On the day before I turned five, Grandma and I drove deep into the woods toward the Chuska Mountains on the other side of Tohatchi, where the blue spruce and aspen trees hissed only feet above the trail road. Our pickup shook and rattled along the way. Grandma had loaded us up with a shovel, a shabby gunny sack, a tattered cotton sheet, and a black box. I knew the sheet and gunny sack meant we were going up to the piñon trees to get nuts to roast and sell. A good gunny sack–full could make Grandma a little money here and there. I loved piñon nuts freshly roasted from the oven. When Grandma roasted and salted the piñon, the house filled with the smell of warmed pine sap.
We found a good spot near the creek and made our way up. When we came across a tall, stout piñon tree, its cones full of brown berries, I worked myself up the branches and shook the tree with all the strength I had in my arms and legs. Grandma spread her white cotton sheet below and sat, quietly sorting through the pine needles to find the nuts.
“In the Navajo way,” she explained, “you aren’t supposed to shake the branches like you did just now.” My feet braced my weight above the needles and branches. “When the piñon is ready, it will fall to the ground by itself. You’re being impatient.” She shook her head. “Doing it like that calls the bears to you. But they would have to get through me. Bears know better than to bother your grandma—the meat’s too tough.”
I pulled myself down out of the trees and sat at Grandma’s side. We picked piñon until the sun was about to set and our gunny sack strained from the nuts pulsing inside.
When we got back to the truck, Grandma heaved our gunny sack into the cab and caught her breath. Then she grabbed the black box she’d brought, poking a small hole with a pen and covering it with black tape.
“What is that, Grandma?”
“I am going to make us a camera out of this box.” She turned to me and smiled. “It’s been a long time since I’ve tried this, so let’s hope it works.”
I watched her in silence as she pulled out a dark blanket, draping it over herself and the box. I could hear a rustle and scrape under the wool.
“Grandma. What are you doing?”
She emerged from the blanket with pieces of pine needles in her hair.
“I had to put some paper in the camera.” She pushed me into the last beam of sunlight.
“I’m going to take your picture.”
“With what, Grandma?”
“With this box. Now, be quiet and watch. Stand right there.” She waved her hand to the right and I moved with it. “Right there.”
I watched her pull the sticky tape from the makeshift camera.
A bright light came from behind my grandma’s head. Standing in the yellow haze, I saw the gray shadow of a man, thin and refined in a white cotton shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his forearms. I didn’t know if I’d seen him before, but something about his presence was familiar. He smiled deeply as he looked at Grandma, then began walking toward me. I felt the surge of his energy when he came to a stop to my left. He left heat in the corners of my eyes. I turned back to the camera and didn’t even breathe for a good ten seconds.
“That’s it.” She fastened the tape back to the hole and put the black box back into the truck cab. The cloudy form trailed her, then flew away into the late afternoon shade.
“You took a picture? Already? When can we see it?”
“Soon, Rita.” I watched Grandma’s box all the way home and wondered how it could possibly be a camera. It looked like a discarded cardboard box from our garage, painted up with tar.
We arrived thirty minutes later and unloaded the loot from the piñon trees. My grandma carried the black box in and walked straight into the closet, emerging with a black plastic bag.
“We’ll take this into town tomorrow,” she said, resting the black plastic bag on the table with her Reader’s Digest. “Don’t open it, because it will ruin the picture.”
I stared at the untouchable bag. I wondered if the man would be in the picture with me. I hoped he would. He had a nice smile, with a perfect dimple on one cheek.
READ AN EXCERPT
FROM RAMONA EMERSON'S SHUTTER
IT TOOK US thirty minutes to drive to Gallup the next day. The white light of midmorning made the sagebrush on the side of the road glisten. Herds of sheep dotted the landscape between the dirt road and cattle guards. On the way in and out of town, Grandma and I would count the hills. There were nine hills there and nine hills back.
We pulled into a space in front of Mullarky’s Photo Shop, right off Route 66. I could hear the whistle of the trains that moved through the city, some clanging on the long and oily track line. Mullarky’s was across from the tracks in an abandoned bank building from the early 1900s. It had a fake but regal façade with old Kodak signs and neon lights. When you walked in, the door rang like an aged church bell.
Mr. Mullarky was a white man with bright eyes and deep lines falling from the sides of his face. He wore a lot of turquoise on his wrists, more than I had ever seen any Navajo wear.
“Hello, Mrs. Todacheene. It’s been so long since we’ve seen you in our shop.” The man was still holding Grandma’s hand. I wanted him to let it go.
“Hello, Tom.” She freed her hand from his grasp. “I have something I need developed. I took Rita’s picture yesterday with a box camera and wanted to see if it worked. I haven’t tried this in a while.” She slid the black bag onto the counter.
“Well, just hold on a bit. This won’t take long at all.” He moved his body between the glass cases and went to the back room. I wondered about what the Mullarky man did behind that black curtain. I tried to follow but was tethered by Grandma’s lingering stare.
Instead, I wandered around Mullarky’s shop with my mouth open. The west wall was bent into a soft corner, much like the store front. The wall was covered in small rectangles, forming a grid of color. The green boxes right in the middle fanned out to the yellows, the whites, and the reds. The yellow rectangles said KODAK in bright red letters and stood in rows all the way to the end of the building.
“Grandma. What’s in here?” I pointed to the colorful boxes.
“That’s film,” she explained. “That’s what you put in the camera to take a picture.”
Up on the walls, there were dozens of pictures of Gallup in another time: the train station, Navajos in velveteen and moccasins, Indians in warbonnets and outfits I had only seen in the movies. There were classic cars like the ones in fifties movies, some filled with Navajos, their hair in short crew cuts, with letterman jackets and their jeans rolled up in tight cuffs.
Glowing iridescent lights shone from Mr. Mullarky’s glass boxes. There were seven display cases in all, each packed full of cameras of different ages, colors, sizes, and shapes. Their silver edges gleamed, their black-and-brown leather casings shimmering right alongside the colorful price tags. The prices were outrageous. My face and hands pressed against the glass panes, etching cold silhouettes.
Mr. Mullarky came out of the back room with a perfectly square piece of white paper that hung heavy and wet in his hands. I ran to Grandma, eager to see what was there.
“It looks like it came out perfectly; there’s just a bit of light that must have snuck in there.”
He laid the paper on the glass counter and held the corners back to stop the picture from curling. It was me and my blank look, standing next to that juniper bush out by the piñon trees. The print created a perfect circle of image on the white paper. Just to my left, above my shoulder, was the light. I wanted to tell Grandma about the man I had seen just before the picture was taken, but I knew better than to say it in front of Mr. Mullarky.
“Sometimes that happens, you know,” Mr. Mullarky said. “Maybe some light snuck in from the side. Looks like sunset. That can be tricky.”
“Well, at least it came out. Not bad for me, though, Tom. I haven’t done this in years.”
“Hold on.” Mr. Mullarky walked to the back and returned with the black plastic sleeve. “I’ve put some more paper in there for you. Maybe you two can try it again. I put that print in there for you too—the one of Nelson.” Nelson was my grandpa, but he died long before I was born.
Grandma and Mr. Mullarky shared an aching smile before they said their goodbyes. I investigated the front window display. ON SALE: POLAROID SX-70 LAND CAMERA—GET YOUR PICTURES NOW. My grandma walked up from behind me and tugged at my shirt. She shook the plastic sack and smiled. “We have an instant camera.”
As we drove back in the quiet, I wanted so desperately to tell Grandma about what happened to her picture. I wanted to tell her about the man, how he smiled at her and at me, and about the love I felt radiating from his heat. I was scared that she might think I was crazy. The yellow of the setting sun reminded me of the warmth of those ten seconds when I stared into Grandma’s black camera and held my breath. I fell asleep.
When I woke up, I was alone in the truck. I saw my grandma holding the door with her elbow, her arms full of paper sacks. I got out and helped her unload. Grandma only let me get the small bags that weren’t too heavy. By the third trip, I was sweaty. She sent me out one last time to get the sleeve. “Do you have any peaches in any of those bags?” a voice spoke out. The warmth of his light began to build on my face. It was the man, but he was formless—a portion of a face beside my grandma’s coyote fence. Startled, I ran inside, my heart racing, my throat dry and sticky. I slammed the front door behind me to catch my breath.
“What’s the matter?” Grandma said. “Your face is red. Are you okay?” She pushed me to the table and took the black sleeve from me. “Sit down.” She poured some apple juice into a glass and put it in front of me. “Drink.”
I swallowed the liquid without taking a breath. My chest heaved and my heart ached. Grandma pulled one of her cloth flour bags out and soaked it in cold water, then wrapped it around my neck. I was starting to feel better when two crimson lines poured from my nose and dotted the table.
“Goodness,” Grandma said, moving the dripping rag to my face. “I think we had a little bit too much fun today, she’awéé’.” She pulled me in close and touched my forehead.
I still felt the heat on my face, the warmth that had bled through. Grandma rose and put a pot of water on the stove with two bundles of Navajo tea. The room filled with the smell as I rolled my basketball under the kitchen table with my foot.
Grandma cleaned her hands on her apron and moved to the table. I watched her take a picture about the size of my hands from the black bag. She smiled as she sat.
“I just love this picture,” she said. “I haven’t seen any photos of your grandpa in years. That trunk of mine is way too heavy to lift.” She took off her glasses and rubbed the red marks left on her nose. Her shoulders shook, so I walked to her and put my little hands on her back. I turned to see the picture framed between her thumbs: his hair was cut short, and his cheekbones were high and handsome. He wore a cotton button-up shirt and pleated slacks; his army coat hung on his arm. He was smiling deeply, a dimple on his cheek.
“Grandma.” I pointed to the picture. “Grandma, that’s the man who made the light on your picture.” “What do you mean?”
“I saw him yesterday.”
Time stopped. Grandma’s gaze was strong and bottomless. I felt her hands shake as she held onto me, looking into my eyes.
I sensed her panic, love, and longing all at once in that moment. The yellow light filled the room again—I saw the man behind her, his body forming only when he neared her. He was still young and smiling. The light reflected on half of Grandma’s face made her look younger than any picture I had ever seen of her.
“Rita! Don’t lie to me.” She shook me to attention. “When did this happen? When I took your picture?”
“Grandma,” I said. “It’s happening right now.