Room 407

When the grief crawled to campus, wandering and wilted, we didn’t understand it at first. Flashing colors burst brightly across our screens, blinding and blunt in their chaos. Words like angel gone and forever with wings framed the paintings of corn maidens caught dancing in slow motion. I had seen the paintings in passing before, whether the ethereal women graced museum walls, rigid in their pride, or were swept through the school corridors in swaths of Navajo rug dresses. Their hands were never left empty; instead, they always carried jeweled dragonflies in their palms, hummingbirds, or listened as sparrows sang in their ears. Other times, they carried pottery teetering high onto twisted buns, throwing back trills of laughter and tiny peace signs. They were there, front and center, when the news rippled out to everyone:

“Beloved Pueblo Artist Found Dead.”

            In a flicker of news reports tumbling across the internet, so too, flew pictures of her, nurturing a future from a palette of colors and her own two hands. In one image, she stood in the silhouette of her painting, an upturned smile betraying stern eyes. In another, a blood-orange scarf crowned loose brunette curls as her eyes twinkled into tiny half-moons. In the final photo, she was crowned with turquoise, her braids thrown over each shoulder, and her cheeks circled in bright vermilion.

We did not know what to do with the grief smoking its way into our chests and burying itself in our bellies. The swarm of emails trickling into our student accounts beckoned us forward through invitations to campus, but the ebb and flow of illness kept others on edge.

Still, some took up their offers. Others found safety in articles, burrowing into the unknown facts still to be unearthed. Even more found each other within messages and check-ins, are you here? answered immediately back with yes, let’s talk. Even in the era of separation, we still found ways to mend our broken tethers.

Yet, instead of meetings or check-ins, my grief latched me within the edges of Albuquerque, kept me a constant stranger, kept me on the outside looking in. Grief carried me to my motorcycle, strapped on my helmet, and eased me out into the chill of another autumn in the desert. It kicked me into second gear, then third, then fourth, following each vein leading dutifully to the center of the city.

Grief met me there, at the footbridge of the hotel where she’d brought her corn maidens towering to life under her fingertips, where they stood even now, waiting in the moonglow with open arms.

The longer I stood at the footbridge, beneath the falling autumn leaves, the more I began to feel something else, too, that wasn’t grief, anger, or confusion. It was that, somewhere, behind the neon orange lights, worn out travelers dragging luggage cases, and the swirls of brushstrokes from countless artists, a part of her still persisted there, alive, in the arms of the women of room 407.

Brianna G. Reed is a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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