The Blanket by Dwayne Martine

guest-edited by Jeffery Renard Allen

The Girl ambles along the chaotic trail worn into the sandy earth by the hundreds walking before her. Cold, cold, is all she thinks, as she pulls the frayed corners of the woven blanket tighter around her thin shoulders. She walks, not raising her head, instead letting herself be guided by the Old Woman several paces in front of her.

        They move through trampled greasewood brush, occasionally catching the clear path of an alkaline cracked streambed. Through cactus, chest high scrub and the threat of being left behind, they do not stop. Movement is life, the Old Woman thought, setting aside the ache in her joints and the breathlessness in her chest.

       The Old Woman had counted eighteen sunrises since they left Shashbito, Bear Springs, and the encampment of the Bilágaana, the pale invaders. The Old Woman knew if she fell behind, the Girl would not make it. She also knew if the Girl fell behind; there would be no reason for her to continue either. Neither of them could run, even if they believed they could get far. They are in the last line among the last group. The sick, elderly and the burdened. A line of ants—without family, neighbors and lost from other clan—no one had expected to have made it even this far.

       The Girl seemed out of place among them. She was tall, dark, with a fat wound of straight thick hair tied to the back of her head with white wool yarn. She was not obviously sick, certainly not old. Even with the thinning face and spindle legs, she seemed healthy under the blue and white folds of the woven blanket covering her slim form. Only the Old Woman knew why she walked with the sick and elderly. And only she worried for this Girl, who she had met only days before.

       She worried because she knew there was no one else who would. She worried for the Girl’s thin legs and slow pace, for the one bare foot, for the oncoming night. Most of all she worried about what the Girl hid under the broad folds of the striped blanket wrapped around her slender form. The Old Woman knew she might die but she did not intend for the same to happen to her companion.

       She reached into the doe hide bag she kept fixed to the sash tied around her waist. She raised three fingers worth of corn pollen and fed the girl. Corn pollen, snow, cactus, plant roots and the Old Woman’s ingenuity had kept them alive this long. 

       This young woman she called colloquially Shi’Atsói, My Grandchild, hadn’t spoken since they had left the invaders’ encampment between the red cliffs and the low green mountains of Shashbito. She didn’t know her name or where she was from. She did not ask about her family, not wanting to know the details of what she assumed were their deaths. It was inappropriate to speak of the dead. Or to even mention their names. She only knew the Girl, like herself, was alone. And this simple edict, along with what the Girl hid beneath her blanket, convinced the Old Woman to help her the best she could.

       The Old Woman believed if one child lived her people would continue and the pale invaders would not win. She also knew this was the reason why many of her people had left their vast mountain and desert homeland. If their children and grandchildren lived, there was hope. So they went, crept out from red rock box canyons and from under the hollows of craggy piñon roots. From caves and mesa tops, they came.

       The wealthiest families packed wagons and stacked blankets and provisions to the tops of horses and mules. Those who lost everything in fire and devastation carried what they had on their bodies and left the ruin wrought by the pale invaders behind. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of people readied to leave for what they were told was protected land, a place safe from the visions of burning orchards, slaughtered livestock and the mutilated bodies of the dead. 

       She herself had seen the last of her own family several months prior. Her two daughters had heard shots and screams two valleys over and after sending their fastest boy to scout, knew what they had to do. They had remembered the destruction wrought by the invaders before: the burned homes, the smoldering crops, the dead livestock. Her daughters had gathered up all their children and had taken them to the deep canyon. They hid along rock ledges. The invaders smoked them out with burning pitch and oil soaked tinder. The invaders shot at the red rock walls, in the grim hope a ricocheting bullet would hit their targets.

       The Old Woman, who had been tending her livestock, returned to watch from her perch along the east canyon’s rim her family’s besiegement. She had watched as her eldest daughter jumped to the sandy canyon floor, still holding the lifeless form of her grandson.

       The day had cut the cliff face into orange shadow and bright noon light. The blood had emptied from her. She turned. She had not watched the air catch in her daughter’s skirt or had heard the echoing sound their bodies made as they touched the earth. She did not know what happened to her other child and the rest of her grandchildren. She did not know why the pale invaders had come. She did not know why they needed to destroy her people so.

       She did not move. A night passed and the invaders had found her, lying prone in the orange sand. They had gathered her up off the ground and carried her on the back of a horse to their encampment. She did not fight. They had given her water and wrapped her in a grey blanket. It was there she had met the Girl and had decided to watch over her closely.

       The Girl stumbled on her bare foot and the blanket caught on a wintered scrub oak branch. The Old Woman clicked her tongue, hurried over and pulled the blanket free. She hoped no one had seen the Girl’s body:  the thinning arms, the chest four hand widths wide and the burgeoning belly. The Old Woman knew the round beautiful stomach was a liability. Any other time the Girl would have been cherished, cared for by female relatives and protected from disaster and exposure to death by her family. But now in the constant movement of this walk, the Old Woman knew what happened to those who fell behind.

       The three of them had been elderly, perhaps only several years older than herself, and the invaders rode back on their horses, leveled their rifles and shot them. If they ran, they would get shot; if they stopped, they would get shot; if they protested the killings, they would get shot.

       The Old Woman had also seen what could happen to the Girl if she did not keep up. They were in the last line of the last group. If they had been anywhere else in file, she would have missed seeing the mother and the cold baby lying beside her, the umbilical cord still attached. The knife marks formed a clean, perfect circle on top of the naked belly. The young Girl had not raised her head and seen the sight. The Old Woman had pulled her close and led her wide around the bodies.

       The Old Woman knew what would happen if they fell behind. So she hurried the Girl along and pulled the woven blanket tight around her slender figure. She knew she might die but she wished differently for the life the Girl carried within her. She clutched the Girl’s hands tightly around the fraying ends of the blue and white striped blanket, whispering to not let go.

       She fingered the tight even weft and was certain the Girl did not weave such a fine blanket. She was too young and her fingertips were smooth and callous free. It was the blue yarn that initially had caught her eye at the encampment. It was a strange color. It was not the blue of the brick dye traded for with the Naakai that was often used. And now looking closer, thumbing the yarn into threads, she could place it. It was the bright cornflower blue cloth from the invaders clothing.

       The Girl’s grandmother, mother or an older aunt had gingerly separated the found material into threads and, perhaps over the hours of a long warm summer, had carded and spun the threads into single strands of shining grayish-blue yarn.

       The blanket should not have been woven. The cloth had to have been taken from the blue uniforms the invaders wore. It was tainted with the dead. It was alien and dangerous and would guarantee disaster for both the blanket’s weaver and wearer. Perhaps the weaver had few sheep and only the blue material with which to work. Or maybe the weaver thought her songs and prayers were enough to guard against evil.

       The even blue fibers and straight white lines of undyed wool carried in their pattern the songs the woman sang as she wove:  songs of health, songs of tall children, songs of good crops, songs of protection. And now it shielded the Girl. So maybe it was a good blanket after all, the Old Woman decided. She prayed the Girl would be hidden to the invaders in its many folds.

       They were at the end of the last group. They had fallen behind climbing the many hills. On top of the last of the large hills, the Old Woman smelled the burning cedar fires. Then over the ridge, she saw a long wide swath of barren trees and a layer of blue smoke over a valley and knew they were at the far eastern river valley.

       There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of her people all walking down to the river from the top of the hill or already across and walking further. She heard the far off ringing of bells. The mud and straw villages further north, along the great river, rung the bells of their villages to announce the coming of her people and their river crossing.

       The Old Woman had stopped to watch the spectacle, as the Girl moved ahead of her. There was only the sound of the bells, as the Old Woman watched the Girl’s one naked foot catch on a rock. They were at the end of the last group surrounded by horsemen. She seemed to fall slowly as the blanket alighted off of her. There was no sound except the ringing of the bells. A small group started to gather around the fallen young woman. She wanted to run at them and tell them not to gather. No one except her saw the flat pale face turn to them from astride the dark horse.

       The thin line of a mouth did not move in the angular jaw. The eyes were shadowed under the brim of the blue cap as he rode to them. Though she did not see the eyes, she knew he watched the bright blue blanket’s movement and knew his purpose. They were at the end of the last group, the Old Woman thought. And if she thought anything else it was: Ndaaga, no.

       Though her feet were bruised and torn and her deer leggings and yucca soles had long ago given out their cover, the Old Woman ran. She had not run like that since she had been the Girl’s age. She quickly snatched the blanket from the Girl lying in the dirt and with both fists, wrapped the blanket around herself. She turned and started to run back to the ridge.

       She ran, not hearing the hoof beats behind her and the horseman bellowing. She ran, not seeing the young woman be raised to her feet and quickly covered in the now gathered crowd. She ran, not hearing the howling protest of the Girl who had not spoken for nineteen days. She ran, not seeing the pale horseman level his rifle at her and fire. She only stopped when the body that had taken her this far gave out under the weight of the bright, bright blue fabric.


Contributor Notes

Dwayne Martine is a Jicarilla Apache/Navajo writer living in Tucson, Arizona. He is the Naashashi Clan born for the To'dikozhi clan. He works as a professional editor and writer.