He could hear it before he could see it. The chanting was rhythmic and though the tones were low, nearly a growl, their delivery had an almost hopeful bounce. He followed the Mayor across the road and they climbed the small rise to where the ceremony was being held. Everyone respected the Mayor. Many Indians, mostly children, watched them as they wove through the silent, motionless crowd. There were both Tohono O’odham and Navajo people here—maybe others—but walking among them he couldn’t tell the difference. Only a few wore traditional clothes, and most were dressed as Jack was: jeans and a dirty button-down shirt. Boots and a cowboy hat. Waterbelt. Everyone was spread thin, making it easy for him and Jesse to slip between them toward the center, but he heard shuffling behind him, and Jack imagined them closing together after they passed, locking him in. He chose not to check.
There was a clearing in the center of the gathering, and when they came upon it Jack saw two things at once. One was the pyramid of stones standing nearly five feet high; the other was Jo and Micah standing on the far side of the inner circle. From Jack’s perspective, Jo’s head appeared right above the grave, as though the stones held a torch, and she gave Jack a small, perplexed smile. She was crying. Micah, focused on the chanters to one side, hadn’t seen him yet. Jack followed his gaze, and regarded the four chanting men. They were older, though not ancient—their faces were still firm and alive. They sat in a row of folding metal chairs.
Jack tried to nod to Jo, to comfort her, but her eyes were downcast now, and he considered joining her on the far side of the grave. As he was about to move, however, people began parting behind the elders and a tall man with long black hair walked slowly toward the clearing. He was carrying a bundle of fabric in one arm, and in the other a couple of wooden toys and a baseball glove. An Aussie followed closely at his heels.
When the man arrived in the center he knelt and put his things down carefully, piling them a few feet from the grave. The chanting grew louder, and one of the sitting men rapped on a small dull drum. The man stood again and pulled a flat can of lighter fluid from his back pocket, sprayed the pile he’d just made, and lit a match. He stood with the flame moving quickly toward his fingers; he waited until it was so close to his skin that Jack could no longer see it. Then he let go.
When he buried his father, Jack had initially wanted to do it alone. He’d only let Jo accompany him after she’d made her feelings clear that by excluding her from this, Jack would be keeping her out of his heart. But it didn’t matter. It just meant he couldn’t cry when he took the old man’s light body from the freezer and lowered it down into the hole he’d dug, and that he had to sneak out to do his crying after she’d gone to sleep. It hadn’t occurred to him that he was taking something from the people of Arivaca until he started receiving surprised and hurt expressions after explaining that there’d be no ceremony. It had caused a small rift between him and those friendly with his father, though of course he’d known them all his life. Nonetheless, he held to his instinct. It was his father, and though they’d never discussed death, he liked to think they’d have shared similar sentiments about it. Jack looked around at all the stone faces. He tried to respect what was going on here, the custom of it, the coming together of people to witness the passing, or transformation, or whatever was believed, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that with all this intricate fuss surrounding it, a man’s death wasn’t really his own. It seemed wrong to take away the last thing someone had on this earth.
The fire began to burn down and the chanting slowed. The man who’d lit it stood and his dog, a spitting image of Rockette, sat at his feet. There was a force-field around them, Jack saw, a buffer of many feet between them and the closest man. He knew about this. Navajo don’t like to be close to people who’ve died, and they don’t like to be close to those close with them. He didn’t understand it; death wasn’t transmittable. Jack looked at Micah, who’d now seen him and was sending significant looks skipping across the top of the above-ground grave. Apparently, thought Jack, death wasn’t even final. What would it be like, for people to see another man in your face? To honor you and respect you and judge you for things you’d had no part of? He wondered if this false Che welcomed it, or if he felt any resentment of the fact.
The Mayor took her leave, and Jack watched the tall man with the Aussie remain still as the crowd slowly dispersed. He wondered whether this was the same animal Paco sold yesterday, but it seemed difficult to believe: it was far too obedient, too tame. It had already lost the power struggle—the beast standing there now had clearly been mastered—and that can’t happen overnight.
“You’re right,” Jo said, “that must be the dog I saw last night.”
Jack turned to see her walking toward him, Micah a few steps back. They were coming from the side, having given the grave a wide berth, and since he was turned too it was as though they’d snuck up behind him.
“Well, you can barely tell them apart, really.”
Jo’s eyes were still red with crying. “Isn’t this terrible?” she said.
Jack looked at Micah, who was looking at the grieving man. Then he saw something strange. The Navajo man was returning Micah’s gaze, looking right at him with an almost palpable hatred. His face was crushed into a scowl, his eyes dark and steady. It was unsettling. It occurred to Jack that, until now, he hadn’t noticed one menacing movement or expression during the ceremony, not one angry stare. In fact, his sense of being eclipsed upon entering their midst notwithstanding, the people here had largely ignored him. He hadn’t fully articulated his expectations before joining Jesse, and upon reflection, it probably hadn’t been wise. Nonetheless, here he was, surrounded by people here to protest him, yet still an insignificant detail of their day.
“I think we’ve outstayed our welcome,” Micah said. He turned from the man and stood with his back to him as though shielding Jo.
Jo rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“I’ll help you,” Jack said.
Without another word, Jack turned and walked toward the road, but he hadn’t taken ten steps before he felt a hand on his arm.
“I said I’d help you,” he said again, thinking it was Jo.
But it was a man, a stranger, an Indian with long silver hair tied behind his head and deep creases in his face. He was shorter than Jack by a head, but he held himself straight, despite his age, and looked into Jack’s eye with a confidence that comes with being listened to. Jack listened.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you,” the man said.
“Well,” said Jack, “now you have.” He nodded at the grave in the distance. “I’m sorry about the boy.”
The old man grunted his affirmation without changing his expression or breaking his stare. “Let’s hope something good comes of it.”
It seemed like a strange thing to say, to Jack, but he’d always felt vaguely unnerved by people who lived in the old ways. Their manner of speech always suggested a side of things he wasn’t part of, nor invited to be.
“Any idea,” Jack asked, “of the cause?”
The old man nodded. “The future,” he said.
Jack wasn’t surprised.