May 17, 2022

Over the River

Through the open window the green trees moved fast, the burnt red rock slow, and the blue sky above, without clouds, seemed not to move at all.

We’d lost cell service at the entrance of the canyon and with it, our music, too. It’d been half an album since Bert rolled the windows down, and this he did without asking. Hell, it was his right. His car. And, boy, was I glad. To remove the barrier between interior and exterior was to fill the void without either of us having to say a single word. For no longer were we observers passing by nature, now we were just as much in it, participants flowing through it. The difference, my friends, is great.

With the seal to our fart-laden echo chamber broken, I felt a cool blast of morning air from the bottom pocket of the canyon, insulated overnight beneath a black blanket of infinity. The same wind that whipped through Bert’s Jeep also roused the green trees outside, awakening stiff branches, shaking loose leaves. It is I, Mr. Coconino, these trees seemed to be saying. Welcome to our forest.

I heard the cracking of sunflower seeds, followed by sputters of spit. Bert’s breakfast. But I was not hungry. I stuck my head out the window and imagined I was one of the gutless carcasses Bert was launching out the open window, happy to be heading back into the world whence I came.

The wind blew the dirt from my hair. My face felt refreshed. Indeed, we were in a beautiful morning, and so I chose to break our holy silence. “This reminds me of Thanksgiving,” were the first words I said.

“Why?" Bert asked, his cheeks about to burst.

“I don’t know,” I replied. But really, I did. It started with a brown paper bag and ended with a song.

“Cut a hole in each side,” began the instructions of my kindergarten teacher, Miss Tammy, “big enough to fit your arms through.”

My grandparents had arrived in town later that afternoon. It was Dad who picked them up from the airport; he met them directly at their arrival gate and then carried their bags to the car. This was before 9/11. At the same time, Mom picked me up from school. When she saw my paper bag shirt, she told me to wear it in the car—just in case they beat us home.

But my grandparents boarded an early flight that morning. There was no time for eggs before takeoff, and so they came to California with empty stomachs. We could never have known Dad was going to drive them through for hamburgers. Neither of my parents had cell phones back then.

I was half-soggy by the time they showed up. “You look like a sack lunch,” my grandpa said as he dropped his suitcase on the mat near the door. I rushed to give him a hug but my arms would not bend. Mom explained to Grandma that the costume, the brown paper bag, was a school project for Thanksgiving. All the kids were sent home like this, she said. “You should have seen them. Half dressed as Indians, half pilgrims.”

“Did the pilgrims also wear paper bags?” my grandpa asked aloud.

I told him no. They wore paper hats. He patted me on the head and said I chose correct. His grandmother—my great-great—was full Navajo, he said. This was family news to me, but it did explain why their house was in the desert and covered almost exclusively in turquoise.

Of course, this is just a memory. One that took place almost thirty years ago, back when people still said Indian. Yet it brings us to the song. The one we whistled to while making our brown paper clothes—Miss Tammy White and her seventeen dwarves.

Bert slowed the car. He said we were getting close. The river butted up against my side of the car and I could see the water moving fast, swollen from the late winter’s melt.

But the water was flowing backwards. And the song was still in my head. It didn’t matter that it was the beginning of May or that it was already eighty-degrees; or that we were hungover in Arizona with a trunk load of empty cans and fishing lures, hoping to catch us some beautiful Browns and, with a cast of luck, the native Gila.

“We’re here,” Bert said.

“Where?”

Over the river and through the wood.

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Brando Conklin © 2022