Counting Blessings

This has been a challenging week at our house. Bill is gradually recovering from his bout with pneumonia. He was in the ER on Thursday night and Friday morning. By Monday evening I had a sore throat. I was terrified that I was going to be laid low by pneumonia, too, but it turns out that wasn’t the case. I felt like crap for a couple of days, but it never got any worse than that.

This morning at breakfast Bill asked what this week’s blog was going to be about, and I told him I had no idea. But then I went to get my steps by walking laps around the pool in actual sunlight and started counting my blessings for the week, I remembered an email that came in early on from an 82 year-old reader in Enterprise, Alabama. She and her younger sister in Texas have only recently discovered my books and are on a mission to read them all.

That’s hardly surprising. I’ve been flying under lots of readers’ radars for decades, but what really struck me was the PS she added in a second email. She referred to herself as “an old white-haired woman” and went on the mention that she has several pots of Night Blooming Cereus growing in her home. What that told me is that she’s read Hour of the Hunter, my first Walker Family book, and one that has always been one of my favorites.

When I began writing the Walkers, I wanted to make reservation life come alive for people who had never heard of the Desert People and who would most likely never visit that part of the Arizona desert where the Tohono O’odham have lived for thousands of years.

As a librarian on the reservation, I told 26 stories a week in K-6 classrooms, and among the stories I told were the folktales and legends of the TO Nation. Many of those feature Iitoi, the Tohono O’odham’s spirit of goodness. Those are considered to be winter-telling tales and are only to be told between the middle of November and the middle of March. The belief is that if a snake or lizard overhears an Iitoi story, they can swallow the storyteller’s luck and bring them harm.

I found that out the hard way when I told the story of Iitoi and Eagleman in April one year, and a parent called the principal to complain. I’ve been careful to abide by that rule ever since, with one major exception.

Of the Tohono O’odham stories, the two favorites with the kids were Iitoi and Eagleman and Old White-Haired Woman. In the second one, a brave grandmother goes on a heroic mission to retrieve her orphaned grandson from another tribe. On the way home, the weary woman is fast losing her strength when Iitoi steps into the picture. He tells her that since she is so brave, the child will be saved. As for her? Her tired feet will be taken underground, but once a year she will turn into the most beautiful flower in the world—the Night Blooming Cereus—the Queen of the Night.

By the way, the Night Blooming Cereus is a mysterious plant. The stalks look like scrawny, dead sticks, but once a year they all bloom on the same night. No amount of scientific study has been able to develop a way to predict exactly when that will happen. It generally occurs sometime between the middle of June and the middle of July, but studies of humidity and temperature have not yet allowed scientists to crack the code. There’s generally a 48 hour warning before the bloom happens, but that’s it.

Tohono Chul (Desert Corner), a desert botanical garden in Tucson, has a whole collection of Night Blooming Cereus, and on the night of the bloom, they hold a big celebration. It used to be that when the 48-hour advance warning happened, they had a phone tree to let people know. Now they send out emails or texts. And every year, during the bloom party, they have someone read aloud the story of Old White-Haired Woman from Hour of the Hunter.

One year, they asked me to do the reading. Of course I said yes, but then I realized: Wait a minute, July is a long way after the middle of March. So I called the organizer back. After explaining the winter telling tale problem to her, I said I was sorry, but that I wouldn’t be able to do the reading after all.

It turns out, Tohono Chul keeps a medicine man on call. They consulted with him and he said. “We’re not telling those stories in the villages any more, and this is the real story. I can’t imagine that Iitoi himself would object to Mrs. Jance reading the story the night of the bloom.”

Feeling as though I’d just had the Good Housekeeping Stamp of approval printed on my forehead, I was honored to go to the bloom and tell the story. The scent of the Queen of the Night is incredible, reminiscent of orange blossoms but entirely different. That night Tohono Chul was alive with that aroma. And I know for sure there were snakes and lizards out, because they had people with snake sticks out removing the creatures from guests walking those nighttime paths. As far as I can tell none of them managed to swallow my luck or bring me har.

So that’s what my old white-haired woman reader brought back to me this week, not only the memory of telling that story to kids on the reservation, but also the memory of reading it the night of the bloom.

For me, it was a once in a lifetime experience. And I’m sharing it with you today because, while I was outside counting my steps, I was also counting my blessings.

Photograph by John Schaefer