From the Improvement Era, December 1939 –
It’s Christmas Everywhere
By Estelle Webb Thomas
From her station by the sleet-covered window, Marcia reported, “It’s turning to snow, now!” Then the panic she was trying so hard not to show, getting into her voice, she cried, desperately, “Oh, what can be the matter? Why in the world don’t they come?”
Her blue eyes, accustomed to the endless stretches of desert and far blue mountain peaks, strained to penetrate the grayish white wall of dust and sleet that swirled about the solitary building from apparently all sides at once. All morning the bitter wind had swept across the desert, beating impotently against the stout stone walls of the Navajo Day School; for the school building, long, low, and sprawling, had been made to withstand just such vicious storms as this. For the dozenth time in the last half hour, Marcia glanced nervously at her watch.
“Merciful heavens, Hannah! It’s nearly eleven o’clock! How can you sit there as calm as a stone Buddha, and George so late?”
“It’s a thirty-mile trip to all the hogans and back, you know,” Hannah answered, in her soft, hissing voice, “and the roads must be very bad after it has stormed all night.”
“That’s just it! And the old bus none too good! Well, if anything happens to those children, that’s the official end of Marcia Banning, would-be U. S. Indian School teacher! Not that that’s the important thing, of course. It’s — well, I’d give a month’s salary to see them trooping in, this minute, safe from this terrible storm!”
She glanced again at Hannah’s impassive face, wondering how it was possible to conceal one’s feelings as these Navajos did. She hoped she would pick up a little stoicism, along with her other acquisitions — if she stayed. Something in Hannah’s attitude, as she bent over her sewing, suggested more than mere stoicism, however.
“How do you feel?” Marcia inquired, almost sharply.
Hannah made no reply for a few moments. Then she said, slowly, “I think maybe it come today.”
“What! You don’t mean — ? Merciful powers, Hannah, what are you talking about? I thought you said it was two weeks, yet!”
“Yess. It iss two weeks. But I think it come today. Maybe it think Christmas pretty good time to come!”
“It would be!” said Marcia, “a grand time, under the circumstances!” Distractedly, she peered through the whitened window. “Well, the minute George gets here, we’ll have to start for the Agency. Or wait — I can’t go! I’ll have the children on my hands! George can’t take them home again — we can’t wait for that. Oh, why did it have to be today? Seventy miles in that old bus through this storm will kill you — but there’s nothing else to do!”
There was the sound of a closing door and the stamping of feet in the cement-floored entry. “Why, there they are, now!” she exclaimed, joyfully. “Why didn’t we hear the bus, it’s usually so noisy?” She ran from Hannah’s room through the schoolroom and jerked open the hall door. George Santana, Indian bus driver and husband of Hannah, came wetly in, followed by ten dripping, shivering Navajo children. He was supporting one limp arm with the other, and his face was drawn with pain.
“Broke!” he answered Marcia’s look, laconically. “The bus she get stuck and the engine quit on me. I break her, cranking.”
“Run into your dressing-rooms and get into your dry clothes,” Marcia heard herself saying, through the tumult of her thoughts. The children turned silently to obey, but little Thomas Say-it’s-not-so hesitated, turned round, brown eyes on her, a white smile splitting his dark, elfin face. “Wid-out de baf?” he inquired incredulously.
“Yes, yes! George can’t see to you boys’ bath, now, and I must fix his arm and can’t help the girls. Just put on your school things. You can wash your faces and hands and clean your teeth!” she called after them, as they trooped into the dressing rooms, glad of one day’s respite from the daily bath and general purification that changed them, for a few hours, from little hogan savages to American school children.
Marcia was in the midst of dressing George’s arm when the telephone rang. The precise voice of the school superintendent at the Agency came dimly over the wire.
“Miss Banning? Did you receive my letter?”
“Why, no, Mr. Franklyn,” Marcia politely explained what he knew as well as she. “We get mail only on Saturdays, when George goes to the Agency. Was it –”
“Very unfortunate, very!” The superintendent’s voice assumed it was by preference Marcia received mail but once a week. “I notified you that, through a combination of circumstances, Miss McIntosh, of the Department of Indian Affairs in Washington, would be with us for the afternoon only. She particularly desired all day schoolteachers to be present at the meeting she will address!”
“But, Mr. Franklyn — “
“Listen, Miss Banning,” the superintendent’s tone was impressive; “it may be inconvenient. Probably it is storming there, as we are having a snow squall here. But, I repeat — your presence here is positively required!”
“But, Superintendent — ”
“Another thing, Dr. Vaile wishes me to tell you that that patient must be in here not later than tonight, as the hospital is full of important cases. He positively cannot make a hurry-up trip that far out on the reservation at this time. As you doubtless know, Dr. Weston has been called East, and Dr. Vaile is very much over-burdened. Otherwise,” his voice began to fade, “you will be held accountable for her safety. We sincerely hope, Miss Banning, you will not have to be reported for insubordination –” His voice died away completely on the last syllable and Marcia shook the receiver, frantically.
“Mr. Franklyn! Mr. Franklyn! Can you hear me?” Presently, with the calmness of despair, she hung up. The telephone was dead as a dodo.
“Well, I’ve got to get hold of myself!” was her first coherent thought. “No use worrying about my job, any more. I won’t have one when this school term is over.” She recalled the superintendent’s reluctant consent for her to try this isolated day school.
“It’s a man’s school,” the superintendent had said briskly. “You could never handle it in the world! Why, it’s seventy miles from here, and a hundred miles from the nearest railroad, and the only other white person there is the trader!”
“What’s the matter with it, besides loneliness?” had demanded Marcia, her fighting blood up. She would not trail ignominiously home after all her big plans! There must be a place for her.
“The Indians. They are least civilized of any on the Navajo reservation. They have it in for all government employees — consider the traders their only white friends.”
“But why?” Marcia had persisted. “Don’t they appreciate what the government is doing for them? The schools, the hospitals –”
“Not at all!” had said the superintendent, grimly. “Not those in that district! They resent the government’s new sheep and cattle reduction law, which was passed in an effort to save the range, and retaliate by refusing to send their children to school. There are only twelve or fourteen attending there, now, though we have to employ a teacher, a housekeeper, and a bus driver. And you should know,” he had added, “teaching would be the smallest part of your duties.”
Marcia had looked bewildered, and he elucidated, “The school is a community center. The adults have free run of it. That’s where your trouble would come in. They come to wash in the school laundry, bake in the school stove, bathe, if the spirit moves them, in the school bath tubs — and you must encourage it. We can’t afford to keep a doctor and nurse at the smaller schools, and you would have to dispense medicine, go to hogans at call, attend to wounds, treat eyes –”
“I still want to try it!”
“Well, since you haven’t your permanent appointment yet –” The superintendent was delicately suggesting that, since she was on probation, if she wanted to make a flop of her first school and lose out, it was her own funeral.
“A doctor and field nurse will make you a visit soon, and instruct you in the treatment of trachoma, which is the most important of your medical duties,” the superintendent had told her as she climbed into the bus beside George, whose acquaintance she had just made, for the seventy mile ride to Nakai-bito. He had added hollowly, “Goodbye, Miss Banning, and the best of luck!”
“I want to wish you good luck, too!” said young Dr. Vaile, appearing suddenly beside the bus, an inscrutable expression in his dark eyes. “You’ll need all you can get!”
His grave face and warm handclasp had haunted her for most of the journey across burning desert, over steep mountain pass and down steeply again into lower, hotter desert land. “I hope there’ll be plenty of sickness down my way, this year,” she had thought, and amended her inhuman wish with a wry smile, “of a perfectly painless sort, of course!”
Her mind rushed on now, to that first embarrassing visit from Dr. Vaile. She had wanted to appear so much at ease, so efficient in this difficult position, to show the doctor his fears for her were utterly groundless. She thought, viciously, “It was that field nurse. She made me feel such a little ignoramus, right from the start!” The field nurse had been so obviously mad about the doctor, and her manner had shut the two of them into a superior world of their own, with Marcia in the role of a rather moronic outsider.
It had been so awful, the doctor calling her closer to watch him put the corrosive bluestone into the poor little girl’s eyes; turning the lids back so matter-of-factly, to show her the progress of the dread disease and how the vitriol burned it out! The brave little creature had made not a sound — Marcia felt she could have stood it better if she had — but, teeth set and little fists clenched, had trembled so violently the doctor could scarcely perform the delicate treatment.
She came back to the present with a start to find George at her elbow. “You got something to kill this pain, Miss Banning? She’s pretty bad!”
“Oh, yes, I should have thought of that!” Marcia rummaged in the medicine cabinet. “I’ll give him some pain tablets and a sleeping one, too,” she thought. “I’ll probably need him later; he’d better sleep while he can!” She handed him the tablets and hurried away to the schoolroom. The children, clean and dry, were huddled about the stove. “Now, children,” Marcia said, brightly, “we’re not going to have any lessons today; we’re going to have fun, instead! Notah, you and Sam please go out to the wood shed and bring enough wood and coal to last all night. Mary and Nanabah may get lunch; won’t that be fun!” She apportioned out duties rapidly and promised that when everything was done, they might finish trimming the big Christmas tree George had put up in the dining-room last week.
The remainder of that day would always be a night-mare memory for Marcia. The children, drunk with their new freedom, or perhaps sensing an unusual tension in the atmosphere, and missing Hannah’s calm presence, quarreled freely and even fought. As a rule, Marcia had found, Indian children are the most even-tempered and peaceable of pupils, but today there was a constant procession of complainants calling her from the sickroom, where Hannah was silently, but unmistakably suffering.
“Mees Benneen, Notah, he iss mek me carry mos’ the coal!”
“No, Ticher, he is not tell de truf. He iss sit down all a time. He is ver’ lasy!”
“Ticher, Anna ponch me een stomach weeth erasor!”
“She iss not clean the blackboards good!”
Presently, the early winter darkness closed in, and a wan Marcia tactfully explained to the stolid children that they would be unable to go home. Wee Martha Washington dripped silent tears as she was tucked into Marcia’s own bed, along with Nanabah and Jennie. Little Thomas Say-it’s-not-so whimpered at his end of the davenport in Marcia’s living-room and said it was because Natonie, at the other end, had stuck a toe in his eye. But, on the whole, they took the situation with their usual calm acceptance of the inevitable, and were soon sleeping peacefully in their improvised beds.
Once, during that hectic afternoon, a ray of hope had briefly lightened the gloom, though Marcia should never have expected to consider a visit from the medicine man in that light. Old Chee Nez Begay, portly and pompous, had begun his visits early in the school term. Though he spoke some English when the spirit moved him, he professed to be unable to pronounce or remember her name, and persisted in calling Marcia “John Collier’s woman,” in slighting reference to her position under the Indian Commissioner. The government in general he spoke of as “Washingtone,” and Marcia thought he conceived “Washingtone” as a huge demi-god seated on his throne in the east, dispensing injustice to the Indians with a powerful hand. Chee Nez, by virtue of his calling, possessed great influence with the Navajos, and exerted it to constant rebellion against government officials and employees. He was especially bitter against doctors, as infringing upon his tribal and ancestral rights. Several months earlier, he had noticed Hannah’s condition and graciously offered his services as midwife, when needed. Marcia, at Hannah’s request, had explained that the girl was going to the Agency hospital. Since then, though he continued to visit the school, his attitude had been definitely unfriendly; and Marcia had fancied she saw a reflection of his mood in the adults who came to use school property.
Today, during a lull in the storm, he stamped into the kitchen, shaking snow from his layers of blankets, and kicking it from his feet.
“You got food?” he demanded, rather than asked. “Chee Nez much hongry!” To what must have been his great surprise, though his impassive face showed nothing, Marcia almost fell upon his neck. While she flew swiftly about, frying ham and eggs, opening jam for his well-known sweet tooth, he stalked into the schoolroom where the children were trimming the tree.
“What is that?” he demanded in Navajo, pointing at a picture of “Christ, the Tender Shepherd.” Before the children could explain, he had snatched it down.
“Tell her to put up no more pictures on our walls of John Collier teaching sheep reduction!” he commanded the cowed children sternly, and marching back to the kitchen, fell unceremoniously upon his food.
Marcia waited until his hunger had been somewhat appeased, before she said, with her most ingratiating smile, “I am so glad you came, Chee Nez. Hannah is ill, and you are so wise, you can help us.”
Chee Nez Begay continued to eat, as though she had not spoken.
“You’ll stay and help us, won’t you, Chee Nez?” urged Marcia.
He stared blankly at her for a moment and returned to his food. Presently, with a full mouth, he grunted, “No savvy,” colloquial Spanish being the nearest approach to her tongue he deigned to use. A few months earlier, Marcia would have argued the point, knowing that he understood English perfectly and could speak it well enough, when he was in the mood, but she had seen too many Navajos take refuge behind this blank wall of pretended ignorance, to waste any more time. She called the largest girl in the school room. “Nanabah,” she said, “tell Chee Nez that Hannah is sick, and I want him to please stay and take care of her!”
There ensued a brief dialogue of soft hissing and gutteral grunts.
“He say he don’ know what you mean.”
“Tell him Hannah’s baby is coming, and we want him to help!”
“He say he don’ know Hannah. He have never see her,” announced Nanabah, impassively.
Marcia prayed for patience, and plastered a hypocritical smile over her stiff features. “Tell him I’ll give him money, plenty of money, if he’ll stay!”
Nanabah dutifully repeated the bribe. “He say he not need money if Washingtone leave his sheep alone!” she reported.
Marcia gave up. With black despair in her heart, she watched him gather his blankets about him and majestically take his way into the storm. She didn’t even bother to hope he might freeze.
As Hannah’s condition became more critical, Marcia tried in vain to rouse George. He slept the heavy sleep of the drugged, his breathing loud and unnatural, and she fancied there was a flush on his dark face.
After the children were asleep, a terrible sense of loneliness and terror of the unknown beset her. She had a sudden realization of her position, the only white person within a radius of seventy miles! For only yesterday, the trader, a friendly man, whose store stood within a hundred yards of the school buildings, had gone home to spend Christmas with his family. He had urged Marcia to come out with him for the holiday. “My wife said to bring you. We have a big family and one more doesn’t make a bit of difference!” But she had explained her plans for the community Christmas and dinner. “Let George and Hannah run that affair,” the trader urged. “The other teacher did! It’s not right for you to spend your first Christmas in the Service, away off down here alone!”
But Marcia had answered gaily, “Don’t worry about me. I’m going to have the time of my life!”
What a comfort the knowledge that commonplace family man of her own race was within call would have been tonight! The wild storm rattled the window frames and howled drearily round corners. The children and George slept on, the latter with an unnatural heaviness that was an increasing terror to Marcia’s over-wrought nerves. She felt as if she and the silent, suffering Hannah were alone in an immensity of horror and desolation. She roamed the house, from Hannah’s quarters to her own, looking anxiously at George and the children, unable to bear the inaction and the steady, inexorable ticking of the big clock in the hall.
At last, so long delayed it seemed a blessed miracle when it finally appeared, the Christmas Day dawned on a world transformed. For, with its advent, three other events occurred simultaneously: the wild wind ceased, leaving the desert buried in the calm, white beauty of its first snow; George roused, staggered groggily to his feet; and Hannah’s wee son wailed out his challenge to the world.
Once, during the night, Marcia had said grimly, “You’ll just have to help me have this baby Hannah!” At Hannah’s involuntary smile she stammered, “I mean — if — if you should — if anything should happen — how that doctor would crow! Oh, I don’t mean crow — but please, please get through all right for your own sake as well as mine!”
Hannah said soberly, “I don’t know any but Navajo ways!” Now, with a wan smile, she asked shyly, “Did I help you have him, Miss Marcia?” and gazing proudly down at the wee, dark morsel, she added, “His school name shall be ‘Christmas Banning.’” Remembering King Tut and Washington Monument, two old cronies, often at the school, Marcia was not surprised.
George, his arm in Marcia’s clumsy splints, paining unbearably, was nevertheless embarrassed and remorseful that he had slept through the long night of Hannah’s illness, until Marcia explained the disastrous combination of drugs. Then he urged her to go to her room and sleep and let him carry on. But the hungry children were already stirring, so Marcia suggested he sit with Hannah, built up the fire in the range, and prepared breakfast. The smiling children were thrilled, this morning, at the novelty of their situation and eager to be out at play in the snow.
At mid-morning, staggering dazedly about her work, incapable of thought, beyond an aching desire for sleep, Marcia heard a commotion in the yard. She stepped to the kitchen door. Merciful powers, what was this! The parents were arriving for the big Christmas dinner! Not only the parents, but apparently every able-bodied adult in the district! Dumbly, she watched them dismounting from ponies, clambering out of covered wagons. The men went at once about the business of feeding and unharnessing the horses, while squaws and small children crowded, giggling shyly, into the warm kitchen. With a heroic effort Marcia roused herself to her social duties. In the stress of the night’s happenings, she had completely forgotten the dinner. Now, with the aid of the willing women, she began a hurried preparation from the abundant store of supplies in the cellar.
With proud, self-conscious glances at their mothers, Nanabah and Mary set the three great tables in the long dining-room, tables designed for just such occasions as this. The horses attended, the men made themselves comfortable about the schoolroom stove, laughing and talking in jocose monosyllables.
In a surprisingly short time, considering everything, they were all seated about the tables, and Marcia and the little girls were serving the long-looked for Christmas dinner. Luckily, Marcia thought, her guests would never know that all the traditional Yuletide dishes were missing. It was, at least, a bounteous and filling meal and they were doing full justice to it, handling the unaccustomed implements with the native Navajo dignity. Hannah was sleeping and George sat drowsing near her bed. “If they’ll only hurry and get through and take the children away, how I’ll sleep!” thought Marcia, and it did not seem strange that sleeping the afternoon away should be a desirable way to spend Christmas.
And then the children, who had finished first and run out to play, were swarming in with exclamations, pointing excitedly up the road. Before Marcia could understand what it was all about, an automobile had stopped before the door and its occupants were entering the crowded room. Before her glazed eyes they blurred and then took form again. It certainly was Mr. Franklyn, dignity unimpaired, after the seventy-mile ride over impossible roads on Christmas morning, Miss Darrow, the insufferable field nurse, and behind her, Dr. Vaile, carrying a satchel and gravely professional.
Marcia could never clearly remember the next few minutes. At first, she had dazedly supposed the superintendent to be so incensed at her insubordination that he had made this long, cold journey for the pleasure of discharging her. Dr. Vaile and Miss Darrow had probably come along to crow. But presently, her stunned senses perceived that the tone of the superintendent’s speech was a laudatory one. He was using such words as “resourceful” and “brave.” He was saying something about fearing that all was not well at the remote school — telephone wires down — Dr. Vaile concerned about the patient — he felt it a duty to come along, too — would have weight with the commission —
Presently they were all smiling and applauding and gazing expectantly at her, those, at least who understood English, and she was dizzily thanking the superintendent, for what, she was not quite sure.
Then Dr. Vaile said, stiffly, “I’d like a few words with you, Miss Banning, the patient — “ Miss Darrow’s trained ear caught the last word and she started forward, “Shall I come, too, Doctor?”
“It won’t be necessary, Miss Darrow!” Dr. Vaile said hastily, and almost pushed Marcia out of the room. In the narrow, cement-floored passage, cold as a tomb, he whirled her about till her startled face was close to his own, and grasped her by both arms. They stood staring into each other’s eyes for an endless moment, before the doctor found his tongue.
“Er — about this — you think I’ve been persecuting you, don’t you? I mean making it hard for you — “
“Telling the superintendent I wasn’t fitted for the job,” helped Marcia.
“Trying to get you transferred — “
“Or to freeze me out, entirely!”
“You know why I did it, don’t you? Well, don’t you? Answer!” he said, shaking her, but before she could, he continued. “If you don’t, I’ll tell you. I couldn’t bear the thought of you in this hole! Do you know, I haven’t done a decent day’s work since I came down here to give those eye treatments? Can’t you see, you little fool, that you aren’t the type for a job like this? The isolation, the eye treatments, bathing those kids, delousing them — “
“I love them!” Marcia interrupted, vehemently.
“Kids! Indian children! Work! Doing something all by myself! Proving I can take it — though I didn’t think you would either know or care!” Her tone changed, became pleading. “Do you think he meant my appointment will go through? I mean will he use his influence –”
“Well, yes, I think that was the general idea. Mr. Marshall, the trader, talked with Mr. Franklyn for an hour, yesterday. He must have painted quite a noble picture of your work among the Indians, for the ‘supe’ seemed to sort of have you on his conscience all evening. He said several times, ‘I’m afraid we’ve sort of neglected that little girl down there. I believe something must have happened, or she’d have been to the meeting!’ So, when I suggested perhaps Hannah was sick, and said I was coming to see, he decided to come along. I hope you appreciate the old boy’s missing his Christmas dinner on your account. I think it was pretty nice of him!”
“Oh, yes, of course, you must all be starved!” Marcia stammered, shocked at her inhospitality and trying to rush back to the kitchen and remedy her omission, but the doctor tightened his grasp on her arms.
“Not so fast! Now, listen, don’t be too brash about signing any contracts, will you? I — there’s a position I’ve been thinking of offering you — that is, when we get acquainted — so wait, won’t you?”
Loss of sleep, or perhaps it was the expression in the brown eyes looking so deeply into her own, was making Marcia very light-headed and she said, with a shaky laugh, “Oh, I suppose, after last night’s experience, you’ll be trying to get me on your hospital staff — ”
“Ticher!” shouted Thomas Say-it’s-not-so, jerking open the door and sticking his head into the hall, “thees Induns he wants presents offa tree! He want git hees chillin home fore de dark come!” Then something in the absorbed faces of the two embarrassed the lad, and he finished, confusedly, “Merr’ Chreesmus! Chreesmus geef!” and backed out.
“Why, it is Christmas — even away off here!” exclaimed Dr. Vaile, as one waking from a dream.
“Yes,” said Marcia, radiantly. “It’s Christmas everywhere!”