The Bellwether


Alone in a blizzard, unable to see. She could make it to the hogan if she went north. But which way was north?

When she awoke the old woman was immediately alert. From her bed on the dirt floor she looked toward the east window, trying to guess the time by the amount of light seeping through the cracks around the curtain. My sister the sun must be lazy today, she decided, throwing the blankets off. The Two Who Have Something to Say had stayed quite late last night, talking and answering questions, and perhaps she had overslept. At the window next to the door she saw gray clouds sitting where the sunrise should have been. She must get the sheep out soon. Late October was too early for a very big storm, she reasoned as she rolled up the bedding.

Quickly she washed at the washstand below the window, then stoked the potbellied stove, and put a kettle of water on to boil. From a cloth bundle on the metal cabinet near the stove she took a large piece of fry bread and placed it on the warm edge of the stove top.

After changing from her night dress into a long, full-tiered skirt and velvet blouse, anklets and oxfords, she paused by the overstuffed chair to tidy things. The Two Who Have Something to Say had left some small booklets for her to read and a larger, thicker volume with a blue cover. There was a picture of a gold statue on it, a man blowing a long horn. “The Book of Mormon,” the lettering read.

Next to the armchair was an apple-box bookcase, overflowing with her beloved books. Raymond, her youngest son, had promised seven years ago to replace the boxes with real shelves, but he was married now and lived across the wash to the west, about a mile from the highway. He had a demanding wife, and they were both drinking. The old woman knew she would never have another bookcase. She sighed when she thought of Raymond.

The whistling teakettle called her to the stove. From the metal cabinet she took a box of tea bags. Then she remembered the Fair One with Sky in His Eyes had said “Sister Ashton, tea isn’t good for you every day. It should be used only as a medicine.” It surprised her.

“Why should it matter?” she had asked. “I am an old woman. Will God deny a small pleasure?” He had smiled as he replied, “To obey is not a small thing.” She put the box back into the cupboard.

Instead, she put sugar and evaporated milk in the hot water and found that it warmed her just as well. The warmed-over fry bread tasted good. She thought of last night, sharing it with the Two Who Have Something to Say. The Fair One with Sky in His Eyes, whose name was Elder Wilson, told her of a prophet, Joseph Smith, and the book that contained a history of her people. The missionaries she had known as a girl, the Ones Who Wear Long Coats, had told her some confusing things, and the Ones Who Wear Short Coats had baffled her as well, although nothing as curious as this.

These young men, these Mormons, spoke of things that touched her soul deeply. They told her how her family could be together again in another life because of Jesus, why she must learn this new law of health, and that a man who spoke with heaven was at the head of the Church. As they left after the meal and the talk and the prayers, she had said, “You speak of many hopeful things, but I am an old woman, perhaps too old to change my ways.” The taller one, Elder Jordan, had replied, “Sister Ashton, our Father in Heaven loves you and wants you to become as a little child and follow him.” He gestured toward the shelves. “Your many books may bring you great knowledge and the wisdom of this world, but they can never give you peace of mind.” After assuring her that they would return in a few days, they went out into the night. They are only young men, but they are as wise as grandfathers, she marveled as she heard their car move slowly out of her yard.

When the old woman had finished eating, she brushed her hair and wound it into a knot at the nape of her neck, securing it with a piece of silver hair jewelry encrusted with turquoise. Then she placed her bedroll by the loom in the unheated part of the hogan, which was separated by blankets hanging over the poles that supported the thick dirt roof. Hanging on the wall along the south side of the hogan, obscured by the blankets from the rest of the room, were pictures of her family—Alvin in his Army uniform, Evelyn at her wedding, Patrick’s twins, Priscilla’s high school graduating class, even her husband Tom a year before his death.

She lingered over the last picture of her seven children taken three years ago at the Navajo Fair in Window Rock. That was before Jonathan’s death in an auto accident on the Shiprock Road. Her daughter Donna was married to a white man from Holbrook, and he always took pictures. At first the old woman thought it was silly, but now, seeing Jonathan again, she was glad. Beside the picture hung a piece of paper in a metal frame: “This is to certify that Jonathan Ashton has earned the Doctor of Medicine degree and is qualified to practice.” She did not know which was the greater sadness, Raymond’s drinking or Jonathan’s young life wasted. As she took her wool blanket off a hanger dangling from a nail on the wall, she wondered if Jonathan would have approved of the Two Who Have Something to Say.

Outside the door, the woman adjusted the blanket around her shoulders, took the staff she had left leaning against the hogan yesterday, and made her way along the well-worn paths around the clumps of sagebrush and cactus toward the corral. My sister the sun is still hiding, she thought, but in the fall she often plays this game. The clouds in the west looked as if they would soon disperse.

The corral was far enough south of the hogan that the old woman couldn’t hear the sheep until she was halfway there. There were 50 in the herd now, including 15 lambs which would bring a good price at the market next spring. The rest would be ready for shearing by then, too. She was already planning how to spend the money. Some would go to Jonathan’s son, Edward, at school in Phoenix; she had great hopes for him. And some would go for a book about needlework.

The corral, some 20 feet square, was made of poles three to four inches in diameter. There was a gate on the north side. The entire structure looked flimsy and ill-suited to its purpose, but as long as the bellwether was with them, the rest of the sheep stayed, even if the gate was open. A large stack of baled hay stood on the east side, far enough away so the sheep couldn’t nibble at it through the fence.

Now that her own children were grown, the old woman sometimes thought of the sheep as her children, and she greeted them with terms of endearment. Some even had names. The bellwether was Hozhoji—“happiness.” He was sure and dependable, knew where to lead the herd almost before she directed him, and when she was tired at the end of the day, he knew the way home. He made her happy.

As she opened the gate, the bellwether nuzzled her hand, then hurried on to take his place at the lead, his bell clanging with authority. He started north, but she stopped him and turned the herd south. The area near the spring had the best pasture, and it was only a few miles away.

As she walked, she noted the condition of the sky, listened to the jays chatter and scream at each other from the junipers along the way, and laughed at the clumsy lambs trying to catch their mothers immobile and get a few gulps of milk. After two miles they crossed the rutted road, continued another mile till they came to a slight incline. From the top she could see the spring in the valley below. The sheep could smell the water and hurried down to drink and then feed on the succulent greenery nearby. A rock outcropping about halfway down the hill made a perfect vantage point for watching all the sheep as they grazed. My mother the earth is very generous, the old woman thought, as she made her way to the rock. The spring and summer had brought more rain than usual, and the pasture was rich.

Sitting there, the old woman could see south toward the dry river bed, wandering aimlessly, following the path of least resistance. It was probably three miles across the valley floor to the red clay cliffs on the other side. The few cedars growing in the valley seemed lonely. The scene was still as an oil painting, but the old woman knew this high desert land was teeming with jackrabbits, small rodents, snakes, and even deer and antelope who crept down to the spring from their hiding places in the thick undergrowth higher up. Three miles northeast, hidden behind the end of the mesa, was a trading post. The old woman could hear the wind and the faint bleating of the sheep, but nothing else.

She found herself thinking again of the Two Who Have Something to Say and anticipating their next visit. The young men seemed so certain of what they said. Whenever they spoke of the book with the blue cover they said, “I know,” as if the knowing were a secret waiting to be discovered. But they told her how they could be so sure. “I have prayed, Sister Ashton,” Elder Jordan said, “and the answer came with such power I can never deny it.” Elder Wilson added, “Our Father knows what we need, but he waits for us to ask before he gives it.”

She could not explain why she was so moved by what these young men said. She had studied other religions before. Many years ago when she attended a Christian boarding school near Ganado, nothing any of the priests or ministers said ever affected her this way. Now she was an old woman, sure of herself, wise, experienced. Being a grandmother satisfied her; her opinions were always sought, always important. If she went the way of the Mormons, it would be like starting all over again in many ways. Her children and grandchildren might think that her mind had slipped away from her and that she had become foolish. Anyway, she hadn’t even read their book yet. And she was an old woman. Perhaps …

A sudden gust of strong wind broke the old woman’s reverie. She stood to judge the northern sky and saw black, puffy clouds billowing over the hill behind her, almost near enough to touch. Never had she seen a storm move so fast. Fearful for the lambs, she hurried down the hill, calling for Hozhoji as she went. He was obedient, but some of the other sheep were reluctant to leave and had to be prodded on their way. By the time she had disengaged the last lamb, the bellwether was at the top of the hill and setting a brisk pace. Anxious and panting, but not daring to stop and catch her breath, the old woman hurried on behind the sheep. As snowflakes began to fall, the wind got stronger. Some of the sheep stopped here and there to graze, but she scolded them like a mother with naughty children, and they scurried on.

The flakes thickened, the wind began to howl, and the old woman’s anxiety grew. Then suddenly she was within sight of the corral, and Hozhoji was leading the herd inside. Now they were safe. A quick head count told her all were there. She counted the lambs twice to be sure and closed the gate. Before she had taken three steps she realized that if the storm were to last very long, she might not be able to get out to feed them. She dragged a bale of hay from the stack, opened the gate and pushed it into the corral. The sheep were settled and quiet now, huddled together for protection. By the time she had struggled the second bale into the corral, the storm was directly upon her, snowflakes pelting her face and stinging with the force of the wind. She counted the sheep once more, made sure the gate was closed securely, and began her journey to the hogan, planning carefully as she made her way through the swirling flakes.

The south side of the corral was no longer visible. She tried to remember small landmarks along the way, but one clump of sagebrush soon began to look like another and she was no longer sure. Hoping to reorient herself, she turned toward the corral, but in turning she stumbled and fell. When she recovered she was alone in the blizzard, unable to see beyond the length of her arm. She knelt there trying to think clearly. She knew she was on the north side of the corral, and if she went straight north she would come to the hogan. But which way was north? A little to the left? Slightly to the right? Too much one way or the other and she might miss the hogan and wander for hours, perhaps in circles, perhaps passing near a sheltered place but not being able to see it.

In a subtle flash, the face of the Fair One with Sky in His Eyes came into her mind. “Our Father in Heaven loves you … become as a little child,” he was saying. But I am a grandmother, she thought. “Little child … little child,” his voice echoed again. She bowed her head.

“Oh Lord,” she whispered through the furious gale, “I am lost. Never have I been lost before. Only you can see through this storm. I know you love all living things, but if you want me to live, you will have to guide me home. You are the only way I can get there.”

Suddenly, in the midst of the storm, she was calm. It was as if a hand had touched her shoulder, for an overwhelming warmth ran through her. Then there was a sound at her side, and she turned to find the bellwether.

“Hozhoji!” she cried. Puzzled for a moment, she hugged the ram’s woolly neck. She distinctly remembered locking the gate. He tossed his head restlessly and nudged her hand. Then she understood.

He sent you!” she whispered.

She got to her feet, fixed her fingers firmly around the bell strap, and patted the sheep. “Take me home, Hozhoji.”

Carefully, instinctively, the sheep led her to the hogan door, then disappeared into the storm.

Once inside, the woman dropped the blanket from her shoulders. The deep lines of her wrinkled, leathery face seemed to lift and brighten. Never had she felt so loved. Briefly she saw the face of Elder Wilson saying, “Our Father knows what we need, but he waits for us to ask.” Sinking to her knees, she whispered a prayer of thanksgiving.

“Oh God! Praise God! I feel you near me, my Father! Jesus, my Brother, I know you now!” And she put her face in her hands and wept.

Presently the weeping ceased. The old woman dried her tears. Then she arose, went to the old overstuffed chair, and sat down to read the book with the blue cover.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann