A good buy

SHE had started to walk at dawn, before the sun's gaze had dropped down the canyon walls. Juniper spiced the air, strong after the night's rain; a canyon wren's song trickled through the stillness. She led her sheep to an alcove in the red rock, where storm-created waterfalls from the rim a thousand feet above kept the grass green, and left her dogs to watch them. She was about 75 years old; she had 14 miles to walk. It was now midday. ``Twenty dollars,'' said her daughter, translating.

The white ranger concealed his surprise. He turned it over without a word, stretched a corner to test the tightness of the weave.

The rug was about three feet long, two feet wide, intricate, with startling colors. She had spliced together the red rock walls, the pale grass clinging to the edges of caves, the vigorous brown of unearthed roots, the flash of lightning spanning canyon walls. These things were part of her homeland, part of her; she had gathered them, spun them, woven them.

She stood now in a glossy visitor's center meant to explain her and her people. Behind glass were samples of pottery, basketry, weaving. Next to the displays were explanations of their history: how they had fought and raided the Spanish; how Kit Carson had burned their orchards and fields; how in 1864 they had been forced to walk to the ``reservation experiment'' on barren land in New Mexico; how four years later, their numbers decimated, they were allowed to return to Tsegi, known to the white man as Canyon de Chelly.

The ranger examining her rug had on the gray pressed shirt and glittering badge of a smart National Park Service uniform. The old woman wore a red ruffled skirt and a blue velveteen blouse fastened with a turquoise brooch; her long hair was wrapped in an elongated bundle and tied with white yarn. It had taken her at least three weeks to make the rug.

She said something to her daughter in Navajo. ``Fifteen,'' said the daughter, who wore a gaudy rayon blouse and dark pants.

Twenty dollars was a guilt-ridden bargain. Fifteen was a little too close to stealing. Before the ranger responded, I handed the old woman a twenty-dollar bill.

Her smile was quick, lacking artifice, lacking a number of teeth. She took my hand in both of hers and bowed over it formally, murmuring. Her daughter did the same. The old woman placed the rug in my arms.

It still smelled of sheep, sheep resting under a red rock overhang lined with traces of waterfalls. Sheep she had raised, and shorn of their wool; wool she had spun on the wheel outside her hogan and dyed with ground lichen, snakeweed, juniper mistletoe. Strands she had woven, strands of her life, and now of mine.

I tried to say thank you in Navajo. My attempt caused the old woman to double over in an unexpectedly hearty belly laugh. But it was a kind laugh, an understanding one. A little embarrassed, I started laughing, too. Her daughter joined in. Other visitors turned to stare, wondering what the two Navajo women and the white girl found so funny.

``You got a good buy there,'' said the ranger, frankly envious, after they had left. ``Could make someone a nice gift.''

Yes. More of a gift than he realized.

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