The Orange Potholders

By Rosemary Sakajian

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    Ankawu was standing in front of the counter at the Cahuilla Indian Reservation trading post. Her eyes sparkled as she read a sign tacked to the wall above the scales.


    The only person who could possibly be a challenge is Caromanie, she thought. When it came to competing with him in a footrace, she usually won, but he was fast on a scooter. Ankawu was especially anxious to win the scooter race so she could buy a gift for her mother.

    She walked to the other side of the store as she had so often done and gazed longingly at the orange potholders made in the shape of mittens. Ever since her mother burned her hand when removing a pot from the stove using only an apron, Ankawu had wanted to buy potholders for her.

    “Would you like to buy those potholders, Ankawu?” asked the trader, interrupting her thoughts. “I notice you look at them every time you come into the store.”

    Ankawu felt her cheeks grow warm. “Maybe, if I win the race,” she answered.

    “Never say if,“ encouraged the man. “If you have doubts, you’ll lose before you start.”

    Ankawu smiled at the kind man with white hair and bronze face. “Thank you for your advice,” she said and left the store.

    On her way home Ankawu met Caromanie. “I’m going to win the race,” he bragged.

    “Maybe,” said Ankawu with a shrug.

    “I have the biggest scooter,” taunted Caromanie.

    “Sometimes big things are clumsy,” reminded Ankawu.

    “I’ll tell you what,” continued Caromanie. “Just to show you what a good sport I am, I’ll race you for practice.”

    “OK,” Ankawu agreed. “I’ll meet you at the road. We can race to the bald spot.”

    The bald spot was a smooth area of ground that was hard as rock without any vegetation growing on it. A utility road stretched over a slight incline before running downward onto the bald spot.

    “I must beat Caromanie,” Ankawu kept repeating to herself on the way to the practice race. “I must. I wish that just this once he would move as slowly as his turtle namesake.”

    Several children followed Ankawu to where Caromanie was waiting on the utility road. At a signal, both riders moved swiftly forward. Finally Caromanie gained enough speed to beat Ankawu over the inclines and then gracefully coasted onto the bald spot.

    “See, what did I tell you,” he teased.

    Ankawu turned her scooter around and hurried home. She was so disappointed that she could hardly keep back the tears. “Mama,” Ankawu asked, “what do you do when things go wrong?”

    “I try to do something constructive like watering flowers, pulling weeds, or helping someone. That way I forget myself and soon the hurt passes. Doing good is like winning. Something comes back to you when you least expect it,” her mother answered in her gentle voice.

    Ankawu put a pail into her wagon and filled it with water; then she pulled it past the clapboard houses and out into the open fields. In the distance a few cattle were grazing and the smell of pastures filled the air. She was warm and perspiring by the time she reached a cluster of desert boxwoods called jojoba plants. As she poured the water, it disappeared quickly into the dry earth, hardly leaving a trace of moisture. The jojoba’s green leaves were thick and broad, meeting the challenges of survival in such an arid country, and the branches were laden with seedpods almost as large as peanuts. Feeling pleased and less unhappy, Ankawu started for home. On her way, she saw Caromanie in his yard, applying oil to the wheels of his scooter and spinning them after each application.

    “Can I use some of your oil on my scooter wheels?” she asked.

    “Sorry, but it’s all gone,” answered Caromanie. “How about another race tomorrow?”

    Ankawu’s first impulse was to say no, for she did not believe he had used all the oil, but she shrugged and said, “If you want to.”

    Once more Ankawu raced Caromanie and lost. And once more she filled a pail and went off to water the jojoba plants. In her bitter disappointment, she pulled off a seedpod and broke it into bits. An oily substance clung to her hands. Ankawu rubbed her fingers together, and they felt slippery. It must be a kind of oil! she thought excitedly. She gathered more seedpods into the pail and hurried home.

    Ankawu crushed the seedpods with a stone and collected enough oil in an empty can to apply to her scooter wheels. “When tomorrow comes,” she said enthusiastically, “I’ll be ready!”

    On Saturday morning every youngster on the reservation who had a scooter was preparing for the race. Some were dressed in native costumes; others wore their jeans.

    Caromanie was smiling. He was wearing his fancy buckskin vest. “I’m going to win,” he boasted.

    Ankawu adjusted the single feather in her headband and waved to her mother as the starter alerted the contestants to take their places.

    A whistle signaled them away in a flurry of excitement. An array of bright blouses and shirts seemed to move like birds taking off. But the other riders were soon left behind. Now only Ankawu and Caromonie were competing for the prize. Nearing the crest of the incline, Ankawu prayed that she could keep her lead. Her scooter seemed to be flying over the hard ground as though it had wings. Voices rose in loud cheers as she reached the bald spot ahead of Caromanie.

    As soon as the five-dollar bill was in her hand, Ankawu hurried to the trading post to buy the potholders.

    “Oh, dear!” she cried out when she saw they were gone. “Did you—”

    The trader came to the counter. “I knew you’d be coming back, so I put them away for you.”

    “But how did you know I was going to win?” asked Ankawu.

    “I just had a hunch,” he said, reaching under the counter for the potholders. “Your mother told me how you crushed the jojoba seedpods and used the waxy oil on your scooter wheels. It’s a wonderful lubricant. I read about the jojoba plant and its seedpods in the paper. The oil from these seeds is similar to sperm whale oil. The government wants to plant many jojobas on Indian reservations.”

    “Then the whale wouldn’t be in danger anymore?” questioned Ankawu.

    “That’s right,” he said, nodding his head.

    “I’m glad,” said Ankawu. “Glad for the whales and also glad because now there’ll be more jojoba plants. Thanks to them, I won the race and now I can take these beautiful orange potholders home to my mother.”

    Illustrated by Paul Mann