A Space for Women of the World
None of Klea’s limbs or bones answered her. She lay like a stone being demanding her spine to obey. The ceiling, a new coldness threatening to fall on top of her. The shadows of the Veteran collector plates and the clay horned toads mounted on her wall sank into the same darkness of the corners of the room. She didn’t know where the soft light was coming from, but only that it must have been behind the figures surrounding her. They grew and shrank as she tried to form sounds and cries. Nothing. A self un-mouthed. Numb tongue.
Klea thought she was use to her reoccurring sleep paralysis. She’d experienced it nearly every night since she could remember. She thought the dream intruders in her room were familiar by now. Familiar like the presence of bodies hustling around bus stations and grocery stores. There was always a space made in her half-sleep for some form to come to being. After breaking from her paralysis, she would remember it as if she were on the slab, an autopsy, and the intruder: a cataloguer of flesh and organ and the data offerings of bone.
Tonight’s occurrence was different. The figures morphed and duplicated into a murky halo around her, instead of their usual dark errand of stillness and observance. She could not make out the faces or clothes, but they seemed to her to be shades of all the same family members from earlier that day. And instead of the tidal noise of storytellers, the figures were silent— voices held. A veil of quiet holding back a planet of sound—for now.
Klea could only whimper at them. No answering limbs or circuitry to help her jump from her bed and put the family figures back in a line. Back in a brightly lit room—that conference room in a hotel in Shiprock. A place for all the Tohannie family members to gather. Four days, she had been there. Video recorders. Laptops. Papers and pens. Anything to help document. Not for any agency or foundation, but for herself. She wanted to pull her people and their stories and connections, like streamers into one giant well-planned party. Many times she’d sped through Navajoland listening to her mother’s stories. Her mom never took a break from talking at her. “Back there is your auntie Bess’s first hogan with Rodge Cowboy”; “Your grandfather walked me through this field, corn and watermelon before the easement”; “Cousin Rita lived here but not for long, not long, I think.” Those stories crowding Klea for hours—never hearing one specific family member’s life story and no resting places between time, people or events. She had stepped on the gas harder hoping to speed through the area. Speed to a destination with only one story: she at her Uncle’s with her mom. The new puppy litter sandy and talkative. The cousin’s baby boy quiet with a wide reach and strong hands for pulling her hair.
No more winding and racing through her mom’s stories. No more asking again which of her grandfather’s sixteen brothers a cousin belonged. No more sensing of rifts and bit lips and mental walk-outs when other members of the family were mentioned or spotted near town as if they had stepped out of an ether of shame or past slights or lost journeys. Her mother’s explanations were a barbed wire warping and tightening along the washboard, red dirt roads between Flagstaff and Shiprock.
But this family conference! This gathering! This stop by for a picture! The great documentation! She would write down the names and dates of the sprawled and rising family. Would set up the laptop for those ready to record their own lines and connections. Would help the elderlies to softer chairs, warm cups of coffee and would be patient—take in the sounds and smells of bodies busy with living, before she would point to pictures and ask who was who, the wheres and whens.
To Klea this thing was an escape from trying to soak up all the stories. She could remember some moments here and there, but she could never remember the names, the areas, the faces. It was as if she was never built for stories that weren’t on a screen, played out in front of her. As if the only stories she wrote were 140 characters long or heavy with texting shorthand. Bits. Her notions of family scared her. Relatives would morph into giant immortals, too full of a presence to relate to—like the ones surrounding her bed, as she didn’t yet sleep, but could not move or scream or seem to breathe. Her nightly ritual of horror: sleep paralysis. She entered a sleeping world as a waking being.
Today had been the last of the four days. She’d lost sight of the project and stumbled throughout the room. Talked out, she checked recording devices and took pictures. At first she’d capture as many relatives in a shot as possible, then walk over and write down everyone’s name. Some she recognized from visits prior. Others from Facebook. One or two seemed like faces that were always around her in one way or another. A trace of family, a possibility space culled together from what must have been memory and resemblance.
In the corner of the conference room was a type of prison. It was her idea and no one—not her mother, not her closest aunt or most outspoken cousin—suggested she not do it. She was resentful when she looked at the corner—with its long blue sheet hanging from the wall and to the side of it, a slouching table with her newly purchased clipboard. She wanted everyone’s pictures. One at a time. Facing forward. Name on the clipboard, all the names: given, assumed, teased and changed. Corralling the data, the dates and places of birth, when available.
No one went to the corner. No one asked about it. All Klea knew was that it was somehow, a place of shame. Why had no one said anything? Why do they let her do these criminal things that to her seem to put the world into clearer spaces with borders and definitions. Facts. She just wanted to click on each relative’s picture and understand immediately their place and therefore her place in this world. Her grandfather had sixteen brothers. Her grandmother sixteen sisters. This family, a jumble of yarn, didn’t have to exhaust her the way it did. If only she could document—
When Klea could not sneak outside or to the bathroom, she drummed a line in her head: “At least we have plenty recorded. Plenty recorded. Plenty recorded.” The drumming came at the height of her anxiety—when her hands felt like shaking and when she began to notice too many things, like the smell of horses and peppermint or the tattoos she could only assume made sense in another type of family—a gang family pulled together through blood ritual and world-dreams. When she began vibrating into a panic, she was drawn to the crushed red velvet of her great great auntie’s blouse. Wanted to hold it between her fingers and think of bima sani and how easy it was to just sit near her silently. Never needing to know anything, but what it felt like to take up a space next to grandma and to smell of coffee and flour. To rush to the barrel of water outside the hogan and fill a tin mug with cool water. Shoo away the kitten at her foot.
Great great auntie isn’t correct. The terminology, that is. What am I to her? Klea thought and tugged her jeans back up from falling off her hips.
Auntie Evie squeezed her hand and leaned in close. When Evie spoke, Klea’s vowels took a new shape. Some ended more abruptly. She paused more when speaking. Threaded words and dragging sounds disappeared and instead, she found her language slowed to plateauing formations. She spoke with the shape of the mesas surrounding her grandmother’s home, flat and even, then a slow rising to a new type of flat and even—one closer to the sky. Evie’s lips and chin clenched briefly as she motioned to the elderly woman. Her voice dropped. She said the woman told another cousin yesterday that Uncle Tyrone jr. was not really one of the brothers. Evie’s voice trailed off and she mumbled and giggled while still squeezing Klea’s hand.
The last group of people to leave took the rest of the food with them. Klea and her mother helped carry the sandwich meats and breads, the muffins, soda and uncut watermelon to their car and piled it all in next to a bag of dog food and some school supplies. Just moments before when Klea could no longer remember the name of anyone she met that day and was wishing for the firm squeeze of her aunt Evie’s hand, Klea’s mom had rushed up to her still talking to herself. Mid-story. Something about a playfriend her mother remembered, if only slightly. A girl she would call “big sister” and a corral with a billy goat that wouldn’t stop yelling and bucking. They called the goat shideezhi after the girl’s younger sister whom they would hide from until he was so mad she’d yell and throw rocks at them as soon as she found them.
She met the new “big sister” and her daughters and a young boy that was in the care of one of the daughters though it was unclear to Klea why or how. As her mom chattered away at the woman and her daughters, Klea smiled politely and wrote down the names of each person in the group, but the letters were caught up in one another and she knew she wouldn’t be able to read her handwriting later. When the young boy began tugging at one of the daughters and pleading to her that it was time to go, Klea mentally began doing the same to her own mother. The group was nice, but for Klea she had long since hid inside her a self that welcomed new friends and new family. Instead, she simply wanted some facts. Who was who. Where was where. When was when. The young boy’s hand was sticky from a gumball and Klea opted to kiss the little fellow on the check instead of shake his hand. A brief moment with her lips close to his face, his cheeks plumb and fresh, his skin smelling a little sweat-stained, but also wind-worn: like he’d stuck his head out the window during the drive for whatever reason the young seek a wind that drowns out all else but the blood of the working body. Klea’s instinct was to scoop up the child and run off with him for more trading post fire gumballs and to nap in the shade.
As Klea and her mom gathered up the disposable cameras, they counted two missing, but found two neon pink hair clips. They also found a scarf—not the modern soft and lustrous kind bought from a trendy corner of the internet, but the sheer and itchy gauze ones that her grandmother tucked between her mattress and the wall of the hogan—the ones she had thrown around her head and tied under the chin in a whip of a moment.
When it came time to take down the corner photo area, Klea stumbled over there alone; she swore and sweated and tugged at the sheet when it caught here and there on the generic framed prints of mesas and sand dunes that adorned the hotel wall. She was clumsy as she tried to silence the still-too-loud whisper of cotton sheet against the hardwood floor. She folded the paper from the clipboard and tucked it into her back pocket not wanting to throw it away fearful someone might spot it in the trash.
Klea’s mom found the event to be a success. She gushed as she listed the people and interrupted herself with branches of stories or notes of interest. An uncle was unable to come, but he sent a list of people he remembered to be his cousins when he was younger and before his mother died and his stepmother died and the woman that lived with his father for several years unmarried died. The list was buried in the backseat next to notebooks and folders and her mom’s last minute road trip kit of bandages and safety pins and home-made round neck pillows for all the grandmothers.
“Can you believe it?” Her mom repeated. “I just can’t believe it.”
Klea didn’t stop nodding, cracked the window and took in the dry road air, held it in her chest until it burned. She used her turning signal longer than she needed to and she snapped at her mother each time she was told where to turn or how fast to go when Klea already knew the way and could read the signs.
Klea was grateful when her mother finally mentioned having a headache from the excitement and Klea set a small cup of diet coke and some IB Profen next to her mother’s bed. She turned the TV on low and closed the drapes. “I’m glad we didn’t have the family here,” her mother said. “I told you there wasn’t enough room here. And now we can rest.” As Klea closed the bedroom door behind her, she could hear her mother’s cell phone whistle and woo and her mom’s winged voice started once again, mid-story, mid-life, mid-whisk.
Klea was a horrible person. She knew this as she changed into her pj’s, as she flew through TV stations recognizing almost every show by just one character or the music or the setting. And she certainly knew she was still a horrible person later that night when she lay paralyzed in bed with the morphing beings around her. They didn’t move closer to her on their own, but the room began to shrink and soon they seemed almost on top of her. She couldn’t stop the space around her from retreating. Instead she whimpered and found her throat full of wool.
Klea jerked awake and scared the small long-haired Chihuahua that was nestled up against her thigh off of the bed. She could hear the click click of the creature’s claws as he skidded out of the guest room and around a corner and nudged at the bedroom door where her mother was (hopefully) asleep. She turned on the bedroom light, urging the disappointed and waiting figures from the room.
She could use a site like ancestory.com or perhaps build her own family chart through any one of her design programs. She could write it all out on a large piece of paper. But the idea of compressing her family history into data or lines on a page felt cheap and easy. Klea did not want to feel cheap nor did she want to be the kind that takes the easy road. She wanted to be the sort of person to go to a four-day gathering with her own blood and not so much flit about like her mother, but perhaps sidle up to people and smile and make them feel at ease. Her older brother could always do such things, but could never get time off of work, and actually if he had been there, Klea would have felt even more incompetent than she already did.
No, she wanted something organic. Some way of remembering that her mother seemed to have. Some way of grasping these histories and planting them inside her to let them grow and show their own signs of genus and pollination. Klea wanted to be an earth thing, something of soil and water. Of coded and bursting cells. And of light made force made trembling, growing branches.
I want a fucking family tree, she said aloud.
Klea slumped and cried. She felt like she was five and crying over nothing in particular, like she wanted to drop the thing she was crying over and let it crack against the floor when it fell… only to cry harder. The kind of tears only another child would have: a fresh, heavy wetness to them that comes from nearing an absence in one’s life, a space not yet ready to be filled with alcohol or work or gossip or feel-good and even horror movies or even an addiction to serving others. Perhaps that adopted or foster-care boy would recognize such crying as his own. His black hair and skin the color of pinon shells looking like he fit in, but tugging at the adult near him. His forced inclusion into the room of voices murmuring and sometimes a singer. Sometimes a singer out of nowhere like her grandmother’s blind and half-paralyzed sister would sing. The middle of a conversation. The middle of a car-ride. A tremble song. The young boy and Klea never knowing what is going to happen next—do they shut up and listen? Do they sing along? Should her younger sister stop giggling? And instead looking out the car window, heads pressed to the cold glass, watching the long song of sand and blushing pink rock, the occasional curious horse looking back at them. And the way Klea would yank at the old Wagoneer’s window handle and stick her head out as they neared her grandmother’s home. Yell at the dogs to stay clear from the tires and hop out before the car came to a complete stop. She and that now-and-always family boy sharing a planet, sharing a sun.
In the dining room of her mom’s house, Klea scribbled the young boy’s name and the names of the people he was with on a notecard and tacked it to the wall. This, her mother’s “I call her big sister” family. She included shideezhi the goat on the corner of the card. She began shuffling the rest of the note cards until another name came to her. Klea wrote it down and tacked it to the wall. As the names started piling up and more details from the last four days popped into her head here and there, she wrote those details on a card and tacked it close to a name or in another section of unknowns. Someone had new shoes the color of asphalt and pink neon. Another had dimples that threatened to swallow the rest of the young girl’s face. On a note card: the types of smiles: smirks, full and lipped, the smells: cattle, coffee, the distinct smell of freshly printed paper, rose perfume and cedar. The overheard words and phrases, the woman that always nodded, the man that was always leaning, the other man that would take her hand, but instead of shaking it, he would hold her hand with both of his as if to hold her rather than greet her. All the partial-handshakes, the soft hellos. The names, so many boarding school names: Luther, Jermaine, Dorothea, Erwin, Neil, Laverne. And then Many-Goats, Nez, Yazzie, Tapaha, Singer.
Her purple marker ran out of thick ink-soaked lines and Klea rushed to find a red one. A black permanent one. And string. Yes, string. Before she could forget, Klea fastened the end of the string from one name to another. Sometimes pulling the string taut, sometimes too much and cursing while she re-fastened the string to the first card. Sometimes the string had to arc over other strings or droop down to the floor when she couldn’t recall much more about the person. She used white string and blue. Sometimes yellow and black. As she moved around the room, she’d glimpse a pattern and lose it again. She’d feel a momentum building and lose it to a long battle of weaving strings and cue cards and repositioning. No no no, Vince is related to the Chinle area people though he came from Red Lake. No no, this sister is really the mother someone said. But too young, so too young to be a mother then. She is only mother here on this wall and along the hushed conversation of the four day gathering. As if the side talk and the hints and questions had tumbled from the great gathering into these threads of Klea’s made graceful, but solid. Soft, but structural.
In this dream of making—this surge after her paralysis, the sun did not rise and when Klea felt done enough to sit back into the archway to the dining room, she could not help but imagine herself a clever, spinning thing. An ancient thread-generating incarnation. As if she did have eight legs to smooth these lines throughout the room. As if she was blessed with many eyes, small and large, light-absorbing rows of them to take in the work of the room. With more practice, with more time, with more blessing ways, she could learn to weave this thing into funnels, orbs or sheets. Pull the loose bits tighter and adjust the corners.
A family tree, she thought. How absurd. How unnatural. As if a branch of her bloodline could ever end. As if a tree was still a tree without sensing a forest. As if there could never be family in the treeless parts of the desert. Rather, this web. Stronger than steel, but slight and delicate. A ballooning thing. A thing made and remade and recovered and made new throughout generations. Split generations, lost ones, folded ones, brightening ones, all. And the only thing prey to this pulsing system: that version of Klea who built a photo I.D. area—an internment, that cold preservation of letters and numbers and attempt to capture the surface of a person. That fly. The resurrected census, a nothing compared to this heavy dance of thread.