Contemporary World Literature
Leslie Marmon Silko is described as an “unabashed re-shaper” of tradition. One might say that in her story, “Yellow Woman,” Silko has modernized the Yellow Woman narrative that was part of her ancestral lore. Pick one example of modernization and explain its significance to the story and submit your essay, including quotes from the reading.
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My thigh clung to his with dampness, and I watched the sun rising up through the tamaracks and willows. The small brown water birds came to the river and hopped across the mud, leaving brown scratches in the alkali-white crust. They bathed in the river silently. I could hear the water, almost at our feet where the narrow fast channel bubbled and washed green ragged moss and fern leaves. I looked at him beside me, rolled in the red blanket on the white river sand. I cleaned the sand out of the cracks between my toes, squinting because the sun was above the willow trees. I looked at him for the last time, sleeping on the white river sand.
I felt hungry and followed the river south the way we had come the afternoon before, following our footprints that were already blurred by lizard tracks and bug trails. The horses were still lying down, and the black one whinnied when he saw me but he did not get up—maybe it was because the corral was made out of thick cedar branches and the horses had not yet felt the sun like I had. I tried to look beyond the pale red mesas to the pueblo. I knew it was there, even if I could not see it, on the sandrock hill above the river, the same river that moved past me now and had reflected the moon last night.
The horse felt warm underneath me. He shook his head and pawed the sand. The bay whinnied and leaned against the gate trying to follow, and I remembered him asleep in the red blanket beside the river. I slid off the horse and p. 1031p. 2543p. 1685tied him close to the other horse, I walked north with the river again, and the white sand broke loose in footprints over footprints.
He moved in the blanket and turned his face to me with his eyes still closed. I knelt down to touch him.
He smiled now, eyes still closed. “You are coming with me, remember?” He sat up now with his bare dark chest and belly in the sun.
“To my place.”
“And will I come back?”
He pulled his pants on. I walked away from him, feeling him behind me and smelling the willows.
“Yellow Woman,” he said.
I turned to face him. “Who are you?” I asked.
He laughed and knelt on the low, sandy bank, washing his face in the river. “Last night you guessed my name, and you knew why I had come.”
I stared past him at the shallow moving water and tried to remember the night, but I could only see the moon in the water and remember his warmth around me.
“But I only said that you were him and that I was Yellow Woman—I’m not really her—I have my own name and I come from the pueblo on the other side of the mesa. Your name is Silva and you are a stranger I met by the river yesterday afternoon.”
He laughed softly. “What happened yesterday has nothing to do with what you will do today, Yellow Woman.”
“I know—that’s what I’m saying—the old stories about the ka’tsina spirit and Yellow Woman can’t mean us.”
My old grandpa liked to tell those stories best. There is one about Badger and Coyote who went hunting and were gone all day, and when the sun was going down they found a house. There was a girl living there alone, and she had light hair and eyes and she told them that they could sleep with her. Coyote wanted to be with her all night so he sent Badger into a prairie-dog hole, telling him he thought he saw something in it. As soon as Badger crawled in, Coyote blocked up the entrance with rocks and hurried back to Yellow Woman.
“Come here,” he said gently.
He touched my neck and I moved close to him to feel his breathing and to hear his heart. I was wondering if Yellow Woman had known who she was—if she knew that she would become part of the stories. Maybe she’d had another name that her husband and relatives called her so that only the ka’tsina from the north and the storytellers would know her as Yellow Woman. But I didn’t go on; I felt him all around me, pushing me down into the white river sand.
Yellow Woman went away with the spirit from the north and lived with him and his relatives. She was gone for a long time, but then one day she came back and she brought twin boys.
“Do you know the story?”
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“What story?” He smiled and pulled me close to him as he said this. I was afraid lying there on the red blanket. All I could know was the way he felt, warm, damp, his body beside me. This is the way it happens in the stories, I was thinking, with no thought beyond the moment she meets the ka’tsina spirit and they go.
“I don’t have to go. What they tell in stories was real only then, back in time immemorial, like they say.”
He stood up and pointed at my clothes tangled in the blanket. “Let’s go,” he said.
I walked beside him, breathing hard because he walked fast, his hand around my wrist. I had stopped trying to pull away from him, because his hand felt cool and the sun was high, drying the river bed into alkali. I will see someone, eventually I will see someone, and then I will be certain that he is only a man—some man from nearby—and I will be sure that I am not Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I’ve been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw.
It was an easy ride north on horseback. I watched the change from the cottonwood trees along the river to the junipers that brushed past us in the foothills, and finally there were only piñons, and when I looked up at the rim of the mountain plateau I could see pine trees growing on the edge. Once I stopped to look down, but the pale sandstone had disappeared and the river was gone and the dark lava hills were all around. He touched my hand, not speaking, but always singing softly a mountain song and looking into my eyes.
I felt hungry and wondered what they were doing at home now—my mother, my grandmother, my husband, and the baby. Cooking breakfast, saying, “Where did she go?—maybe kidnapped.” And Al going to the tribal police with the details: “She went walking along the river.”
The house was made with black lava rock and red mud. It was high above the spreading miles of arroyos and long mesas. I smelled a mountain smell of pitch and buck brush. I stood there beside the black horse, looking down on the small, dim country we had passed, and I shivered.
“Yellow Woman, come inside where it’s warm.”
He lit a fire in the stove. It was an old stove with a round belly and an enamel coffeepot on top. There was only the stove, some faded Navajo blankets, and a bedroll and cardboard box. The floor was made of smooth adobe plaster, and there was one small window facing east. He pointed at the box.
“There’s some potatoes and the frying pan.” He sat on the floor with his arms around his knees pulling them close to his chest and he watched me fry the potatoes. I didn’t mind him watching me because he was always watching me—he had been watching me since I came upon him sitting on the river bank trimming leaves from a willow twig with his knife. We ate from the pan and he wiped the grease from his fingers on his Levi’s.
“Have you brought women here before?” He smiled and kept chewing, so I said, “Do you always use the same tricks?”
“What tricks?” He looked at me like he didn’t understand.
“The story about being a ka’tsina from the mountains. The story about Yellow Woman.”
Silva was silent; his face was calm.
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“I don’t believe it. Those stories couldn’t happen now,” I said.
He shook his head and said softly, “But someday they will talk about us, and they will say, ‘Those two lived long ago when things like that happened.’ ”
He stood up and went out. I ate the rest of the potatoes and thought about things—about the noise the stove was making and the sound of the mountain wind outside. I remembered yesterday and the day before, and then I went outside.
I walked past the corral to the edge where the narrow trail cut through the black rim rock. I was standing in the sky with nothing around me but the wind that came down from the blue mountain peak behind me. I could see faint mountain images in the distance miles across the vast spread of mesas and valleys and plains. I wondered who was over there to feel the mountain wind on those sheer blue edges—who walks on the pine needles in those blue mountains.
“Can you see the pueblo?” Silva was standing behind me.
I shook my head. “We’re too far away.”
“From here I can see the world.” He stepped out on the edge. “The Navajo reservation begins over there.” He pointed to the east. “The Pueblo boundaries are over here.” He looked below us to the south, where the narrow trail seemed to come from. “The Texans have their ranches over there, starting with that valley, the Concho Valley. The Mexicans run some cattle over there too.”
“Do you ever work for them?”
“I steal from them,” Silva answered. The sun was dropping behind us and the shadows were filling the land below. I turned away from the edge that dropped forever into the valleys below.
“I’m cold,” I said, “I’m going inside.” I started wondering about this man who could speak the Pueblo language so well but who lived on a mountain and rustled cattle. I decided that this man Silva must be Navajo, because Pueblo men didn’t do things like that.
“You must be a Navajo.”
Silva shook his head gently. “Little Yellow Woman,” he said, “you never give up, do you? I have told you who I am. The Navajo people know me, too.” He knelt down and unrolled the bedroll and spread the extra blankets out on a piece of canvas. The sun was down, and the only light in the house came from outside—the dim orange light from sundown.
I stood there and waited for him to crawl under the blankets.
“What are you waiting for?” he said, and I lay down beside him. He undressed me slowly like the night before beside the river—kissing my face gently and running his hands up and down my belly and legs. He took off my pants and then he laughed.
“Why are you laughing?”
“You are breathing so hard.”
I pulled away from him and turned my back to him.
He pulled me around and pinned me down with his arms and chest. “You don’t understand, do you, little Yellow Woman? You will do what I want.”
And again he was all around me with his skin slippery against mine, and I was afraid because I understood that his strength could hurt me. I lay underneath him and I knew that he could destroy me. But later, while he slept beside me, I touched his face and I had a feeling—the kind of feeling for him that p. 1034p. 2546p. 1688overcame me that morning along the river. I kissed him on the forehead and he reached out for me.
When I woke up in the morning he was gone. It gave me a strange feeling because for a long time I sat there on the blankets and looked around the little house for some object of his—some proof that he had been there or maybe that he was coming back. Only the blankets and the cardboard box remained. The .30-30 that had been leaning in the corner was gone, and so was the knife I had used the night before. He was gone, and I had my chance to go now. But first I had to eat, because I knew it would be a long walk home.
I found some dried apricots in the cardboard box, and I sat down on a rock at the edge of the plateau rim. There was no wind and the sun warmed me. I was surrounded by silence. I drowsed with apricots in my mouth, and I didn’t believe that there were highways or railroads or cattle to steal.
When I woke up, I stared down at my feet in the black mountain dirt. Little black ants were swarming over the pine needles around my foot. They must have smelled the apricots. I thought about my family far below me. They would be wondering about me, because this had never happened to me before. The tribal police would file a report. But if old Grandpa weren’t dead he would tell them what happened—he would laugh and say, “Stolen by a ka’tsina, a mountain spirit. She’ll come home—they usually do.” There are enough of them to handle things. My mother and grandmother will raise the baby like they raised me. Al will find someone else, and they will go on like before, except that there will be a story about the day I disappeared while I was walking along the river. Silva had come for me; he said he had. I did not decide to go. I just went. Moonflowers blossom in the sand hills before dawn, just as I followed him. That’s what I was thinking as I wandered along the trail through the pine trees.
It was noon when I got back. When I saw the stone house I remembered that I had meant to go home. But that didn’t seem important any more, maybe because there were little blue flowers growing in the meadow behind the stone house and the gray squirrels were playing in the pines next to the house. The horses were standing in the corral, and there was a beef carcass hanging on the shady side of a big pine in front of the house. Flies buzzed around the clotted blood that hung from the carcass. Silva was washing his hands in a bucket full of water. He must have heard me coming because he spoke to me without turning to face me.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
“I went walking in the big pine trees.”
I looked into the bucket full of bloody water with brown-and-white animal hairs floating in it. Silva stood there letting his hand drip, examining me intently.
“Are you coming with me?”
“Where?” I asked him.
“To sell the meat in Marquez.”
“If you’re sure it’s O.K.”
“I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t,” he answered.
He sloshed the water around in the bucket before he dumped it out and set the bucket upside down near the door. I followed him to the corral and watched him saddle the horses. Even beside the horses he looked tall, and I p. 1035p. 2547p. 1689asked him again if he wasn’t Navajo. He didn’t say anything; he just shook his head and kept cinching up the saddle.
“But Navajos are tall.”
“Get on the horse,” he said, “and let’s go.”
The last thing he did before we started down the steep trail was to grab the .30-30 from the corner. He slid the rifle into the scabbard that hung from his saddle.
“Do they ever try to catch you?” I asked.
“They don’t know who I am.”
“Then why did you bring the rifle?”
“Because we are going to Marquez where the Mexicans live.”
The trail leveled out on a narrow ridge that was steep on both sides like an animal spine. On one side I could see where the trail went around the rocky gray hills and disappeared into the southeast where the pale sandrock mesas stood in the distance near my home. On the other side was a trail that went west, and as I looked far into the distance I thought I saw the little town. But Silva said no, that I was looking in the wrong place, that I just thought I saw houses. After that I quit looking off into the distance; it was hot and the wildflowers were closing up their deep-yellow petals. Only the waxy cactus flowers bloomed in the bright sun, and I saw every color that a cactus blossom can be; the white ones and the red ones were still buds, but the purple and the yellow were blossoms, open full and the most beautiful of all.
Silva saw him before I did. The white man was riding a big gray horse, coming up the trail towards us. He was traveling fast and the gray horse’s feet sent rocks rolling off the trail into the dry tumbleweeds. Silva motioned for me to stop and we watched the white man. He didn’t see us right away, but finally his horse whinnied at our horses and he stopped. He looked at us briefly before he lapped the gray horse across the three hundred yards that separated us. He stopped his horse in front of Silva, and his young fat face was shadowed by the brim of his hat. He didn’t look mad, but his small, pale eyes moved from the blood-soaked gunny sacks hanging from my saddle to Silva’s face and then back to my face.
“Where did you get the fresh meat?” the white man asked.
“I’ve been hunting,” Silva said, and when he shifted his weight in the saddle the leather creaked.
“The hell you have, Indian. You’ve been rustling cattle. We’ve been looking for the thief for a long time.”
The rancher was fat, and sweat began to soak through his white cowboy shirt and the wet cloth stuck to the thick rolls of belly fat. He almost seemed to be panting from the exertion of talking, and he smelled rancid, maybe because Silva scared him.
Silva turned to me and smiled. “Go back up the mountain, Yellow Woman.”
The white man got angry when he heard Silva speak in a language he couldn’t understand. “Don’t try anything, Indian. Just keep riding to Marquez. We’ll call the state police from there.”
The rancher must have been unarmed because he was very frightened and if he had a gun he would have pulled it out then. I turned my horse around and the rancher yelled, “Stop!” I looked at Silva for an instant and there was p. 1036p. 2548p. 1690something ancient and dark—something I could feel in my stomach—in his eyes, and when I glanced at his hand I saw his finger on the trigger of the .30-30 that was still in the saddle scabbard. I slapped my horse across the flank and the sacks of raw meat swung against my knees as the horse leaped up the trail. It was hard to keep my balance, and once I thought I felt the saddle slipping backward; it was because of this that I could not look back.
I didn’t stop until I reached the ridge where the trail forked. The horse was breathing deep gasps and there was a dark film of sweat on its neck. I looked down in the direction I had come from, but I couldn’t see the place. I waited. The wind came up and pushed warm air past me. I looked up at the sky, pale blue and full of thin clouds and fading vapor trails left by jets.
I think four shots were fired—I remember hearing four hollow explosions that reminded me of deer hunting. There could have been more shots after that, but I couldn’t have heard them because my horse was running again and the loose rocks were making too much noise as they scattered around his feet.
Horses have a hard time running downhill, but I went that way instead of uphill to the mountain because I thought it was safer. I felt better with the horse running southeast past the round gray hills that were covered with cedar trees and black lava rock. When I got to the plain in the distance I could see the dark green patches of tamaracks that grew along the river; and beyond the river I could see the beginning of the pale sandrock mesas. I stopped the horse and looked back to see if anyone was coming; then I got off the horse and turned the horse around, wondering if it would go back to its corral under the pines on the mountain. It looked back at me for a moment and then plucked a mouthful of green tumbleweeds before it trotted back up the trail with its ears pointed forward, carrying its head daintily to one side to avoid stepping on the dragging reins. When the horse disappeared over the last hill, the gunny sacks full of meat were still swinging and bouncing.
I walked toward the river on a wood-hauler’s road that I knew would eventually lead to the paved road. I was thinking about waiting beside the road for someone to drive by, but by the time I got to the pavement I had decided it wasn’t very far to walk if I followed the river back the way Silva and I had come.
The river water tasted good, and I sat in the shade under a cluster of silvery willows. I thought about Silva, and I felt sad at leaving him; still, there was something strange about him, and I tried to figure it out all the way back home.
I came back to the place on the river bank where he had been sitting the first time I saw him. The green willow leaves that he had trimmed from the branch were still lying there, wilted in the sand. I saw the leaves and I wanted to go back to him—to kiss him and to touch him—but the mountains were too far away now. And I told myself, because I believe it, he will come back sometime and be waiting again by the river.
I followed the path up from the river into the village. The sun was getting low, and I could smell supper cooking when I got to the screen door of my house. I could hear their voices inside—my mother was telling my grandmother how to fix the Jell-O and my husband, Al, was playing with the baby. I decided to tell them that some Navajo had kidnaped me, but I was sorry that old Grandpa wasn’t alive to hear my story because it was the Yellow Woman stories he liked to tell best.
Contemporary World Literature