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Excerpt from The Names: A Memoir, by N. Scott Momaday


Prologue

You know, everything had to begin, and this is how it was: the Kiowas came one by one into the world through a hollow log. They were many more than now, but not all of them got out. There was a woman whose body was swollen up with child, and she got stuck in the log. After that, no one could get through, and that is why the Kiowas are a small tribe in number. They looked all around and saw the world. It made them glad to see so many things. They called themselves Kwuda, "coming out."

Kiowa folk tale

They were stricken, surely, nearly blind in the keep of some primordial darkness. And yet it was their time, and they came out into the light, one after another, until the way out was lost to them. Loss was in the order of things, then, from the beginning. Their emergence was a small thing in itself, and unfinished. But it gave them to know that they were and who they were. They could at last say to themselves. "We are. and our name is Kwuda."


ONE

THE NAMES AT FIRST are those of animals and of birds, of objects that have one definition in the eye, another in the hand, of forms and features on the rim of the world, or of sounds that carry on the bright wind and in the void. They are old and original in the mind, like the beat of rain on the river, and intrinsic in the native tongue, failing even as those who bear them turn once in the memory, go on, and are aone forever: Pohd-lohk, Keahdinekeah, Aho.*

And Calyen, Scott, McMillan, whose wayfaring lay in the shallow traces from Virginia and Louisiana, who knew of blooded horses and tobacco and corn whiskey, who preserved in their songs the dim dialects of the Old World.

The land settles into the end of summer. In the white light a whirlwind moves far out in the plain, and afterwards there is something like a shadow on the grass, a tremor, nothing. There seems a stillness at noon, but that is illusion: the landscape rises and falls, ringing. In the dense growth of the bottomland a dark drift moves on the Washita River. A spider enters a small pool of light on Rainy Mountain Creek, and downstream, at the convergence, a Channel catfish turns around in the current and slithers to the surface, where a dragonfly hovers and darts. Away on the high ground grasshoppers and bees set up a crackle and roar in the fields, and meadowlarks and scissortails whistle and wheel about. Somewhere in a maze of gullies a calf shivers and bawls in a tangle of chinaberry trees. And high in the distance a hawk turns in the sun and sails.

Gyet'aigua. Where you been?
'Cross the creek.
'S'hot, ain'it?

The angle of the Washita River and Rainy Mountain Creek points to the east, and the thick red waters descend into the depths of the Southern Plains; as if they measure by means of an old, organic equation the long way from the Continental Divide to the heart of North America. This angle is a certain delineation on the face of the Great Plains, an idea of geometry in the mind of God.

The light there is of a certain kind. In the mornings and evenings it is soft and pervasive, and the earth seems to absorb it, to become enlarged with light. About the noons there are edges and angles-and a brightness that is hard and thin like a glaze. There is something strange and powerful in it. When you look out across the land you believe at first that it is all one thing; there appears to be an awful sameness to it. But after a while you see that it is not one thing at all, but many things, all of which are subject to change in a moment. At times the air is thick and languid, and you imagine that the world has grown very old and tired. At other times the air is full of motion and commotion. Always a hard weather impends upon the plains. In advance of a storm the plains are a strange and beautiful thing to see, concentrated in random details, distances; there are slow, massive movements.

There in the hollow of the hills I see,
Eleven magpies stand away from me.

Low light upon the rim; a wind informs
This distance with a gathering of storms

And drifts in silver crescents on the grass,
Configurations that appear, and pass.

There falls a final shadow on the glare,
A stillness on the dark, erratic air.

I do not hear the longer wind that lows
Among the magpies. Silences disclose,

Until no rhythms of unrest remain,
Eleven magpies standing in the plain.

They are illusion-wind and rain revolve-
And they recede in darkness. and dissolve.

Water runs in planes on the earth, in ropes in the cuts of the banks; the wind lunges; lightning is constant on the cold, black hemisphere; and everything is visible, strangely visible. Oh Man-ka-ih!

Some of my earliest memories are of the storms, the hot rain lashing down and lightning running on the sky-and the storm cellar into which my mother and I descended so many times when I was very young. For me that little room in the earth is an unforgettable place. Across the years I see my mother reading there on the low, narrow bench, the lamplight flickering on her face and on the earthen walls; I smell the dank odor of that room; and I hear the great weather raging at the door. I have never been in a place that was like it exactly; only now and then I have been reminded of it suddenly when I have gone into a cave, or when I have just caught the scent of fresh, open earth steaming in the rain, and I have been for a moment startled and strangely glad in the presence of the past, the mother and child. But at times as I look back I see the fear in my mother's face, a hard vigilance in the attitude of her whole body, for hail is beating down upon the door, and the roar of the wind is deafening; the earth and sky are at odds, and God shudders. Even now, after many years of living in another landscape, my mother will not go into that wide corridor of the Great Plains but that she does so with many misgivings and keeps a sharp eye on the sky.

The terrapins crawl up on the hills.
They know, ain'it? The terrapins know.
A day, two days before, they go.

Copyright 1976 by N. Scott Momaday. Online Source


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