Prologue: A Navajo Legend
Once there was a boy of the Bitterwater Clan of the Din’e, the Navajo People. He lived with his ma’sani, his grandmother in the Four Corners in the Navajo Nation on the reservation. Life was harsh on the reservation and food was sometimes scarce. The grandmother was worried for her grandson.
“Go,” she told the boy. “I will send you to the white man’s boarding school so that you may learn and grow and be strong. But you must promise to never forget the ways of the People.”
The boy promised and his grandmother sent him away. He spent most of his time in school, and less and less time in the Four Corners. He received scholarships to go to the white man’s college and every year he saw his grandmother less. He missed his grandmother, but the dust of the reservation stuck in his throat and the taste of mutton stew was sour on his tongue. The air outside the Four Corners seemed sweeter somehow. The boy soon became a man and began to forget the ways of the Din’e.
Then one day, when the man had finished school and was working and living far away from the Four Corners, he received a call. ‘Come back,’ he was told. ‘Your grandmother is dying.’
The man rushed back to his grandmother’s hogan to find her lying with her head to the North–the direction of death.
“Grandmother,” he said. “I’m so sorry, I never should have left you.” But he spoke in English, not in Navajo and she couldn’t understand him.
“Ya’at’eeh,” she told him, taking his hand. “Welcome. In all the time you were gone I thought of you every night and every day,” she said. “I prayed for the day when I would see you again with a good Din’e womanas your wife and children of your own to warm my old heart. But you come back to the Four Corners more empty than when you left. Where is your wife? Where are your children?”
The man tried to explain that he had filled his days learning the white man’s law and was too busy to find a wife or have children, but again, he spoke English and his ma’sani couldn’t understand.
“Speak the language I taught you,” she told him. “Let me hear the words of the Din’e come from your mouth before I die so that my spirit can be released with joy.”
The man opened his mouth but found to his shame that he had forgotten every word of Navajo. He could understand his grandmother, but when he tried to say it back to her, his tongue was like lead in his mouth and the words were ashes and dust on his lips. They blew away before he could catch them.
“Speak to me!” the old woman cried angrily. “All I ask is a few words in my native tongue before I die.”
But the man could not. He shook his head, frowning.
“Da’iisolts’aa–Listen,” his grandmother said, taking his young, strong hand in her old, crippled one. “You didn’t visit me very often … this I can forgive. But you broke the promise you made when I sent you away. You have forgotten the ways of the Din’e and that cannot be forgiven.”
“Grandmother,” he tried to say, but she hushed him again.
“This is the curse I leave on you, my grandson. This is my death curse so listen carefully. For the next three months you will live the life of a leechaa’, a dog. You will wander the streets like a chindi, an evil spirit that nobody wants.
“For three nights during these three months when the full moon is in the sky you will have the power to be a man again. During this time you must find a woman of the Din’e who will believe in you. She must have courage and love in her heart, enough love to embrace you and the ways of the People which you have forgotten
“When you find this woman, you will find the true man in your heart and the outward appearance will reflect the inward once again. This way, when I look down from the Spirit World I will be able to see the great-grandchildren that you did not give me in life.
“If you do not find a woman to believe in you in the next three months, then you must wander the world as a dog forever, never finding a place to call home.”
And with that, she died.
“Come on, Angelina we talked about this already. You don’t feel safe in that big house all alone at night and this is the perfect solution.” My best friend, Barbara, was in lecture mode–I could always tell when she used my full name.
“Barb’s right, Jelly.” My other best friend, Patricia, snapped her gum (she was trying to quit smoking) and shoved a hand through her mane of black hair, making the many gold bangles she was wearing jingle. “Besides, this guy looks friendly and you could use a little male companionship lately. Other than your dream lovah that is.”
Barb rolled her big brown eyes and pulled a pen out from behind her ear, being careful not to mess up her sensibly short rust-colored hair. “I think someone has seen Last of the Mohicans one two many times,” she muttered, fishing in her purse for a notepad. “Let’s make a list. C’mon, Jelly, pros and cons.”
“Hey, I was drunk when I told you guys about that dream,” I protested, feeling my cheeks start to burn. With my fair hair and pale skin you can always tell in a minute when I’m embarrassed. “No fair using ammunition from margarita night. You know I can’t hold my liquor.”
“Whatever.” Patty grinned and popped her gum again. And I had thought second hand smoke was annoying. I reminded myself to buy her some mints to suck on instead.
“Pros and cons,” Barbara reminded us. She was a CPA and terribly practical. Making a list was her solution to almost any dilemma. The weird thing was that it usually helped. “I’ll start,” she said. “Protection.” She scratched away at the notepad.
“Male companionship,” Patty said promptly, raising her voice to be heard above the increased noise around us. She grinned at me and wiggled her eyebrows.
I sighed and looked at them. We’d been tight since high school when we had gone by the nick-name of PB&J, and I knew my friends were right. The only problem was that the ‘male’ companion we were currently looking at had four paws and a tail. And he was behind bars–we were at the local animal shelter trying to pick a pet to keep me company now that my divorce was final.
“I don’t know,” I said, raising my voice to be heard above the suddenly increased barking. We were in the outdoor part of the shelter, which was divided into long rows of chain-link separated runs. The dog runs had roofs on them to keep the animals inside safe from heat stroke but the walk-way between them was open to the sky. The four o’clock sun was beating on my head like a golden hammer, making it hard to think. People can talk about the climate in Arizona being a ‘dry’ heat all they want. When it gets to 120 degrees in the shade, you’re going to sweat whether there’s humidity or not. This August was turning out to be a real scorcher and I felt like I was about to melt.
“What’s not to know? He seems like a great guy, aren’t you fella?” Patty leaned over and wiggled her fingers through the chain link of the fence in a way that made me nervous. The dog inside the run looked as big as a small pony and he could have taken off her whole hand with a single bite. His fur was as coal-black and his big, bushy tail was beating a frantic rhythm against the rattling fence, adding to the general cacophony of the place.
“I’ve just … never been much of a dog person,” I said weakly, watching as the huge black dog licked Patty’s hand with doggy enthusiasm. But I knew I was just stalling. Ever since my ex-husband, Douglas, had moved out six months ago after informing me that he was seeing someone else, the big Victorian house my Grandmother had left me had been terribly lonely. I kept hearing bumps in the night and suspicious sounds that were keeping her up. It didn’t help that the house was situated on the western outskirts of Phoenix at the base of the White Tank Mountains. It was one of the last places in the city that had yet to be developed fully and I couldn’t even see my nearest neighbor, just desert plants and the occasional coyote.
I was tired of lying in an empty bed at night, worried about the strange creaking of the old house around me and wishing for a man to keep me warm at night. Of course, since it had turned out that the person Douglas was seeing was his personal trainer, Justin, I supposed I wasn’t the only one in my now-defunct marriage that wanted a warm man in bed. I guess my ex-husband took the whole ‘buns of steel’ thing a little too literally.
Getting a dog wasn’t a perfect solution, but at least I wouldn’t have to be so afraid at night anymore. I had never lived on my own before the divorce and being the only living soul in the big old house was making me jumpy. So jumpy that I was having weird dreams, which I now regretted telling to my two best friends.
“I mean, what breed is he anyway? He looks like a cross between a pony and a wolf,” I said, fiddling nervously with the tight bun of hair rolled at the back of my sweating neck.
“He’s a mutt–a mixed breed,” said a new voice behind us. The three of us swung around at the same time to see a no-nonsense woman with mannishly short brown hair wearing khakis and a navy-blue polo shirt with logo of the shelter stitched on the pocket. She was carrying a clipboard with both hands but she transferred it to one and held the other out to me. “You’re the prospective adopter?”
I shook her hand, wondering how she could tell. “Well, yes,” I said hesitantly. “I’m thinking about it anyway.”
“Any kids or older people living with you?” she asked, consulting the clipboard.
“Well, no. Ever since my div–I live by myself,” I concluded.
The woman smiled. “Well then, Shadow here might just be the dog for you.”
“Shadow?” I raised my eyebrows at the unimaginative name. “Why not just name him ‘Midnight’ or ‘Charcoal’ or something like that?”
“You’re free to change it, of course,” she said. (Not getting at all what I was saying.) “I asked about the possibility of children or elderly people in your household because Shadow is on his second strike. He was picked up about two months ago and the first family that took him had young children. They brought him back the next day because he growled when their toddler pulled his tail and it scared them.”
“Did he threaten the child?” Barb had her pen poised over the ‘cons’ column on her notepad.
“No, just growled.” The shelter worker shrugged. “Some dogs are more tolerant of kids than others. Especially poorly disciplined kids.” She raised one eyebrow significantly.
“You said second strike. Was there another family?” Barbara asked. Patricia, popping her gum, had wandered off to play with a puffy Pomeranian down the row.
“There was, an elderly couple,” the woman admitted, glancing at the clipboard again.
“Did he growl at them too?” I asked nervously, eyeing the black pony-wolf behind the fence. He whined and tucked his tail between his legs, giving me an imploring look from big brown eyes.
“No, he was just too much dog for them. He’s not a puppy anymore–we think he’s four or five, actually–but it’s still hard for an elderly person to control such a big animal. You have to have some strength and the energy to keep up with them. Shadow here loves to run and play, I recommend you take him to the park several times a week. Do you have a big back yard?”
“It’s fairly large.” I rubbed at the back of my neck again. She was talking like the matter was already decided.
“Perfect.” She made a mark on the clipboard.
“Wait a minute, you’re telling us this dog has been returned twice but you want my friend to take it?” You couldn’t put anything over on Barbara. She was the kind of friend you took along when you went to buy a car and didn’t want the dealer to screw you.
“Shadow’s a good dog–what we call a one person dog. When he finds the person who’s right for him, it’ll be a perfect match. You can’t find a more loyal friend and protector than a dog who’s completely devoted to you.”
“Wow, too bad you can’t get a man like that.” Patty had wandered back over, apparently tired of the Pomeranian.
“Well you can’t,” I snapped, a bit too harshly. Then I sighed. “I’m sorry, it’s just been a long day and I’m tired. Maybe we should come back some other time.” The strong smell of dog and other odors that pervaded the place was beginning to give me a headache. My sensible heels crunched as I shifted my feet in the loose gravel outside the runs.
“Do you really want to spend another long weekend alone in that creepy old house?” Barbara countered at once, looking up from her notebook.
“All by yourself with your ‘dream Indian’?” Patty added. She said it under her breath but I elbowed her anyway.
“You can, of course, elect to come back on Monday since we’re closed this weekend, but I’m afraid Shadow will be gone by then.” The shelter woman crossed her arms across a very flat chest.
“What? Somebody else wants him?” Patty went back to wiggling her fingers through the chain-link of his run.
“No. He’s scheduled to be euthanized–put to sleep. We get so many animals we can only keep them for a month or so and then if they don’t get adopted, well…” She shrugged, spreading her hands. Behind her Shadow flattened his ears and whined, a high, sad sound that was almost human.
“Gee, no pressure,” Patty muttered. “Jelly, would you stop?” she protested when I elbowed her again.
“Can we … could I take him out and pet him?” I asked, almost against my will. The dog was looking at me with those big brown eyes and his tail was wagging in small, hopeful arcs. If he was a person, I would have sworn he was begging me to take him.
“No problem.” The shelter worker produced a set of keys that jingled musically against the fence as she unlocked the dog’s run. She bent down to the dog’s level and called to him. “Come on, Shadow. Come on, boy,” she encouraged in a much softer voice than she had used with us. “Come meet this nice lady.”
The dog came out at once completely ignoring the shelter worker’s soft voice and Patty’s attempt to lure him closer by patting her knees. Padding over the gravel he came straight to me, lay down at my feet and rested his huge head on my right foot. Then he stared up at me soulfully, and whined softly in the back of his throat.
“Aw, look at that.” Even Barbara was completely taken by the dog’s performance.
“What a sweetie,” Patty cooed, reaching down to ruffle his fur. Her touch had no effect; the dog ignored her completely. But the minute I reached down to stroke the big, shaggy head he was on his feet and rubbing against me eagerly. A big warm, taffy-pink tongue came out and swiped my hand enthusiastically.
“Eew.” I wiped my palm reflexively against the side of my skirt and then wished I hadn’t. Like my dry cleaning bill wasn’t big enough already. The dog nuzzled me apologetically and I patted him again. This time there was no licking. I rubbed behind his ears and those big eyes closed in apparent ecstasy as he enjoyed the attention. His long tail thumped against the gravel.
“He’s really taken with you,” the shelter worker said. The dog whined as if in agreement.
“Are you a good boy?” I asked him softly. “What a good boy, Shadow.”
“Look, we don’t usually do this, but why don’t you take him on a trial basis?” The shelter worker straightened up and looked at her clipboard again. “I’ll get the paperwork ready. You take him tonight and keep him over the weekend. If it doesn’t work out you can bring him back Monday morning. If it does, keep him and mail us the paperwork or else just drop it off with a check for the adoption fee.”
“Oh no, the fee is taken care of,” Patty protested. “We’ll pay it right now, won’t we, Barb?”
“Not a problem.” Barbara was already whipping out her Visa.
“Guys, no,” I protested. “You don’t have to do this, really.”
“But we want to.” Barb was already bustling back into the shelter with the worker.
“Consider it a ‘happy divorce’ gift. He’s not the ‘man of your dreams’ but what are you gonna do?” Patty gave my arm a little squeeze.
I sighed and patted the dog again. “You’re never gonna let that dream drop, are you?”
She grinned and popped her gum. “Nope. Barb and I don’t like the idea of you being all alone in that spooky house with no protection. Not like Douglas was big in the home security department or anything, but at least he was another warm body.”
“If you trampled his roses he’d be pretty upset and protective,” I pointed out. Douglas had spent more time in the garden than in our bedroom the last year of our marriage, caring for his precious prize-wining roses. (In Arizona they can bloom all year round with proper care.)
I sometimes thought he’d put off announcing his intention to divorce me just so he could see the rare Lady Penzance Eglantine roses he’d bought and nurtured at great expense bloom. They were his pride and joy, and I knew it had just about killed him to leave them when he moved out.
“Beating up would-be garden vandals isn’t my idea of a real man.” Patty looked skeptical. “You’ve been alone in that house for six months. If you won’t move in with Barb or me, then this is the next best thing.”
“I know you didn’t grow up with dogs the way I did, but let me tell you, I think this is a good one. Aren’t you boy?” She ruffled the dog’s fur and got no reaction. “Hmph.” She crossed her arms over her chest, gold bangles jangling. “Looks like he’s only got eyes for you.”
The dog looked up at us and barked once, as if in agreement. I could have sworn his eyes were laughing.