Preview: "Walk in Beauty" by Jim Bihyeh
One of the original stories that will appear in For Mortal Things Unsung is "Walk in Beauty" by Jim Bihyeh. This is the first of the story previews, as chosen by the project backers. If you have not listened to any of the other Coyote Tales, you can catch some of them here:
These three stories are also included in the collection The Coyote Tales. This is one of the best audiobooks I've listened to in the past year, and it's well worth spending a spare Audible credit. It is a series of connected short stories, and any of them is a good place to dive in. "Walk in Beauty" follows immediately after the last story in the published collection.
It sounded like something her own grandfather might have said. Only he would have spoke it in Navajo. The earth teaches us. The plants teach us. And the old man had gone running in the morning nearly every day, until the stroke had dropped him nine years ago. He’d always told his grandkids to run. And Tomacita had done it, along with her four older sisters.
Some days Grandfather made them put water in their mouths and run up hills, so they could only breathe through their noses.
“It’s so you know how to find your breath, even when you’re hurt or distracted,” he said. “That way, when you face danger, you’ll make a good showing of yourself. That way, you won’t be a coward.”
For Tomacita and her sisters, it was torture. Until Grandfather patted them on the back, or touched their heads, or gave them candy. His silent way of saying he was proud of them.
When her father made them start going to the Christian church services, Grandfather stopped coming around. Grandfather and her dad had yelled at each other when her dad wouldn’t allow Grandfather to plan Tomacita’s kinaaldá – her womanhood ceremony – when, following a volleyball game in middle school, she’d bled from her privates for the first time. Years later, after she’d won Miss Indian Princess for the Eastern Reservation, Grandfather hadn’t come to any parts of the competition. Not the song and dance. Not the fire-building, not the frybread making. Not even the butchering, when Tomacita had slit her sheep’s throat, skinned its body, hung the carcass, and started moving the organs into the metal salad bowl long before most of the other girls had even broken the back legs. Grandfather and Grandmother had taught her to butcher. And they hadn’t even seen her win.
Tomacita readjusted her ponytail and brushed away the memory of the Miss Eastern Navajo crown and the sash and the college money. Yes, it was a good memory. But it was tied to so many other bad ones. And pulling it up made as much sense as hitching up a strong horse just so it could pull the body of a dead one. It didn’t come to anything. Never had.
She started walking, feeling the foamy pocket of fat bunching and pinching behind her knees and armpits and neck and other places where it hadn’t been on that day of the sheep butchering. She’d had three children since then, and she’d dealt with two husbands to get them. All that time, she’d kept her weight under control. But no more. She didn’t bother going to see Alta, one of her sisters who worked as a nurse at Red House Hospital down in the valley, to find out why.
She knew why. She was getting older. She was getting slower. And she was eating more – especially since she’d almost lost her job as a math teacher at Wide Reeds Middle School last year. The principal had said they were facing budget cuts and they were now teaching fewer students. They had already cut two of the math teachers. Tomacita was the most senior teacher in that department, though, so her job had been saved. And people in the building really liked her. She was the first to volunteer for charity events, the first to hang flyers for the Navajo taco sales for the volleyball team, and she always stayed after school to help the students who struggled to find x or to graph y with the correct slope.
As she walked the corner of the track, she noticed a small pale ring at her feet. She stopped and bent to pick it up. It was a bracelet. White shell beads circled on a piece of tough, brown string. It looked like something out of a museum. But it was beautiful. Ayoo’ nazhoonii. And it would definitely sit beautiful on Rosa’s wrist. Her granddaughter was already nearly a year old and her mother hadn’t even bought her a bracelet yet. She said she didn’t have the money. Well, this bracelet on the track would do just fine and for free. As she tucked the bracelet into the small pocket of her sweatpants, she already imagined how good it would feel to say “Grandma found this bracelet for you, when she was out running this morning.”
The white beads shimmered in the gray light of the dawn. Just perfect.
A dart of movement from the edge of the track caught her eye. She could already tell what it was by the long, gray body, the loping, red-brown legs, the pointy ears. The coyote darted in behind a tall saltbrush and then ran up the hill toward the highway.