The Sorcerer’s Smile

Your great-grandma says I talk like an old preacher, which is to say, too much. Maybe she’s right. She’s right about a lot of things. Of course, she knows all the stories, too. We’ve been married for sixty-seven years.

It wasn’t the time to tell the one I could have on Christmas Eve. Wasn’t the time because nobody around that tree wanted to hear an old man go on and on, not with all those presents calling out. The only story anyone needed was the best one, about the shepherds in the fields and a host of angels like that choir you and your friend Matt are in. Did I tell you how much we loved that concert? Grandma said you sound like the angels–as if she knows what that sounds like–but then most anything would after singing with me all these years.

But you’re a serious boy, and I got to thinking that you meant that question you asked, and the real answer takes some time for the telling.

The truth is, I never sang in a boys’ choir, and about the only thing I ever did in church when I was your age was carve my initials in the pews. Some people my age think that with abortion and all, the Lord is about to return and clean up the mess, but I’m not sure that we’re falling into any more murky pits than we’ve ever been in, because just between you and me, Max, your great-grandfather was not near as good a kid as you.

But I had my reasons, too, even though when I was your age I hadn’t taken the time to think them all out. I was “acting out,” as they say now. When my mother died, my father did too, even though he kept on breathing and years later turned his life around. In those days, when families fell apart, kids got shipped out–and so did I, to my uncle’s farm, a story for another day. Whys and wherefores are things you have to understand to make sense of the answer you asked for.

I got in big trouble with my uncle and aunt–I won’t go into that now–and was told, finally, that they wouldn’t have me anymore. My Dad was in no shape to take me, and Mom was gone. It was Rehoboth or reform school, options that seemed to me, back then, one and the same. Who’d ever heard of New Mexico?

But it was Christmas you asked about, and what I was thinking when you and your cousins opened those presents a couple nights ago was how times have changed. It was 1935, mid-Depression, and nobody had any money to speak of.

But there were peanuts. Tons of them. And the morning of the Christmas Eve I’m wanting to tell you about, we–which is to say, me and the Lokhorst boys–were filling a hundred paper bags with peanuts, and a few candies. I ate my share that afternoon, too, if the truth be known–but so did the Lokhorst boys, but some peanuts got into those paper bags.

I’d been out at Rehoboth for two months or so, no more; and I was trying to lay low and keep myself out of trouble for once in my life. The Lokhorsts, the people I was staying with (they were shirttail relations of the uncle and aunt who wouldn’t have me–for good reason, too), were missionaries to the Navajo people.

The truth is, I’d never seen an Indian, and, from what my uncle had said, I wasn’t particularly anxious. “Maybe we’ll be lucky and they’ll scalp the kid” is what he told others, except he didn’t say “kid” and he said it with a crooked smile as if he meant it for a joke.

Did I say it was 1935? I think so. Mid-Depression, dimes were scarce as hen’s teeth. But what the boys called “mission barrel clothes” still came in from Michigan and Indiana and even Chicago, where I’d come from, enough at least to pass out presents to the Navajos.

Here’s the deal. Even though it was cold on the reservation, me and the boys went up with the good Reverend Lokhorst to deliver the goods. Just a word about the Reverend. He never minded me at all. He just stuck me in with his own four boys and figured they’d do all the work. I got beat up some in those first few weeks, but quite frankly I don’t think I could have lived with myself back then either.

Besides, Rehoboth wasn’t Chicago. There were times we just got on horses and rode. Didn’t matter where–up into those hogbacks behind the mission and all around through that red desert. It took me about a week to see that Rehoboth wasn’t reform school, although those Lokhorst boys had to slap me around to get my attention.

So we get in the truck. You think you’re down there in New Mexico and there’s going to be palm trees and cactus; but that place–you’ve never been there, I bet–makes Denver look like bottom land. Way high. Cold–sheesh! It can get terrible cold. But those Navajos used to ride in the beds of their pickups all over, and so did we. Wrap ourselves up good so that we all looked like blanket Indians–them and us. Now the Rev. Lokhorst knew his people, knew them well, maybe knew them better than his own kids, but that’s another story. And he’d been carefully picking clothes out of that donated stuff all afternoon, then twisting some baling twine around the bundles he shoved together because he knew who was going to show up in Pinedale, and he wanted to make sure they all got what they needed. Toys too. It was mid-Depression, like I told you, but there were a few battered toys. No matter. The kids loved ’em. And for just about everybody, a bag of peanuts, with a chunk or two of hard candy. No chocolate. It was ’35, you know.

Well, we got out there, the Reverend and me and three of his boys–the young one stayed home with his mom. It was our job to bring the bundles to the front of the bed of the pickup, where the pastor would check ’em over and call out a name. Mid-afternoon, maybe a little later, I keep thinking it was cold, but maybe not so bad because the sun is always strong out there.

We’d parked ourselves out front of the old BIA school up on the edge of the hill, just a whistle away from a stone chapter house- middle of town, only there was no town there because Navajo people liked to keep their distance back then. Each of the families had a home place, maybe a mile away from each other. But they knew to be there when we promised we’d pull up, and they were there all right, a ton of them, more–I thought–then the Reverend had figured. About that, I was wrong.

So Gary–he’s one of the preacher’s boys–he elbows me when we’re picking up bundles from the back, and he points at a big-shouldered man, a Navajo, who was walking behind all the people, back and forth, stalking almost. “Billy Bates,” he says, as if I’m supposed to know what on earth that means.

I’m wondering if the guy is on the warpath, and it must have showed on my face.

“Medicine man,” Gary tells me, raising an eyebrow, as if we ought to be on the lookout. What did I know about medicine men?–nothing. He just looked mean.

“We’re in trouble?” I said to Gary.

“Dad knows him,” Gary told me, as if that was insurance.

Right then my hands were cold and I could have used a pair of gloves, too–I remember that. But when you’re young, you think you’re tough. I did anyway.

“What’s the problem?” I said, and Gary just repeated what he’d said about him being a medicine man. “He’s going to turn us into skunks?–is that it?” I said.

“He is one,” Gary said, “or can be.”

There he stood, arms crossed, looking over his people. Later, they told me he was head of the chapter there too, almost like mayor. I guess, in a way, I thought of him then as a “chief,” but Navajos didn’t have chiefs. Neither did other Indians, but the
only thing I knew about Indians came from dime novels–and I bet you don’t know what a dime novel is either, do you? Cheap stuff–let me put it that way.

Anyway, it’s Christmas and the people
are happy with what they got from Kalamazoo
and Englewood and wherever. Mostly
it’s clothes, and it’s cold–December. I told
you that.

And the kids got some toys, too–don’t remember just what anymore but old dolls and things like that, chipped faces, now and then a teddy bear or a beat up box of Tinkertoys. Cast-offs, really. Wasn’t anything I wanted, but we ate our share of peanuts.

“He’s not a Christian,” Gary said about this Bates guy.

“Some kind of witch doctor?” I said. What did I know?

What I knew was that somehow Gary didn’t like it, this Billy Bates pacing back and forth, like a man looking over a hundred beloved children.

Reverent Lokhorst was a fine man. I think he never listened to a word my uncle said about me because the moment I got out there, he handled me just like he handled any of his boys, and they weren’t angels either, let me tell you.

Before we gave all those clothes away, he had a little sermon, too–I don’t remember what about, except there were sheep around the manger–I mean, in the barn with Jesus. Not just oxen and cattle, but sheep. I didn’t know that Navajos love sheep back then. In fact, I don’t know how anybody can. But back then they all had ’em.

He didn’t speak good Navajo, not good enough to do any public speaking anyway, so he had a translator tell the people what he was saying, which made sermon twice as long. That didn’t go over big with me, but look how much time I’m taking to answer your question. Who am I to talk?

And then, when all those people had something, the Reverend turns around, steps off the back of the truck, and reaches into the cab to pull out something from behind the seat.

He grabs that bundle out, gets back up on the back of the truck, but the people don’t really see any of this anymore, see?–because they’re already walking away, starting on back to their hogans with all the good stuff.

“Billy Bates,” the good Reverend yells. “I got one here for Billy Bates,” he said.

Gary Lokhorst wasn’t the only one there who was a little worried about Billy Bates, because the minute Rev. Lokhorst yelled out that name, all over those dusty roads the people stopped in their tracks and looked around, stood still and couldn’t help look back, like Lot’s wife.

“The last one here is for Billy Bates,”Rev. Lokhorst says again.

When you’re with Indian people, you get used to the quiet because with them–at least back then–silence was a virtue. There’s not much being said, and this Billy Bates, the witch doctor, turns around himself. You see, the man didn’t much care for white man’s religion–not at least when he had his own way, proven through the centuries, he’d say too, I’m sure.

Some things about being human are just plain bigger than whatever color is painted on our faces, and right then Billy Bates knew that his people were watching him, seeing what was going to happen. And there stands Rev. Lokhorst with that bundle in his hands. He folds it under an arm for a minute and jumps back down to the ground from the back of the truck because he’s not going to hand it down to him. I think I knew that, right then.

And he meets him half way, too. I mean Reverend Lokhorst walks out to meet Mr. Billy Bates, rather than let him come to the truck and reach up for it and all of that. He goes–the preacher–out to meet him and gives him the bundle.

Meanwhile, the people are standing there still as stone.

There’s twine around the bundle, but Billy’s got a knife, see, and he cuts it without looking down. I swear it–he never looked down to cut the twine, just looked around at his people.

The twine untwisted, and just like that Billy Bates held in his two hands a black wool overcoat some old man in Michigan likely bought before the Great War. Double breasted, and a belt–you know the type?–wide collars, plenty of pockets. Not a cheap thing is what I’m saying, but maybe old-fashioned.

The sun was just marking that broad slope behind the people, a swath of land that runs up east like a berm in that red land, up high enough for pines to grow, which is why they called the place Pinedale.

Billy Bates liked the coat. First time I saw a smile pass on that dark face of his, full of wrinkles. Not that he thanked the preacher. That wasn’t it. He held it in his hands like it was the first helping of something good he’d had in a month of Sundays.

He stuck his arms through the sleeves and pulled it up over his shoulders, a big man for a Navajo. You got to hand it to the preacher for knowing that most of those people would have drowned in that thing, but those big shoulders of Billy Bates filled it up like Al Capone, and I should know–I was born in Chicago.

But here’s the thing. There the man stood right in the middle of the action, all eyes on him as if there were a spotlight up there shining down from the hill of pines. There he stood in a long black coat, buttoning it, one at a time, loving it.

And it was a little kid, some child, who said it–in the Navajo language. I didn’t get it all right away. It had to be explained later on, but all of a sudden this little boy walks right up to Billy Bates in that long black coat, and he says, “A na shoo di.”

What did I know? Nothing.

Just like that, Gary grabs my arm and pulls me down on the back of the truck. “The kid just called him a preacher,” Gary said.

You got to get this now, or the story makes no sense. The little kid called the medicine man a preacher because the little kid saw the long black coat priests and preachers used to wear.

A na shoo di,” the kid says, and nobody moved.

Billy Bates looked up at Reverend Lokhorst for the first time all afternoon, and slowly, Indian style, a smile grew from ear to ear, as he turned all the way around in that long wool coat. It was the last gift, and the people didn’t know how to take it exactly.

Billy Bates looked at the preacher and just nodded his head as if to say that this time, this time, the preacher one-upped him, on a cold Christmas Eve, a single warm gift, turning the medicine man into a man of the cloth, Rev. Lokhorst’s own bit of voodoo.

But Billy Bates just loved the coat. He just loved the coat.

And the people laughed–out loud too yet. And then they picked up their things and started walking home for Christmas.

So the question you asked me yesterday, right before we opened presents at your parents’ house, was, “Papa, what was your all-time favorite Christmas?” I couldn’t give you that answer just then, not sitting there around the tree. It took me most of two days to write it out.

But the way I got it figured, Max, that Pinedale Christmas had to be one of the finest ever. I stayed warm all the way home in the back of that pickup. Everywhere you looked there was joy that day, everywhere. Even in me, tough as I was, something melted with that old medicine man’s smile.

Peace on earth.

But then maybe that day we sat around your tree was better. After all, your greatgrandma and I don’t know how many we’re going to get like that one again, and I’m way too old to sit in the back of a pickup.

It took the Lord’s own will to make me understand some things about who I was and what I was supposed to be, Max, just as it will you. It didn’t happen overnight either. But Christmas at the Pinedale School is one I’ll never forget, for more reasons than you can count and I can write. The smile on Billy Bates’ face–and all the smiles all around–brought one to mine, too, and right then I hadn’t had that many that I remember.

When I think about it, it may have been my very first real Christmas.

But the best holiday, for me and your great-grandma, is still the one to come. You know what I mean.

Hope I didn’t go on and on here. Grandma says she could have said it in a hundred words. But I tell her she married me because I sweet-talked her, way back when, once I settled down and found the right path home.

One way or another, we’ll be at your concert again next year, if your voice don’t change. And if it does, like it will, we’ll be just as happy. We’ll hear the music, I know–in heaven above or earth below.

And one more thing. Thanks so much for the slippers. They fit good.

Many thanks to Mr. Roland Kamps, Gallup, NM, who, as a boy, seventy-five years ago, watched a very similar Christmas unfold before his eyes at Pinedale, New Mexico.

James Schaap teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.