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DavidTurning off the snow-covered two lane blacktop in Northern Arizona, I begin the familiar climb to the top of the mesa...to the Hopi village of Shipaulavi. The last part of the climb is so steep that without proper momentum, I have often had to back halfway down and start again. But, this time I am lucky, and am able to make it over the top, despite the ice that has my old Chevrolet stepvan slipping at the last turn.
One thousand feet above the highway, a large flat rock, maybe five hundred feet wide, supports perhaps thirty sandstone coloured dwellings, built out of rock and adobe mud. The houses appear to rise directly out of the rock ground and seem as old and timeless as the rock itself. Most of the houses have only two rooms; often with four or five generations of a Hopi family living in peaceful coexistence, fulfilling the sacred ceremony of living their lives: birth, waking, eating, sleeping, praying, and finally death, in the same six hundred square feet of space.
David lives in the middle of this mesa now, as he has for almost 100 years. I pull my old van behind the kitchen and get out; observing smoke coming from the chimney, I know someone is either home or nearby. Stretching after the three-hour ride from Zuni-land, I inhale deeply and smell cedar essence permeating the air. I look out at the desert below me, stretching a hundred miles to the south, to the San Francisco Peaks, sacred winter home of the masked katsina spirits.
Turning around, I see David's burro over by the outhouse, corralled by a few piles of rocks and cedar posts; and just beyond, the sheer rock mesas dropping off a thousand feet to meet the dry sandy earth that contain the peach orchards and corn and melon fields, so carefully cultivated and prayed over each year. From where I stand, I have the feeling of looking out over a sea, where the waves of brown earth meet the blue, cloudless sky. To my right, a tiny footpath winds up to the ancient village of Mishongovi. To my left, directly up above, stands the upper mesa top of its sister village of Shipaulavi.
I don't have to knock, because Iola, David's adopted daughter, has already opened the door and waved me inside. I am engulfed by the warmth, and the pungent smell of roasting chili! Amidst a flurry of welcomes, embraces and handshakes, I find myself sitting at the kitchen table, peeling a fresh roasted green chili. Feeling momentarily overcome by the outpouring of love in my direction, I thank the powers that be for having brought me once again to the home of my spiritual grandfather and his family.
From my seat at the kitchen table, I am already too warm from the heat radiating off the wood burning stove behind me. I look around, knowing everything will be in the same place as always. While everyone is talking, I observe David and his brother in law, Grant, in the other room. They are sitting, as always, in front of the stove, in garden chairs, in a meditative semi-sleeping state. At almost one hundred years of age, David spends much of his time in this state. To my left is the door through which I had just entered. I see the two galvanized twenty-five gallon cans containing the water supply for the house. There is also a small slop bucket to save leftovers for the burro outside.
Across the table in front of me is the room's only window. Beneath it and on either side are boxes of dried piki bread, saved from Nieman Kachina dance last July. Also, there are squashes and melons, brought up from the fields below, for winter sustenance. Hanging from the ceiling beams, or vigas, are many strings of red chili. There is also sweet corn, dried last summer in outdoor ovens; waiting only to be dropped into buckets of boiling water and reconstituted and eaten all winter, tasting as though they were freshly picked.
I see David's trunk, covered with an old Navajo rug. This box contains every possession he considers sacred in life: the kit and paraphernalia of an initiated Hopi. I again watch David, now sleeping deeply, sitting in his webbed lawn chair, by the small pot-bellied stove, and remember the first time he opened the trunk in my presence, and the extraordinary feeling of excitement and privilege. As though it were yesterday, my mind watches as he begins pulling out shells, bells, feathers, skins, rattles, sashes, kilts, dance moccasins, and turtle shells. He then brings out a small box, wrapped in leather, and carefully opens it. Inside is a pottery pipe, with a deep bowl. It is wrapped with leather and has a long wooden stem. David tells me that this is the pipe he was initiated with. Pushing it into my hands, he tells me to have it.
Although the fire in the small stove is roaring, and it's probably 95 degrees inside this tiny mesa-top house, David is bundled up in a thick flannel shirt and red checkered woolen cap with a pom pom on top. His ninety-seven year old body is frail, skin as thin as parchment paper: bones, air, water...I know it is the strength of spirit not quite ready to leave that keeps him with us. Two years before, David had suffered a stroke; the doctors said he was finished, that he would never walk again. However, the next spring, David was on his burro, tending his orchards and fields every day.
David is still a sleep, mumbling a chant, barely audible, from some long ago katsina dance on top of Shipaulavi, when he was father to the dancers and head of the bear clan. I think of the knowledge of life this man has accumulated and how much he has taught me. A bit of saliva drips from the corner of his mouth as his chant continues. I know that he is very far away.
David tries to open his eyes, struggling to return to the present from some far away place a long time ago. I know that one day soon he will sleep like this and continue on his journey. I am already sad somewhere inside myself, knowing that my time with this 'man of knowledge' is moving irrevocably into the past. I have grown to love this calm and gentle man, whose entire life,soul and existence has been devoted to peace.
His eyes are open now; but, not at all focused. He immediately begins a new chant, still drifting through time and space. Although there is fresh snow on the ground outside, and the wind is howling across the mesa, I can feel the hot July sun beating down onto the hard packed clay in the central plaza of Shipaulavi...Deep inside myself, I can hear the dancers chant; their ornamental bells ringing, their turtle shells clacking, their gourds rattling. I see David, stripped to the waist, a soft eagle plume dangling from the top of his head, clay and natural pigment painted on his face. He is walking from dancer to dancer, sprinkling sacred cornmeal on his boys.
David suddenly looks up and sees me and his eyes are bright, full of light in the here and now; a smile crosses his wrinkled old face and once again we are together.
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