Sunday, August 10, 2008

"They all let go after a while"

Wall Arch in Arches National Park, Utah collapsed "sometime late Monday or early Tuesday." Paul Henderson, the park's chief of interpretation, said "They all let go after a while."

Long ago I started to learn about this idea in a book titled Wiki of Walpi (©1954). I checked, and it's unavailable from, but you can find copies of it from antique book dealers, like the one I linked. I still have my copy (pictured) from when I read it as a little girl. Its pages are fragile from age, but I started taking care of it rather early in life, so there's no major damage; all the pages are there, including the breathtaking illustrations.
I don't know what attracted me to this book when I was little. I remember reading it when its words and long sentences were still challenging. I must have been six or so. It doesn't have snappy Dr. Seuss rhythms. It has a lot of words on each page, and many pages without pictures. In all, today's child wouldn't look twice at it, but I remember loving it and identifying with young Davo. It was my first experience with these marvelous expressions, "she shook her head East and West" and "he shook his head North and South." I distinctly remember not understanding the meaning of that at all, then puzzling it out when I was older.

It was the Utah arches story that made me remember the book and pull it from my shelf of most treasured, fantastical, beloved books. In the book, Davo is a pale-skinned boy, "bahana," among dark-skinned people, Navajo. Therefore, when he was born, his mother shook "her head East and West." He suffers because he can't play under the hot, Arizona sun (at Walpi) like the other children. He learns to live in the cooler times of the day, "the shadows," when the sun can't burn his skin. On a trip with his father, he meets a medicine man who offers him a salve for his skin that allows him to play in the sun. At first the old man won't tell him where to find the leaves he uses to make the medicine, but changes his mind so that the knowledge won't die with him.

"Where is this place?" Davo asked.
"There where the earth is a rainbow of color. There where the sky is a bridge of stone."
"Where the earth is a rainbow of color...and where the sky is a bridge of stone," Davo repeated the words in such a way that he would remember them for all time.

When Davo runs out of the medicine, he returns to the village for more, but the man has died. Davo refuses, though, to live again in shadows and resolves to find the magic leaves himself in the place the old man told him about. While traveling with his father's flocks of sheep, he eventually does.

He looked up to the sky. There a sight made his heart leap. High above him a bridge of stone arched toward the sky! Across the arch the setting sun splashed crimson, gold and purple!

"The leaves! I found them under an arch of stone streaked with sunset colors," Davo cried breathlessly. "Father, it was like a rainbow bridge."

The story ends with Davo as a hero, because not only do the magic leaves make a good salve for his skin, he mixes them in a tea to cure a sickness that threatens the Navajo. After Davo saves the pueblo, "all of the people were shaking their heads North and South."

Of course, the collapse of Wall Arch might have suggested this book to me, but it was Paul Henderson's words, "They all let go after a while," that really made me think of Wiki of Walpi, especially the old medicine man, who died. Yes, people actually died in children's books way back when, not often, but it happened. Like I said, I read this book when I was just a tot, and I imagine it was one of my first images of death. I'm glad, too. There isn't any hullabaloo about death. Davo only discovers the old man is gone because "where Masi's hogan had stood, there was nothing but a mound of earth--a mound of earth with a few timbers on top." The people tell Davo, "He has gone to mix his magic medicine in the Land Beyond the Sunset."

If someone could arrange that my death is observed that way, I'd appreciate it. Thanks.

No comments: