Leon and Tony, two young Native Americans experience the same life-changing event, but react in two very different ways. This short story by the acclaimed author Leslie Marmon Silko, is one of contrasts and consequences.
About the author
Leslie Marmon Silko (1948) is a writer of Native American ancestry. She was brought up in a Pueblo reservation in New Mexico in a family with Laguna Pueblo, white, and Mexican ancestry. Much like the characters in her stories, Silko’s background left her at a crossroads between cultures. Consequently, she did not feel fully accepted by either the Laguna Pubelo people or white people because of her mixed background. On the reservation, she became familiar with old legends and myths that were handed down from one generation to the next. This is an important backdrop for her novels, short stories and poetry.
"Tony's Story" as plain text
It happened one summer when the sky was wide and hot and the summer rains did not come; the sheep were thin, and the tumbleweeds turned brown and died. Leon came back from the army. I saw him standing by the Ferris wheel across from the people who came to sell melons and chili on San Lorenzo's Day. He yelled at me, "Hey Tony – over here!" I was embarrassed to hear him yell so loud, but then I saw the wine bottle with the brown-paper sack crushed around it.
"How's it going, buddy?"
He grabbed my hand and held it tight like a white man. He was smiling. "It's good to be home again. They asked me to dance tomorrow – it's only the Corn Dance, but I hope I haven't forgotten what to do."
"You'll remember – it will all come back to you when you hear the drum." I was happy, because I knew that Leon was once more a part of the pueblo. The sun was dusty and low in the west, and the procession passed by us, carrying San Lorenzo back to his niche in the church.
"Do you want to get something to eat?" I asked.
Leon laughed and patted the bottle. "No, you're the only one who needs to eat. Take this dollar – they're selling hamburgers over there." He pointed past the merry-go-round to a stand with cotton candy and a snowcone machine.
It was then that I saw the cop pushing his way through the crowds of people gathered around the hamburger stand and bingo-game tent; he came steadily towards us. I remembered Leon's wine and looked to see if the cop was watching us; but he was wearing dark glasses and I couldn't see his eyes.
He never said anything before he hit Leon in the face with his fist. Leon collapsed into the dust, and the paper sack floated in the wine and pieces of glass. He didn't move and blood kept bubbling out of his mouth and nose. I could hear a siren. People crowded around Leon and kept pushing me away. The tribal policemen knelt over Leon, and one of them looked up at the state cop and asked what was going on. The big cop didn't answer. He was staring at the little patterns of blood in the dust near Leon's mouth. The dust soaked up the blood almost before it dripped to the ground – it had been a very dry summer. The cop didn't leave until they laid Leon in the back of the paddy wagon.
The moon was already high when we got to the hospital in Albuquerque. We waited a long time outside the emergency room with Leon propped between us. Siow and Gaisthea kept asking me,"What happened, what did Leon say to the cop?" and I told them how we were just standing here, ready to buy hamburgers — we'd never even seen him before. They put stitches around Leon's mouth and gave him a shot; he was lucky, they said – it could've been a broken jaw instead of broken teeth.
They dropped me off near my house. The moon had moved lower into the west and left the close rows of houses in long shadows. Stillness breathed around me, and I wanted to run from the feeling behind me in the dark; the stories about witches ran with me. That night I had a dream — the big cop was pointing a long bone at me — they always use human bones, and the whiteness flashed silver in the moonlight where he stood. He didn't have a human face — only little, round, white-rimmed eyes on a black ceremonial mask.
Leon was better in a few days. But he was bitter, and all he could talk about was the cop. "I'll kill the big bastard if he comes around here again." Leon kept saying. With something like the cop it is better to forget, and I tried to make Leon understand. "It's over now. There's nothing you can do."
I wondered why men who came back from the army were troublemakers on the reservation. Leon even took it before the pueblo meeting. They discussed it, and the old men decided that Leon shouldn't have been drinking. The interpreter read a passage out of the revised pueblo law-and-order code about possessing intoxicants on the reservation, so we got up and left.
Then Leon asked me to go with him to Grants to buy a roll of barbed wire for his uncle. On the way we stopped at Cerritos for gas, and I went into the store for some pop. He was inside. I stopped in the doorway and turned around before he saw me — he already knew we were there. Leon was waiting with the truck engine running almost like he knew what I would say.
"Let's go — the big cop's inside."
Leon gunned it and the pickup skidded back on the highway. He glanced back in the rear-view mirror. "I didn't see his car."
"Hidden," I said.
Leon shook his head. "He can't do it again. We are just as good as them."
The guys who came back always talked like that.
The sky was hot and empty. The half-grown tumbleweeds were dried-up flat and brown beside the highway, and across the valley heat shimmered above wilted fields of corn. Even the mountains high beyond the pale sandrock mesas were dusty blue. I was afraid to fall asleep so I kept my eyes on the blue mountains —not letting them close — soaking in the heat; and then I knew why the drought had come that summer.
Leon shook me. "He's behind us — the cop's following us!"
I looked back and saw the red light on top of the car whirling around, and I could make out the dark image of a man, but where the face should have been there were only the silvery lenses of the dark glasses he wore.
"Stop, Leon! He wants us to stop!"
Leon pulled over and stopped on the narrow gravel shoulder.
"What in the hell does he want?" Leon's hands were shaking.
Suddenly the cop was standing beside the truck, gesturing for Leon to roll down his window. He pushed his head inside, grinding the gum in his mouth; the smell of Doublemint was all around us.
"Get out. Both of you."
I stood beside Leon in the dry weeds and tall yellow grass that broke through the asphalt and rattled in the wind. The cop studied Leon's driver's license. I avoided his face – I knew that I couldn't look at his eyes. So I stared at his black half-Wellingtons, with the black uniform cuffs pulled over them; but my eyes kept moving upward past the black gun belt. My legs were quivering, and I tried to keep my eyes away from his. But it was like the time when I was very little and my parents warned me not to look into the masked dancer's eyes because they would grab me, and my eyes would not stop.
"What's your name?" His voice was high-pitched and it distracted me from the meaning of the words.
I remember Leon said, "He doesn't understand English so good," and finally I said that I was Antonio Sousea, while my eyes strained to look beyond the silver frosted glasses that he wore; but only my distorted face and squinting eyes reflected back.
And then the cop stared at us for a while, silent; finally he laughed and chewed his gum some more slowly "Where were you going?"
"To Grants." Leon spoke English very clearly "Can we go now?"
Leon was twisting the key chain around his fingers, and I felt the sun everywhere. Heat swelled up from the asphalt and when cars went by, hot air and motor smell rushed past us.
"I don't like smart guys, Indian. It's because of you bastards that I'm here. They transferred me here because of Indians. They thought there wouldn't be as many for me here. But I find them." He spit his gum into the weeds near my foot and walked back to the patrol car. It kicked up gravel and dust when he left.
We got back in the pickup, and I could taste sweat in my mouth, so I told Leon that we might as well go home since he would be waiting for us up ahead.
"He can't do this," Leon said. "We've got a right to be on this highway"
I couldn't understand why Leon kept talking about "rights", because it wasn't "rights" that he was after, but Leon didn't seem to understand; he couldn't remember the stories that old Teofilo told.
I didn't feel safe until we turned off the highway and I could see the pueblo and my own house. It was noon, and everybody was eating – the village seemed empty – even the dogs had crawled away from the heat. The door was open, but there was only silence, and I was afraid that something had happened to all of them. Then as soon as I opened the screen door the little kids started crying for more Kool-Aid, and my mother said "no", and it was noisy again like always. Grandfather commented that it had been a fast trip to Grants, and I said "yeah" and didn't explain because it would've only worried them.
"Leon goes looking for trouble – I wish you wouldn't hang around with him." My father didn't like trouble. But I knew that the cop was something terrible, and even to speak about it risked bringing it close to all of us; so I didn't say anything.
That afternoon Leon spoke with the Governor, and he promised to send letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and to the State Police Chief. Leon seemed satisfied with that. I reached into my pocket for the arrowhead and the piece of string.
"What's that for?"
I held it out to him. "Here, wear it around your neck – like mine. See? Just in case," I said, "for protection."
"You don't believe in that, do you?" He pointed to a .30-30 leaning against the wall. "I'll take this with me whenever I'm in the pickup."
"But you can't be sure that it will kill one of them."
Leon looked at me and laughed. "What's the matter," he said, "have they brainwashed you into believing that a .30-30 won't kill a white man?" He handed back the arrowhead. "Here, you wear two of them."
Leon's uncle asked me if I wanted to stay at the sheep camp for a while. The lambs were big, and there wouldn't be much for me to do, so I told him I would. We left early, while the sun was still low and red in the sky. The highway was empty, and I sat there beside Leon imagining what it was like before there were highways or even horses. Leon turned off the highway onto the sheep-camp road that climbs around the sandstone mesas until suddenly all the trees are pifions.
Leon glanced in the rear-view mirror. "He's following us!"
My body began to shake and I wasn't sure if I would be able to speak. "There's no place left to hide. It follows us everywhere."
Leon looked at me like he didn't understand what I'd said. Then I looked past Leon and saw that the patrol car had pulled up beside us; the pinon branches were whipping and scraping the side of the truck as it tried to force us off the road. Leon kept driving with the two right wheels in the rut – bumping and scraping the trees. Leon never looked over at it so he couldn't have known how the reflections kept moving across the mirror-lenses of the dark glasses. We were in the narrow canyon with pale sandstone close on either side – the canyon that ended with a spring where willows and grass and tiny blue flowers grow.
"We've got to kill it, Leon. We must burn the body to be sure."
Leon didn't seem to be listening. I kept wishing that old Teofilo could have been there to chant the proper words while we did it. Leon stopped the truck and got out – he still didn't understand what it was. I sat in the pickup with the .30-30 across my lap, and my hands were slippery.
The big cop was standing in front of the pickup, facing Leon. "You made your mistake, Indian. I'm going to beat the shit out of you." He raised the billy club slowly "I like to beat Indians with this."
He moved toward Leon with the stick raised high, and it was like the long bone in my dream when he pointed it at me – a human bone painted brown to look like wood, to hide what it really was; they'll do that, you know – carve the bone into a spoon and use it around the house until the victim comes within range.
The shot sounded far away and I couldn't remember aiming. But he was motionless on the ground and the bone wand lay near his feet. The tumbleweeds and tall yellow grass were sprayed with glossy, bright blood. He was on his back, and the sand between his legs and along his left side was soaking up the dark, heavy blood – it had not rained for a long time, and even the tumbleweeds were dying.
"Tony! You killed him – you killed the cop!"
"Help me! We'll set the car on fire."
Leon acted strange, and he kept looking at me like he wanted to run. The head wobbled and swung back and forth, and the left hand and the legs left individual trails in the sand. The face was the same. The dark glasses hadn't fallen off and they blinded me with their hot-sun reflections until I pushed the body into the front seat.
The gas tank exploded and the flames spread along the underbelly of the car. The tires filled the wide sky with spirals of thick black smoke.
"My God, Tony What's wrong with you? That's a state cop you killed." Leon was pale and shaking.
I wiped my hands on my Levis. "Don't worry, everything is O.K. now, Leon. It's killed. They sometimes take on strange forms."
The tumbleweeds around the car caught fire, and little heatwaves shimmered up towards the sky; in the west, rain clouds were gathering..