As we rumbled down a dirt track south of Zuni, a young eagle burst from the roadside chamisa. Rising, it dropped the limp body of a rabbit, then circled through the hosting ravens and repossessed it.
We started a half dozen antelope, who paced the truck to 25 mph. When we slowed they burst ahead, clearly racing us.
Long wandering on foot brought us to a wide, quiet ravine whose walls were covered with petroglyphs: many macaws, prehistorically revered and carried on foot from Mexico. Only bushtits there now, whispering in flocks. I started a big jackrabbit; as it zipped under the brush it folded back its ears, the way a cherrypicker folds to fit under a freeway bridge.
Even when I don’t want to write, if I begin, the flow begins: very steady, like blood, or a river.
Year after year I hiked down Frijoles Canyon to the Rio Grande. The river is always there. In different seasons it is different colors—tan in March, emerald in October—and has different water levels, and the sky above changes color and temperature.
But the river itself is always there.
Scene: Zuni Pueblo, a kindergarten/first grade writers’ workshop. Chatting with Serena, who is writing about her family.
Serena: I can spell Melissa. That’s my sister’s name. Only we call her Medusa.
Me: Does your sister have hair like snakes?
Serena (after a stare): She doesn’t have any hair. She’s bald. She just got born.
Throughout the desert West, the backcountry hiker finds “sheepherders’ monuments”: cairns or slabs of stone raised by turn-of-the-century herdsmen while their sheep grazed, day after day, in the wide silence.
On a hillside of small-grain, gray, dissolving shale we came upon a slab of white sandstone, set on end like a tombstone and blocked up all around with dark rocks. Prickly pear had grown in among the stones.
We’d hiked there a dozen times and never seen it. The desert is like that: bare and open, yet turn your head and there’ll be something that’s been looking at the sun for a hundred, or a hundred million, years.
Zuni: The kindergartners are dictating (and I’m illustrating) their story about a baby mouse carried away from her parents on a kite. I ask them, “What would her parents do?”
Abigail, five, mimes the mouse’s father: Scowling, fists on hips, she shouts, “Get down off that sky!”
We all have too many books. But I have books and rocks.
I have best rocks; second best rocks; third best rocks; and driveway rocks, which I don’t care if somebody steals. When I move, the best, second best, and third best go with me.
Last time I moved, my brother tried to lift a box before he noticed it had been labeled (neatly) ROCKS AND LEG WEIGHTS.
So why, he asked, nursing his lower back, couldn’t you have packed ROCKS with PILLOWS? ROCKS with UNDERWEAR?
Hey. I could have packed them with The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
To the western breaks. Our aim was to look for green agatized wood, but we hiked all over the place.
There were fragments of bone scattered through the arroyos—even part of a jaw, you could see the tooth sockets. At the base of the cliffs I spotted broken antlers, picked them up…and they were stone. I examined them with a hand lens and found, on one, the tiny, parallel, transverse scars left by the incisors of a Pliocene mouse or vole.
Those delicate tooth marks are slightly over two million years old.
A fast trip to the muddy roads of Zuni Pueblo, to admire this year’s babies and exclaim over how big last year’s have grown. There’d been lots of snow; it was so wet, they warned us, that the Navajos were parking on the pavement.
I learned to say “quack” in Zuni: naknak’ya. The apostrophe is a glottal stop, the tiny pause in Uh-oh! (which in Zuni would be spelled Uh’oh!).
The past tense of naknak’ya is naknak’yakkya. The happy clamor of ducks on a pond: Zuni nails it.
How do aliens swear?
Not just aliens but all speakers of imaginary languages. Think about it. A polytheist who says “My god!” means something quite different than does a monotheist—and wouldn’t capitalize.
In Listening at the Gate I needed an epithet for use by Nondany, the itinerant master folklore collector. I settled on “By life!” I like it so much I want to get a slang wave going.
Recently a librarian nailed me with a steel eye and asked whether there was any “bad language” in the novel. I explained that it took place in an imaginary culture, but since all cultures have profanity, I’d had to invent some. She looked baffled. And bought the book.
You’ve evoked an imaginary world. You want the speech of its denizens to sound human and true…but if you use contemporary slang the Norns sound like Valley Girls. What now?
Here’s a solution:
…..“It hums so loud, Kat. I can’t not hear it.”
…..“Is—is it death?”
…..“It’s greater than death.”
…..I tried to think of something greater than death, and could not.
……………………………—Listening at the Gate
In dialogue, the speakers use contractions: can’t, it’s. But the in the text of the book proper, the matrix, words are spelled out in full: could not.
Subtle. Simple. And it works.