Photo by VIKI EAGLE
byron f. aspaas
I consider my employment at Colorado College my Bruce Wayne job. From what I can remember about Bruce Wayne, he trained for years before becoming Batman. For how long? I don’t remember. But, what I can say is that, like Bruce Wayne, I too trained. I trained with different masters—masters with different methods in different elements by different influences at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Hidden in the palms of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Jemez Mountains, I spent four years training. I began with a curiosity towards personal narrative, a personal discourse that included me as the narrator of a story about my mom who laid in her bed, at home, while my family gathered around her withering body. In my mind, I began to weave my/her story with words using my/her voice in print with hopes that maybe, just maybe, my nieces and nephews and hopefully my siblings, too, would experience my/their mom, their grandma, through the words I transcribed through my/her memory.
But, at age 33, how was I to write my/her story if my own fear of writing about my/her life began with broken grammar? How could I reveal my/her past through words I could not read myself, nor understand? This fear of stumbling, fear of falling, fear of embarrassment, gathered around me like those foes who surrounded the Batman when he laid flat on his back, in a submissive manner, as he reminisced of failure as a child. How could I enroll back into college, as a full-time student, when failure hindered my own attendance once before?
At times, I feel these degrees I obtained were partly a mistake by those who pushed me out of their school systems. At times, I feel these stories I write are not written correctly: My grammar wrong, my usage of language wrong, my tenses wrong. Who knows? Maybe Bruce Wayne was wrong, himself? Maybe Bruce Wayne could not write, either? Maybe this was my way into being a Bruce Wayne. I mean, never do we witness Bruce Wayne writing, except, maybe, when he signed those million dollar checks. Never do we see him read, either. Maybe Alfred read for him? Who knows? Maybe that’s why there was a bat symbol instead of the words. Maybe he was lazy, like me, and felt like an aging 39-year-old man with a childhood aggression towards the English language. Maybe it was/is too hard to learn for him, as well.
Let’s face it, I am no Bruce Wayne. My family was never rich. My siblings and I grew up in a four-bedroom home with ten family members and a rez-dog named Chili, plus multiple rez-cats that never passed the age of six. Our cookie-cutter home was built and decorated by the Navajo Housing Authority—this was made possible by the US Government. Every weekend we experienced the loss of our dad when he left and returned to work. Fifty weeks out of the year for 13 years, to a coal mine 100 miles away, he left. When, in fact, a coal mine and power plant were nestled only 8 miles away. Why couldn’t Dad get a job there? Like Bruce Wayne, my education did begin at a boarding school, an Indian Boarding School, when I was too young to attend the elementary school 100 yards away from our front door. Maybe Dad was too young to obtain a job closer to home, as well?
I work as a barista. The job I consider my Bruce Wayne job supplemented a small income during my final year of graduate school. Here, I work for a growing company at a private college in Colorado Springs. After graduating with my masters, I decided to keep this job as a coffee aficionado. Like all my jobs before obtaining this Bruce Wayne identity, I knew nothing about being a barista. I knew very little about making lattes or prepping Americanos or foaming cappuccinos—I faked my interview. I faked it like I faked my smile when I served my first cup of soupy foam to a middle-aged, platinum-blonde woman in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It happened during the summer of 2010, where I remember this woman arching her drawn eyebrows over and above her gold Ray Bans. The look of disapproval she gave to me ignited the look of embarrassment across my face when she asked, What the hell is this supposed to be? I stood there in the patio of Harry’s Roadhouse, at table 76, where the sun roasted my neck and the hollyhocks shook with laughter when I answered, Your cappuccino?
Mom and I sat in our dining room under the vintage lighting of the five-stem chandelier. The warmth of this lighting illuminated the vintage coffee pots, the orange pumpkins, and the green and yellow squash that dotted the wallpaper around us. The scent of coffee filled our home at 10 o’clock after I surprised Mom with a visit from college.
After relocating to a dorm, 400 miles south, at New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, this was my first visit home. It was Labor Day Weekend of 1994, when a friend invited me and my best friend, Pam, to accompany her on an 8-hour drive back to the Four Corners region. With no school, no responsibility, no smelly bíligaana roommate to bother me, Pam and I excitedly agreed to follow our friend back to our families up north.
At 17, I was a freshman in college, a freshman with no experience outside the realms of the Navajo reservation. At 17, I was a freshman with no experience away from my family, away from Mom and Dad. I never told my family I missed them. I never told my mom and dad I loved them. I wanted to be an adult—adults never showed emotion, or at least that’s what I thought and experienced. I knew they loved me. They just never said it.
Mom’s eyes squinted with confusion when I asked her to make a pot of coffee after I arrived. When it was done brewing, she poured two cups of coffee: one for her; one for me. Dad was away at work, but an empty cup awaited him for when he showed. “Do you take cream and sugar?” Mom asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“A lot,” I laughed.
After handing me my cup of milky water, Mom sat down. As she placed her cup to her mouth, her eyes winced. For a moment, I thought she made her coffee too sweet or maybe it was too hot, but, then, a slurp escaped from within the ceramic cave of her hand. She placed the coffee cup onto the wooden table, then proceeded to ask me more about my coffee habits at school. I described the coffee shop we visited on El Paseo, I described the first coffee drink a man made for me from “expresso” and raspberry and chocolate. He called it a Black Forest, I said.
“What’s expresso,” she asked.
“Coffee,” I said.
In all honesty, I had no idea what expresso was either, except, expresso is what the biligaana kids drank on TV while they sat on that red couch at Central Perk. They drank cappuccinos, too. But I didn’t tell Mom that because she would’ve asked about their jobs and their lives and how I knew them. She asked if I drank coffee regularly. I nodded with the cup near my mouth. It was silent for a moment, before she questioned me, “You know why I think you like coffee?” There was a tone in her voice that was sincere and calm. Her eyes were soft and almond. She said, “I think it’s because Grandpa Parker used to give it to you.”
“Grandpa Parker?” I said.
“Aóó,” she said. Aóó, she said like I understood Navajo, like I knew how to respond in a language she only spoke to Dad. Mom continued, “Grandpa Parker used to give you sips of his coffee when you were just a baby.” A crease pushed up against her eyes like brown fabric pushed up inside a sewing machine and a smile unfolded around her mouth when she said, “You were just a baby then.”
I smiled at her memory.
“You were just old enough to walk,” she giggled. “You were like a baby monkey who climbed up his pants and onto his lap. You’d sit there like a little old man with a cup inside those small hands.”
“All you would hear was slurping and all you would see were those big eyes behind that big cup, just as you look now, son.” Mom continued to smile as she held her cup with both hands, near her lips. Then, she looked out the window and into the darkness of night. She faded into memory and whispered, “Parker’s coffee was so white with milk and so sweet with sugar, Sonny. It’s no wonder you drank from his cup. It was probably like drinking a hot milkshake.” Then, she looked to me with a half-smile. “You drink your coffee just like Parker, too.”
For a moment, it was quiet before we looked upon each other and realized where we were. Sitting in Mom’s kitchen/dining room, we crinkled our eyes with smiles that hid behind our coffee cups while we waited for Dad to return.
I never told Mom, but this was my first adult-moment that I remember sharing with her. I never told her because adults did not share these emotions when they drank coffee. I never told Mom we pronounced espresso wrong, either, probably because I did not know as well.
Each day, I wear a black polo with black slacks and a striped apron wrapped around my waist. This is my daily costume, my uniform, my fake-self that detours any suspicion of my true identity as Batman. Each day, I arrive to work promptly at 7:30 a.m. Sometimes, I arrive at 7:33 a.m. Sometimes, at 7:32 a.m. From what I’ve experienced, it is not good to gloat about your life, or your home-life. Remain quiet and be fake-you. People will think you are mysterious. No one will connect Bruce Wayne to Batman if you have imperfections.
I used to lock myself inside the girls’ bathroom of our home. We called it the girls’ bathroom because it was filled with my sisters’ gels, lotions, perfumes, and hairsprays. This bathroom was the color of a jungle, laced with blacked cords which strung to hairdryers and curling irons and to a gray boom box that sat on the towel rack, next to the mirror. This boom box had no brand name, which made it easily forgotten. It wasn’t like Aaron’s Panasonic that sat in the boys’ bathroom, which had two tape decks and two HiFi speakers. This boom box that sat inside the girls’ bathroom had a single deck in the middle and a tuning knob on its left side. There were two speakers, but no HiFi. This boom box was given to me on my 10th birthday, and it sat in the girls’ bathroom for almost 10 years.
As a 5th grader, I used to watch my brother, Aaron, dress to impress, as they would say. Aaron was labeled as Best Dressed inside his 8th grade yearbook. His photo was decorated with a white girl next to him, who had fluffy blonde bangs and a polo shirt with a popped collar. She wore a stone-washed denim coat as an accessory. Aaron’s hair was parted and feathered into a black plumage of silky barbs, layered to fan around his oval face, vaned feathers placed to not cover the contours of his smile—a smile that complemented the dance he strutted, this dance the girls wrote about inside the sleeve of his annual.
Now, as a mid-school student, now in 6th grade, I realized I was no Aaron when I tried to dance and failed miserably. No one noticed my strut. No one noticed my contours. Maybe because I wasn’t Aaron. Maybe because my plumes were designed just a little different.
As usual, I locked myself inside the girls’ bathroom when no one was home, and I turned the radio on only to tune out. There I stood on the wooden stool Dad made for us as children; my stomach flat against the sink. Then, with a thrust, I flanked my body upon the porcelain sink like a beached mermaid with her tail dangling off the edge. I plugged my sister’s curling iron in and began studying my face, which was flushed against the mirror; my eyes looked for me inside my nose, inside my chin, and inside my lips which were traced by the tips of my index finger. It was the first time I puckered and kissed someone. I got scared and jumped down when I realized it was me.
Inside the locked doors of my green sanctuary, I sat with the sounds bouncing off each wall. My mind drifted into the boom box when I grabbed a glob of hair. With each pull, I rolled the hairs down to the barrel of the iron and waited—that’s what Trudy did each day. Before long, strands became rows of popcorn when I questioned myself: Why wasn’t I pretty like Aaron? Why don’t girls like me like they like Aaron? How do I change myself? I twirled my body around like Kevin Bacon in Footloose and thrusted my hips like George Michael. But, it was Open Your Heart that played on the radio and I was home alone, so I sang. I sang loud. I sang like a Madonna, who stripped down to her underwear and performed a strip-tease for an audience of one in the mirror, me. My black curls bounced when I skipped from one side of the bathroom and onto the bathtub. When I sat down, I lifted each leg seductively. My performance included some twirls, some shimmies, and a few high kicks. My brown nipples studded my naked torso—just as Madonna’s golden studs decorated her black corset. It was the first time I performed inside this green box where a brown Madonna appeared and opened her heart like a virgin who was touched for the very first time.
For years, I continued to change myself just like how Madonna changed throughout the decades. Was she as confused as me? Does she have an identity to hide, as well? Or, did she change for herself? As time passed, I continued to dance in the secrecy of my own little box, whichever color it would be. With each appearance, I contorted my body into questionable positions where I felt uneasy about myself for trying to be someone else. Mom looked at me weird. Dad looked at me weird. Why was I doing this to please myself? Why did I color my hair a brassy blonde when the box simply stated platinum? Why did I transform my accent to sound like some dude from California? Why did I change my eyes with plastic lens that gave me a mixed-blood’s quality? Who was I embarrassed of? Who was I changing for?
My brother, Aaron, died at age 17. I was 13. For two years, I watched my big brother’s silky hair fall out like plumes within a torn pillow. I witnessed bruises form on his leg when cancer began hitting harder inside his body. I watched my parents fight, my siblings grow sad, and witnessed Aaron struggle to stay awake. For once, I did not want to be Aaron and for some odd reason, I wondered if Aaron wanted to be Aaron, because Aaron began to wither away. Who was I going to grow up to be when Aaron was not around? Who can I mimic next?
With the doors closed, there are red eyes that peek through the small windows of the coffee shop. Tattered hair with furry faces and ponytails corralled around the student commons. Students in yoga pants, students in sweat pants, sleep-deprived students standing shoeless and thoughtless; they knock at the door relentlessly: Are you open yet?
When the doors open, each kid stammers through the small cracks, and they push forward like zombies, stumbling and dribbling, only to form a line of customers wanting caffeine. Like droplets of espresso, they flow into a stream that puddles into the commons. Drip by drip, each student sputters and hisses an order for a coffee and pastry or coffee and a bagel or a smoothie with espresso added. The continuous pour of customers is endless until 9:30 a.m., two hours away.
A long time ago, there were monsters in our land that meandered with no boundaries, no rules. These monsters were big and mean. They scared the people with the ugliness they exuded. These monsters crippled the people. They weakened their thoughts by ways of coaxing and cajoling. Help did not exist.
When I was a child, I once took 2nd place in a math contest in 4th grade. Lathan beat me out of first place when I guessed the wrong answer. I remember Lathan was retained in 8th grade. He kicked me in the balls for laughing at him. I think my little brother, Myron, and him were good friends. Supposedly in the same grade as Myron, I think Lathan dropped out of high school. I don’t know whatever happened to him after I graduated. Myron might know. I don’t want to guess the wrong answer, again.
In 5th grade, my science project won first place. At age 9, volcanoes exploded into my life—after visiting the Helens site in 1986. Dad did the artwork and built my display boards. Mom stayed up late creating the aesthetics of yellow on black, while she typed my research paper. I prepared for my presentation. Three, my eldest brother, made Mt. St. Helens with Plaster of Paris. He designed this model and created ridges with a snowcapped mountain. When I gave my demonstration, it was I who presented my work, my board, my artwork, my model, and spoke about the magma and lava inside the earth which resulted in igneous and pumice formations. It was I who lit the match that caused Mt. St. Helens to erupt once more. It was I who had my classmates captivated with a display of bellowing smoke and plumes of ash. It was I who won the 5th grade science project. Not my dad or mom or my eldest brother, Three. It was I who brought Mt. St. Helens back to life for my friends, my classmates. It was my head that exploded like a zit—never thanking those who rightfully won the science fair, not me.
I once stole a bag of matches and burned a field of Russian thistle. This included a cottonwood tree. As a child, I crawled through caves of darkness that led to a small opening on the side of a cliff, I called for Bloody Mary, smoked cigarettes made of hay, burned ants with a magnifying glass, put gum in Calandra’s panties, wore my sister’s panties, flung a classmate’s panties on the bus ride home, drank hairspray, huffed gas, played roulette with a 22-rifle bullet, ate a bag of Hatch green chile, ran naked in the neighborhood, played house, played chicken, fractured my arm by jumping off a house, killed animals, killed animals, killed animals, peed on ants, destroyed grasshoppers, watched the solar eclipse, ate during the lunar eclipse, slept during the partial eclipse; I talked to the dead and played with the dead, I welcomed the dead, too.
What if I left those matches alone?
Make it go back, make it all go back, put it back where it belongs.
Would I be who I am today for you?
New monsters reveal themselves from inside old crypts and mausoleums. Tall basilicas glitter with colorful gems—green, yellow, black—to honor this new god with ancient resources and fresh petitions. It’s a new orthodox, a new practice of swinging a thurible of smog to bless those within its pathway. Its heart is fueled by a coal that cannot be asphyxiated. Old bones ash the sky with stories occupied by coyote; feathers and reeds and water are now myth. This new world has no chapters no hero no journey, it contains no reflection and writes itself as we speak. This book it carries is bounded with night and is transcribed by day. This papal, these behemoths, they walk in skins of the unseen. This new world begins now.
I woke up hungover in Rawlins, Wyoming. It was the wind who shook the trailer and woke me. I made a pot of coffee before realizing my brain pounded against the temples of its walls. After drinking a cup of coffee, or two, I stood in the shower hoping the banging would stop. With my head shoved against the stall, I realized it was me banging my hands, not my head banging, bang-bang. Wet and naked, I curled over the toilet, hugging the porcelain and realized urine slimed onto my hands. I threw up. I threw up into the toilet of our communal bathroom. Like a busted sewer line, brown liquid flushed itself outward and into the pool of water. Maybe it was the liquor that wanted out, first.
In 2000, a woman called me asking how I knew James Barrett. I told her he was my physics instructor. She said James was her classmate in college. We spoke for a little while before she offered me a job with the Bureau of Land Management, as a Civil Engineer Intern. That summer, for the first time, I packed my Pontiac Lemans and left my home on the reservation. For the first time, I drove myself towards the Colorado Rockies and experienced the Wolf Creek Pass alone. Pinnacles of leafless trees covered the bald dome of this great mountain. Water spewed sporadically off the edges of Highway 160, where remnants of snow spotted in shadows, and for the first time, I witnessed the landscape change from desert brown to green to copper then back to forest green then barren. I bookmarked each color and bookmarked each flash of memory.
It was towards the end of summer, when I finally built up enough courage to sing karaoke. To be drunk made me believe I was as handsome as Tim McGraw. But honestly, I stood staggering against the bar as the drunken Indian from Navajo Country. In Wyoming, my brown skin was noticeable. When my co-workers called me Chief, I responded light-heartedly. It did not bother me. My brother was a Chief, my sister was a Chief, my cousins were all Chiefs. They all attended the same school in Shiprock, New Mexico. It was okay to be a Chief. They were trained to believe a Chieftain displayed strength and community, we were Indian—it’s okay.
I stood against the sink, smelling of liquor and coffee. My stomach quivered against the cold porcelain. With the mirror centimeters away from my nose, I saw red eyes glaring back at me. My body rolled backwards, then forward, naked. The throb in my head followed me into the kitchen and into the living room, then back into my bedroom. There was no one in the trailer but me when I realized my roommates were gone. I forgot Bobby went to visit his girlfriend in Denver and Nathaniel left back home to Nebraska. I was in a drunken haze when they told me the night before, but I remembered when I walked to my car and realized my keys were on the floor of Nathaniel’s car. Shit! Two days in Rawlins. No car. Five-miles from town. Shit!
Luckily there was food in the kitchen. While walking around inside the barracks, as they called it, boredom began to settle in. I began flipping through TV channels. Nothing was on, but one channel from Casper. I began flipping through magazines. Nothing caught my attention. Finally, I began to flip through the living room cupboards where romance novels were nested. Pictures of half-naked men with women were plastered on each book. Through and through, I found more romance novels—nothing stood out, until one book presented itself. The tattered white cover was almost brown. The color of each page was worn with age. The purple ink that colored the printed house and its tree were accompanied with big bold letters: The Color Purple.
I only knew of The Color Purple because we watched it at the Centennial Twin Theater. Whoopie Goldberg appeared as Celie, in 1985. It was Trudy who corralled us into the movie theater. She waited for Oprah Winfrey to appear on the big screen, as opposed to her 4 o’clock ritual of watching the Oprah’s talk show on the small screen.
While sitting on the couch inside the Barracks, I began to read the first page. Within an hour, I was 30 pages in. Never had I read a book before. In high school I was forced to read Frankenstein, The Hobbit, and The Old Man and the Sea. I can tell you now, I have no clue what each book was about. I hated reading. It baffled me to know people read books for fun, let alone write for enjoyment.
I found myself smiling at the images bursting in my head. One cup of coffee turned into more as I continued to sift through each page. Then, came night. I woke the next morning to a few more chapters left of the book to read. Laughter continued to fester when scenes of the movie popped to mind as I continued reading. Then, my heart swelled when Celie was treated poorly. I cried aloud. I cried by myself. Never had I read a book before with such conviction. Never had I read a book on my own. Never had I read.
When summer ended, I returned home for my final year at San Juan College. It was my year to take Advanced Composition. As it turned out, my professor wasn’t known for leniency. This I did not know until it was too late to drop out. Dr. Connie Jacobs exercised her class with nightly written assignments and daily reading tasks. Somehow, I kept up. When Dr. Jacobs spoke about Shakespeare, I responded about Shakespeare. When Dr. Jacobs spoke about short stories, I responded with a short story. Somehow, I kept up for fear of falling behind. It was during mid-semester that Dr. Jacobs introduced a lecture I knew nothing about: Native American Literature. I remember reading Simon Ortiz and not knowing Indians were writers. I was confused. She asked me to read a poem that I did not understand. This woman who wrote the assigned poem visited San Juan College. It was part of our grade to attend, so I went. In the auditorium, this little Navajo lady came out in a broom skirt and feathered white curls in her hair. She spoke with such elegance and wisdom about the old ways. I remember her jewelry sparkled from where I was sitting. She was definitely Navajo. She said she was from Shiprock, and I was astonished. Never in my life did I know a Navajo could be a writer. I listened to her words carefully and heard for the first time a word of beauty: serene. It was a moment I could not forget. Her reflection about the desert and her knowledge of the Navajo-life was so big, it was hard to imagine this coming from such a petite woman. As she closed out her reading, she read the poem that Dr. Jacobs assigned me to read. It was then I realized the importance behind the poem—that culture sits inside our voice. Lucy Tapahonso wrote “Hills Brothers Coffee” which made me look at myself for the first time. It was “Hills Brothers Coffee” that made me appreciate the voice of my accent which is conveyed in our culture and within my personal journey as a Diné.
That next summer, I returned to Rawlins with new eyes. I returned to the barracks with a few more books to read and finished them over the summer months. There was a serenity of the landscape, in Wyoming, that only I could see because it reminded me of home and appreciation for desert beauty. This land, the wind, the sunset, the clouds, the grasshopper, my family, and all other beings became important to embrace as I incorporated each within the words of my own narrative. With this experience, I began to appreciate my own voice—even if it sounded funny to those foreign to my homeland, Dinétah.
Ałkidąą, two Monster Slayers were born. Both were given life to save the people of their calamities, their devastations, their self-righteousness. In some Diné stories, people will tell you the Monster Slayers were born to Changing Woman and her sister, White Shell Woman. In other Diné stories, people will say White Shell Girl grew into Changing Woman, who then birthed each twin. Some people will tell you the slayers were cousins or cousin-brothers. In either story, the twin warriors, Naayéé’ Neizghání adóó Tóbájíshchíní, destroyed all Yeíís.
How they were born became not important because our people survived and we lived to retell it. Some will tell you the Sun fathered the Monster Slayer, Naayéé’ Neizghaání. Others will say the Water fathered the child with no name, the Child Born of Water. It is said, this child, Tóbájíshchíní has no description, he has no gender. He was fluid, like water.
There are no right or wrong stories—just stories—and like many storytellers, I transcribe nonfiction from memory. There may be flaws. Like many storytellers, nonfiction is accompanied by fiction to fill in empty space.
Where are the Monster Slayers, jíní.
A language of fluidity happens when my co-workers and I become silent and our movements speak with action and a rhythmic cadence that beats in words of a lyric or a poem or motion. With three baristas spinning in cycles, we each have learned to watch one another’s pace. Like dancers, we waltz while foaming milk, we spin as we swirl crema, we glide as we prepare the next drink. Thrice becomes us while we transform into a trifecta of performers who practice a different choreographed dance each day.
Beth is a morning barista like I am. She began work two weeks after I started my job. For a moment, it was the blind leading the blind—I knew nothing about coffee, I lied during the interview process, I’m not really a barista—this job was new to me as it was new to her. My knowledge about being a coffee connoisseur was minimal. If I knew where things were located—I showed her. If I knew where things were supposed to be—I showed her. I showed Beth around only because our supervisor sporadically disappeared and our manager knew nothing about how to operate his espresso machines. This is how Beth and I learned from each another. During those short times alone, Beth and I became acquainted. What she learned from me was procedure. What I learned from her was creativity.
In Tennessee, Beth was a barista as a college student. Currently, she is a college graduate with a degree in Journalism. Her know-hows of being a barista are based on flavorful methods of her last job in Maryville. This is something I admired; this is something I wanted. Beth was not afraid to mix her concoctions: Splash a little of this, splash a little of that. Pour milk, steam, voila! To Beth, this process was simple. For me, my fear of wasting product daunted my willingness to play with coffee. This art-form she practiced transfixed my fear of toying with tastes: Don’t be afraid.
As a child, there was a TV show called The Torkelsons. Every week, I found myself reserving the time to watch this sitcom. I was 12, maybe 13, when this southern family appeared on the screen with their southern accents and southern characteristics. I don’t know why I was fond of this show. Maybe because Dorothy Jane was my age and spoke to a man in the moon during each episode. Her voice was funny to my ears. It was something new to me—even the Man in the Moon made no sense. Remember, I grew up in the desert where there were no forests, no lakes, no peachy tea or old Victorian homes. Instead, I grew up in the desert where there were endless lakes of sand, a forest of Russian thistle and bullheads, Navajo Tea, and government HUD homes.
What I loved about Beth was the hidden antiquity inside her storytelling. Like Dorothy Jane Torkelson, Beth spoke with the same inflection when she became lost within herself through memory. Each deep aqua-marine thought bubbled to the surface when she spoke about cicadas in the Ozarks, cicadas in the summer, chipmunks and frogs as pets, and Nanna Dolly adventures. Who’d a thought a chipmunk could befriend anyone. Thanks to Disney cartoons, my only witness to friendly forest critters did happen in Technicolor. I mean, Beth does look like a princess. Her hair drizzles like caramel down her backside; her husband is blonde and handsome like a chiseled prince. She has two valiant dogs. And, she now lives in a cottage in the mountains. As a Diné man experiencing these moments of Beth, I am living my childhood episodes as a 39-year-old man. They’re really happening—to me.
I am fortunate to have Beth as my current dance partner at work. She has been teaching me how to shimmy and how to shake and swirl and spin while repeating to myself: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Like Batman, she too has a secret identity these college students have no clue about. To them, she has an accent. To them, I have an accent. We serve them. She is not a journalist. I am not a writer.
At the sunrise of my life, my mom pushed me into the education system. Because of my young age, I was involuntarily placed at Nenahenzah Boarding School, not Ojo Amarillo Elementary School. At five years old, I was probably the youngest kindergarten student in class when Mr. Benally became my teacher. In first grade, I remember seeing poster boards with Bill and Jane and their friends, Ted and Sue. I remember trying to read their activities, but couldn’t because what they looked like was more interesting. Their white skin and blonde hair and blue eyes were fascinating. I admit, I was never good at reading, nor was I great at writing. Sometimes I question my ability now. What I can admit, however, is my handwriting is perfect. My spelling? Not so much.
In 7th grade I was asked to spell balcony during a spelling bee.
Sit down, Byron, my teacher snapped.
From then on, I became self-conscious of my faults with the English language and aware of each error. I did not understand why. How does this work? How do you know when? I wanted to be smart like my friends, so I pretended to know English; and yet, still did not understand. Sometimes, I feel I am still pretending.
There were moments when I stood in front of my childhood peers where fear filled me with shaking and trembling. I was too scared to read my story aloud. My mouth ached with dryness as words scratched their way out of my throat and jumped onto sentences that hung each letter on the gallows of my tongue—lifeless. With each word tremor, my classmates giggled at my expense while fear began to develop from embarrassment.
On August 13, 2015, I stood outside our new home that we are now occupying. The sun was arched high in the evening sky and the clouds blotted the earth with shadow. I looked around our yard where a jungle of plants carpeted the ground with vegetation. Trees stood overgrown because of the Male Rain—each summer, the Male Rain visits with his thrashing and clapping essence. With the ground damp, vegetation is easy to pull from the wet soil of the yard.
Never have I experienced a yard like this. Growing up in a desert within a rural community, I wasn’t accustomed to grass or trees or fancy weeds that don’t prick your fingers. Instead, I grew up around the desert sands where mounds of tumble weeds were full of desert creatures. The community I grew up in is called Ojo Amarillo. Geographically, it sits on the contours of the San Juan Basin, which neighbors the city of Farmington. Every year, the trees decorate the valley below where the San Juan River snakes and coils itself towards the California Baja. Some years, the waters are low because of dry winters. Other years, the waters are loud and boisterous with excitement of winter snow.
This river is of great importance. It begins in the mountains of what used to be our Sacred Lands and it trickles to life and helps my people survive with plentiful crops. For many years this river has taken care of my people. Anasazi ruins dot the river’s edge with stories from long ago. This water vein is not only important to my people, but to those within its path as it travels to the Pacific Ocean.
As a child I learned to care for the surroundings of our home. Once, my dad tilled the soil to plant grass, but the desert ate it and nothing grew. My mom wanted her home pretty, so we pulled the weeds and planted trees. The trees never grew either, they seemed to stay small forever.
I used to go out under the desert sun and wet the ground with the garden hose. With the rake, I began to pull it back and forth, back and forth, until the lawn resembled a Zen Garden, except I didn’t know what a Zen Garden looked like, but Mom was pleased when she saw this. This made her happy, and “Sonny Boy” would spring from her mouth.
Now, as an adult, standing in a lawn of green, I was confused. I asked myself aloud, Which of these are weeds? Is this a grass? All good plants are green, right? I don’t understand. Weeds will prick you. These do not. These questions stumbled me as I stood there trying to figure out which to pull. Finally, my partner, Seth, laughed and said, “They all weeds, love.”
“But they have flowers,” I said to him.
“Yeah, but they’re invasive. They can choke other plants,” he said.
I was confused. I tried to convince him that he was wrong, but deep inside, I knew he was right. His knowledge about plants was far beyond mine. Mom grew morning glories, once, but they never returned the year after. Russian thistle and bullheads and desert saltgrass littered the land around us when they dried up during the summer. Those were the weeds I knew. So, standing in this yard of beautiful green shrubbery, I was confused because they didn’t resemble the weeds I experienced. Seth left me to finish weeding.
I pulled and tugged and yanked each green weed from its root. I apologized each time I extracted those lifeforms of its soil. With my hands, I uprooted the homes of insects. Spiders, ants, and earwigs all scurried towards safety. While the sun touched my exposed skin, I continued to relocate inhabitants of their homes—evicting and pillaging their familiarity. Who was I to impose on their land? Who am I to invade in their territory and claim it as mine? It became invasive, and I felt horrible.
On this day, while I displaced homes of our yard’s creatures, the Animas River turned an orange-gold. In photos that I came across online, the river turned murky. With toxins from an accident that occurred in the mountains of an old mine, years of build-up were let loose into the waters. Heavy metals of arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, lead, zinc, iron, and copper were allowed to make their way towards the San Juan River, where the confluence occurs in Totah, my home town, where three rivers meet and become one.
My childhood memories gushed inside me while I continued to pluck the yard like feathers of a living animal. Now and then, I would stream through the river of comments that poured fear throughout my community of childhood friends. What will happen to our water source? What will happen to the land? Our people? Who will tell this story? Who won’t be afraid to speak up? As I witnessed the photos flash, in currents, the yard was stripped naked—bare of its green beauty. I felt sick inside.
With all the training I’ve obtained, fear and embarrassment continues to follow me wherever I go, whenever I feel down. At most times, I pretend I can’t feel them—but, I do. Somewhere along this point of convergence, I became comfortable with myself as a young Diné male. At this confluence of time, a mergence began with lineage and culture and ancestry which allowed me to accept those who intersected themselves onto the path of my journey—changing me by ways of experience and reforming myself as a continuously learning adult. During these points of my life, there are moments of realization that life began to change when I opened a book in Wyoming or danced as a brown Madonna or stole a bag of matches. These confluences that occurred changed the color of my emotional journey. These connections in my life have modified the flow, reshaped the elements, and disbursed into multiple lines of story for you, the reader, to experience. This is our convergence. How will my story change you?
I am a barista at a coffee shop. This coffee shop is located within a small private college in Colorado Springs. No one knows my secret identity behind my tattoos on my arms. They only see a brown man in a uniform. I am a barista in their eyes and nothing else. Can I have a grande nonfat, sugar-free, caramel latte? No foam, please. Extra hot, please. It is important to continue smiling while you serve their drinks. No one should know your true identity. It is important to allow them to think that you are just a man, not a talented man who isn’t afraid to mix his flavors. Maybe one day, they’ll experience your true identity.
I think Batman has to live in fear that one day he may not be able to save the world of its evil. With all his training and all his knowledge bestowed upon him, I have to remind myself that Batman is only a man and not a superhero with superpowers. He is not invincible; he’s susceptible to the land around him, a land he now respects because of its history. Maybe one day Batman will share his words of wisdom with you as you sip on a concoction he’s prepared for you while you listen.