and passed by their home.

However, there had been a few changes for the better during the two years since their baptism. Now many people listened to the missionaries and came to Sunday School. The lady missionaries held Primary for the children and many of Hannah’s friends attended. They also had been teaching the women how to make quilts. Although no one else had been baptized, Hannah, like Grandmother, believed that this Wuwuchim would be different. But it isn’t going to be, she decided, and that still hurts.

Dancers were coming now from each of the kivas to dance on the plaza. Hannah and the missionaries walked down to watch. Visitors from other mesas were there, and people who had left the mesas to work had returned to celebrate with their own people. It was a joyous time of reunion, a time to laugh and mingle with friends and relatives.

Gifts of food were exchanged between clans. Women carried baskets heaped with rolls of peekee and white biscuits. Grandmother had left her gifts of food at home on the kitchen table. Everyone in the village would know that their home had been passed by again and that their gifts would not be acceptable. Hannah was sure Grandmother would send the food home with the lady missionaries.

When the dancing was over, everyone went to his own home or the home of a fellow clan member to enjoy the mutton stew, warmed over the New Fire and served with peekee and biscuits. Hannah and her grandparents walked home with their guests to partake of the feast that had been in the making during the past few days.

Going to the stove, Grandmother struck an ordinary kitchen match to light the New Fire. She laughed as she looked at the small flame. “Hannah,” she said, “the kiva fire means no more than this kitchen match I hold in my hand!”

Then Hannah watched as Grandmother put the match to the tinder, the small flame taking hold and growing into a roaring fire. She looked across the table at Grandfather. The two old people had given up many of the habits and practices of a lifetime and willingly chosen a better way. Deep inside, Grandmother’s words glowed again and grew stronger. The kiva fire means no more than the kitchen match!

A new understanding like a spark took hold, and her whole being seemed to burn. I was wrong, she thought. This year is different.

No runner came from the kiva bearing a lighted torch, but a new fire seemed to flame within Hannah, a fire that would light her whole life. The Lord has promised that someday everyone will understand, she thought. What a bright and happy time that will be!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown