Piñon Picking

by Manny Loley



Shimá sipped from her can of Shasta. “Hastiin lei jiní, łah biniye náánáshdlah,” she said, laughing.

“Like he took another drink?” I asked. My eyes focused on the road while I drove.

“Aoo’. But in his case, he took another sip of beer to continue telling his story, not warm pop.” She continued to laugh. “Hataałii łah ‘ahóshidiiniid. A medicine man we used to see said that once. We all laughed at his joke.”

I chuckled.

Shimá told stories during our drives. She told stories about her hard childhood being raised by two alcoholics who didn’t stop drinking until she was an adult; the men she dated, including my father, who turned out to be disappointments; and there were older stories, from the beginning of Diné time, like Changing Woman raising her twin boys who became the Hero Twins that defeated many monsters.

We drove through Thoreau, past the gas stations, the only restaurant in town called Big Ass Burger, Family Dollar and Dollar General next door to each other, groups of streetwalkers roaming like stray dogs, a church with a sign that said something about saving souls and continued on to the south, towards Blue Water Lake.

It felt unsettling to see sunburned Diné men and some women walking the streets of any town that bordered our reservation, but eventually they blended into the towns and I stopped questioning why they didn’t just go home. The alcohol that glazed over their eyes and soothed their pain was more powerful than any connection to home or to loved ones. Alcohol’s pull had been too strong for my father, too.

Shimá touched my arm, her hand warm like red sandstone cliffs, and I blinked and dispelled my troubled thoughts—tenuous as smoke escaping a hogan’s chimney, the smell lingering long after it’s disappeared. “We’re okay,” Shimá said.

“It’s funny how your stories come so freely,” I said. With Shimá, it was effortless. “I feel so many stories inside me sometimes, but they just won’t come.”

“The stories weren’t always willing to be spoken.” She sighed. “The older I get, the easier it becomes.”

She didn’t wait for my reply and instead reached behind her seat for a can of Shasta. “Ná,” she said. “Nothing like warm Shasta to put some pep in your step.”

“I can’t believe you like warm pop.”

“And you don’t?”

“Not really.”

Shimá shook her head. “Are you sure you’re my son?” She laughed another warm laugh. “Shimá saní yęę, your cheii’s mom, always had Shasta when we went piñon picking. She didn’t own an ice chest and buying ice was a luxury back then, so we sat underneath squat piñon trees on warm afternoons sipping Shasta that was in the truck with no AC or anything.”

“So Shasta reminds you of my great grandmother?”

“Lots of things do.”

What things, I wanted to say, but Shimá rolled her window down and let her hand move in the current outside. The scent of piñon and juniper filled the cab. I held the can in one hand that was also on the steering wheel, tapped the mouth of the bright red can and popped it open. I sipped and thought about the smaller things that tie us to those we love. Lots of things.


We passed through small clusters of houses—wood cabins alongside mobile homes and hogans—until we reached a turn off onto a dirt road towards the southwest. The road stretched ahead turning into a steep, rocky incline. We crawled slowly up the mountain, windows down, and the radio tuned to AM 1330 The Voice of the Navajo Nation.

“Nizhóní,” Shimá exclaimed. “Beautiful.”

I pulled off the road, doing my best to avoid rocks and tree stumps. We got out and stood in front of the truck.

Down a sloping hill strewn with boulders and some trees, Blue Water Lake shone in midday sunlight. Beyond the lake, Tsoodził was shrouded in Female Rain, blue-gray clouds hovered low over the mountain with Female Rain reaching down like a skirt brushing the earth.

Seeing the mountain like that, reminded me of a mountain song I learned from a dormitory staff member in boarding school. His voice was deep and powerful, like what I imagined the voice of a mountain to sound like. There were many mountain songs, some remaining on the surface level with the mountain’s names and their basic attributes and others were more complex, calling upon the mountain’s inner name and inner elements, things only to be sung in ceremony. The medicine man my family went to since I was a child sang those deeper songs; he also had a mountain voice. I hummed the mountain song I knew.

“It’s okay to cry,” Shimá said, her hand now on my shoulder.

I touched my cheeks and tears came away on my fingertips. I wiped them away with the back of my hand.

“Ná’iiłná,” Shimá continued. “Certain songs and prayers, or beautiful things we see, moves us emotionally and spiritually. It’s like we sense something there, something that reacts to our inner beings and tears come and even stories too.”

I nodded and we stood there humming this mountain song together and I let myself cry.


Shimá ‘ahóshidiiniid

An old woman sat outside

a chaha’oh at Ndáá

She could hear singing

from the distant hogan

Voices rose and dipped

a breeze joined

in the singing

hwoosh hwoosh hataałgo

The old woman’s daughter

asked her mom

are you crying

The old woman touched

her cheek

her fingers were wet

shí nák’eeshto’ naałtin

she said

my tears are raining


We drove further up the mountain, into the tree line. The road became rockier as we went. Two miles in, I pulled off the road into a small clearing with wildflowers and wildgrasses swaying in a breeze. We grabbed our blankets, empty coffee cans, and walked towards the trees at the opposite end of the clearing.

Shimá shaded her eyes and looked up at the treetops. “Bąąh daalchíí’ish?”

Branches clutching cones red with piñon nuts rustled atop the trees. Hwoosh hwoosh they sounded.

“Aoo’, bąąh daalchíí. Looks like a lot,” I said.

Sunlight streamed through the tree branches, piñon needles and cones crunched beneath our feet as we approached a piñon tree bright with full cones. “Shimá saní yęę, my old grandma, used to spend hours beneath a tree picking. She would sit on a blanket way under the tree, where no one wanted to pick because the branches were too low, and all you could see was her skirt flared out around her,” Shimá said, using my arm to lower herself onto her blanket.

“Did you go with her often to pick?” I replied.

Shimá laughed. “I was around Shimá saní yęę a lot. I used to run away to her house when grandma and grandpa were drinking. Sometimes I spent the whole summer at her house.”

“That must have been hard.”

“That’s why I ran away,” Shimá said. “To get away from all that craziness. But despite my parents, those were some of my best memories.”

“Hmm.”

We could have talked much longer, but our coffee cans would have remained empty. She wanted to pick piñons for my younger brother who was overseas. He had joined the Marine Corps a year ago and was now stationed in Okinawa, Japan. We both missed him every day.

I chose a piñon tree nearby, it’s branches twisted into the air and sap leaked down it’s rough body into the earth. I knelt before this tree and searched among piñon needles and cones for reddish-brown piñon nuts. I knelt before this tree and thought about my own pain that was wrapped into the folds of my mother’s pain and her mother’s pain. Perhaps this tree also contained pain, memories and shouts and cries in it’s twisted branches, in it’s whispered hwoosh hwoosh song.


I kneel

before this tree,

a lightning rod,

memories flash

and strike

separated into

bark twisting

from earth

to sky

I wonder, little

brother, if you

remember

beer on our

father’s breath

how he said

I just want

to see my boys

my suns

Tree sap

and earth

blacken my

fingers

but I am not

purified

I am not

mountain smoke

Dark coolness

below this tree

like the womb

of a hogan

before ceremony

Everywhere I look,

things are calling

out to me,

in me,

asking for

my stories.

Now, I allow myself

to hear them

I allow myself

to feel branches

and roots

twisting inside me


Manny Loley is ‘Áshįįhi born for Tó Baazhní’ázhí; his maternal grandparents are the Tódích’íi’nii and his paternal grandparents are the Kinyaa’áanii. Loley is from Casamero Lake, New Mexico. He holds an M.F.A. in fiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts and he is a current Ph.D. candidate in English and literary arts at the University of Denver. Loley is a member of Saad Bee Hózhǫ́: Diné Writers’ Collective and director of the Emerging Diné Writers’ Institute. His work has found homes in the Diné Reader: an Anthology of Navajo Literature, Yellow Medicine Review, Massachusetts Review, Broadsided Press, the Santa Fe Literary Review, and RED INK. His writing has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes by Broadsided Press and the Santa Fe Literary Review. Loley is at work on a novel titled They Collect Rain in Their Palms.




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