“The Man to Send
Leslie Marmon Silko
him under a big cottonwood tree. His Levi jacket and pants were
faded light-blue so that he had been easy to find. The big
cottonwood tree stood apart from a small grove of
winterbare cottonwoods which grew in
the wide, sandy, arroyo. He had been dead for a day or more, and
the sheep had wandered and scattered up and down the arroyo.
Leon and his brother-in-law, Ken, gathered the sheep and left
them in the pen at the sheep camp before they returned to the
Leon waited under the tree
while Ken drove the truck through the deep sand to the edge of
the arroyo. He squinted up at the sun and unzipped his jacket.
It sure was hot for this time of year. But high and northwest
the blue mountains were still deep in
snow. Ken came sliding down the low, crumbling bank about fifty
yards down, and he was bringing the red blanket.
Before they wrapped the old man,
Leon took a piece of string out
of his pocket and tied a small gray feather in the old man's
long white hair. Ken gave him the paint. Across the brown
wrinkled forehead he drew a streak of white and along the high
cheekbones he drew a strip of blue paint. He paused and watched
Ken throw pinches of corn meal and pollen into the wind that
fluttered the small gray feather. Then
Leon painted with yellow under
the old man's broad nose, and finally, when he had painted green
across the chin, he smiled.
"Send us rain clouds, Grandfather." They laid the bundle
in the back of the pickup and covered it with
with a heavy tarp before they
started back to the pueblo.
turned off the highway onto the sandy pueblo road. Not long
after they passed the store and post office they saw Father
Paul's car coming toward them. When he recognized their faces he
slowed his car and waved for them to stop. The young priest
rolled down the car window.
"Did you find old Teofilo?" he
stopped the truck. "Good morning, Father. We were just out to
the sheep camp. Everything is O.K. now."
"Thank God for that. Teofilo
is a very old man. You really shouldn't allow him to stay at the
sheep camp alone."
"No, he won't do that any more now."
"Well, I'm glad you understand. I hope I'll be seeing you
at Mass this week. We missed you last Sunday. See if you can get
old Teofilo to come with you." The
priest smiled and waved at them as they drove away.
Louise and Teresa were waiting. The table was set for
lunch, and the coffee was boiling on the black iron stove.
Leon looked at Louise and then
"We found him under a cottonwood tree in the big arroyo
near sheep camp. I guess he sat down to rest in the shade and
never got up again."
walked toward the old man's bed.
The red plaid shawl had been shaken and spread carefully
over the bed, and a new brown flannel
shirt and pair of stiff new
were arranged neatly beside the pillow. Louise held the screen
door open while Leon and Ken carried in the red blanket. He
looked small and shriveled, and after they dressed him in the
new shirt and pants he seemed more shrunken.
It was noontime now because the church bells rang the
Angelus. They ate the beans with hot bread, and nobody said
anything until after Teresa poured the coffee.
up and put on his jacket.
"I'll see about the gravediggers. Only the top layer of
soil is frozen. I think it can be ready before dark."
nodded his head and finished his coffee. After Ken had been gone
for a while, the neighbors and clans people came quietly to
embrace Teofilo's family and to
leave food on the table because the gravediggers would come to
eat when they were finished.
The sky in the west was full of pale-yellow light. Louise
stood outside with her hands in the pockets of
Leon's green army jacket that
was too big for her. The funeral was over, and the old men had
taken their candles and medicine bags and were gone. She waited
until the body was laid into the pickup before she said anything
She touched his arm, and he noticed that her hands were still
dusty from the corn meal that she had sprinkled around the old
When she spoke,
could not hear her.
"What did you say? I didn't hear you."
"I said that I had been thinking about something."
"About the priest sprinkling holy water for
Grandpa. So he won't be thirsty."
stared at the new moccasins that Teofilo
had made for the ceremonial dances in the summer. They were
nearly hidden by the red blanket. It was getting colder, and the
wind pushed gray dust down the narrow pueblo road. The sun was
approaching the long mesa where it disappeared during the
winter. Louise stood there shivering and watching his face. Then
he zipped up his jacket and opened the truck door. "I'll see if
Ken stopped the pickup at the church, and
Leon got out; and then Ken
drove down the hill to the graveyard where people were waiting.
Leon knocked at the old carved
door with its symbols of the Lamb. While he waited he looked up
at the twin bells from the king of
Spain with the last sunlight
pouring around them in their tower.
The priest opened the door and smiled when he saw who it
was. "Come in! What brings you here this evening?"
The priest walked toward the kitchen, and
Leon stood with his cap in his
hand, playing with the earflaps and examining the living room,
the brown sofa, the green armchair, and the brass lamp that hung
down from the ceiling by links of chain. The priest dragged a
chair out of the kitchen and offered it to
"No thank you, Father. I only came to ask you if you would
bring your holy water to the graveyard."
The priest turned away from
Leon and looked out the window
at the patio full of shadows and the dining-room windows of the
nuns' cloister across the patio. The curtains were heavy, and
the light from within faintly penetrated; it was impossible to
see the nuns inside eating supper.
"Why didn't you tell me he was dead? I could have brought
the Last Rites anyway."
smiled. "It wasn't necessary, Father."
The priest stared down at his scuffed brown loafers and
the worn hem of his cassock. "For a Christian burial it was
His voice was distant, and
Leon thought that his blue eyes
"It's O.K. Father, we just want him to have plenty of
The priest sank down into the green chair and picked up a
glossy missionary magazine. He turned the colored pages full of
lepers and pagans without looking at them.
"You know I can't do that,
Leon. There should have been
the Last Rites and a funeral Mass at the very least."
put on his green cap and pulled the flaps down over his ears.
"It's getting late, Father. I've got to go."
Leon opened the door Father
Paul stood up and said, "Wait." He left the room and came back
wearing a long brown overcoat. He followed
Leon out the door and across
the dim churchyard to the adobe steps in front of the church.
They both stooped to fit through the low adobe entrance. And
when they started down the hill to the graveyard only half of
the sun was visible above the mesa.
The priest approached the grave slowly, wondering how they
had managed to dig into the frozen ground; and then he
remembered that this was
New Mexico, and saw the pile of cold
loose sand beside the hole. The people stood close to each other
with little clouds of steam puffing from their faces. The priest
looked at them and saw a pile of jackets, gloves, and scarves in
the yellow, dry tumbleweeds that grew in the graveyard. He
looked at the red blanket, not sure that
Teofilo was so small, wondering if it wasn't some
perverse Indian trick or something they did in March to ensure a
good harvest, wondering if maybe old
Teofilo was actually at sheep camp corralling the sheep
for the night.
But there he was, facing into a cold dry wind and
squinting at the last sunlight, ready
to bury a red wool blanket while the faces of his parishioners
were in shadow with the last warmth of the sun on their backs.
His fingers were stiff, and it took him a long time to twist the
the lid off the holy water. Drops of
water fell on the red blanket and soaked into dark icy spots. He
sprinkled the grave and the water disappeared almost before it
touched the dim, cold sand; it reminded him of something, and he
tried to remember what it was because he thought if he could
remember he might understand this. He sprinkled more water; he
shook the container until it was empty, and the water fell
through the light from sundown like August rain that fell while
the sun was still shining, almost evaporating before it touched
the wilted squash flowers.
The wind pulled at the priest's brown Franciscan robe and
swirled away the corn meal and pollen that had been sprinkled on
the blanket. They lowered the bundle into the ground, and they
didn't bother to untie the stiff pieces of new rope that were
tied around the ends of the blanket. The sun was gone, and over
on the highway the eastbound lane was full of headlights. The
priest walked away slowly.
watched him climb the hill, and when he had disappeared within
the tall, thick walls,
turned to look up at the high blue mountains
in the deep snow that reflected a faint red light from the west.
He felt good because it was finished, and he was happy about the
sprinkling of the holy water; now the old man could send them
big thunderclouds for sure.