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In the room covered with old white paint, the color is stained and looks yellow. On a tour with a small group of people, we stand uncomfortably close to one another. Our elbows touch slightly and the reaction is sudden when an older woman pulls her arm away quickly. The movement breaks the silence with sudden shifts of clothing.
The young woman who leads our group stands near a bed covered with white linens. At the foot of the bed is a small wooden table with a chair between its legs. She reveals that the woman died inside the room on the full-sized bed, and an eerie silence envelops the group again. My heart slowly beats in fear that she may still be near. I imagine the woman lying in bed, next to the window-filled room where she took her last breath one hundred years ago. The room echoes with the offbeat breath released by each visitor’s mouth.
There are trees with thick trunks lacing Amity Street to its lawns outside the house; the scent inside the house smells like wood, aged and wet. The air-conditioning keeps it cool, yet damp inside. The young woman points to the road outside the window and says, “The trees were never there.” Everyone looks to the southern window and across the road stands a 2-story bed and breakfast with grey wall paneling and white trim. Her long blonde hair glimmers in the light when I look in her direction—through the window where green vegetation of trees and grass fill the frame, like a portrait of green shrubbery made for colonial homes in the New England states. She turns her light-colored head to the window which looks like ribbons of golden sun and says, “Imagine the area with no houses and no trees—just plantation.” Her voice, soft and rehearsed, says, “Their plantation was huge. All the land across the road was theirs. They were a wealthy family until their grandfather lost his money.” She turns her ghostly pale face towards her listeners and says she wants to recite a poem. She invokes the spirit of the lady who died in the bed that she now stands by. Her voice becomes old and rhythmic when she begins to chant the poem from memory. Like a spell, her voice resonates within the white-yellowish walls and everyone becomes captivated.
We were told the woman who died in the room was quiet and that she was a recluse to society. The only visual we get of the woman is from the only picture ever taken of her. She wears a black dress with her hair perfectly placed and parted down the middle, like a mean Indian boarding school teacher with a bad temper—her white collar wraps around the neckline. The portrait makes her hair look black, but we learn her hair is naturally red. Standing in silence, I look at the portrait where her brother and sister stand, side by side, next to her and on the opposite wall is an older reflection of her parents. The resemblance is uncanny, like a reflection in a mirror. In the portrait, she stands next to her older brother and younger sister—William and Levinia.
I can see why she was a recluse. Her short, pixie-styled-bob is fiery red and she looks through me like I am the ghost. In the portrait, she looks like a character from Peter Pan. She is dressed as a girl with a boy’s cropped-top. She looks like Sandy Duncan who got lost finding Neverland while taking the first star, rather than the second—never finding Neverland ever. With Wendy and Michael by her side, she looks unhappy and like magic, she is portrayed as the boy who did not grow-up.
Did she sit in her room all those days and nights writing incantation spells? As I stand there looking around her workspace, my mind begins to wander through time—traveling back through a portal inside the window where her reflection sits at the desk, before her Book of Shadows, testing her words in privacy. The Navajos believe words are powerful. We believe one should be careful with what they say. In the creation stories, the world was made with chants. They say stories and words are so powerful they can create a ripple in time and if you retell them wrong, you could disrupt the balance of life. I sometimes wonder if I too am a sorcerer of words—a wizard, who creates magic spells with chants and rhythms, just like the writers and storytellers before me. My mind races thinking of all her beautiful images and rhythmic patterns that coexist with my indigenous heritage. Words sung in song; songs sung for healing. Could she and her mother, plus her sister, be hiding—hiding her craft from witch-hunters who sought out gifted individuals with powerful voices—I wonder.
I wonder if she thinks like me, wondering if her words could create a ripple in time, shaping beautiful sentences that could help others cope by reading magical incantations. The tour is coming to an end. Looking at the bed one last time, the reflection in the framed looking-glass mirrors the shadow of the gifted writer. I am curious to know if she, too, thought about the writers before herself, as well—people who have changed the world with enchanting words.
I’ll tell you how the sun rose
I’ll tell you how the sun rose, –
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.
The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”
But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile.
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while
Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.
Byron F. Aspaas lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a senior at the Institute of American Indian Arts where he creates creative nonfiction using vivid details of the desert landscape. As a Navajo (Diné), Byron has learned to use his creativity to form sensory detail within his readers’ minds. As a writer, he hopes to enroll in graduate school and incorporate the tools his mentors (Evelina Lucero, James Stevens, and Jon Davis) have given him.