“A story? I’ll give you a happy one and a sad one.” She sits on a stool behind a long counter, displaying the most silver and turquoise I’ve witnessed in a single space. Her short gray hair and beautifully draped purple blouse suggest sophistication. Uncommon in Gallup, New Mexico.
But this trading post is not common.
“Okay,” I say, not sure what to anticipate but pleased that she’s open to my request. I’ve just cradled a carved turquoise bear in my palm as big as a croquet ball. Introspection. That’s the medicine of a Zuni bear fetish. A writer’s medicine, but the bear’s price-tag reads he won’t be going home with me.
I’ll settle for a story from this turquoise wonderland called Richardson’s Trading Co.
“There’s no place like this,” she begins.
The showroom is a fraction of the vaults that hold family heirlooms on pawn. I can glimpse through a partially open door and see rows upon rows of squash blossom necklaces, silver concho belts and endless pegs holding silver and turquoise. It’s a Navajo Gringots.
What follows is the fictionalized happy story this woman shared over the course of several conversations (because I had to return to fondle the bear again):
A boy squats in the dirt along side a Navajo man who is smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. They sit on the shaded side of the adobe building, watching the wagons kick up dust. Three women in colorful skirts, their black hair tied up in maiden fashion, laugh at a story one tells. The man nudges the boy and speaks in Navajo.
The boy smiles. “You’re just trying to make me laugh, Uncle.”
“The beauty way does not look for dust and tears. What beauty do you see this day?”
“I just see my Pa loading up the last of our wagons.” The boy studied his dirty boots, not wanting to watch.
“Look at Norma Jean. See how her skirt falls just at the top of her moccasin?”
“See how the green velvet shimmers with the beam of sunlight?”
The boy looked and noticed the light on the material. He saw motes of dust in the light and followed it upward where it dappled among the round green leaves of the tall cottonwoods. “Her skirt catches the light like the leaves. Kind of flows like it, too.”
“This is good. This is the beauty way.”
“But I don’t want to leave Tuba City. Why can’t we live with the Navajo? Why can’t I live with you, Uncle?”
“You are biligaana. This is land of the Dine. God’s children.”
“Pa says we can’t trade any more here because we’re white on white.”
The man nodded. “Trading here is for Dine. Sheep for pots, pots for sheep. Your father will start a new trade in Gallup.”
“They say Gallup is black with coal dust.”
“I have been to this Gallup. It’s where my father and others started the Long Walk. It has cliffs like Tłéé íigahiis’óóz.”
“White at night? You mean the flower my Ma calls a primrose?”
The man shrugged and rolled a fresh cigarette. “Could be. You see Norma Jean’s moccasins below her skirt?”
“Yes. Looks like a rabbit skin cuff. One of those snowshoe rabbit skins from up north.”
“Yes. The cliffs are white like that, but watch them carefully. They will change colors.”
“You have to watch them. They change.”
“What colors do the turn?”
“You have to watch them.”
“Because they are beautiful.”
The boy moved away to Gallup, his family among the last of the horse and buggy traders to the Navajo Nation. His father established a trading post in their family name. Gallup had coal, to be sure. It also had rowdy saloons where men drank and played cards. In rooms upstairs there were painted women. They wore shiny material brighter than the colorful velvet of the Navajo. But the boy liked the way the sunlight pooled in velvet. It was deep, and the satin just shiny, a distraction. The boy grew up, watching the cliffs. At first he thought his friend, the one he called Uncle, told him a tall tale. The cliffs were just white.
Or whitish. Yet, sometimes they glowed with a light blush when the sun set at a certain slant. One spring night the boy saw them in the moonlight and understood the connection between the glow of the cliffs and that of the paper-thin primrose that opened in the cool night air. He began to ride his horse along the cliffs and meet with the traders at a place called Church Rock. He wondered why it was called that, and began to look at the shapes of the cliffs. He began to note different forms that changed with shadows. Light revealed stripes, and one summer day the boy followed them up a canyon. That’s where he met the girl with hair as glossy as a fine chestnut horse. She laughed when he told her so. “As long as you think horse are beautiful,” she told him.
After the Great War where he saw much blood, machinery and destruction, he wept upon returning to the cliffs near Gallup, to his father’s trading post and to his girl, now the woman he’d marry. The first thing he noticed were the colors of the cliffs. Why had he studied them so hard when it was so obvious? They changed color throughout the day, and day by day. He took his bride on a walk up the canyon and they watched a monsoon poor over its ledge. They were soaked, but he felt refreshed, alive. That’s when he took over his father’s trading post and began to fill it with the most beautiful things he could.
When he bought rugs, he noticed the colors of each weave and how no rug was alike. When examining squash blossom necklaces one day, he over heard a customer say they all looked alike. “No, look,” he said and proceeded to point out the shapes, colors and crevices of each nugget of turquoise. He greatly admired the Navajo silversmiths who could shape the metal into new forms, etching bracelets differently and yet portraying the ancient sacredness of the symbols. The trader began to gain a reputation as an art collector. He also opened a pawn the newspapers called “The Navajo Bank.” He safeguarded Navajo heirlooms and sold art to the new customers.
First the train came to Gallup, after the coal mines tunneled the place. Fort Wingate which had been at the base of the Continental Divide (or the Top of the World as Uncle called it) expanded closer to Gallup and stored ammunition by the acres. Route 66 connected Chicago to Los Angeles. It became a stopover between Las Vegas and Albuquerque. When movie people began pouring into town to film out on the Big Reservation, Gallup catered to stars and production crews. The trader extended his expertise to historical and cultural items. And he sold Navajo rugs and baskets, Zuni fetishes, Hopi pottery and Southwest Pueblo silver to those who flocked to his trading post.
Route 66 was diverted, the trains added more tracks and tourists and Hollywood crews diminished. Saudi investors began selling Navajos and other artists beads and turquoise from China. They sold knockoffs online. Yet the trader continued to safeguard heirlooms, expanded cases like a growing museum and sold authentic gallery pieces. One day, he asked his employee, a bilagaana woman to sit on the floor with him in the Navajo Rug Room. $200 million dollars worth of pawn, art and jewelry now sat in five blocks worth of building. In the Navajo Rug Room, a single rug averaged $6,000. The trader and his ensuing generations wanted for nothing — they all had fine houses, cars, college educations. Yet he sat on the floor, told her to look up and describe the colors she saw.
He said, “It’s beautiful. And the colors always change.”
This is the impression of a story that came to me from the employee who told me her boss was the last of the horse and buggy traders, forced to move from where his family traded because they were white and the land reverted back to its rightful owners. Only native traders could continue, or those whites who married natives. He opened this trading post and he did ask her to sit with him on the floor and marvel at the beauty. She said he never lost the wonder of how beautiful it all was.
She smiles at me and her eyes tear up. She smiles one of those tight forced smiles. “Now want to hear the sad story?”
“Okay,” I say, already feeling the sting of tears in response.
“Yesterday, Mr. Richardson died at the age of 98. When this place goes, and it will, there will be no more Gallup.”
I understand her point. I understand business and economics. I understand life wavers. But there will always be beauty and changing colors in those cliffs. There will always be Gallup, in one form or another. And the Dine will be there, walking the Navajo Beauty Way.
This week, I took ownership of the turquoise bear the only way I know how — I gave it to Danni in this week’s flash addition to my WIP, Miracle of Ducks.
May 11, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about trading. It can be the profession of old or of modern day traders on Wall Street. It can be trading places or lunches at school. What is traded? Is it a fair deal or a dupe? Trade away and go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by May 16, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 17). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
From a Trader (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Well, the bear fetish is invaluable during times of change. Turquoise is the stone of protection,” Danni explained.
Michael held it in his palm. “Bear is the Guardian of the West.”
Danni didn’t want to spoil their newly agreed truce. For Ike’s sake. Yet, it was also for Ike’s sake she’d placed the Zuni fetish by his photo. Keep him safe, Danni thought.
“Powerful medicine. Good totem for Ike in Iraq.”
Danni waited for the question she knew he’d ask.
“Where did you come by this?”
“A trader in Gallup.”
Michael’s grasp tensed. “Stolen. Danni, your bear needs cleansing.”