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BOOK SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS
BOOK 3: The Night Chanter, Los Angeles, 1952
CHAPTER 1: February 20
Benally tells of the day that Abel has left. He gave Abel his coat because it was raining and Abel was getting cold. Abel could walk only very slowly because of his injuries. He left on the train. He worries about Abel on the train because he is in such bad shape. He knows no one will help Abel because they’ll be scared of him. Benally goes to The Silver Dollar, Henry’s place. He likes it because there are always some Indians there, but Martinez is also often there. The people call him culebra (snake). The bar is crowded and Benally wants a drink but doesn’t have any money. He sees Manygoats with a new woman and asks him if he can borrow some money. He can tell Manygoats doesn’t want him to stay and talk because he is working on impressing the woman, so Benally says he was already planning to leave. He sees Tosamah and Cruz and Howard there as he leaves, but he doesn’t want to do anything with them.
Benally walks home to find that he had left the window open. The old woman Carlozini gets upset about this because the rain seeps through the floor and drips on her bed. Benally remembers opening the window while Abel was getting ready to leave. He had tried to coax a pigeon to the sill. Benally turns on the heat and is relieved to feel it beginning to get warmer. Milly had brought some food the day before and she and Benally had packed some snacks for Abel’s trip. He wonders if Milly will come by any more now that Abel isn’t there. He likes Milly. She started out asking all kinds of questions from her social work training, but Abel got angry about them and she soon quit. They all joked around with each other a lot after that.
Benally thinks about the night before when he took Abel up on the hill with Tosamah and Cruz and lots of other Indians. They were gathered around a fire and someone started singing old-time songs. They all got drunk and danced and sang. Mercedes Tenorio started it all when she began a stomp dance with some turtle shells. Everyone joined in except for Benally and Abel. Benally likes being up on that hill where he can forget everything for a while. He and Abel walked away from the fire a bit and Abel wanted him to talk. Benally started telling him about their plans. They would both go home and then two or three years from then, they would meet up out there on the reservation and get drunk together. It would be the last time together. They would go out on horses alone together and watch the sun rise. It would be good again. They would sing. Benally had made that plan up the night before when they were in the hospital room. Abel believed it and so Benally began to believe it. He told Abel it was called "House made of dawn." He sang to Abel of the old songs, "Beautyway and Night Chant." When they were up on the hill the night before Abel left, Benally felt moved to sing a prayer. He sang it low so only he and Abel could hear it. He sang about the House made of Dawn. He asks the world to restore his feet, his legs, his body, and to take its spell out for him. He ends with the chant "May it be beautiful before me, / May it be beautiful behind me, / May it be beautiful below me, / May it be beautiful above me, / May it be beautiful all around me. / In beauty it is finished."
Benally thinks Abel was just unlucky. He saw it in Abel right away. He knew Abel wouldn’t be able to adjust. He was a "longhair." That meant he would be unable to change. He was an old-style Indian according to Tosamah. Benally knows that in order to live in a European-American dominated place, an Indian has to forget about home and how s/he grew up. Abel had it even worse because he was on parole when he came, so he was always having to be careful upon the threat of his return to jail. Benally resents Tosamah, whom he says doesn’t really know much despite his big talk. Tosamah likes to go on and on about people like Abel. He says Abel was a "poor cat" who had been given all the advantages when he had been taken in by the U.S. military and trained as a soldier. He says Abel was "too damned dumb to be civilized." The U.S. authorities planned for Abel to plant some beans and get a "fat little squaw all knocked up." Instead he "turned out to be a real primitive sonuvabitch" when he killed a man. Abel had said he had killed a snake. Tosamah likes to go on about the ridiculous spectacle the trial would have made with Abel talking about killing a snake and a bunch of perplexed white people trying to make rational sense out of it. Tosamah thinks they had to put Abel in jail because it was part of "their Jesus scheme."
Benally is annoyed with Tosamah’s big talk. He thinks of Abel being afraid of that man out there. He knows Tosamah doesn’t understand that kind of fear. Tosamah doesn’t come from the reservation. Benally knows that growing up on the reservation makes a different person out of someone. He remembers the first time Abel came around. The foreman at his plant brought Abel to work across the line from him. He was awkward at first but soon got used to it. At lunch, Benally tried to share his lunch with Abel, but Abel said he didn’t want any. After work, Benally invited Abel to come and stay with him because he knew Abel would be staying at the Indian Center.
Abel wouldn’t talk to people for a long time. Milly and the other social workers often came around and he and Abel would joke about them. Sometimes they would get drunk with some other guys. Still, Abel wouldn’t talk much about himself. Benally thinks he and Abel were somewhat alike. They were related in some way. The Navajos have a clan they call by the name of the place Abel is from. Once Benally attended the Sante Fe Indian School and went to a big dance in that place. He remembers it as a good place with a lot of red in the rocks.
Benally remembers his childhood with his grandfather herding sheep. He liked it in winter when it snowed outside. His grandfather would wake up first and then Benally would get up happily and wash his face with fresh snow. He would take the sheep around looking for grass for them to eat. His grandfather would often wait for him so he could go with him to the trading store. His grandfather was kind to him while teaching him the ways of the world. At the trading store, he would get red candy from Frazer, the man who ran the store, and his grandfather would get supplies. That night his grandfather hammered strips of silver and told him stories. He felt that he was right in the center of everything.
Everything went all right for Abel for two months. The parole officer and the welfare and Relocation people kept coming around reminding him that if he did anything wrong he would have to go back to jail. That started getting him nervous and depressed. They also asked Benally about him, but Benally didn’t tell them anything. He knew they wouldn’t understand. He knew those people couldn’t help Abel because they didn’t speak the same language. He knows Abel must have thought about leaving and going home, but home is "just the empty land and a lot of old people, going noplace and dying off."
Work at the plant started getting more pressure-filled. The foreman wanted them to rush some orders. One night, Benally and Abel got drunk and Abel didn’t want to leave. Tosamah was there at Henry’s and was going on as usual with his big talk. Benally knew Abel didn’t like it, but Abel only smiled and listened. Tosamah started talking about "longhairs" and the reservation. Everyone else but Cruz was made uncomfortable by the talk. Suddenly, Abel jumped up to rush for Tosamah, but he was so drunk, he couldn’t even stay on his feet. Cruz started to laugh and then the others did. Benally thinks that humiliation did something to Abel because he was never the same afterwards. Abel didn’t go to work the next two days and when he did, Daniels, the foreman, stood over him criticizing him until Abel turned around and walked away.
For the next few weeks he stayed extremely drunk. He tried to borrow money from Benally and when Benally stopped lending him money, he borrowed it from Milly. Benally and Milly got him a couple of jobs, but he lost both of them very quickly. The three of them still had some good times after that. Milly would come over on Sundays and they would all go to the beach. Milly would go swimming and they would watch her. Abel would make jokes and say things about her which made Benally feel uncomfortable. He was always worried that Abel would hurt Milly because Milly was so trustful and innocent. Milly often talked about her father and how he worked himself to death. Once she briefly mentioned a man she had been with but then had changed the topic with tears in her eyes. He can’t remember anyone who laughed as much as Milly.
Benally and Abel became so easy with her because of her openness. They would tell stories of the reservation with her. One day on the beach, Milly had just gotten in from swimming. They were lying on the beach and Abel was saying he would soon get a job and straighten himself out. He told them of a horse he once had that hadn’t been broken all the way and had a mean streak. It liked the water and every time it got loose, Abel would be able to find it standing in the middle of the river enjoying itself. Once Abel was riding it and came upon a dignified old man in the road. He offered the old man a ride. The problem occurred when they had to cross the river. The horse decided to lie down in it and the old man was dumped into the river. He got up and didn’t say anything. He just turned and walked off. Milly laughed long and hard at this story.
Milly believed Abel would be able to work everything out. Maybe even Abel believed it. Benally knew it wouldn’t happen. It was too late. He was already sick inside.
Benally remembers a girl at Cornfields who laughed like Milly laughed. He had been away at school and he had returned home. Everything looked the same on the land. He got to the trading post at Wide Ruins and was greeted by Frazer. Benally saw a beautiful black horse at Frazer’s trading post and began to bargain for it. He said his uncle had a fine old ketoh that he was going to give him. He acted like he wasn’t very interested in the ketoh while all the while pointing out its fine points and mentioning a trader who had very much wanted to have it. Finally, Frazer offered the horse on a trial basis and told him to bring the ketoh over in the next few days. He had ridden the horse home and his grandfather had sung a song of thanksgiving upon seeing him.
Benally thinks of Abel out there in the night by himself. He knows Abel is awake and wonders if he can see the stars and the moonlight. He thinks of the course of the train as it will begin to climb the mountains around Williams and Flagstaff. He hopes Abel is all right.
Benally returns to his musing about that trip home and his grandfather’s joy at seeing him. He had gone to sleep early and woke at the first light the next day. The land was the same, just as he had remembered it. It was the same way it had always been and the same way it would be when he died. He felt happy to be alone with the rising sun. The sun came up and he rode the black horse to the Cornfields where he had heard there would be a dance. He prayed as he rode beginning "I am the Turquoise Woman’s son. / On top of Belted Mountain." He prayed about the beauty of his horse and then he prayed about peace that surrounded him.
He rode his horse to Klagetoh to the trading post and hung around boasting about his new black horse. He rode on to Sam Charley’s place and he came along for the ride to the dance. He knew there was no ketoh, but he was happy to have the horse for a while anyway. They arrived at the fires of the dance outside of Cornfields. He heard the drums and saw everyone begin to dance. Suddenly he saw a girl across the fire who was laughing. She was beautiful. Sam Charley told him the girl’s name was Poney. He kept watching her when she wasn’t looking all night, marveling at her beauty. Then she was next to him and handed him her blanket. He put it over his shoulders and opened it for her. She came inside and they danced together with her laughing. That was the last time he saw her.
One night Benally remembers, he and Abel were coming home from Henry’s place talking loudly as they walked along the quiet streets. They were passing an alley when suddenly Martinez stepped out. He made them go into the alley with him and he told Benally to hold out his hands. Benally did so and his hands were shaking. Martinez laughed at him for being afraid. Then he told Abel to hold out his hands. He had a big police flashlight. Abel held out his hands steadily. Suddenly, Martinez brought the flashlight down hard on Abel’s hands. Abel doubled over in silent pain. Martinez left them there. He walked off laughing. Benally thinks this event changed Abel. Abel would sit around looking at his hands for long periods of time. He was always absent after that when he was physically present with Benally and Milly.
One day Benally came for Abel to take him for a ride out to Westwood where he was to drop off a load for work. While they were sitting on the street in the truck, Abel pointed out a white woman to him and said he had been with her once. Benally got angry thinking Abel was boasting. This woman was wealthy. Abel said he had worked for her and that she had said she would help him if he ever needed it. When Abel got hurt, he said this woman’s name and so Benally realized the story was true.
Benally thinks of his apartment. Milly once brought over some curtains, but they never hung them. She used to come over and find the same spider had made a nest on Abel’s suitcase in the corner. She destroyed the nest several times until the men told her to leave it alone because it was their roommate now. She had said she would make it a nice doll house because no spider deserved to live out of a suitcase. Benally worries a little about the old woman Carlozini who is still out. He worries that she’ll fall and hurt herself in the rain. He remembers a time when he and Abel were leaving the apartment and they found Carlozini on the stoop holding a small box with a dead hamster in it. She was talking to them about it, whose name was Vincenzo. She didn’t realize it was dead. Finally, Abel had told her it was dead. They had asked if she wanted them to take it to the alley for her. She had refused. They felt sorry for her.
Benally thinks of where he lives. He thinks it’s a good place to live because everything is bright and clean. There are always plenty of things going on. On the reservation, there is nothing, just plenty of land. Here, he can buy anything that anyone else can. People are friendly to him. He thinks Tosanah is wrong when he criticizes the Relocation people. They’re friendly and go out of their way to help Indians get settled.
Benally remembers the end of his time of living with Abel. They had a fight and Abel left. He said he was going to find the culebra (Martinez). Benally had been so angry that he had let him go, but then he had gotten worried. He waited up that night and rushed home from work for the next three days. Then one night in the middle of the night, he had heard something on the stairs and had gone out to find Abel there. Abel had been so beaten up that Benally almost vomited looking at him. He had rushed out to call an ambulance and had ridden to the hospital with him. The nurse at the hospital asked Benally all kinds of questions that seemed to him irrelevant in light of Abel’s condition, but she then began to feel sorry for Benally and let him see Abel. Abel didn’t wake up that night. Benally went home and called the white woman. She came to the hospital two days later. She told Abel she had a son named Peter now and she told him a special story about an Indian. She said there was a young Indian brave who was born of a bear and a maiden. He had many adventures and became a great leader and saved his people. She told Abel that when she told this story to Peter she thought of Abel.
Benally was impressed by the woman’s story. It reminded him of his grandfather’s stories. His grandfather told him the story of Esdza shash nadle. The people had come down from the mesas, but they were afraid of Esdza shash nadle, so they buried the Calendar Stone and wrapped feather blankets around their dead and ran away. They left a likeness of a bear on the rock where they had lived. There were twelve brothers and two sisters. It was time for the sisters to marry. Two old men wanted them, the Bear and the Snake. They went to the top of the mountain and disguised themselves as beautiful young men. The sisters were enchanted by their tobacco smoke and followed it to the men. The Snake said it was from the plain and the Bear said it as from the mountain. The sisters smoked and then fell asleep. When they woke up, they realized they had slept with a bear and a snake. They ran away, the elder sister ran to the summit of the mountain and the younger sister ran to the plain. The older sister came to a great kiva where old men and women greeted her and bathed and anointed her. She bore a female child. It had hair on its ears and arms and legs. This sister was called the Bear Maiden from then on by the Yei people. Later, a male child was born and the Bear Maiden left it alone. It was carried off by an owl. The child became strong and the owl became afraid of it. The wind warned the child and told it to follow the Rio Marcos to the east. The child grew up and married the eldest daughter of a great chief and became a medicine man. He became infatuated with his younger sister-in-law and slept with her making her temporarily unable to recognize who he was. When she realized it and found that she was pregnant, she became ashamed. She hid the child she bore among the leaves. It was found by the Bear. Benally closes this story with the chant about beauty being all around him.
He remembers being up on the hill last night with Abel. It was cool and clear from being so rainy. He and Abel had gone off by themselves. Benally had prayed. He thinks about their plan to go out on horses to the hills. "And it was going to be right and beautiful. It was going to be the last time. And he was going home."
This section gives Benally’s version of what happened in Abel’s last weeks and days in Los Angeles. It goes a long way in establishing Benally’s gentle personality. He is a man who tries to help Abel, a fellow Indian, a man who is having trouble adjusting to the transition between the reservation and the European- American-dominated city. Benally, too, was raised on a reservation and knows the difficulties with assimilation. Despite the fact that he has assimilated fairly successfully, Benally remains spiritually connected with the old ways of his Native heritage.
This section also gives us something more of a useful view of Abel’s personality. Since Benally can identify with him, he gives a partial and supportive view of Abel. The reader gets an idea of how extraordinarily difficult it would be for Abel to live in Los Angeles where he is constantly under the surveillance of state agencies--his parole officer and the Relocation officers--and he has to make a living working on an assembly line at a plant, and he has to face the outright racism of the people around him, racism which threatens his identity and his physical survival.