Once upon a time, more than a hundred years ago, there was a little girl who grew up in New Mexico. Her mother was from the Pueblo and her father was Spanish. As a child, the children at school picked on her, calling her names and saying she was just a dumb Indian. Her mother, who felt the European way was easier, didn’t dissuade them. But once a week, after Sunday mass, she took the little girl to visit her family at the Pueblo and so the girl knew some of the old traditions. However, the children there wouldn’t approach her. Looking from afar at her Sunday dresses, they would turn to each other and mock her, saying that she looked like a white devil. On these days, the little girl spent most of the time alone, wandering the old trails and listening to birdsongs.
Once, when the two were visiting the mother’s family at the Pueblo, and when the little girl was eight years old, her mother handed over a rattle made from a gourd. “This rattle was made by your grandmother when she was about your age,” her mother said, then nothing more. The little girl was surprised, because her mother usually kept old things like this from her, preferring to buy the girl dolls and toys from the store, a fact of which the mother was proud.
The little girl took the rattle on her walk. The wooden handle was smooth and worn, and she could feel where her grandmother, whom she had never met, had once placed her fingers and thumb. The gourd, once painted a vibrant blue and white, was now chipped and faded, but she could still make out fantastic creatures painted on every side. Some had horns and four legs. Others had wings, but the one she treasured most was a long serpent with the head of a coyote.
The little girl often took the rattle with her on her walks, and as she listened to the songbirds she would gently shake it in response. Sometimes she simply let the rattle fall to the rhythm of her steps. She grew quite fond of the little rattle, and she often felt like her grandmother was speaking to her through the seeds inside. After a year, she came to her mother and asked her, “Mother, I would like to know how to make a rattle. My grandmother made one when she was my age and I too am now ready.” But her mother responded coldly, “I’m sorry, but I cannot teach you.”
Disheartened, the little girl continued on her walks till one day, as she was following a raven in the sky, she came across a rundown old hut made of sticks and mud at the edge of a wood. It looked empty, but she was curious. There was only one window and an old wooden door. She leaned through the open window, which had no shutters, but it was very dark inside and she couldn’t see much of anything. Then she shook her rattle playfully. Suddenly, an old woman’s voice called from inside. “What have you come for?” she asked.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” said the little girl. “I was just walking by and I thought no one lived her.”
“You were wrong,” said the old voice, “But come in, come in. I don’t often have visitors.” The little girl was hesitant, but the voice sounded pleasant and she didn’t have anything else to do so she opened the old door and stepped inside. It was dark and dusty and it took some time for her eyes to adjust, but soon enough she could make out a table and two chairs made of willow. In one of them sat an old woman, covered in a deer skin blanket. It was much too hot, thought the little girl, who was only wearing her Sunday dress, but she shrugged her shoulders and stepped toward the table.
“Have a seat,” said the old woman. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Is it hot?” asked the little girl.
“No, I’m afraid it’s quite cool by now,” said the old woman, “but it’s nice and sweet. I like it sweet, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said the little girl, now a little more excited.
The old woman turned to a small shelf behind her and reached with two hands for an old clay pot. She set it on the table and the little girl could see that it twinkled in the light, even in the near darkness of the hut. In fact, now that her eyes had adjusted to being inside, she could see all manner of things that seemed to twinkle and shine and move with an unseen wind. The old woman took the lid off and, picking up the pot with both hands, poured the tea into a glass from a small spout that had been fashioned in the side. She handed the glass, which had surely been bought from the store, to the little girl, who picked up the glass and looked briefly at the greenish-brown water, trying not to wrinkle her nose. Tentatively, she took a tiny sip. She smiled, then gulped down the rest.
“Good, isn’t it?” said the old woman.
“Yes,” said the little girl.
“My mother taught me to make it. It’s a mix of herbs I collect by the river. And mint - surely you taste that one?” the old woman asked.
“Yes,” said the little girl.
Then the old woman smiled, wrinkling the corners of her eyes. Her face was like leather, dark and tan, more worn than the deer skin blanket which covered the rest of her small body. Suddenly, the little girl felt foolish in her Sunday dress, but the old woman leaned forward as if she had a secret. “My mother made it plain,” she said, referring to the tea, “...over a wood fire. But she’s long gone now, and, well…” She trailed off. “I don’t mind a little sugar. Do you?” She smiled.
“No, I don’t,” said the little girl, setting the glass back on the table.
“Would you like more?” asked the old woman.
“Yes, I would,” said the little girl.
The old woman poured a second glass and set it in front of the little girl. The little girl reached with both hands over the table, and, setting down her rattle, picked up the glass with two hands. She drank long and heartily. It was a hot day and she had been walking for some time.
“I see you have a rattle,” said the old woman.
“My mother gave it to me,” said the little girl, once again setting the glass on the table. “It was made by my grandmother.”
“Your grandmother?” said the old woman. “May I look at it?” she asked.
“Yes,” said the little girl, and she handed the rattle to the old woman, who took it into her wrinkled hands. “My favorite part is the snake with the coyote’s head.”
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” the old woman said, touching the same spots on the wooden handle the little girl had felt with her own fingers. “I can see that your grandmother was quite talented.” The girl was flattered, but she knew it was nothing like the ones she saw at the dances, where they had beautiful feathers and braids of colorful leather. Each one was painted with utmost care. Even at the market, where craftsmen and artists sold their wares to visitors, the rattles were far superior to the old rattle the woman now held in her attentive hands.
The old woman shook the rattle and a light breeze crossed the room from the window to the open door. Catching the movement, the little girl looked up and realized that all along the walls and shelves the tiny little hut was filled with rattles. Some were made of gourds, others of leather. Some had eagle feathers, deer or fox skin. There were many shapes and sizes and they were all very beautiful, and now the girl felt quite foolish and wished she had never come inside.
The little girl looked for an opportunity to leave, but the old woman began playing the rattle, softly at first, then louder, humming a melody that repeated. The little girl listened, expecting the old woman to raise her voice, like they did at the dances, but it just grew softer and softer till the girl could hear the woman no longer and the seeds in the rattle just barely stirred inside the skin of the old gourd. That was no way to play a rattle, she thought.
“I have just made a small prayer,” said the old woman. “And if you listen to it, you will then be free to go.” She could tell that the girl was growing anxious to leave. “My prayer is that you will come back to visit me, and that you will learn to make a rattle for yourself.” With this, she waved her arm to the wall of beautiful rattles.
The little girl hesitated. She wanted to learn (hadn’t she just asked her mother the same thing?) But she felt so small. No one had ever really believed in her. She was half-white and half-wrong and her own mother had clearly written off the Pueblo ways. She always felt like an outsider. She didn’t even know who this old woman was. “I’ll have to ask my mother,” she said, not knowing what else to say.
“You do that,” said the old woman, handing back the rattle. “You ask her if you can visit your Raven Grandmother, the one who lives in the hut at the edge of the wood.”
The little girl stood up, thanked the old woman for the tea, and said she would visit again. But even as she walked out the door she wondered if she would ever come back.
Later that day, when she arrived home the little girl told her mother what had happened. “Raven Grandmother?!” said her mother, evidently shaken. She stared intently at the little girl and then grabbed the rattle from her hand. “You are never to go back there,” she said, “Never. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” said the little girl, saddened, but eager to listen to her mother, who walked away and set the old rattle where the girl could not find it.
Months passed by and it got cold. The little girl walked the Pueblo trails as before, staying far away from the old hut at the edge of the wood. She listened to the departing songbirds, which brought her some joy, but she missed the company of her grandmother’s rattle.
One day, just before the first snow, she was climbing through a cluster of oaks, kicking up the dry leaves, when she found her grandmother’s rattle. She could hardly believe it. The gourd had been crushed and all the seeds had spilled out. Bending down, she scraped through the larger pieces, finding the head of the serpent-coyote, and began to cry. A deep moan released from her throat and she cried long and hard, harder than she had ever cried before. Nothing fit. She felt alone and as if she was crying for the whole world. Finally, having spent her tears, she lay down in the raspy leaves and fell asleep.
When she awoke, she could see that the sun had gotten low and became worried that her mother would be anxious about her. She quickly wiped herself off and put the piece of the gourd with the head of the coyote in a pocket where no one would find it. Hurrying back to her mother, she felt strangely at ease.
That spring, as the snow receded from the mountaintops and the rivers began to swell, the little girl was once again walking the Pueblo paths when she happened upon the old woman’s hut. A raven was circling overhead. She recalled her mother’s words and was about to turn away when she found herself scurrying up the path to the hut. Reaching the door, she held up her hand to knock, but before she could she heard a voice, “I thought you would come back,” it said. “Please come in. Come in.”
The little girl pushed the door open and found everything much the same as it was before. Only this time, on the table were a mishmash of sticks and feathers, gourds and paint in clay bowls, old pieces of leather, new pieces of leather, colorful braids, and long thin strips of something the old woman was using to tie two leather pieces together. There was even a piece of leather in the old woman’s teeth, which she promptly took out, inviting the little girl with a wave of her hand to, “Sit down, please.”
The little girl was even more hesitant than before, but she had already come this far and so she decided to sit down. “Would you like some tea?” the old woman asked. The little girl did want some, but she shook her head no. “Well then let’s get started,” the old woman said. “I can see you have little time. Me too.” With that, she set aside what she was working on and handed a small patch of leather to the little girl. “Your grandmother started with gourds,” said the old woman, “but you will start with leather. It is…” and the old woman shrugged playfully, “…easier.”
The girl felt the dried leather, almost crisp, in her hand and held it up to the window. The deerskin was mottled in such a way as to remind her of the moon, which only recently her mother had told her was full of craters. “What do I do with it?” she asked. “You pray with it,” said the old woman. The little girl almost laughed. That wasn’t how you make a rattle. She prayed at mass, and with her mother when she went to bed, but otherwise she didn’t think much of it. And anyway, she knew that she wasn’t supposed to pray to Jesus or God the Father. Or was she? “Great Father,” she said, suddenly recalling the broken gourd, with the shattered painting of the serpent and the coyote, “may I learn to heal.” She didn’t know why she had said that, but she did. She looked at the old woman, feeling foolish, but the woman was looking back at her with a simple smile that made the little girl feel warm. “Now here,” said the old woman, handing her another piece of leather, “Quick, to the Mother now.”
Did she mean Guadalupe, Mother Mary? She wasn’t sure. She imagined a woman, somehow softer and gentler than her own mother, sort of like Mary, but sort of like a great big heap of earth, with hair like oak leaves and long flowing robes like rivers pouring from her sides. The old woman smiled. “To the Mother of all things,” said the little girl, “give me hands to heal.” Suddenly, she pictured the serpent and the coyote reunited. The little girl sat up and shivered, excited, but a little scared.
“Good,” said the old woman. “Now, be quick about it.” She gave the girl a small piece of iron, like a nail, only thicker. “Make your holes round each piece, like this…” and the old woman demonstrated, laying the two pieces, one on top of the other on the wood table, then striking the piece of iron with a heavy rock. When she pulled the iron out, there was a hole in each. “All the way around,” she said, “Each hole is a sacrifice from the Mother and the Father. In this way, they bless us.” The girl did as she was told, striking the iron with the rock. It was heavy, and her arm grew sore after several strikes. “Good,” said the old woman, and soon it was done.
“Now here,” said the old woman, working more and more urgently. She handed the girl a long thin strip of something that resembled coarse thread. “You tie it like this,” she said, tying an unfamiliar knot between two of the holes in the leather patches. The girl had never seen anyone tie a knot like that, but the old woman did it slowly enough so that the little girl could follow. “Now you do it,” the woman said, handing the leather to the girl, “in and out, in and out, all the way around. Like the vines of spring.”
In and out, in and out, the little girl worked the string between the holes, all the while imagining the bean stalks that grew in her mother’s garden which grew with little spiraling loops, climbing higher and higher up the fence. She was almost done when the old woman shouted, “Wait. Hold out your hand.” The girl held open her hand and the old woman placed a handful of small round seeds inside. She could feel them tumbling into her palm, but as the old woman pulled her own hand back she clasped the little girl’s hand round and folded her fingers down, so that whatever was inside remained hidden. “These are the seeds of life. May they be fruitful for you,” she said. With that, the old woman nodded her head, indicating the rattle. The little girl held her hand carefully over the open hole in the stitched leather and dropped the seeds inside. “Now close it,” the old woman said. The little girl sewed the string in and out, in and out, till the rattle was sealed shut, but not before spying several speckled beans inside. “Now tie it, like I showed you,” said the old woman. And the little girl did as she was told.
Three weeks later, the little girl was walking the same trail again, this time carrying the new rattle. She was proud to have made something herself, though she was careful to hide it from her mother. Coming upon the hut, the girl walked cheerfully up to the door, but before she could knock she was overtaken by an eerie feeling. Without knocking or even saying anything she pushed the door open and looked inside. There was nothing, just a dark room with a pile of sand on the floor and an old rat’s nest. Cobwebs covered the shelves and the dust was so thick it looked like it had been gathering for years. The deerskin blanket was lying in a ragged heap on the table and the willow chairs were tossed about recklessly.
Where had the old woman gone? The little girl ran her hand along the table, trying to make sense of it. Then she looked at the leather rattle in her hand and remembered. Outside, she heard a raven call and she walked to the open window. The sun was bright and it took a second for her eyes to adjust. She saw the bird’s black silhouette fly overhead and then low across the field toward the wood. There were small clusters of spring flowers and the grass was green all over. The girl watched as the raven reached the far side of the field, rose up to circle a cluster of oaks, and was gone. She sprang out the door, recalling her grandmother’s broken rattle, but stopped just as suddenly. There on the ground outside the door lay a snake, black and yellow with diamond stripes all along its back.
The little girl jumped back in fright, but the snake just lay there, flicking its tongue in the air. Suddenly the snake turned and slithered into the open field. The girl watched as it made its way, grasses and flowers bending along its path, and decided to follow at a distance. At the far end of the field, the snake disappeared under the oaks and was gone. The little girl now recognized the small cluster of oaks as the same place last fall where she had found her grandmother’s broken rattle. The crooked, shrub-like branches formed a hidden grove inside, and she recalled the many tears she had shed there on the dry leaves. The branches, however, were brimming with bright green leaves and as she pushed them aside she came face to face with a coyote. The creature looked at her briefly, then lunged for her. Withdrawing in terror, the little girl dropped the rattle, tore through the branches and ran across the open field toward the hut. She could hear the coyote coming fast on her heels.
When she had nearly reached the hut, a gust of wind blew and the door swung open. The girl ran inside, then turned to pull the door shut, coming face to face with the coyote once more. The coyote lunged again and this time managed to catch her dress in its teeth as she shut the door on the folds of her dress. The coyote, snarling and whinnying, ripped the dress with its teeth and scratched at the door with its claws, but the little girl held tight and did not let the coyote in.
The inside of the hut was dark, but the little girl could hear the coyote prowling back and forth, looking for a way in. Quickly, she loosened the buttons of her dress and stepped out of it, then thrust a chair leg between the door handle and the wall. She turned the table on its side and pushed it in place to block the window. She was safe, she thought, at least for now. But it was darker than ever before. She listened as the coyote circled the little hut, grunting and snuffling as it sniffed her out. Finally, all grew quiet.
The little girl, believing she was now safe, began to cry. At first it was just a few tears, but soon she was sobbing and racking her whole chest so that she could hardly take in air to breathe. Her own sounds, echoing in that tiny room, felt strange and gruesome to her. Her face and hands became wet with tears and the dust from the floor made her muddy. She was naked and her mother would pain her about the dress. She felt alone. In time, her sobs grew soft and, lying down on the floor, she fell asleep.
When she awoke, it was pitch black. The deerskin blanket was on top of her and she felt comfortable and warm in the little hut. Then she remembered the coyote and, listening intently for any sign of it, she felt along the floor for the table. Satisfied that nothing could be heard outside, she pulled the table back from the window to let in some light, but it made no difference. The sky was full of stars and a soft haze of light from the unrisen moon backlit the mountains. She listened hard for any sound, but only heard the distant sound of frogs chirping along the river. She drew the blanket over her shoulders and sat huddled in the dark for a long time, then finally opened the door.
The cool air was refreshing. Her bare skin tingled as she reached to free the torn fabric of her dress from the door. Her mother would be angry with her, but for now she felt the peace that comes with night. There was a light dew on the grass, and as she took a few steps into the open field it wet her ankles and toes. She realized at once that she was headed back to the oak grove. She drew the deerskin tightly over her shoulders, becoming more and more determined as she approached.
When she reached the oaks, she pushed aside the branches once again and as she did she heard a small shuffling sound, then a soft mewing like newborn kittens. She was fearful, but drawing the deerskin once again over her shoulders, she compelled herself to go forward. It was dark in the grove, but as she entered she felt a small, soft creature press against her ankle. She reached down and felt it lick her palm. Then another, and another. She realized there were several of them, coyote pups, and the mother, whom she had encountered earlier in the day, was out hunting. The pups, looking for food, nipped at her hands and feet, but she had nothing to offer them. One began to tug on the frayed ends of the deerskin, and the girl tore small pieces of the dried skin and tossed them to the pups, who happily set their teeth on them.
Suddenly she heard the sound of a rattle, and as she turned she saw the diamond markings of the rattlesnake she had encountered in the day. The mother away, it had come back for one of the pups. The little girl stood in fright and the pups ran behind her, but the snake moved quickly in the dark, flicking its tongue rapidly and feeling along the ground for their warmth. Drawing the pups to her, the little girl threw off the deerskin blanket and covered the snake. She gathered up the corners, wrapping the snake in its leathery hide. It was a very large snake and the girl could hardly lift as it wriggled wildly to get free, but she held fast and walked out of the grove.
The moon was now up and she could see her way clearly through the open field. Listening to the sound of the frogs, she made her way to the river and, swinging the deerskin round, threw the deerskin with the snake across the river. Thinking she was safe once again, she made her way back to the grove. Searching on her hands and knees as the pups climbed about her, she found the leather rattle, shook it thankfully, and, saying goodbye to the pups, hurried back to the small hut and quickly fell asleep.
The next morning she woke and, putting on the torn dress, made her way to her mother’s relatives, who took her in with cries of joy and relief and then sent someone to fetch her mother. Meanwhile, they gave the little girl a bath and cleaned her wounds, giving her a new dress to wear so that her mother was grateful to see her healthy and fresh.
“You are never to go out alone,” her mother said, but after a few months this rule became too bothersome and again the little girl resumed her walks at the Pueblo. It was now mid-summer and the girl set off at once for the little hut by the open field and the wood. Finding the hut deserted, she walked across the field, which was now nearly shoulder-height with wildflowers and grasses. Approaching the oak grove, she shook her rattle vigorously and called out. But nothing moved and no sound was returned. Pushing aside the oak leaves, she crawled inside and beheld a large, vining plant with wide, angular leaves growing in the center. There was no sign of the coyotes.
Curious to see such a plant where it did not belong, she looked along its stems and branches and discovered dozens of fist sized squashes – gourds - growing under the leaves. Her heart was overcome with the joy of it and she made her way back to her mother, resolved to return in the fall.
School had started before the little girl had a chance to go back to the grove, but in late fall she finally returned. The hut was the same, dusty and decrepit, and the field was dry and golden. The Raven Grandmother was nowhere to be found. In the distance, she could see that the oaks had all turned brown. But even still her heart was light and joyful as she walked the now familiar path through the field and approached the grove. As she neared, she shook the leather rattle in her hand and a light wind stirred an echo in the dry, raspy leaves still hanging on the branches. Pushing aside the branches, she found the squash plant had withered and died, leaving a web of brittle vines in the small clearing. All along its branches were cream-colored gourds shaped like large pears. She reached for one, snapping it off at the stem. Holding it to her ear, she shook the gourd, listening for the seeds inside, and smiled.