“The Man to Send
by Leslie Marmon Silko
They found him under a big cottonwood tree. His Levi jacket and pants were
faded light-blue so that he had been easy to find. The big cottonwood tree stood
apart from a small grove of winterbare cottonwoods
which grew in the wide, sandy, arroyo. He had been dead for a day or more, and
the sheep had wandered and scattered up and down the arroyo. Leon and his
brother-in-law, Ken, gathered the sheep and left them in the pen at the sheep
camp before they returned to the cottonwood tree. Leon waited under the tree while
Ken drove the truck through the deep sand to the edge of the arroyo. He
squinted up at the sun and unzipped his jacket. It sure was hot for this time
of year. But high and northwest the blue mountains
were still deep in snow. Ken came sliding down the low, crumbling bank about
fifty yards down, and he was bringing the red blanket.
Before they wrapped the old man, Leon took a
piece of string out of his pocket and tied a small gray feather in the old
man's long white hair. Ken gave him the paint. Across the brown wrinkled
forehead he drew a streak of white and along the high cheekbones he drew a
strip of blue paint. He paused and watched Ken throw pinches of corn meal and
pollen into the wind that fluttered the small gray feather. Then Leon painted
with yellow under the old man's broad nose, and finally, when he had painted
green across the chin, he smiled.
"Send us rain clouds, Grandfather."
They laid the bundle in the back of the pickup and covered it with with a heavy tarp before they started back to the pueblo.
They turned off the highway onto the sandy pueblo road. Not long after they
passed the store and post office they saw Father Paul's car coming toward them.
When he recognized their faces he slowed his car and waved for them to stop.
The young priest rolled down the car window.
"Did you find old Teofilo?"
he asked loudly.
stopped the truck. "Good morning, Father. We were just out to the sheep
camp. Everything is O.K. now."
"Thank God for that. Teofilo
is a very old man. You really shouldn't allow him to stay at the sheep camp
"No, he won't do that any more now."
"Well, I'm glad you understand. I hope I'll
be seeing you at Mass this week. We missed you last Sunday. See if you can get
old Teofilo to come with you." The priest smiled
and waved at them as they drove away.
Louise and Teresa were waiting. The table was
set for lunch, and the coffee was boiling on the black iron stove. Leon looked at
Louise and then at Teresa.
"We found him under a cottonwood tree in
the big arroyo near sheep camp. I guess he sat down to rest in the shade and
never got up again." Leon
walked toward the old man's bed.
The red plaid shawl had been shaken and spread
carefully over the bed, and a new brown flannel shirt
and pair of stiff new Levis
were arranged neatly beside the pillow. Louise held the screen door open while
Leon and Ken carried in the red blanket. He looked small and shriveled, and
after they dressed him in the new shirt and pants he seemed more shrunken.
It was noontime now because the church bells
rang the Angelus. They ate the beans with hot bread, and nobody said anything
until after Teresa poured the coffee.
stood up and put on his jacket.
"I'll see about the gravediggers. Only the
top layer of soil is frozen. I think it can be ready before dark."
nodded his head and finished his coffee. After Ken had been gone for a while,
the neighbors and clans people came quietly to embrace Teofilo's
family and to leave food on the table because the gravediggers would come to
eat when they were finished.
The sky in the west was full of pale-yellow
light. Louise stood outside with her hands in the pockets of Leon's green
army jacket that was too big for her. The funeral was over, and the old men had
taken their candles and medicine bags and were gone. She waited until the body
was laid into the pickup before she said anything to Leon. She touched his arm, and he
noticed that her hands were still dusty from the corn meal that she had
sprinkled around the old man.
When she spoke, Leon
could not hear her.
"What did you say? I didn't hear you."
"I said that I had been thinking about
"About the priest sprinkling holy
water for Grandpa. So he won't be thirsty."
stared at the new moccasins that Teofilo had made for
the ceremonial dances in the summer. They were nearly hidden by the red
blanket. It was getting colder, and the wind pushed gray dust down the narrow
pueblo road. The sun was approaching the long mesa where it disappeared during
the winter. Louise stood there shivering and watching his face. Then he zipped
up his jacket and opened the truck door. "I'll see if he's there."
Ken stopped the pickup at the church, and Leon got out;
and then Ken drove down the hill to the graveyard where people were waiting. Leon knocked at
the old carved door with its symbols of the Lamb. While he waited he looked up
at the twin bells from the king of Spain with the last sunlight
pouring around them in their tower.
The priest opened the door and smiled when he
saw who it was. "Come in! What brings you here this evening?"
The priest walked toward the kitchen, and Leon stood with
his cap in his hand, playing with the earflaps and examining the living room,
the brown sofa, the green armchair, and the brass lamp that hung down from the
ceiling by links of chain. The priest dragged a chair out of the kitchen and
offered it to Leon.
"No thank you, Father. I only came to ask
you if you would bring your holy water to the graveyard."
The priest turned away from Leon and looked
out the window at the patio full of shadows and the dining-room windows of the
nuns' cloister across the patio. The curtains were heavy, and the light from
within faintly penetrated; it was impossible to see the nuns inside eating
"Why didn't you tell me he was dead? I
could have brought the Last Rites anyway."
smiled. "It wasn't necessary, Father."
The priest stared down at his scuffed brown
loafers and the worn hem of his cassock. "For a Christian burial it was necessary."
His voice was distant, and Leon thought
that his blue eyes looked tired.
"It's O.K. Father, we just want him to have
plenty of water."
The priest sank down into the green chair and
picked up a glossy missionary magazine. He turned the colored pages full of
lepers and pagans without looking at them.
"You know I can't do that, Leon. There
should have been the Last Rites and a funeral Mass at the very least."
put on his green cap and pulled the flaps down over his ears. "It's
getting late, Father. I've got to go."
When Leon opened the door Father Paul
stood up and said, "Wait." He left the room and came back wearing a
long brown overcoat. He followed Leon out the door and across the
dim churchyard to the adobe steps in front of the church. They both stooped to
fit through the low adobe entrance. And when they started down the hill to the
graveyard only half of the sun was visible above the mesa.
The priest approached the grave slowly,
wondering how they had managed to dig into the frozen ground; and then he
remembered that this was New Mexico,
and saw the pile of cold loose sand beside the hole. The people stood close to
each other with little clouds of steam puffing from their faces. The priest looked
at them and saw a pile of jackets, gloves, and scarves in the yellow, dry
tumbleweeds that grew in the graveyard. He looked at the red blanket, not sure
that Teofilo was so small, wondering if it wasn't
some perverse Indian trick or something they did in March to ensure a good
harvest, wondering if maybe old Teofilo was actually
at sheep camp corralling the sheep for the night.
But there he was, facing into a cold dry wind
and squinting at the last sunlight, ready to bury a
red wool blanket while the faces of his parishioners were in shadow with the
last warmth of the sun on their backs. His fingers were stiff, and it took him
a long time to twist the the lid off the holy water.
Drops of water fell on the red blanket and soaked into dark icy spots. He
sprinkled the grave and the water disappeared almost before it touched the dim,
cold sand; it reminded him of something, and he tried to remember what it was
because he thought if he could remember he might understand this. He sprinkled
more water; he shook the container until it was empty, and the water fell
through the light from sundown like August rain that fell while the sun was
still shining, almost evaporating before it touched the wilted squash flowers.
The wind pulled at the priest's brown Franciscan
robe and swirled away the corn meal and pollen that had been sprinkled on the
blanket. They lowered the bundle into the ground, and they didn't bother to
untie the stiff pieces of new rope that were tied around the ends of the
blanket. The sun was gone, and over on the highway the eastbound lane was full
of headlights. The priest walked away slowly.
watched him climb the hill, and when he had disappeared within the tall, thick
turned to look up at the high blue mountains in the
deep snow that reflected a faint red light from the west. He felt good because
it was finished, and he was happy about the sprinkling of the holy water; now
the old man could send them big thunderclouds for sure.