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.