A gift of blue corn…

Some gifts are memorable. While we were courting, “Rumpole” and I had a favourite dating destination, junk stores. We pored over the most unlikely stuff from hardware and household tools to unidentifiable and mysterious objects whose possible purposes we guessed at and debated over. Junk stores are really museums, but without all the glitz, hoopla and intellectualizations associated with “proper” museums. We seldom bought anything, being young, poor and somewhat itinerant in manner of living.

One fine Spring Saturday afternoon, while driving at the posted 50 MPH down the main drag of a small Interior town 3 blocks long, we spotted a really disreputable-looking junk store and decided we just had to stop to see inside. We rummaged around the dusty,  disorganized jumbles, pulling  out and exposing numerous strange and wonderful objects with the PATINA (highly desirable) associated with old age and long use. “Rumpole” found his treasure – a WW II rubber and glass gas mask that we took turns modelling for each other. I spied what looked like a man’s formal suit jacket, tugged at it, and to my surprise found  a hand hanging below the left sleeve’s cuff. On closer inspection of this odd combination it became apparent the hand was carefully crafted of wood and covered with a skin coloured smooth painted enamel. The fingernails were beautifully detailed and, curiously, its thumb could be moved toward the forefinger in a pinching gesture. Further examination revealed that there was a string that could be pulled to repeat this motion, and the end of this string was hidden on the inside left front panel of the jacket.  I put the jacket on and found that I could easily, but awkwardly, pick up some objects lying about. And I absolutely and irrationally had to have this for my own. “Rumpole” tried it on and said ” I wanna hold your haaaand” (as in the Beatles song!) as he activated this prosthetic hand to grab mine.  Then he went and paid for it with what little cash he had.

This quirky gift was a forecast of “Rumpole’s” lifelong support of my idiosyncracies and my off-beat and not always “normal” and approved way of doing things.

In 1989, right after my remission from AML, he asked where I would like to go on holidays to celebrate – Hawaii, somewhere in the States or maybe Europe? I thought it would be rather fun to do a road trip of about a month to the 4 Corners area of the US and explore the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. I craved the wide vistas, the big skies and austere and elemental richness of that landscape. So we loaded up our little old trailer and off we went in September.

Having read quite a number of books on the Tewa and Hopi cultures – cosmogony, religious ceremonials and artefacts, I was most curious to see the places where these people still lived. There is quite a trade in the art(ifact)s of indigenous peoples in the United States.  The Tewa People are famous for their pottery (i.e. Maria Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico); the Hopi people’s Kachinas are highly prized and sought by collectors.

We approached the Hopi lands from the east, through Keams Canyon and arrived at First Mesa where the oldest settlement, Walpi, seemed to huddle on the flat top of the mesa. At first, the settlement was difficult to identify – it was so well integrated into its setting – and as we drove up the gravel road around the West and North face of the mesa the village gradually formed in our sight.  We parked at a low stone structure whose sign announced it was the Village Office. Inside, a young woman wearing a fawn-coloured uniform told us that we’d have to wait a couple of hours until she took us on a tour of the village, and also (waving her hand in a sweeping motion) said that we could not enter anywhere in the Town Plaza.

So, there we were, in a village that seemed abandoned, the only outsiders.  We paced and looked about us and noted the details. There were no electric service poles, except near the Village Office. Over the flat rooftops of the low stone buildings were several old-fashioned TV antennas; over the soughing of the wind we heard the unmistakeable sounds of a gasoline-powered generator. An older man, his hair blunt-cut to his shoulders, came out of an alley, unhurriedly walked to an area of the Town Plaza, and disappeared into the ground as if on an invisible elevator. Obviously, there was some kind of meeting in the underground chambers, which would be off limits to visitors. A young boy of 10 years of age approached us and asked if we wanted to see a Kachina he had made.  Sure, we said, and he produced a Mudhead, very rudimentary and not of high aesthetic appeal, but nevertheless very much a mudhead, with an awkwardly shaped brown felt girdle glued around its hips and rattles made out of dried beans stuck onto short twig handles in its upraised fists. It had a certain charm, an earnest and unselfconscious quality.  He wanted $5 for it, so I bargained, “How about $5 and some cookies?” We had a deal! He skipped off, very satisfied, it seemed! I tucked the Mudhead onto the top of the dashboard.

We strolled around  some more, sipping coffee from our thermos lid. I suggested to “Rumpole” that I would just go a little further and explore around the back of the Village Office, and see what could be back there.  Would he keep a lookout for me? So I disappeared into an alley and saw there was just a short distance through it to the edge of the mesa.  Went back and motioned to “Rumpole” to come to where I was lurking, and he joined me looking a bit guilty. Pointed out to him that we were not in the Plaza, where we were not supposed to go. (I felt like a kid who was getting away with something!) We made our way through the alley to the edge of the mesa, and turning West could see the North face of the stone pueblo,with doors set into it at small intervals. The pueblo was set back from the edge of the mesa drop-off by about 20 yards. This was the patio area. This was real estate to put to shame the most desirable and unaffordable one. It had a view to die for. Toward the North Horizon were numerous mesas and plateaus diminishing in clarity. Moving cloud masses alternately cast shadows and projected patches of light onto the irregularly corrugated landscape.  Toward the horizon, a swath of cloud the colour wet bluejeans lowered a scrim of rain. We were mesmerized!

As we stood there, besotted with the view, a woman’s voice lightly called out, “Come in,would you?” A tiny little older lady stood at her open door and beckoned  at us urgently. She ushered us into a low ceilinged room that served as a kitchen and eating area and asked where we had arrived from and where we lived. We told her where, and that it was not as beautiful a place to live as where she did, but that we had every comfort known to man and that was the price we paid for those comforts, the lack of beauty. She said she would have been able to make us a cup of tea, but her husband had not yet returned from the bottom of the mesa where they had to haul their water from each day. She opened the door into a tiny sitting and sleeping area where two very young girls were watching a children’s program on a little black and white TV, introduced them as her grand-daughters who she was looking after while their parents were down in the fields doing some harvesting. Scurrying back into the kitchen she took a bundle of newspapers and extracted a blue rolled packet for each of us and suggested “Try this, we eat this every day.” The taste was delicate, the texture cruchy like very fine cereal and leafy like puff pastry. ” Made of blue corn,” she said, ” we grow it, and I grind it, mix it with wood ash and water into a mush and dry it.”  We had never seen blue corn before,  so she took a handful of dried kernels from a pail and showed us. I noticed she had some clay pots in various stages of drying on the top of her very old and tiny refrigerator and asked if she had any “finished” that we could look at.  Modest, she said she had just recently started to make pots, by hand, and was not too sure they were any good. I told her that I was an amateur potter and would love to see what she was doing herself. She brought out two small burnished bowls decorated with an intricate geometric pattern with clay slip. On one, the decoration didn’t quite fit the girth of the bowl… there was a gap of an inch, as if suddenly the clay form had grown wider while she had been so carefully applying the design.  I rather liked this bowl and asked if she might sell it to me. She tried to talk me out of it, explaining why the other one was a better choice, being more perfect. “Oh, just let me have my way, please, this is the one for me” I insisted. She then tried to tempt me by mentioning a lower price for the one she considered better, and stubbornly, I stood my ground.  “Rumpole” then asked where she fired her pots. She shepherded us out to the edge of the mesa where her rudimentary kiln sat, right next to a large flat stone which she explained was used to dry the corn rolls (PIKI). We discussed heat source (scrub branches and dung from down below) and kiln accidents and failures of firing.  I told her to raise her prices given the complexity of her decoration and the scarcity of fuel. She’d think about that, but maybe when she considered herself a better potter, she explained.

By this time, “Rumpole” kept glancing at his watch nervously. I explained to this woman that we had sneaked back here, and that perhaps we should leave. “Wait before you go” she said and ducked back inside her kitchen. She emerged with a newspaper package, thrust it into my hands, “it’s a gift for you. Try it with some melons. Some of my Piki bread”. Parting from her with thanks, we casually sauntered back through the alley to our truck. The uniformed young woman was waiting for us. “You were not supposed to go back there! You are only allowed to visit with a guide!” she declared, accusing and officious. Spying the newspaper bundle in my hand she demanded, “What have you got there?” I explained that we were just trying to look at the landscape from the mesa rim, and that an older lady had come out to talk with us, we bought a small bowl from her and she had given us some piki bread. Angry, this young woman announced that she would not give us a tour and that we should leave. So, we left!

Thinking back on this now, I realize that I have been a recipient of numerous gifts from “Rumpole”. His patience with my interests and obsessions he may not necessarily share and also with my tendency to wander about doing things “out of regular order”. The travel in the 4 Corners area was a gift that yielded so much satisfaction. Without this trip, I never would have recieved the gift of blue corn piki from the lady at Walpi.

One Response to “A gift of blue corn…”

  1. citrus Says:

    We made the same trip and loved it. I bear the inner marks to this day.


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