Angie O’Malley and her daughter Jillian are driving across the Indian reservation in northern Arizona in the dead of night because Angie’s sister has been in a motorcycle accident in Denver. Angie thinks it’s ironic—there they are, risking their lives to get to Glenda, and all because Glenda had risked her life to please her philandering husband. Sheesh! Everyone knows how dangerous it is to drive across the reservation at night. Even Indians will say so. Angie had a friend once who was Navajo and her friend had lost several relatives to drunk drivers and so Angie knows she isn’t being politically incorrect, just honest. So there, she thinks, so there, to the thought police in the sky who, she is sure, monitor the firing of every neuron in her brain.
“Nevertheless, here we are!” Angie says aloud. “In spite of my predisposition to prejudice. Driving across the reservation at night!”
Jillian says nothing in response, naturally, because she can’t speak, has been mute from birth, but she does pat her mother on the leg as if to say, There, there, Mom. I know you’re not racist. I know you’re more complicated than that.
Angie’s hands grip the wheel. Outside it is dark dark, and, if they were to stop, the stars would wheel above them in a wide, cloudless sky; the land would stretch for miles and miles, the tall rock formations like ghostly ancient figures. Beautiful, Angie knows, in the rising or setting sun—oh, the colors, then—coral, rose, magenta, purplish blue. At those times, when the light is just so, magical and alive, she can imagine this land becoming a part of your heart, opening something inside you, but at night it’s just plain eerie. At night the rock formations look like huge, amorphous ghosts instead of the igneous intrusions that they are. That’s all they are, she reminds herself, magma chimneys of old volcanoes, the sedimentary layers of earth around them having been blown away during centuries and centuries of endless, stinging wind. Proving, she thinks, that landscape can come back to haunt you. [End Page 269]
“In the late eighteen hundreds,” she tells Jillian, who is staring out the window, watching for cows or sheep or horses—that’s her job, to be on the lookout for large animals that might suddenly materialize from the dark sides of the road and step onto the highway—“in the late eighteen hundreds, we promised the Navajo an aqueduct. By we, I mean the federal government, of course. But where is it? Tell me, do you see an aqueduct? No water. What grows here? Absolutely nothing. That’s why they have to herd sheep. That’s why they’re poor as dirt. No wonder they drink.”
And here, because Angie does not want to picture her younger sister in a hospital bed hooked up to machines, she remembers the story of Mrs. Elliott, whose car, when Angie was a girl, hit a horse on the road. The horse went through the windshield hooves first and since the horse didn’t die immediately, it kicked and kicked, and Mrs. Elliott’s face got the worst of it, according to Angie’s mother. All those broken bones in her face. She was nearly unrecognizable, her mother told her, she nearly died, her eyes knocked out of their sockets—Angie, with a lurch in her stomach, remembers this particular detail, although she does not want to—and yet Mrs. Elliott’s husband stayed by her side. He and the kids still loved her. They loved her more, in fact, for having almost lost her.
Why does Angie remember this story? Poor Mrs. Elliott, her mother had lamented, so disfigured she would never look the same—which was true, she never did, because this was back in the days before plastic surgery could work its many miracles. The point of her mother’s story, Angie knows, was that Mr. Elliott still loved his wife. Unlike that schmuck, Steve, Glenda’s husband, who was probably high on pot—who would put...